Thuso Mbedu is pure energy. She quietly and gracefully enters our Zoom chat on a sunny Thursday afternoon when we’re conversing across coasts. But her voice can’t help but launch into utter enthusiasm when she starts discussing her first feature film, The Woman King, which will be released in just two weeks. “I am genuinely excited,” she gushes to me and a single member of her team who is listening in. Thuso is just coming off seeing the movie for the first time in Los Angeles with some of her castmates—an evening she confirms was filled with a bevy of screams, whoops, and all-around happiness.
The South African actress is quickly becoming a go-to for projects that chronicle the power and turmoil of the Black experience. Her characters possess the kind of gravitas that create cinematic magic, no matter the screen size. And talking with Thuso instantly reveals why she’s been chosen for these parts—her sense of self is rooted and unwavering, but she’s unafraid of her vulnerability.
Before The Woman King and the groundbreaking series The Underground Railroad that introduced her to American audiences, Thuso was a superstar in South Africa—her 1M Instagram followers demonstrate that she’s got clout. Sharing glamorous nights out with Louis Vuitton, Pandora campaign shots as one of the brand’s newest muses, and candid moments of her trying archery for the first time, she takes her social media onlookers along for the journey—sometimes lavish, at other times sweat-filled, but always inspirational. Thuso notes 2014 as a moment when things changed for her—that year her first TV series, Saints and Sinners, debuted in which her character Nosisa was featured in three episodes. It was also the time when glam teams were brought in and doing things quietly was taken out. Now her country was starting to take notice and with it Tinseltown.
Thuso’s journey to acting was accidental. In high school, she was determined to focus on STEM and take her love for math and science into a potential career as a dermatologist due to a bout with eczema and a long list of allergies that left her feeling frustrated. But she had to choose between an additional dramatic or fine arts course and ended up choosing the former—already having self-doubt around her ability to excel in the fine arts realm at such a formative age. This choice led her to perform work that she wrote and directed herself, and her pieces resonated in a way she could never have imagined. “Our work was open to the public, and I often had adults come up to me after the performance to thank me for being a voice to the internal pain they had been experiencing but hadn’t been able to articulate,” she says. “I knew then this was something I would want to do for the rest of my life because I saw the opportunity to use drama and performance as tools to change and fuel people. I haven’t looked back since."
Her performances have a real-world, relatable quality that draws you in and holds you close. Take, for instance, her role on the television series Shuga, in which she plays Ipeleng—a young woman doing everything she can to make ends meet after her mother passes away. If you’ve ever had a living situation that was less than ideal or worked while earning a degree, you can not only relate, but you can also empathize.
And while many in Hollywood have loads of opinions about streaming services, Thuso is not only grateful for them, but she’s also excited for what’s to come in the space, as they have helped her and her fellow South African actors and creatives to get more visibility. “Not having immediate access to films and series around the globe was heartbreaking at first, but streamers have made it possible,” she says. “This means there are more opportunities for creatives, both in front of and behind the camera. Personally, I see what it’s doing for actors back home who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity because the industry in South Africa is so small. This is opening up a new world for them, and that is a step in the right direction."
But we are here today to talk about The Woman King, and it’s undoubtedly the most visible work that Thuso’s ever been a part of. Starring thee Viola Davis; 007 herself, Lashana Lynch; British heartthrob John Boyega; and more in an almost all-Black and all-female cast, the movie sees Thuso take on the role of Nawi—a “stubborn, independent, opinionated young woman who has a lot to learn about life,” says the actor. And who literally gets handed over to Davis’s all-women warrior army to fight back against warring, misogynistic nations and the ills of colonialism and slavery. Asses are certainly being kicked, and Thuso reveals that the training for the movie was grueling and back-breaking enough to create a trauma bond and many tearful moments with her equally powerful costars and later on, ending in a real-life sisterhood. Sword work, machetes, strength training, and running—it was all on the table and all needed for transforming these already formidable women into warriors.
"The unity you see onscreen is a result of what was happening in real life on set,” she says. “By going through intense training and being in the trenches together, we genuinely became one unit. It was impossible not to, especially after doing our research and learning what the real women warriors went through. The tests, obstacle courses that had thorns, and running barefoot was real life for them.” Thuso worked closest with Lynch and Davis, who she used as motivation when she saw just how much they were challenging themselves. There was also a specialness to working as a collective, which meant constant and instant encouragement for any on-set challenges the women faced.
On a personal level, Thuso discovered that she’s capable of much more than she ever imagined. “This role forced me to rise to the best version of myself,” she says. She even conquered her fear of heights during two wire sequences—one on a 30-foot platform and another leaping into the air doing flips. The latter didn’t make it into the final cut of the movie, but it’s all in a day’s work for someone who always wanted to be an action star.
"The reality of how this dream looked was something I never would have imagined," Thuso gushes. Between the hours of training and their emotional impact, she wondered if she could actually do what it took to succeed in The Woman King and the greater action arena. But she ultimately wanted to prove it to not only herself but also to those who have always believed in her. "Whenever we would watch a Marvel movie or any other action film, my friends and family would say, 'I could see you in this one day,'" she says. "They believe in me, which makes it easier to believe in myself."
Thuso would definitely describe herself as being a go-getter for something she deeply wants, and there hasn’t been anything she wanted as badly as this role in a long time. It took ambition to get this part, and she had her mind made up from the beginning. Thuso made sure her team kept asking about the movie after an initial conversation with producer Julius Tennon, and she put herself in private Muay Thai classes three times a week before pre-production training began so she wouldn’t start at zero. “My purpose drives me, which is to help those who cannot help themselves,” she says. “During my journey, when things haven’t gone the way that I’ve hoped and I’ve felt like giving up, the reason I stuck with it is that I knew I wasn’t just giving up on myself but also on the people I could’ve helped. That isn’t an option for me. I believe in the pursuit of excellence, which is based on my standards—not societal standards."
Forging herself in the power and the possibilities that have been erected before her by women like Davis and other Black actresses over the last century, Thuso feels like the subject matter of The Woman King is more important than ever—albeit heartbreaking. “I am super grateful that Viola is willing and still fighting because I am benefitting from her fight while also being reminded that I, too, am a dark-skinned Black woman and asking myself: What does that mean for my future in this industry?” she says. “In the movie, we have dark-skinned Black women trying to fight an oppressive system that constantly undermines them. And in real life, we still have women like Viola who have worked so hard, so long, and who have proven themselves time and again in their careers and in their personal lives but who are still being undermined because they are dark-skinned Black women."
There are an unbelievable number of parallels between The Woman King and Thuso’s previous project, The Underground Railroad, in which she played Cora, who faced every obstacle imaginable to escape the evils of slavery. It’s not lost on her or anyone watching that if Nawi had been captured and sold into slavery as so many women she was fighting to save had, she could essentially be Cora. “These are both works that show that physical enslavement has changed, but that there are systems actively at play that are trying to keep certain groups of people down because they’re women or they’re Black,” she says.
But to be clear: The Woman King isn’t only a film about heartbreak and society’s ills. It is also very much a story about the circumstances and events that usher in womanhood, the women who are pivotal to your growth along the way, and an empowering and uplifting depiction of Blackness. Thuso is grateful that the movie is balanced in its approach—showing the enjoyable and thrilling parts of these women’s stories and their history. “You don’t leave the theater feeling ‘woe is me’ and asking, ‘why is the world treating me like this?’ because the film is empowering,” she says. "The movie makes you proud to be a woman and proud to be Black."
Thuso credits part of her wins to her squad who surround her with love and completely understand her career and what goes into creating the characters she plays. The people in her circle have known her for a long time, so they know what she needs at any given moment and are respectful of her craft. If she’s being snappy, they know she just needs to vent and they’ll swoop right in with a listening ear. But no mistake: They’re not enabling any bad behavior. “I’ve told them time and again to call me out if I’m acting out of character because I may not realize, and that could lead to self-destructive behavior if I don’t deal with it,” she says. “When I play these different roles, my emotions are pulled in different directions, and if I’m not aware, they could do more harm than good."
To stay on point and alert, rest is critical for Thuso, and she makes sure that everyone who is around her and works with her knows that. She regularly takes naps and makes no apologies for them. They stave off the overwhelm and keep her productive. “My team knows there’s a certain time in the day when I won’t answer phone calls because I’m taking a nap,” she divulges. And Thuso has also proven this with science, as a DNA test she took before starting her strength training on The Woman King revealed that she’s at her best when she’s getting a minimum of eight hours of sleep a night. She’s big on taking care of her physical well-being, which includes going to physical therapy when she needs it and getting massages—deep tissue with firm pressure to work out all the knots. “My mental and emotional health are definitely informed by what’s going on with my body physically and how I’m reacting to external stimuli,” she says. “It’s important for me to take care of myself holistically so that I’m in balance as often as I can be."
Thuso is also diligent about taking care of her skin after she experienced a traumatic journey that made her face and lips swell during her adolescence as she lived with eczema. That condition disappeared when she entered high school, and her skin took a turn toward more blemish-free days with an even complexion and rare breakouts. Her most formative memories around skin and bodycare center her mother, her grandmother, and their love for Vaseline. “My grandmother used that until she passed away, and she had baby-soft skin,” Thuso says. Once her projects connected her with glam teams, Thuso swapped in makeup artists’ recommendations for her beloved Petroleum Jelly.
And like so many of us, Thuso encountered skin flare-ups during the pandemic lockdown, due to stress and changing hormones before her 30th birthday a little over a year later. Her skin went into breakout mode, and she was taken back to the trauma of her childhood. But her anguish didn’t last for long, as her friend recommended a dermatologist who gave her a dreaded but far from uncommon adult acne diagnosis. “I remember sitting in his office and bursting into tears because of how traumatic the experience was,” she painfully recalls. “He assured me that it could be cured, but I was frustrated because I had gone through puberty with blemish-free skin only to come into my 30s with issues. You lose your self-confidence, and it’s awful.” Her derm got her skin together quickly though with a cleanser, moisturizer, and serum regimen that restored it to full health. Now, Thuso is enjoying her skincare journey with an expert she trusts by her side.
She has that same level of trust in her glam team, which helps her tap into her love for experimentation. Their creativity inspires Thuso, and she likes to just have a small amount of say in the look creation process, so the artists working with her can literally do their thing. "I don’t like to dictate what they do because if that’s the case, then what’s the point of having them in my corner?” she asks. "I'd say they have an 80% stake in decision-making for my looks and I have 20%, and I’m comfortable with that."
That's how she works with styling phenoms Wayman + Micah, who Thuso fell in love with almost instantaneously. They speak the same language around style, and she’s formed a genuine friendship with them that makes her fashion moments easy. Now, they can read her body language alone to know what she wants without her ever having to utter a word. "Wayman + Micah joke with me that if we're in a fitting and they don’t see my tongue once, it’s a no," she says while laughing. “For some reason, when I’m impressed, I stick my tongue out."
Our conversation happens on the first day of September, which is summer’s goodbye and fall’s hello—despite temperatures in New York City where I am and Los Angeles where Thuso is still hovering at the perpetual sweat mark. Back in South Africa, the seasons are inverted and the country is ushering in spring’s arrival. So it’s a bit of a head and body trip for Thuso. But if she had it her way, she’d be steeped in a balmy climate year-round—it’s why she really has no autumnal rituals to speak of. In fact, she prefers to stay toasty indoors and limit her interactions when the temperatures drop. Thuso recalls a few instances on The Woman King set when director Gina Prince-Bythewood and her costars came to understand her warm-weather proclivities. "I literally had Gina text me on set to ask me if I was OK because my mood changes when I’m cold,” Thuso says. "I usually get very quiet. We had a lot of night shoots, which meant I was silent for long stretches of time."
Up next for Thuso is a foray into the world of 1950s science fiction with director and producer Vanessa Block. She can’t say much about it other than the fact that she's excited because it’s unlike anything she’s ever seen or worked on. She’s also putting her focus into collaborating with a comic book writer to develop an anime series. That’s on top of Thuso’s Paramount+ deal that was announced in April that will see her create many socially conscious series outside of the States. In short: The woman stays busy.
Thuso knows this is her time, and she’s opening up her spirit and her life to make each project she’s involved in her own. She’s not afraid of anything—bye-bye, fear of heights—so the world (and Hollywood) is hers for the taking.