‘Growing up, we needed to see people like us on TV’ - Thuso Mbedu on her two major Hollywood films

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Thuso Mbedu plays the role of a young warrior, Nawi on the movie, The Woman King.
Thuso Mbedu plays the role of a young warrior, Nawi on the movie, The Woman King.
Oupa Bopape/Galloimages

The much-anticipated movie The Woman King is finally at Ster Kinekor cinemas in South Africa from today.

The captivating movie by Gina Prince-Bythewood films tells a story of the all-woman Agojie army of warriors who protected the African Kingdom of Dahomey in the 1800s from the European slave trade.

General Nanisca, played by Oscar-winning actress Viola Davis, trains the next generation of young warriors.

Thuso Mbedu plays Nawi, a young, adopted girl who rejects an arranged marriage to an older man and is offered to King Ghezo (John Boyega) and joins the Agojie women warriors.  

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It is a sunny Spring morning in Johannesburg and winter is drawing closer to an end.

Los Angeles-based South African actress Thuso Mbedu is in the country to promote the film The Woman King. She arrives with some of the cast members of The Woman King, including John Boyega who plays King Ghezo, Siv Ngezi – the Migan, and Chioma Umeala who plays Tara at a hotel in Sandton for a private gathering. 

They have had over a year of intense training and lifestyle changes for their roles in The Woman King and they have invited some South African friends and actors to share the workout techniques they needed to learn for the movie.

“The training was intense, and it is a technique,” Thuso tells an excited crowd. 

After months of being on a strict eating plan along with the training, she’s slowly getting back to eating what she likes.

“After the intense training, I took a month off, and then my body asked me what I was doing. I am still training with Gabi (Gabriela Mclain) who was our trainer for the movie. I still do martial arts but also, I formed a beautiful relationship with our stunt coordinator who told me not to stop as there will be other opportunities and I would rather be prepared,” she adds. 

She shares that she is lactose intolerant and being in the film helped her to learn more about her body and what she needed to eat and avoid. 

“Training for The Woman King was also brutal. Immediately after I got the role, I went and did Muay Thai, a combat sport,” she says. 

She makes the fighting scenes in the movie look easy, and in real life, almost like a dance with flying kicks, push-kick, and low kicks. Thuso now has a love for martial arts and it shows in her passionate portrayal of Nawi in the movie.  

“Nawi is a fighter and goes for what she believes.” But preparing fighting scenes for a movie is not the same as being in an actual fight. 

“All the moves are timed and the actions choreographer and that takes time.”

After a heated session showing off some moves which can be seen in the films, South Africa’s golden boy, bodybuilder, pole dancer, tv presenter, and actor Siv Ngesi jumps in for a brief yet grueling boxing session.

Thuso leaves to prepare for a media junket as well as the first preview of the movie the next day with industry peers. 

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The day of The Woman King preview in South Africa arrives. Her hair is styled in a regal West African-inspired do for the press conference.

Her accent has slightly changed and sounds more American as she has adapted to Hollywood well.

But Thuso says she hasn’t had to alter herself in any way to fit into Hollywood. 

Her debut into Hollywood through The Underground Railroad received praise even from people like Oprah Winfrey who said she gave a performance of a lifetime, yet she still remains humble. 

“Thuso Mbedu gives the performance of a lifetime. Great things are coming for her, and everyone will be saying her name after watching her as the superhero that is Cora,” Oprah said.

Thuso says she’s never felt any pressure arriving in Hollywood. 

“I have never felt the need to fit in anywhere or alter myself in any way. I have always been myself. What I like about Hollywood is that I am still a no one and I can just be myself. I am still able to walk around without anyone recognising me,” she says humbly. 

In the movie, Nawi has a fighting scene with General Nanisca played by Viola Davis and although they clash, they eventually build a bond and there is a big reveal in the end. Off-screen Thuso and Viola also built a strong bond and have “a lot in common” as she puts it. 

Thuso first met Viola while auditioning for her role and discussed the script. 

“We have so much in common. Our creative processes are very similar,” she says. 

“We are both very strong characters, but we are also very reserved and keep to ourselves. But working with her, I did not have to prove myself. We did the training together and struggled together through the process and she never made me feel smaller,” Thuso says.

Thuso feels no pressure to be an ambassador for Africa or a role model.

“I experience no pressure. I have nothing to prove to people. I am just grateful that we can be something that we needed growing up. We needed to see people like us on TV and in the media because that would have shaped how we are as a society today,” she says. 

They shot during the movie at the height of lockdown. In the first scenes, Thuso did not shoot but she hung around to watch the creative process.

“They were shooting the opening sequence. I stayed to watch to see everyone’s efforts and it was amazing. I knew I was in the right place.”

While still in the process of building her name internationally, Thuso has learned a few gems on the way and advises other actors to keep working on their craft in order to reach new heights. 

“Self-tape, especially when you’re coming out of university and you do not have the resume or something you can submit, self-tapes are important. So, having a good self-tape than a showreel is best, “she says.

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