“We’re Trying All The Time to Find an Intimate Perspective”: ‘THR Presents’ Q&A With ‘Underground Railroad’s’ Barry Jenkins, Thuso Mbedu and James Laxton

The Underground Railroad star Thuso Mbedu, director Barry Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton joined The Hollywood Reporter to discuss their Emmy-nominated Amazon limited series, based on the acclaimed novel by Colson Whitehead, in a THR Presents Q&A powered by Vision Media. 

For Jenkins, the Oscar-winning writer-director of Moonlight who has also earned an Emmy nomination for this series, the magical realism of Whitehead’s novel — which follows a young enslaved woman named Cora who embarks on a journey north to freedom on the titular abolitionist network, which in the story is an actual subterranean train system — evoked his childhood reaction to learning about the Underground Railroad. “As a child, when I first heard [those] words, I pictured Black people on trains underground,” Jenkins says. “When I first read Colson’s book, I thought … I can bring this childhood dream to life, of actualizing the Underground Railroad.”

The result is a Swiftian tale that sees Cora (Mbedu) travel from state to state, each of which resembles its own nation with a unique antebellum culture. The structure of the novel made it more suitable for a limited series adaptation than a much shorter feature film. “The book itself is inherently episodic. Every time Cora gets to a new state, the aesthetic completely changes — the world completely changes,” Jenkins says. “It felt like a really rich opportunity as a filmmaker. I knew that there were going to be certain images and themes in the show that were quite heavy. When you go into a movie theater, it’s a very captive experience — the image is bigger than you, the sound is louder than you, you’re surrounded by strangers. I wanted people [to be able to] adjust those images and have the power to press play, press pause, fast forward if need be. It had to be a television show.”

Laxton, who has earned an Emmy nomination for his cinematography, is a long-time Jenkins collaborator who also earned an Oscar nomination for Moonlight. He says that after two decades of friendship, he’s always ready to embark on a journey with the filmmaker, but Laxton also recognized the possibilities he was given with a longer, bigger project. “[We] were afforded different things than we’ve previously been afforded — and I don’t mean that financially, I mean that linguistically [and] visually,” Laxton says. “You can do things with camera and light and tell certain parts of stories differently than others, like we do in each chapter.” But The Underground Railroad is like Jenkins and Laxton’s other collaborations. “All the work I’ve done with Barry touches on the concept of intimacy,” he says. “We’re trying all the time to find an intimate perspective of our characters, not just to be watchful but to experience things as they do.”

For series lead Mbedu, who made her American television debut as Cora after earning attention (and an International Emmy nomination) for her work in her native South Africa, the large scope of the limited series offered the kind of material she “really wanted to sink my teeth into.” It also required a lot of preparation to develop the character that the audience follows throughout the 10-part series. “In reading testimonials of former enslaved people, I realized that I actually did not know a lot,” she admits. “I spent much of my time building the context in which the story is set, but also heavily relying on the book itself, because Mr. Whitehead left no stone unturned when it came to telling [the story of] and developing Cora herself.” 

In figuring out who Cora was, Mbedu also had to decide how much of Cora she would reveal to the audience as her journey unfolds and she claims a sense of power over her outcome. “Cora hardly ever speaks, [and] a lot of her processing is internal,” Mbedu says. “It’s in specific moments where you find out how much she’s willing to give and how much she’s actually going to shut people out — you’re seeing her, but not [totally] seeing her, because she doesn’t want you to see her.”

This THR Presents is brought to you by Amazon; additional Q&As and other supplementary content can be viewed in THR‘s new public hub at THRPresents.HollywoodReporter.com.

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