Thuso Mbedu Battles Impostor Syndrome With Anime
Thuso Mbedu is the South African actor who made a splash last year as the beguiling star of Barry Jenkins’s ten-part epic The Underground Railroad. When Interview’s consigliere Jeremy O. Harris called her up last month, she was getting ready to hit the road to promote her new movie The Woman King, a dream project that tells the wild but true story of an all-female group of African warriors, whose leader is played by Viola Davis. From across the ocean, Mbedu and Harris talked anime, impostor syndrome, and what comes next.
JEREMY O. HARRIS: My laptop decided to go through the exhausting process of updating itself.
THUSO MBEDU: That happens to me as well. How are you?
HARRIS: I’m well. I’m in Paris right now.
HARRIS: Where are you?
MBEDU: I’m in L.A.
HARRIS: Oh, love. What’s that behind you? Is that a still from—goddammit why can’t I remember words?
MBEDU: The Underground Railroad. Yeah.
HARRIS: It’s so beautiful.
MBEDU: Thank you.
HARRIS: Has anyone told you what we’re thinking about for this interview?
HARRIS: So Interview magazine is more fun than other magazines. It’s less stuffy and more experimental.
HARRIS: It was created by Andy Warhol and it has that free, fun, artistic vibe. So I just wanted to treat this call like we’re having a catch-up.
MBEDU: Okay, cool.
HARRIS: So what’s going on this fall?
MBEDU: Nothing really, just prepping for press as the movie comes out next month. I’m the only one from the main cast with a green passport, so I’ve been having “visa fun.” I need a visa to breathe outside of my country.
HARRIS: Wow. There’s way more scrutiny of African passports.
MBEDU: Yeah. The studio has tried to help, but there’s only so much they can do. Even gearing up for press now I’m like, “I hope I can make it.”
HARRIS: That is so wild. This movie is about an African queen and an African warrior king, and the actors in this movie who are from Africa are having problems promoting it. That blows my mind. Are you doing anything to get your mind off of all that craziness? Are you watching anything silly?
MBEDU: I’m allowing myself to go back to anime again because it’s lowkey homework for me. I’m collaborating with a comic book artist and I’ll be creating my own graphic novel.
HARRIS: That’s sick.
MBEDU: It will hopefully turn into an anime at some point, but we’re in the beginning phases of that.
HARRIS: We’re so aligned. What anime are you watching?
MBEDU: The latest one that I watched was Tekken: Bloodline, the one that’s based off the video game.
MBEDU: It was okay. I expected more because I loved the game so much while I was growing up.
MBEDU: But I really sucked at it. I’ll tell you that for free.
HARRIS: It’s literally the button-pressing game.
MBEDU: [Laughs] Yeah, but I never knew which buttons to press. My forever favorite anime will be one that people aren’t really familiar with, Kenichi: The Mightiest Disciple, which I found on Amazon Prime Video.
HARRIS: Amazon has the best hidden gems of anime ever.
MBEDU: Yeah. I found that one and it made total sense in the moment. I was just starting to train for The Woman King, and in it, we did all our own stunts. In Kenichi’s story, he’s a boy in high school who gets into martial arts so that he can defend himself from being bullied. I was training for the movie, struggling for my life and having moments where I was like, “What am I doing here? Take me home.” And then I had a moment where I said, “What would Kenichi do?” I didn’t turn back after that.
HARRIS: That’s so cool. So many shows are about impostor syndrome and I can imagine some of what you’re feeling, but having the sort of success I’ve had in theater and having the success you’ve had in film and TV at such a young age—you can’t compare it. What does it feel like to have had your world shift so drastically in what feels like 365 days?
MBEDU: It doesn’t feel too drastic because I spent four years in university doing an honors degree in dramatic arts. I put in time post-university working back home in South Africa, and then eventually got the opportunity to come work on this side. I’ve had so many people support me every step of the way that it’s a relief I am where I am now. I’m also reminding myself that I’m still at the beginning of my career.
MBEDU: But also saying, it’s okay to be at the beginning of my career at age 31. It feels like I’m old, but I’m not. This is when life starts making sense. Your twenties are when you make mistakes. You’re getting to know yourself. In your thirties is when you’re like, “Okay, cool. I figured it out.” Also, I have an introverted personality so I’m constantly by myself reflecting so that things don’t feel overwhelming.
HARRIS: So when you think about the huge opportunities you have now and again, please remind yourself that you’re very young because I constantly forget that as well. I see 32 and then I’m like, “You’re so old, you’re the Kraken.”
MBEDU: [Laughs] Right? It’s not true.
HARRIS: It’s literally not true. But you see someone like Viola Davis in your movie saying that she, at this point in her career, after an Oscar, after an Emmy, is finally playing a dream role of hers, where she gets to test herself in this crazy way. What’s your dream role?
MBEDU: I have to regroup and dream anew.
MBEDU: Because for the longest time, I wanted to do an action movie and I wanted to act with Viola, and I got to do that.
MBEDU: A month or two ago, I was with a friend of mine in Texas and I said to her, “I still need to work with Jonathan Majors. I still need to work with Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, and Sebastian Stan.” Then the very next day, I met Courtney B. Vance, who is Angela Bassett’s husband. I was like, “Okay, we’re on track.”
HARRIS: You basically just said you want to be in a Marvel movie.
MBEDU: That’s hilarious and very true. I would love to work with Ryan Coogler at some point, not necessarily in Black Panther, but in any space. And Ava DuVernay.
HARRIS: Ava’s amazing.
MBEDU: Love her. From the moment I met her, she was so welcoming and generous towards me.
HARRIS: Okay. I’m going to ask you one last question. What are the three undercover anime movies that you want people to check out?
MBEDU: Let me see what I have on my shelf right now.
HARRIS: I love a nerd. This is making me so happy.
MBEDU: People know Death Note, right?
HARRIS: Yeah, but you can say it again because some people don’t.
MBEDU: I love Demon Slayer.
HARRIS: You know who watches Demon Slayer?
HARRIS: Kim Kardashian.
HARRIS: I interviewed her last year and we talked about it.
MBEDU: Everyone knows Attack on Titan. Akira. Oh god. I think I have everything that everybody has seen.
HARRIS: What you’re saying is that you’re a girl who likes popular culture and that’s important.
MBEDU: Yeah. That’s my collection.
Hair: Kherrington Gross at Factory Downtown
Makeup: Vittorio Masecchia using Kiehl’s at Opus Beauty
Prop Stylist: Niamh Hannigan