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“My hope was to recontextualize the way we view my ancestors,” says Barry Jenkins, the showrunner and director of Amazon’s 10-part limited series The Underground Railroad, adapted from Colson Whitehead’s bestselling 2016 novel of the same name. “We use this word ‘enslaved,’ which refers to what was done to them, not to who they were or what they did. And the journey of [protagonist] Cora is this wonderful example of [illustrating] who she was and what she did.”
The project reunites Jenkins with cinematographer James Laxton and editor Joi McMillon — his FSU classmates and collaborators on the films Medicine for Melancholy, the best picture Oscar-winning Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk — and introduces the world to Thuso Mbedu, a South African actress making her international debut as Cora, a woman who escapes from a plantation and experiences love and loss while being pursued across five states.
Jenkins was intrigued by the idea of the underground railroad — which he assumed was literally a railroad that was underground — from a very early age, and upon learning that Colson Whitehead’s book embraced that notion as a reality, pursued its rights. “I read the book before Moonlight even premiered at Telluride [in 2016],” Jenkins says. “I sent Colson a link. He loved the film. And we were off to the races.”
This was Jenkins’ first time anchoring a longform production — one which was shot over 116 days. “It wasn’t like making 10 separate feature films,” he explains. “We definitely wanted to make a TV show. We wanted it to be episodic, especially because the book itself is episodic in nature.” Could it have been a feature? “I don’t think that would have been possible,” he says.
Mbedu, who was cast in early 2019 during a trip to the U.S. (she read opposite Beale Street star Stephan James), is surrounded in the series by a massive ensemble that includes familiar faces like Joel Edgerton, William Jackson Harper, Lily Rabe and Will Poulter, as well as impressive newcomers such as Aaron Pierre and 11-year-old Chase Dillon, who was just nine when he auditioned and 10 during filming.
The entire shoot took place in the State of Georgia, with Laxton creating different color palettes within the camera to represent different states. McMillon, for her part, embraced the opportunity that comes with a limited series to let a story “breathe,” with periods of silence, more than with a feature-length film. “I think one of the great things about knowing Barry and James for so long is I feel like oftentimes when I get the footage, I can see what their intent is,” she explains.
For all involved, the project — with its dark subject matter and months-long shoot — took a physical and emotional toll. Says Jenkins, “Working together was the only way that we could get through it.”
This THR Presents is brought to you by Amazon Studios; additional Q&As and other supplementary content can be viewed in THR’s new public hub at THRPresents.HollywoodReporter.com.
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