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Interview: Talking ‘The Underground Railroad’ with Sheila Atim

Sheila Atim may not have a ton of time to make her mark in the new Amazon series The Underground Railroad, from director Barry Jenkins, but she makes every second count. 

The series tells the story of Cora (Thuso Mbedu), a slave who runs away from the plantation she’s been kept on and finds herself on a journey through many different states, seeing the various ways that Black people are existing and being oppressed within the United States at this time. 

In the first episode of the series, we hear of Mabel (Atim), Cora’s mother who had previously ran away from the plantation and left Cora there alone. Mabel hangs like a specter over the series, often being used by Cora’s oppressors to taunt her with stories of her mother who abandoned her. Cora, never knowing the reason her mother left, carries this weight and this pain with her always. 

That puts a lot of pressure on Atim to convey the breadth of this woman in a short amount of time. Once we are finally introduced to Mabel, we get to see this character we have heard about so often be brought to full life, allowing us an understanding of a woman many had made up preconceived notions about. 

This portrayal of Mabel brings to light one of the core ideas of The Underground Railroad – how everyone has their story, and only they are the ones who are able to accurately tell it. Throughout the series we see how people’s stories are taken from them, how history is rewritten through the eyes of the white supremacist system, and a significant part of Cora’s arc is finding her way to take ownership of her story. For Mabel, she was never able to tell her story, yet we the audience are able to experience it. 

This is something that I spoke about in my rave review of the series, and it’s also something brought up in my discussion with Sheila Atim. Among many other topics, Atim and I talked about her arrival in the series, the nature of Mabel’s story bringing things full circle, and the process of working with Barry Jenkins. Atim clearly has a deep passion for this material and the people she worked alongside on this journey, speaking eloquently about the compassion and humanity that Jenkins has brought to a time and people who so often are dehumanized and turned into statistics to represent unimaginable suffering and nothing else. 

Keep reading for my genuinely touching conversation with actress Sheila Atim: 

Mitchell Beaupre: Mabel is an interesting character in the series, in that we’re only properly introduced to her near the end, after spending so much time with Cora and hearing about her mother. Did you feel any pressure by having all of that buildup to us finally meeting her?

Sheila Atim: I didn’t feel pressure actually, because Barry was so helpful in helping me track the journey of the episode. So much does happen in that short space of time, and a lot of that is so important not just in providing context to Cora’s situation, but in explaining what happens to this mysterious woman Mabel. We had to shoot some things out of sequence, so we were constantly making sure that every time we approached a new scene we were aware of where it fit in Mabel’s overall trajectory. I feel like the pressure was less about carrying the final episode of the story, and more about wanting to do right by everyone on the project. From the cast to the camera crew, the design team, the hair and makeup, everyone did such an amazing job that I wanted to make sure I was right there with them, raising my game. 

MB: There’s something very cyclical about Mabel’s story, and how we learn the details of it at the end in a way that ties back directly all the way to the beginning of Cora’s journey. 

SA: Yeah, I think there is. There’s a really poignant moment that the viewer won’t recognize in the first episode when Cora is walking through the swamp, but it’s the same swamp that Mabel walks through in the end and there’s this snake that passes through the frame that calls to what happens in the final episode as well. Those little connections are so important. Even some of the characters that appear on the plantation in Cora’s time are there in Mabel’s time as well, so you see that those people have been there during the duration of Cora’s growing up, and they’ve carried with them the legacy of Mabel leaving, and the impact that must have had on the plantation. It’s really important to have that because it does underpin the whole story, and it provides the driving force for a large part of Cora’s journey. To revisit it at the end is a really nice bookend for us to be left with. It’s partly devastating, really, but then you have this juxtaposition of the hope with Cora, which I find quite extraordinary. 

MB: That swamp is certainly a striking location, as are many throughout the series. How much did the locations help to get you into the headspace of the character? 

SA: Credit to the design team for that. The plantation looked so real, the cotton fields, and the huts as well. Even in the floors of the huts you can see how they carved in these traditional African carvings, which were all these little acts of rebellion that slaves would try and sprinkle around to be able to keep hold of something from before. The swamp man, wow, that was intense. It was so hot out there as well, it was just beating down on you, and it was kind of scary mentally having to tune all of that out. For me, though, I think I was always remembering that people went through this without breaks, and what we were dealing with was just a fraction compared to what they endured. That definitely helped galvanize me to keep going, and to make sure I was doing right by this story. 

MB: Something that connects a lot of Barry’s work is the concept of love, often seen as this act of resilience and perseverance. Even when you’re facing unimaginable adversity, as we see in someone like Mabel, that love is still able to shine through. 

SA: I think that was something that Barry did really brilliantly with Mabel. In the book, Mabel’s chapter is really short, as in keeping with the style of the rest of the book, which I really love. What Barry did, though, is he took that and fleshed it out, and put some of that love that you’re talking about in, some of that emotion, and I think that’s something really important for us to see. It humanizes these people, and reminds us that they were still trying to have the full range of human emotion that we all experience, even in the face of these atrocious circumstances. They were still trying to love each other, they were still trying to find ways to love and care for each other, because that’s a basic human instinct. It doesn’t go away, no matter how much you try to beat that out of someone, no matter how much you try and suppress that. 

I think that exact same resilience and determination to continue loving is what propelled the Underground Railroad in the first place. It’s that human will, that ability to keep going, and to say, “I deserve more than this. I deserve to love, and I deserve to have life. I deserve to have joy”. That’s what was at the core of all of this. That’s the only way that a network of people could have got that many people to freedom with very little resources otherwise. I think that’s a great thing that Barry has done, is to make that so clear in the story because one of the best ways to oppress someone is to take away their ability to connect with others in meaningful ways, to take away their ability to express themselves and feel the full range of human emotion. So yeah, it was important for us to see those characters were still doing those things. 

MB: One of the most enduring elements throughout the series is this idea of telling your story. No matter what is taken away from you, the one thing that no one can ever steal is your story. We see Cora really go on this arc to claim ownership of her story. Could you talk about how we see that idea applied to Mabel? 

SA: That idea of telling your story is so vital. That is the record of you in human history. Particularly in the case with Mabel, the sad part is that her story is never entirely told. We, the audience, get it, so we get a bit of closure in that sense on Cora’s behalf, but we are also left with the fact that she doesn’t get that closure because she didn’t get that story. That was the case with many people who were slaves. They didn’t get their stories either. They just became nameless, faceless people, and they are now just numbers in a textbook somewhere. What Barry does is so important because he’s making sure their stories are told. You see it in those shots of people simply just standing, those shots that are in the trailers and teasers, people standing there and just existing. He has us all look at them, and recognize them without them actually doing anything. I think that is all about bringing that humanity back in, and reminding us that each human being is valuable and important. That’s vital. 

MB: Something that is rightly being criticized more in recent years is the way that slave narratives have historically been told in those textbook kinds of ways where people become numbers rather than human beings. Could you talk about the significance of telling these stories in ways where we see all of these characters as full-bodied human beings, rather than just those nameless, faceless statistics? 

SA: It wasn’t necessarily, at least not for me, as explicit a conversation as that on the set, but I think through Barry’s direction that was something that was really clear. The conversations that we had were always about the people, more about the domestic interactions between them. Slavery became almost the backdrop for what these people were going through. It gave us the underlying context, but in terms of the connections that Mabel has to Polly, for example, that stuff is what came first and foremost. 

We do need to move away from the kind of work which has that blanket view, particularly in any instance of mass human suffering. It’s very easy to just say “x million people went through this thing, and so that’s just a horrible thing that happened”, but we need to drill into the fact that these people were human beings, to step away from that desensitization that can happen with these sorts of narratives. Barry did such a great job of avoiding all of that, and I know that was something that he really wanted to make sure that he wasn’t feeding into. That was so clear to me because he was always so self-critical – he was changing the script, and challenging himself as the writer and director to make sure that he was drilling into the fundamentals of these characters. I think it’s great because these stories do need to be told. It can’t be either/or where we tell it or we don’t. There’s a way to tell it, and I think we need to continue to push and find new ways to tell it where it still has integrity, and above all else respect. 

MB: People are next going to be able to see you in Bruised, the directorial debut of Halle Berry. What was it like working on that project with her, both as an actor and as a director? 

SA: Working with Halle was such a wonderful experience. Very much in the same way as Barry as a writer/director, actually, she wore the two hats incredibly well. That’s why I have such great admiration for them both. Particularly when you’re working with an actor/director, and you’re sharing scenes with them, it’s just incredible to watch someone managing both of those roles. I still don’t entirely understand how they’re able to do it, how they get the distance and vantage point, but Halle’s vision was so clear. She was selfless enough to place her ego far away, and to serve the project and the actors in the way that they needed to be served. 

It was also wonderful to see her do it for the first time. I felt really proud, and kind of privileged and honored to be able to witness that, to support her through it, and celebrate her. She’s such a lovely woman, and it’s such a great project. I feel about that film the same way I do about Underground Railroad, actually, where I’m so excited for myself as someone who is a part of these projects, but also for Halle and Barry. When you work on a project and you come away having such great admiration for somebody because you’ve seen them doing the work, and seen them going through their process, it just makes you so excited for people to be able to see the fruits of that labor. 

The Underground Railroad premieres Friday, May 14th on Amazon Prime Video 

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity] 

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Written by Mitchell Beaupre

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