“I approached Caesar with a great admiration and respect,” says Aaron Pierre on the subject of his character in “The Underground Railroad,” a 10-episode Amazon Prime limited series. It is based on Colson Whitehead‘s 2016 novel of the same name and follows Cora (Thuso Mbedu), a slave in the southeastern United States during the 19th century who makes a bid for freedom from slaveholding Georgia and, in turn, takes possession of her personhood. In our exclusive video interview (watch above), Pierre discusses the magnitude of his character’s strength and resilience and gives insight into the experience of collaborating with writer-creator-director Barry Jenkins.
Caesar was born a slave on a small farm in Virginia owned by a widow, who taught her slaves to read and write and promised Caesar as well as his parents manumission. After said widow dies, her promise, however, does not come to fruition and Caesar and his parents are sold separately, with Caesar sold to the Randall plantation in Georgia at which viewers find him at the outset of the series. Pierre underlines the importance of his character’s journey up until that point and highlights “the magnitude of strength and mental, physical and spiritual resilience that someone has to have in order to endure that and not allow that experience to engulf them entirely.”
“He has seen glimpses of what he interprets as some form of freedom” on the aforementioned plantation in Virginia, Pierre continues, accentuating that Caesar therefore understands that it’s “everyone’s human right to experience freedom,” which also informs his decision to convince Cora to run away from the Randall plantation with him. The actor goes on to explain that his character values particularly the ability to read, which gives him “relief from what is a horrific reality” as it takes him “to another space” — namely, his imagination.
In regard to working with Jenkins — who directed all 10 episodes — Pierre spotlights the “safe and supportive environment” that he created. The cast’s and crew’s “mental, spiritual and emotional well-being was at the forefront of his mind at all times,” the actor underscores, adding that this extended to Jenkins having a guidance counselor on set every day. Altogether, he created an environment in which everyone involved had the same objective, which was “to tell the story as truthfully and authentically as possible,” so Pierre.
An important part of Jenkins’ creative process was having rehearsals at the beginning of it, which allowed Pierre and his scene partner Mbedu to both connect as individuals and explore the relationship between their two characters. In respect of said relationship, the actor describes Caesar as being just “one of a number of catalysts” for Cora’s journey, giving weight to the fact that “Cora already has everything she needs within her in order to pursue that true liberty and freedom that she seeks.” He adds that Caesar contributes “a small flame to the burning fire that is already within Cora.”
On a final note, Pierre says regarding the overall experience of working on “The Underground Railroad”: It “broadened my knowledge, broadened my understanding, and allowed me the opportunity to reflect on the importance of looking after myself as a young Black man in the world that we live in today.”
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