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Barry Jenkins: Therapist on 'Underground Railroad' set 'allowed people to be free'

By
Fred Topel
Barry Jenkins and Lulu Wang attend the 2020 Film Independent Spirit Awards.  Jenkins, “Underground Railroad” executive producer, hired a therapist to help the cast throughout production. File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI
Barry Jenkins and Lulu Wang attend the 2020 Film Independent Spirit Awards.  Jenkins, “Underground Railroad” executive producer, hired a therapist to help the cast throughout production. File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI | License Photo

LOS ANGELES, May 14 (UPI) -- The new Amazon series The Underground Railroad brings Colson Whitehead's fictional novel to life in graphic detail. Cast members Thuso Mbedo, Sheila Atim, Aaron Pierre, William Jackson Harper and Joel Edgerton all said that depicting violence against Black people in the show could get so intense it caused them emotional trauma.

Anticipating this, executive producer Barry Jenkins hired therapist Kim White to be on set throughout the production. Jenkins said he wanted the cast to know there was someone to help them if any of the show's scenes of lynchings, suicides and other historically-based violence affected them personally.

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"It was really important for the crew to know and the cast that there was someone there whose concern wasn't the art," Jenkins said in a Zoom roundtable. "Their concern was purely us. I think that allowed people to be free to really explore what the characters are feeling."

Jenkins, who won an Oscar for his screenplay for Moonlight, said he needed White's support, too. After directing one violent scene, Jenkins said, he and White had a brief session off to the side on location.

"I go, 'I gotta be strong for the crew,'" Jenkins said. "She goes, 'Yes, but who's going to be strong for you if you break?'"

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Thuso Mbedu, who plays Cora Randall, a slave who runs away from a plantation in Georgia, said that White helped her while she filmed a scene in which Cora faces a slave catcher.

"Emotionally, mentally, I wasn't able to pull myself back as quickly as I could [other times]," Mbedu said. "She talked me through it and recommended a meditation app I could go through as I tried to fall asleep that night."

Joel Edgerton played Ridgeway, the slave catcher. Edgerton said he used humor as a coping mechanism to break the tension of the intense material.

A scene between Ridgeway and Homer (Chase Dillon), a slave who aids Ridgeway, brought White to Edgerton's assistance. He said White told him he doesn't have to keep things light for Dillon's sake, and it's OK to take a break for self-care.

"I think I was pushing a lot of my feelings about what I was doing underneath and burying them in jokes and humor," Edgerton said. "There's pretty dark stuff in the show. I do think that that stuff, if you're really committing to it, does get under your skin."

Not every cast member utilized the therapist's services. Sheila Atim, who plays Mabel, Cora's mother who escaped before Cora did, said White recognized when it was best to give cast members their space.

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"Sometimes, you do want to have a little bit more chat with people to be able to shake it off a little bit," Atim said. "Sometimes you want to keep your focus. Sometimes you want to throw it away. She was very good at that."

For some cast members, just knowing White was there made the set more comfortable.

For example, for Aaron Pierre, who plays Caesar, a slave who joins Cora in her escape,

"Just knowing that she was there and she was available to speak was enough almost to keep you at ease. Knowing that if, at any time, it ever got overwhelming, you had someone who could help you out."

William Jackson Harper, who plays Royal, a free man Cora meets later in her journey, said he wishes he had taken advantage of White's services.

Harper described a violent scene near the end of the series that he said brought out more intense feelings within him than he expected.

"I found myself really triggered and blind with rage," Harper said. "I found myself almost losing control with a scene partner of mine, and I had to breathe through it. I do remember my vision almost going out."

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Harper said he chose to continue the scene to ensure filming was completed on schedule.

"It was the first time that I felt myself almost get out of control," Harper said. "Thankfully I had a really caring scene partner in that moment that helped me navigate that."

The Underground Railroad premiered Friday.

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