Aaron Pierre on Enduring the Trauma—and the Triumph—of ‘The Underground Railroad’
Newcomer Aaron Pierre delivers a stunning breakout performance in Barry Jenkins’ new Amazon series. He talks playing a slave running to freedom and finding humanity in Black pain.
There is something about the way Barry Jenkins, who wrote and directed the films Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, frames a close-up. It’s a lingering, somewhat romantic gaze invigorated with a slight change in zoom. The actor stares directly through the camera, as if breaking the fourth wall. It makes you feel like you instantly know them.
Whether it’s an extra who isn’t seen or heard from again or the protagonist whose journey we follow, Jenkins renders a sudden humanity in them. Especially in those dramas, which center around Black characters battling the demons hurled at them by an unjust society, there’s a poignance to that, one that is almost revolutionary: the marginalized whose stories are relegated to the background, whose humanity is rarely explored onscreen, instantly demanding your compassion, that you know their truths. That they aren’t only their pain.
That’s what happens when Jenkins trains his camera on Aaron Pierre, not to mention the entire sprawling cast of the new Amazon drama series The Underground Railroad, launching Friday.
It’s an epic endeavor inspired by Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which begins as two slaves, Cora and Caesar, make a harrowing bid for freedom, fleeing a Georgia plantation and navigating the treacherous web of safe houses and slave catchers on the Underground Railroad. In this alternate history telling, the secret route is represented by an actual train line.
British stage actor Pierre makes his breakout screen debut as Caesar. The catalyst for the action, he’s introduced in one of those breathtaking Jenkins shots. He’s backlit by the late afternoon sun, creating a soft halo around his body. Sweat sticks to his skin. His green eyes are a radiant mix of exhaustion and determination as the buzzing of cicadas soundtrack his plea to Cora: Come with him to the North.
Caesar is an educated man. He can read, often found thumbing through a hidden copy of Gulliver’s Travels—a literary escape when reality is too visceral to ignore. He and Cora watch as slaves on the plantation—their friends, family, and community—are tied and dragged, shot dead at point blank, and torched alive while the family they serve eats lunch just feet away, as if dining by a bonfire. Jenkins shows it all with an unflinching realism, underscoring Caesar’s appeal to Cora. There’s nothing for them there. They have to try to run.
“The audience will see the horrific and devastating circumstances of the reality of that time,” Pierre tells The Daily Beast. “But later in the series, we also as an audience have the opportunity to celebrate the magnitude of strength that these people had in order to overcome such horrific circumstances. That was really important to me, to celebrate the strength of these individuals and honor them in that way.”
In 2018, Pierre was starring in a production of Othello at London’s The Globe theater. Then 23 years old, he was playing Cassio, the lieutenant to André Holland’s Othello. Holland had played a pivotal supporting role in Jenkins’ Oscar-winning Moonlight. The two had become friends, and, unbeknownst to Pierre, Jenkins had flown to the U.K. to see the production.
Some time later, Jenkins direct-messaged Pierre through Twitter. At first, Pierre thought he was being catfished. An Oscar-winning director sliding into his DMs?
He had long been articulating his desire to work with—or at least be acknowledged by—Jenkins. “I thought somebody was playing with my heart,” he laughs. In the message, Jenkins “showed his love and support,” saying that he’d love to one day collaborate with Pierre on a project. When casting began for The Underground Railroad, he reached out to Pierre to audition.
The shoot was a difficult one and, given the subject matter, emotionally and psychologically taxing. There was a guidance counselor on set for the actors to talk to at any time, which became useful during filming of the series’ relentlessly violent scenes.
Each of the 10 episodes are billed as “chapters,” largely taking place in different states as Cora, carried by a jaw-dropping performance from newcomer actress Thuso Mbedu, continues her journey north. It’s a grueling trip, in which the relief of freedom along the way is only illusory. Horrors at every new stop are often cruelly hidden in hope; more often, they’re not hidden at all.
The Underground Railroad is premiering amid a discourse surrounding recent projects from Black creators or about the Black experience that are, as Kathleen Newman-Bremang wrote at Refinery 29, “steeped in trauma porn.” It’s been brought up in relation to the gratuitous exploitation of Black pain, which some critics have singled out in the film Antebellum or the recent Amazon series from Lean Waithe and Lil Marvin, Them.
In an essay calling Them “pure degradation porn,” Angelica Jade Bastién wrote in Vulture that one extremely violent episode in particular “turns the show from a grating, hollow depiction of Blackness in America to one that revels in degrading its Black characters in a way that left me questioning both the Black creators involved and the studio system that is eager for this kind of work.”
Reviews of The Underground Railroad have been overwhelmingly rapturous at the sensitivity and cinematic scope that Jenkins brings to the tricky adaptation, and have almost all remarked on how the series plays in relation to that conversation of depicting Black pain and trauma in entertainment: when it has value and when it’s destructive.
In The Hollywood Reporter, Daniel Fienberg praised that “Jenkins indeed makes a wide range of sadness beautiful, doing the same for strains of trauma and rays of joyful light.” Robert Daniels wrote in his review for Polygon, “Whitehead and Jenkins’ The Underground Railroad isn’t a story of dehumanization, but re-humanization.”
Pierre lights up when he hears that last quote. “These circumstances need to be humanized. That way it doesn’t become something that people can detach from,” he says. “This was a human experience, and when it is humanized, I think it resonates with everyone.” Especially now, he continues, that’s important. “As a human race. I think we have a very, very long way to go in regards to understanding, empathy, and unity.”
He’s been impressed with the way that Jenkins has been able to shift the conversation about how violence and oppression can be shown on camera while bringing truth and humanity to the pain.
“These were people who had thoughts and feelings, just like all of us have thoughts and feelings,” he says. “What the series does so well is highlight the trauma. It does highlight the horrific circumstances of that period in time and the devastation of that period in time. But also, the series allows an opportunity to celebrate the magnitude of strength that these people had to overcome the circumstances and to rise above.”
In some circumstances and with some projects, it would seem trite or indulgent to discuss the ways in which an actor has been changed by a shoot or a role. It goes without saying, however, that playing Caesar and being a part of this story has had a seismic effect on Pierre.
As a Black man who grew up in England, it deepened and broadened his understanding of the African American experience. But beyond that, it also encouraged him to work on his personal well-being, especially after being immersed in a narrative of trauma.
“As a Black man and a Black person, it’s so important that you’re mindful of your well-being,” he says. “And that you look after your well-being in order to navigate a world that can be challenging to navigate at times. This is something that has changed me as a person in many ways.”