“It’s been… surreal,” smiles Aaron Pierre, reflecting on a year that’s seen him go from locked-down London stage actor to one of the most exciting screen stars around – now wading through a flood of big-name offers and a stack of scripts after his leading role as Caesar in The Underground Railroad. “Certain doors are now being opened so this is just a really exciting time,” he says in the kind of calm, Shakespearean enunciation that gives as little away as possible. “I’m just feeling an abundance of gratitude right now.”
Pierre is talking to NME from his South London flat – the same flat he was struggling to put up a curtain rail in when he got the phone call telling him he was being cast in Barry Jenkins’ seminal new series. “I hadn’t long moved in,” he laughs. “One rail went up really smoothly, but I just couldn’t get the bedroom rail up for some reason. Then I got that call and it just put everything into perspective! It was just incredible.”
Already hailed as one of the best TV dramas in years, The Underground Railroad sees Oscar-winning director Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) turn Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel into a beautiful, harrowing, perfect American epic. The story of a pair of escaped slaves (Thuso Mbedu and Pierre) who try to outrun a ruthless slave-catcher (Joel Edgerton), it’s a tough but essential watch – with Pierre giving a standout performance that’s been rightly praised in every one of the show’s flawless reviews. Released in one impossible-to-binge batch back in May, the show has now been out on Prime Video for several weeks, giving everyone just enough time to start appreciating its impact.
Now 27, Pierre has spent most of his adult life training to be an actor – first at a youth theatre group in west Croydon, where he grew up, before two years at Lewisham College, a year studying classical theatre in Toronto and three years at LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art). But before all that, he just wanted to run. “I always wanted to be an athlete at school,” he says. “I wanted to be [American sprinter] Maurice Greene. He just had an abundance of charisma, and he could back that charisma up too. He was the fastest man on the planet. Even if you’re not a fan of athletics, when the 100-metre final starts the whole world goes silent, because the next 10 seconds are just mind blowing. I did sort of, in my own small way, pursue that for a short period of time, but when I was in year nine I discovered that my passion was actually more for storytelling. Since 2016 I’ve been acting professionally and it’s been all or nothing ever since then. I just had to go for it and hope for the best.”
“It would be a real joy to be in a Marvel movie”
Inspired by everyone from Viola Davis and Ava DuVernay to telly stalwart Adrian Lester and his own dad (also an actor), Pierre found his first roles on TV – joining a couple of episodes of autism drama The A Word, and playing a Roman soldier in Sky Atlantic’s Britannia before getting a meatier role in short-lived Superman origin series Krypton.
“I love comics, and I’ve loved comics for a very long time,” he says thoughtfully, sounding about as far from a typical comic fan as you can get. “I can remember being really excited about buying comics from WHSmith when I was a kid, whenever I had a little change, so to be part of Krypton and to have the opportunity to join the DC Universe was a real joy.” Since anyone who makes a name for themselves in Hollywood seems to get a call from Marvel eventually, it stands to reason that some of those new doors being opened up for Pierre might start leading him back to comics soon, but he’s far too good an actor to give anything like that away. “I mean, yeah, it would be a real joy to have the opportunity to do that in the future. It’s something that I really, really love… but who knows?”
Balancing his time on Krypton with a stellar theatre career, Pierre sees himself as “a stage man” first and foremost, never wanting to lose the buzz of a live audience. But it was when he was on stage in 2018 – playing Cassio opposite Mark Rylance and André Holland in Othello at Shakespeare’s Globe – that Pierre found his biggest break.
“I got a direct message on Twitter from Barry Jenkins,” he smiles, telling the most exciting anecdote of his career in the calmest way possible. “Barry was in the audience to see his dear friend André Holland [who starred in Jenkins’ Oscar winner Moonlight] play Othello and I got this message on my phone. At first I did think it was somebody just playing with my heart, but it turned out everything checked out and it was Barry Jenkins. In a nutshell, he told me we should make something happen together, and then not long after that I received my audition for The Underground Railroad and I guess the rest is history!”
“Every moment with Barry Jenkins was like gold dust”
Fast forward to standing halfway up a ladder with a curtain rail in his hand and Pierre realised that the real journey was only just beginning – now cast as runaway slave Caesar alongside Mbedu.
“I knew that if I was going to bring this incredible character to life, I was really going to have to bring it,” says Pierre. “This character had such an undeniable strength – mentally, spiritually and emotionally – and such a sense of calm. I was nervous about the whole thing. But knowing that I was going to be going on this journey with Barry definitely calmed me.”
Finding himself shooting in the middle of Georgia in the summer of 2019, Pierre joined a gruelling production that kept a guidance counsellor on set at all times to help the cast and crew manage the raw emotions they were dealing with. “If I’m being honest, it was very challenging to keep myself in the right frame of mind to tell this story,” admits Pierre, who gets some of the toughest scenes in the series as Caesar. “When you’re dealing with subject matter like this, it’s very affecting. And it was particularly affecting as a young Black man. Barry managed this whole process with such sensitivity and such thoughtfulness. He kept our spiritual and emotional wellbeing at the forefront of his mind at all times. Every moment was like gold dust.”
Once asking his theatre director if he could sit in the wings just to watch Mark Rylance rehearse, Pierre has always been eager to soak up as much as he can from the people around him – something that made his whole experience on The Underground Railroad even more rewarding.
“I think everybody has their own own way of doing things. And I think for me, I just want to continue to always be a student,” says Pierre. “I had a lecturer at LAMDA and he used to tell me to always allow myself to be spellbound. I didn’t understand what he meant by that at the time, but now I think I get it. You have to allow yourself to be inspired. I always like to bury myself in the corner when I’m not working and just try and take in as much as I can, like a sponge.”
“Barry is the epitome of a leader and a director,” he says, remembering the days he spent on set just watching the rest of the cast and crew work. “He taught me to always be in the pursuit of truth when you’re storytelling, and to always be guided by that. But I was working with a lot of other incredible artists too, [cinematographer] James Laxton, [composer] Nicholas Britell and, of course, the whole cast.”
Hunting around for his phone to try and show us a photo caught on the last day of filming that captured his exact mood, Pierre now looks humbly back on the whole Underground Railroad experience as life changing. “I wish I could show you that picture,” he laughs, “It’s a picture of me and Barry and we’re standing in a cotton field. Somebody caught this moment where we were walking towards each other. I just had my hand on my chest, looking at him. That was the feeling that I had at the end, just this overwhelming feeling of gratitude. A feeling of understanding how much my perspective and knowledge had broadened. And a feeling of pride at having been part of this incredibly important story that has to be told.”
Now able to share the series with his friends and family at long last, as well as to hear the mountain of praise that’s been heaped on his stand-out performance, Pierre seems to have spent the last few weeks in a daze – suddenly catapulted into the spotlight for something he finished making almost two years ago. “It’s been wonderful,” he grins, “but it really has been surreal too. I haven’t rewatched the whole thing again yet, but I’ve seen the first episode at home. I’m just filled with pride to even be a part of it”.
“My next film, M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘Old’, is terrifying”
Like everyone else, the rolling lockdowns of 2020 put most of Pierre’s career plans on hold, although he did manage to bag a place in the cast of one of the few Hollywood films still in production – M. Night Shyamalan’s upcoming beach horror, Old. Pitched as a mysterious thriller about a group of holidaymakers who age an entire lifetime in a single day, the film was shot during a dip in the pandemic last summer, helped by a fast schedule that took place entirely on an isolated beach in the Dominican Republic.
“It’s terrifying, and at the same time, it asks really interesting questions in regard to time and perspective,” Pierre says, not wanting to give too much away. “Not only is it a thriller that will have people jumping, but once everyone’s nerves have calmed down people will reflect and start asking all these really interesting questions. What would I have done in that situation? What’s actually important in my life? How do I want to use my time?”
For Pierre, that’s a question that he constantly asks himself – even if he does try hard not to answer it. “I mean, there are some very exciting possibilities coming up now,” he smiles, still giving nothing away about all those new offers that have been flooding in. “But right now I’m just trying to be as present as possible. I got a really great piece of advice years ago, which was to allow myself to enjoy the moment. I’m somebody who is usually extremely focused, and I sometimes don’t allow myself to enjoy things. But right now I’m really trying my best!”
And which other Hollywood A-listers does he want to DM him on Twitter next? “How long have you got?!” he laughs. “I mean, there’s so many people who I would love to collaborate with. But, you know, I just feel so thankful that some of those names actually seem like real possibilities now. I’ll have to make sure I keep my phone on me…”
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