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Hail, Caesar! The Underground Railroad's Aaron Pierre is the breakout star of the summer

From Cassio in Othello to Caesar in The Underground Railroad, South Londoner Aaron Pierre does not shy away from challenging roles. Lydia Winter finds out why seeking the truth is the actor’s main driver

Aaron Pierre

Aaron Pierre is telling me about his favourite poem, ‘April Rain Song’ by Langston Hughes:

Let the rain kiss you

Let the rain beat upon your head

with silver liquid drops

Let the rain sing you a lullaby

The rain makes still pools on the sidewalk

The rain makes running pools in the gutter

The rain plays a little sleep song on our roof at night

And I love the rain.

“It’s not one word too long, or one word too short. He’s managed to use the exact amount of words necessary to convey whatever he was trying to convey,” says the British actor admiringly.

The same could be said of the way Pierre speaks – precisely and purposefully. Not one word or sentence gets wasted; there’s not a speck of verbal fluff to be found.

In fact, Aaron Pierre doesn’t seem to go overboard on anything – words, time, frivolous décor. Peering into his living room in South London via Zoom, I’m confronted with a plain white wall and Pierre’s angular face, wearing sleek rectangular specs, befitting his own description of himself as minimalist.

Initially, this no-frills approach to life gives me faint cause for alarm. Is this interview going to be over very quickly?

Aaron Pierre

But at around 15 minutes in, I find a crack and we’re off, talking about director Barry Jenkins, with whom Pierre worked for his latest project, Amazon Prime’s ten-part series, The Underground Railroad.

Pierre’s face lights up and he laughs: “My expectations of working with Barry were enormous and then it just surpassed that, just left that for dust. He is truly extraordinary.” And then, more seriously: “And for me he is the epitome of a leader and a director, and just a phenomenal creative.”

A long-time fan of the award-winning director of Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, Pierre says that to describe working with Jenkins as a ‘dream come true’ is an understatement – but there’s no other way to put it. But even the story of how Pierre came to Jenkins’ attention has a dream-like feel to it.

I was very nervous to take on this role and be part of this story

Pierre, then 24, was performing as Cassio in Othello at the Globe. Jenkins came to watch André Holland (who starred in Moonlight), but was so impressed by Pierre that he reached out to the young actor. The medium? None other than a Twitter DM. A true modern professional fairytale.

Jenkins immediately had him in mind for his latest project, an adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Underground Railroad, which recently aired through Amazon Prime.

The book is a magical realist take on a true story. The real-life underground railroad was the term for a network of safe houses helping runaway slaves escape from the American south to the free states in the north in the 19th century. Whitehead re-imagined the story with a fantastical train, which is instrumental in helping a young woman, Cora (played by South African Thuso Mbedu) escape the Georgia plantation where she is enslaved, encouraged and accompanied by Caesar (Pierre).

Aaron Pierre

Jenkins’ vivid retelling is beautiful and haunting; it’s already being described as one of the best series of recent years, with Pierre’s portrayal of Caesar, who was originally a free man in Virginia before being brought to the plantation, cited as one of the main draws.

According to Pierre’s description of the story, “Along the way, Cora meets a number of different people in different places, which, in their own ways, give something small or large to her journey. Maybe it’s a physical thing, maybe it’s company; or maybe it’s not a physical thing, maybe it’s a lesson she learned from that person or an experience.”

So what did he learn from working on this project? “The importance of seeking truth when you’re storytelling. In the future when I do other jobs, the thing that will stay with me is the importance of seeking authenticity and truth, and letting that be the thing you’re after within the scenes.”

I was very nervous to try and take on a character with such a magnitude of strength and resilience

In a story such as this one, the truth is even more important. After last year’s BLM protests and the tragic death of George Floyd, the conversations around race and recognising these horrifying stories is more important – and more under scrutiny – than ever, and, although he mainly filmed in 2019, Pierre definitely felt the pressure.

“I was very nervous to take on this role and be part of this story. Because I recognised from the very beginning, the importance of it, and the importance that it has to so many people internationally,” he admits. “I also feel an enormous amount of gratitude to be part of telling that story, a story that will encourage audience members to reflect on things that we still, as an international global community, have a long way to go with.”

“I was also very nervous because this is someone who was enslaved and then promised manumission,” says Pierre of his character, Caesar. “And then that wasn’t granted. And then he was separated from his parents and transported to the South, to another plantation. And that’s so much to manage as one person.

"I was very nervous to try and take on a character with such a magnitude of strength and resilience, it was very nerve-racking. But we had Barry Jenkins leading and guiding us. And I was very fortunate to have phenomenal creatives around me who helped me to find this character.”

Aaron Pierre
Aaron Pierre

But for Pierre to put the onus on Jenkins and his creative team is to downplay his own talents. At 27, he’s already had a successful run on the stage, starring alongside Mark Rylance at the Globe, and a smattering of roles in TV and film, from Prime Suspect 1973, via a role in Krypton, the Superman prequel, to this breakout role – his performance in The Underground Railroad has received outstanding reviews. Much like Langston Hughes and his poem, Pierre’s approach to his career is minimalist and deliberate.

“I’m very invested in what I do. And I like to hold myself to a high standard, because in doing so, I believe that I’m always in search of a way to get closer to the truth, the way to be more authentic and a way to constantly learn,” he says, his determination spilling through the screen.

The other thing he gained from The Underground Railroad is a greater understanding of the African-American experience.

“The truth is, it wasn’t easy, on any day. But it was always important, and is always important. And thankfully, Barry had a guidance counsellor on set every single day at all times. And I think irrespective of whether you utilise that service or not, it’s just really nice to know that there is someone there who can assist you out of a particularly dark space. If you happen to find yourself in one. The story required us to explore very dark and vulnerable places mentally and emotionally.”

But while we meet Caesar in Georgia, Pierre has roots much closer to home.

“I really wanted to be a 100m sprinter. I wanted to be the fastest man in the world

“I grew up in South London, in West Croydon. That’s where I grew up, and that’s where I was raised. I went to Lewisham College, which is around the corner from where I live now. I know South London like the back of my hand. It’s where I’ve spent a vast majority of my life, and there’s no other place within London I would live.”

“It’s just so multicultural. It’s so diverse. And I mean that in terms of not only race, but in terms of religion, in terms of heritage. It’s such a diverse place. And I think that gives you a real education – an education that I certainly don’t take for granted, I don’t think everyone has that experience throughout their youth and in their adulthood.”

Somewhat surprisingly, then, he’s not a Crystal Palace fan – but supports Arsenal instead, thanks to an early childhood spent in Woolwich. And in any case, he’s not that into football, but prefers to watch boxing and athletics. Talking about the upcoming Olympics, again Pierre’s face lights up.

“I’ll be glued to the television. It’s really exciting to watch people just give their very best at whatever they’re doing.” But there’s another reason for his enthusiasm: “I really wanted to be a 100m sprinter. I wanted to be the fastest man in the world.” Those high standards again. “Yeah, I wanted to dedicate my life to that. And I still love sports. And I’m still a huge fan of track and field and athletics, but at some point my passion just changed. It just evolved in a different way. I just wanted to tell stories, so I went for it.”

Aaron Pierre

He doesn’t know what drew him to acting, but says it was quite a big deal for him to decide that he wanted to be in a play, because at the time, not many people did. And the role that inspired him? A star turn as a narrator, in Year 6. “I only had a few lines, but I really treasured them.”

But as minimal as this experience was, it inspired him, aged 13, to join his local theatre in Croydon, which is called Crypt (I thought this was somewhat ominous; but in fact it stands for Croydon Young People’s Theatre).

“We improvised, we devised our own theatre, and then we performed it to whoever wanted to see it, which often wasn’t very many people. But that’s not why you do it, you do it, because you want to create, and you want to share. And a really valuable lesson I learned at that point of my journey was that irrespective of whether there’s one person in the audience or 1,000 people in the audience, you give the same energy, because they’ve committed their time and energy to share this story with you. So you should show up for them.”

I don’t doubt this: as an interviewer, I don’t think I’ve ever listened to someone so intently.

I’m trying to get rid of that sort of hypercritical part of myself that comes into play when I write things

So with all this talk of lessons, is there anything Pierre’s learning now? His current goal is to improve his cooking.

“I wasn’t a big fan of cooking before the pandemic happened, actually. But I discovered I found it therapeutic once I was required to spend more time in my space at home.”

He’s since made everything from curry to shortbread, but mostly takes inspiration from his parents – both keen cooks – to make classic West African and Caribbean dishes.

“Recently I made a Caribbean dish called callaloo and saltfish, with hard dough bread, another type of bread that is very common in the Caribbean. It’s a sweet bread, and it’s really delicious. So I prepared that for my family for lunch one day, and my mum gave me the thumbs up of approval, and now I feel like I’m an accomplished home cook.”

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But professionally, Pierre remains in pursuit of the next thing, too. The next time we’ll see him on screen is in M Night Shyamalan’s beach horror, Old, which airs at the end of July. The project is shrouded in secrecy, but the storyline involves a family on a tropical beach holiday who somehow age so rapidly it reduces their lives to the rest of the day. A departure from Shakespeare and The Underground Railroad, to be sure.

Elsewhere, Pierre spends a lot of his time writing poetry, scripts, and even a hip hop album that was released in 2019.

“I’m trying to get rid of that sort of hypercritical part of myself that comes into play when I write things.” (Probably something that most writers can identify with). “I write a page, and then spend the rest of the day working on that one page and not wanting to move on until I’m happy with it. I’m not sure how conducive that is to actually completing a script. So I’m trying to just be a little bit more fluid with it, and revise and go over it when I’ve got a body of work, as opposed to labouring page three of three…”

I don’t doubt that he’ll get there. For all his seriousness, there’s also boundless enthusiasm for his career.

“My first professional acting experience was Prime Suspect 1973. The first day, I was so eager to go, and so ready to go, and obviously wanting to impress. And we had the scene all set up, everything was ready. And I just started acting. I didn’t even wait for action and the director was like, ‘Aaron, can you just wait for action, we’re not quite ready?’ You know, I’ve never done that again,” he laughs.

From sprinting to acting to hip hop, Aaron Pierre is a man who likes to challenge himself to be the best. “I always keep that standard slightly unattainable. So that I never get comfortable. And I’m always in the pursuit of something, more knowledge and something more to learn. Because I feel like when you feel like you’ve got it, you plateau, and I never want to do that.” If his career so far is anything to go by, Pierre is set for the very best indeed.

The Underground Railroad is available on Amazon Prime now. Old airs in cinemas on 23 July.

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