'Emancipation' Star Charmaine Bingwa Didn't Recognize Will Smith at First Meeting: 'He Was So Thin'

The actress, who first broke out playing a lawyer on The Good Fight, stars as Will Smith's wife in Apple TV+'s Emancipation

Charmaine Bingwa attends the Apple Original Films European Premiere for Emancipation
Charmaine Bingwa. Photo: David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Apple

Arriving in New Orleans to shoot her first studio film, Emancipation star Charmaine Bingwa was excited to work with Will Smith. But at their first meeting, she did a double take.

"When I first saw Will, he was so thin," she recalls in this week's issue of PEOPLE. "He got so skinny for this role to be able to play him, and I did not recognize him. I was like, 'Where's Will Smith? This is wild.' I was so inspired by his transformation, and he's a great leader. I think we all just followed suit and committed as hard as he did."

In Emancipation, Smith, 54, plays Peter, a man on the run from slave hunters through Louisiana on his journey toward freedom, with Bingwa starring as his wife Dodienne.

The Apple TV+ film, directed by Antoine Fuqua, was inspired by the 1863 portrait of "Whipped Peter" taken of the real man's ravaged back during a Union Army medical examination, a photo that became an undeniable evidence of slavery's brutality after first appearing in Harper's Weekly.

"We knew she existed," says Bingwa, 38, of Peter's wife. "But a lot of it was for me to fill in the blanks and to color her in, so to speak. I listened to a lot of narratives from enslaved people at that time, particularly women. Women had to do the same amount of physical work as the men, and then they had to come home and run the household, stitch up clothes, make sure the family was catered for, and then had to face sexual advances from their slave owners."

"I really wanted to make sure that I was able to tell as much of that story and honor Black women who are so often marginalized or forgotten completely," she adds.

Emancipation Charmaine Bingwa
Charmaine Bingwa in Emancipation (2022). Courtesy of Apple

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Bingwa, who first broke out playing no-nonsense lawyer Carmen Moyo on the last two seasons of Paramount+'s The Good Fight, says the Emancipation cast gave it their all bringing the historic story to life.

"There was an environment of, 'Let's dig deep for this one.' And so I think me and Will were both working from that space and just giving it our all," she recalls, calling Smith "a very encouraging, beautiful soul."

Despite complications of the film arriving in the aftermath of Smith's Oscar slap fallout, "it's been beautiful to hear Will go out and repeatedly say that, 'No matter what's happened, I just don't want my team to be punished' " for his actions, she says. "And it speaks to his generosity that he's willing to take whatever hits on the shoulder, whatever people are saying, but he's out there for us trying to get this movie seen, and for the people that the movie is about."

Bingwa has been lauded by critics for her work in Emancipation, which marks her first widely distributed film. The Zimbabwean-Australian actress says when she first moved from Perth to the U.S. in 2018, "I spoke in an American accent all the time for seven months straight to help me stay in it, even when my mother would call. I just wanted to nail it."

Her first day on the set of The Good Fight marked another pinch-me moment. "I remember walking onto one of the soundstages to do a camera test with Christine Baranski. I've admired her for so long, and then to see her in the flesh — she gave me a huge hug and was like, 'Welcome. This is the show.' "

Charmaine Bingwa as Carmen Moyo, Christine Baranski as Diane Lockhart, and Sarah Steele as Marissa Gold in The Good Fight
Charmaine Bingwa and Christine Baranski in The Good Fight. Elizabeth Fisher/Paramount+

Today Bingwa, who next stars as a warrior in Fuqua's upcoming Showtime series King Shaka, hopes to offer audiences the kind of representation she craved as a young girl.

"Growing up watching TV, I just never saw myself. So it's been a battle to find my identity and my place over the years," says the openly gay actress. "I feel like I'm definitely getting more towards [being a] happy, well-adjusted human, but I just think it would've been so powerful to see myself reflected onscreen and to know what possibilities lay ahead for me."

She continues, "And I just hope I can be that for someone else, whether they're Black, gay or female."

Emancipation is now streaming on Apple TV+.

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