Thuso Mbedu stars as Cora Randall on Amazon's The Underground Railroad

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Thuso Mbedu
Thuso Mbedu
| Credit: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

Thuso Mbedu is taking on a big responsibility in telling an important story — and she's ready for the challenge.

In this week's issue of PEOPLE, the South African actress, 29, opens up about landing the leading role on Amazon's The Underground Railroad, the challenges that come with it, and her big plans for the future.

After being cast as Cora, an enslaved woman journeying towards freedom, Mbedu says she spent the "next two weeks" hitting the books and preparing as best she could.

"I read the book for the first time in those two weeks," Mbedu, who found her passion for acting in the tenth grade, says of Colson Whitehead's 2016 book of the same name. "And I was like, 'This is bigger than me. This is bigger than anything that I could ever understand. And I know that it will force me to grow and step up. I would love to be a part of it. But if I am not, it's because I truly believe that they will find someone who can serve the character the way she needs to be served."'

"I did an extensive amount of research for the role," she continues. "I consumed a lot of material. I read a lot."

For more from Thuso Mbedu, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now, or subscribe here.

Thuso Mbedu in The Underground Railroad
Thuso Mbedu in The Underground Railroad
| Credit: Kyle Kaplan/Amazon Studios

Growing up in South Africa, Mbedu, who initially was interested in studying dermatology before she found her love for acting, says it was always a dream of hers to act in Hollywood — but she never anticipated doing so this soon.

"There is no actor that doesn't dream of being in Hollywood," she says. "But again, it didn't ever cross my mind that I would get the role. I feel like I still had to pay my dues, that at least for the next five years try to prove my worth and work hard. And for me, I'm not afraid of working hard. I am willing to put in the work. That's another thing that I hold dear to me. I don't mind working hard to get to where I want to be."

"But it was never an actual dream that was supposed to be realized," she continues. "I remember in 2018 or 2019 taking my friends out to the shopping center. We drove to the rooftop. I told them to bring their fleece blankets and we laid them on the floor. And I looked up at the sky, it was at night. And I said, 'Guys, just share your wildest dreams.' I'm that type of person. I'm like, 'Let's dream because whatever it is that we can conceive is nothing compared to what can actually happen.'"

She adds: "That's one other thing, it's like, the biggest dreams that I had have now come true. So I need to go back to the drawing board and dream bigger because now obviously dreams do come true."

Now, Mbedu is looking forward to even more of what the future holds.

"[I want to] bridge the gap between the standard of what's produced in Africa and here in Hollywood so that people don't feel like they need to leave home in order to have made it in their careers," she says.

"So doing that production company, teaching children, like, opening up some sort of film academy," she continues. "My dearest thing though, above all else, is starting an orphanage, a home for kids without parents. Because I know that without my grandmother, my life could have turned out completely differently. And yeah, I need to go back to the drawing board and dream bigger. I'll be back."

The Underground Railroad is streaming now on Amazon Prime.