THE MARY SUE – WGN America is launching a new dramatic series in January 2016 called Underground, whose storyline is centered around a group of slaves, their daring escape from a plantation, and the abolitionists who help them.
Yep. I had the same reaction when I saw the press release.
To be honest, I feared that this would be, at best, 12 Years a Slave “the miniseries,” or at worst, a historically distorted narrative like Mississippi Burning. However, then I saw that John Legend’s company, Get Lifted, had signed on as the executive producers, and WGN had tapped Misha Green (Spartacus, Sons of Anarchy, Heroes) and Joe Pokaski (Daredevil, Heroes, CSI) to pen the script. Add to that an amazing cast featuring several actors whose work I enjoy, such as Aldis Hodge (from one of my favorite shows, Leverage), Jurnee Smollet-Bell (Friday Night Lights, The Great Debaters), and Christopher Meloni (Law and Order: SVU), and I decided that I must learn more about this show.
Underground’s plot is actually being promoted less like a slave narrative and more like an adventure of survival. (Less Roots, more The Defiant Ones.) When I heard that the cast would all be going to New York Comic Con, I jumped at the chance to interview some of them and ask them the one question that had been on my mind since the premise of the show was revealed:
“What was your reaction when your agent called and told you that you had just landed a starring role on a brand new show … about slavery?”
Aldis Hodge (Noah):
I thought that we had seen this narrative before, but when I read the script, that changed everything, because I realized they told an honest story we’d never seen before. They were talking about people’s strength; they told the strength of these people as opposed to the weaknesses, the victimization of it. We got to see heroes. We got to be proud of these people. We got to see how smart and intelligent they were, and we got to see where the foundation of that came from. I like to speak to everybody, and this is a show that does that. Even though we’re talking about black culture, you realize these are Americans; regardless of what they look like or what their color is, they’re all Americans.
Jurnee Smollet-Bell (Rosalee):
You know, when my agent sent me the script, at first I was a little hesitant, and then I read it. I mean, Misha and Joe’s writing is—you know, it’s some of the best writing I’ve ever read for television, and so hands down it was the script [that convinced me]. And then Rosalee’s character, playing the different layers of her vulnerability—this inner strength that she’s got churning inside of her—really was that challenge that you look for as an actor.
Amirah Vann (Ernestine):
My first reaction was, “Do I want to do this? Is this going to help the world? Is this going to help … not just my community, but to further the story of healing that needs to happen in this nation?” What I found with this brilliant writing is, it will—very much so—because it’s the exodus story we’re investigating; we’re not just seeing them as downtrodden slaves being victims.
Alano Miller (Cato):
I heard about the character and I thought, “Oh my God, everyone is going to hate me.” My character is the overseer. He’s the slave driver of the plantation. He’s the person that’s the most hated, because he can bend the master’s ear. And then I sat down and I really read the script, and I was blown away. I get to do something that we never get to do and tell stories we never tell, and I get to be a part of a revolution. I get to unify, inspire, encourage, and motivate, which is what we’re called to do as artists.
Marc Blucas (John Hawkes):
It was actually the opposite. I read the script first, thought it was brilliant, and asked, “Can I please be a part of this?” We’ve seen what we’ve read on the 3 pages of this [part of] history that they give you in books. [My character] is an abolitionist lawyer from the North that travels 600 miles from Ohio to D.C. to talk about the wrongs of slavery and is frustrated because the laws are not moving as fast as his moral compass. Then, he gets challenged to have a “station” on the [Underground] Railroad … It was so well written; I can’t wait to see where this goes, because I know how emotionally authentic it’s going to be to see people who made these choices.
The fact that every cast member I spoke to said that the script made them want to take on the project speaks to how important good writing is to a show like this. Also, the fact that several talented African-Americans (John Legend, Misha Green, Mike Jackson and more) are involved behind the scenes tells me that WGN is going about this the right way. (Effie would be proud.)
Underground will premiere on WGN in early 2016.
Additional cast includes Adina Porter, Mykelti Williamson, Johnny Ray Gill, Chris Chalk, Reed Diamond, Theodus Crane, Renwick Scott and Jussie Smollett. (Yes, that’s Jurnee’s baby brother!)