GQ – How the Underground star finds his characters, from Voodoo Tatum to MC Ren.
You’d recognize Aldis Hodge, even if you don’t know his name. You probably enjoyed his underrated turn as MC Ren in last year’s blockbuster Straight Outta Compton or his great performance as one of Friday Night Lights’ best villains, Ray “Voodoo” Tatum. Soon enough you’ll remember the name: Hodge is starring in WGN America’s Underground Railroad drama Underground (premiering tonight at 10pm). The show, which follows an escaped slave named Noah (Hodge), is paced like a prison break thriller. We sat down with him to talk about the show, Friday Night Lights, and the best way to get introduced to Hamilton that doesn’t involve seeing it in a theater.
Congrats on Underground. I really enjoyed the pilot. How are you feeling about it right now?
I am very excited about it. I mean we have to wait to see how it performs, but the response has been so overwhelmingly positive that I can’t help but feel a lot of good things about it. Plus I just really trust in the integrity of the project. So far people who have seen it have been wonderful, but we’ll have to see on Wednesday night.
You’ve recently played a lot of historical figures — or at least people placed in historical contexts — whether on Underground, AMC’s Turn: Washington’s Spies, or as MC Ren in Straight Outta Compton. Does your approach change for roles like these as opposed to purely fictional characters?
My approach is always the same. I try to be as honest as possible. Find the real honesty and humanity in the character, because even a fictional character is supposed to feel real. And my job is to find that reality and bring it to the screen. For someone like MC Ren, who is still alive, and I can go talk to, that’s more of a niche challenge because I do have to match his energy and I do have to pay homage to who he is as a person, but that just comes with research. And the difference there is I can do the research there right on the spot. I can just go ask him. But with a character like Noah (on Underground) the research comes in by reading narratives written by real runaway slaves who had been through these things. You read their stories and you get a sense of what they went through. But either way the intention and the approach is the same in that it has to be honest.
I was wondering about working on something like Underground. Now obviously the subject matter is very serious and dour, but film sets are often these fun, silly places full of inside jokes and goofiness. Does that still happen even when you’re working on something so sobering? Or does the weight of the history sort of supersede all that?
Oh man, we had plenty of jokes. The thing that really helped us with that was the natural camaraderie that forms between a cast. When we all got there, the fact that we could find a way to get along and respect one another helped us a lot when it came to finding the ease on set doing these hard scenes, where you have to submit to another character. You have to grovel or feel some pain or get some punishment. The actors, we were all there for each other, so it never felt like it got out of pocket. Nobody ever took it too serious. Nobody ever crossed a line with things. After every scene we were all, “Are you okay?” “What do you need? “How can I be here for you?” And that really helped along with the jokes. Because this was a set that needed jokes.
I’ve been a fan of yours for a long time, because like many people I’m an obsessive fan of Friday Night Lights. And even though you were only in six episodes as Voodoo Tatum, you really made an impact. Do people still recognize you and want to talk to you about that show, or has Straight Outta Compton totally eclipsed it?
Well, I was literally on the Rich Eisen show this week talking about Friday Night Lights. (Laughs) It’s funny to me, because as an actor, I feel like I wasn’t on the show for long, I just did my time on that first season, I did my time and went. I had no idea how much of an impact that show would have. It’s been ten years and people still talk about it. And it’s a testament to the show, because it was so good at executing drama and executing story. But to me it’s more of a study of the efficacy of doing a role well, because ten years later people still talk to me about what that character did, or how they felt when they saw him, or some people still hate him because he’s such a troubled character. That let’s me know I did my job, but more than that, it opens my eyes to the real influence there is to what we do as artists. And it kind of takes it back to the responsiblity we have as artists to do that job well. But I loved that job. I love every little thing about it. But every time it comes up it puts that thing in my head that what you do leaves a trace. What you do does matter. And people do remember it and feel it. But it’s weird. (Laughs) A good weird, but weird.
I see that you’re working with Tom Cruise in the new Jack Reacher movie. I love Tom Cruise and I feel like every person I’ve ever heard talk about working with him has nothing but amazing things to say. So are the rumors true? Is he the best dude to work with?
First of all, I understand why people have such consistently great experiences with Tom. It’s because when we’re on set, he’s an actor of course first and foremost, but he’s also a producer, and because of that he knows he has to be a natural leader. And he’s trying to get the best product out of his people, and to do that, he tries to make sure that everybody feels respected and counted on. He makes everyone feel like they’re at his level. And honestly, he brings people up to his level. He brings out that potential in people. He’ll say “Hi” to everybody. He’ll look everybody in the eye, and talk to them. He gives everyone his full attention and full respect. And that is very different to engage with, because that’s not a skill a lot of people have. He won’t get distracted by his phone or by a conversation happening over there, so if you talk to him, you better be ready because he’s going to be fully engaged. He’s a good guy. Happy guy. We had a lot of fun on set.
Were there any funny stories?
We had this one time, where we were shooting this one scene — and I can’t really say much about it obviously — but we’re sitting in a car. It’s Tom, Cobie Smulders, and myself. And during breaks and in between camera set-ups, and even when shooting sometimes, we’d listen to music to kind of get ourselves going and keep our energy up. We were shooting very, very late at night. And the entire time we were listening to Hamilton. And Tom is up there in the front seat rocking out and rapping along to Hamilton. (Laughs) Now we’re getting the work done. We’re getting the job done. But we’re all sitting there and this is my first time listening to Hamilton. So this is my experience of Hamilton. And that’s so great because it can be intimidating to work on such a big stage, but then you get to play around and listen to Hamilton with Tom Cruise, so yeah, we had fun.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.