PASTE MAGAZINE – Tonight marks the debut of WGN’s new series Underground, the story of a group of slaves making the 600-mile journey from a plantation in Macon, Ga., to freedom in the north. Created by Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, the series incorporates modern music into the historical drama, beginning with Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead” in the very first scene. Green and Pokaski set out to subvert our preconceptions of slaves by highlighting the bravery and inventiveness it took to make the dangerous escape from oppression. We spoke with the creators as well as cast members Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Alano Miller, Aldis Hodge and Jessica De Gouw earlier this year after its premiere at Sundance. Here’s what they had to say about Underground
On filming in the South:
Miller: We shot in Baton Rouge, La., at a very hot time with tornadoes, mosquitoes, alligators and snakes that were all real. It was very, very tough at times to shoot there, but it was a lot of fun. We grew very close because of it. There are very few sets that are built. This is on a real plantation in real slave quarters at LSU rural life museum. It’s very heavy at times. You can definitely feel the weight there.
Smollett-Bell: Being there, on one hand, it helps make it authentic because as an actor we didn’t really have to do much to get the beat. When you step on a plantation there’s a spirit in the soil, there’s a spirit around you, and you just look around the trees and imagine what have these trees seen, these trees that have been here for centuries. In the first episode there’s a scene where I’m protecting my younger brother. And just doing that scene on the plantation, thinking of all the Rosalees of the world who experienced that—it overwhelms me at times. I was still crying a good 10 minutes after we were done. Anthony [Hemingway, director], Misha, Aldis and Amirah [Vann, who plays Ernistine] just kind of huddled around me and let me cry. It’s a privilege.
Hodge: We did so much research and watched so many documentaries as a cast and separately, as an actor you had to catch yourself because at time it felt too real. Like being in the slave quarters, you see scratch marks and you see blood stains and you see real chains and none of that was set design. That was there before we got there. And knowing those trees once hung someone. So we all came in, signed up for an amazing show, not really knowing where we were going, not really knowing the weight of what it really was, and we’d visit these places where we were going to be doing these scenes, and all of a sudden something happens and you feel the weight of the world on your shoulders and knowing the responsibility that you have in telling the story, and that it’s not about you; it’s bigger than you. It’s not about becoming famous; it’s about paying homage. It was very deep for me to take in all of that.
On what it meant to be a part of this particular story:
Miller: I’m from the South. I’m from Florida. I’ve seen the KKK walk up and down the streets. Growing up seeing those scenes, knowing what the South is like, it felt amazing only after the fact knowing the story that we were telling and that we were changing the perspective of how we view slavery. Saying that they were heroes—that they were superheroes! That they were heroic and they had ingenuity and that they were intelligent and that there was strategy involved in all of this. And that was powerful doing that in the South, literally in the elements where all this went down.
Hodge: We’re addressing something that’s necessary, that’s honorable, and it’s the way that we’re addressing it that means so much because as an actor you want to be part of something substantial. It’s not just about boosting your career to the next level. It’s about marking your career with great work and something that we can be proud of. What we’re doing, I hope that it can influence people the way that it’s influenced us because coming off this experience I’ve become much more grateful for my life, so much more appreciative of the things we take for granted like coming home and taking a shower or even having a fridge. I hope that it opens people’s minds to try to reconstruct their idea of humane civility, how we treat one another because, in all fairness, right now is a tumultuous time for that. I think it’s getting out of hand in certain areas, and people are losing sight of the fact that we’re in this together and we need each other to make this work.
Smollett-Bell: Honestly, filming Underground has been one of the most challenging roles of my life—physically challenging, emotionally challenging. And for that reason, artistically it’s so much more satisfying because I’ve been stretched and pushed outside my comfort zone and forced to do things I wouldn’t normally do. And it’s just really humbling to step inside the character of Rosalee. I’m just so in love with her and in awe of her story, of her humanity of her spirit. To be the vessel that brings her to life really, really is an honor. In my research I found so many stories of courage and bravery, but also ingenuity. People talk about men an women who were enslaved and they were denied the right to read and write and yet they were genius. The ways they’d go around the system. The underground railroad itself wasn’t some organized class or curriculum or manual that they would hand out. It was really by instinct or by using the stars or a song, a spiritual, or markings on a tree to run 600 miles to freedom. Just doing the research, there were a lot of things that surprised me, like the story of Ellen Craft, a light-skinned young woman who escaped bondage by disguising herself as a white man and disguising her husband as a slave. She put her arm in a cast because she couldn’t write and boarded a train. She put her right arm in a cast so they wouldn’t ask her sign anything. All these stories that you read about, not only were they genius, but they were bold and audacious. I’d like to think I’d have that kind of courage, but I don’t know.
On their characters:
Hodge: Noah is a blacksmith on the Macon plantation, and he’s the one who brings the idea of running back to the plantation because growing up he’s heard about black people being free in the north. He’s tried to run a couple of times but he hasn’t been successful. He realizes he can’t do it by himself so he starts recruiting on the plantation. And he kind of kicks the whole thing off by getting this plan together. And all the colorful characters that get strung up in his web fill in the gaps.
Miller: I play Cato. I’m the driver/overseer of the plantation so I’m very well-hated on the plantation but respected because I can bend the master’s ear and use my manipulation and my power. Cato is a chess player so everything is strategic. It’s a lot of fun to sort of play the villain. I say sort of villain because what we’ve done with the show is that everyone is flawed. There’s a real human look at what people are so there’s never just the hero who’s perfect or the villain who’s irredeemable.
De Gouw: I play Elizabeth Brooks who’s from Ohio. She’s kind of an aimless socialite when we meet her. Kind of manic. She has no outlet for her energy or her love. But then she makes a trip with her husband to the Macon plantation and experiences the horrific nature that is plantation life and slavery in person. She feels very strongly against it, and this is her call to action to do something about. She gets heavily involved in being an abolitionist and in creating a safe house.
On Underground’s music:
Green: We knew we wanted it to be bold. And everybody approaches this time people a certain way. It’s kind of like we’re all looking at a portrait on the wall. It’s kind of Gone With the Wind. And we’re like, ‘No!’ We want to drag it into the present and what better way than music. You hear a song from 1920 and it hits you just as well as anything.
Hodge: Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead” was the first thing that jumped off the page for us. The first scene when you see this man running with “Skinhead” in the background—that music infuses through our story and shows the pace and urgency of what’s going on. So you’re at the edge of your seat trying to figure out what’s going to happen next. And every time you think you know what the outcome is going to be, Misha and Joe flip it. We didn’t know if we were going to be in the next episode.
On the closeness of the cast:
Smollett-Bell: We all became a family. I think because the story and the subject matter is so intense that we had to be there for each other. We bonded within days. It felt like we knew each other for a long time. And now, even though we’ve been wrapped for months, we still keep in touch, we still go to dinner with each other, we’re still on group text messages, and I really think that shows through in the work. When you’re portraying a character, you’re only as good as the other actor you’re portraying the character against. These actors knew I trusted them. And we would push each other.
On the origins of Underground:
Pokaski: We had breakfast one morning and [Green] said, ‘We should write a show about the underground railroad.’ I thought it had been done before and we were both kind of amazed that it hadn’t. And the more we did research, the more we realized it was an amazing story that hadn’t been done yet.
Green: Truth is stranger than fiction. We couldn’t make just make this up. We thought, ‘oh our work is done for us. Oh, this is great.’ And just when you thought, ‘That is the coolest thing, can’t top that,’ there was just another story of the ingenuity of how people were escaping, and what kind of the underground was using to get to freedom, and it was just perfect for TV. We sort of broke it open reading this letter from a young slave girl, and in it she was talking about all the reasons to run or not to run. And I think that all of us coming from a modern lens would think ‘Run, of course you’ll run the first chance you get. But her whole family was on this plantation. For us that really started the way into these characters.
Joe: This was the first integrated civil rights movement, so we’re so lucky to have four good stories to tell: the people who were brave enough to run, the people were willing to risk their lives and give up their homes, the slave catchers who had to catch slaves and bring them back or they didn’t put food on the table, and the people on the plantation who they left behind to pay for their sins. There were four great novelistic stories to be told over the first season.