VOX – America’s history of slavery is often misunderstood and unrecognized, but WGN’s new series Underground is changing that as the first scripted drama to tell one of the many stories of people escaping slavery through the Underground Railroad. The series, which follows a group of seven runaway slaves fleeing a Georgia plantation, also tells that story with nods to the present.
It’s evident even in the show’s music: In the first scene, one of the main characters, Noah, runs through the Georgia woods with his breath matching the beat of Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead” from the artist’s 2013 album Yeezus.
In fact, Underground is as much a story about America’s past as its present, with an insightful eye on what it takes to create a better future.
But amid widespread national protests against systemic racial injustice, and Donald Trump’s polemical presidential bid to “make America great again,” the untold story of revolution in the hearts of runaway slaves provides a sobering mirror to the complex legacies of American history we still wrestle with. And people are ready to dive in: Underground has been a ratings success for the network and on social media, beginning with its March 9 premiere.
I spoke with two of the show’s stars — Aldis Hodge, who plays Noah, and Jurnee Smollett-Bell, who plays Rosalee — about why a show like Underground resonates with viewers today, and why it’s important to remember the people before us who took a stand to say, “This is not okay. We need to accept each other and understand ourselves as a culture, come together as a country once again.”
Victoria Massie: What attracted you to the project?
TV LINE – Underground‘s Noah is off and running — though sooner and with different company than he originally planned.
On WGN America’s slave drama (airing Wednesdays at 10/9c), the Macon Plantation blacksmith (played by Leverage alum Aldis Hodge) was painstakingly plotting a great escape, with a hand-picked assortment of peers. But when house slave Rosalee fended off, in a fatal manner, an assault by the overseer, Noah found his plan accelerated.
Or has it been? Here, Hodge teases the thriller’s twists to come and examines Underground‘s larger role in the depiction of America’s slavery saga.
TVLINE | This is not the series I thought it was going to be, and in the best ways. Did you have a similar realization as you started getting into it?
I had that same assumption. But once I read the scripts, I said if this is how the rest of the story leads, I have an idea of what this will be like. I was excited, mostly because I knew people would assume what I had from the beginning, which is that we already knew [this story] or that we’ve seen it. But I felt like people would be pleasantly surprised with what we actually did with it.
TVLINE | Like I said in my review, it has among other things a Prison Break thriller element to it.
Yeah. Thank you. Honestly, the positive reviews, they mean the world to us. Aside from offering validation, it helps to ease a lot of speculation. Even if people don’t stick with the show, they at least give it a chance because that’s really where it counts. So thank you for all of the good words, man.
These two are too cute. I ship it!
ZAP2IT – WGN America’s hit series “Underground” aired its third episode on Wednesday (March 23) and if it’s one thing fans have noticed thus-far, it’s that Noah and Rosalee have a thing for longing glances. These moments have been encapsulated into one singular phrase: “The Gaze.”
“A lot of this show is not in dialogue,” says Jurnee Smollett-Bell. “The plot’s pushed forward through gazes.”
It’s quite obvious that there is a budding romance between Noah and Rosalee, from the first moment they met where she tended to his wounds, to the dance they shared in Episode 2, “War Chest.”
With so many threats around every corner, it’s safe to say a budding love between a slave stationed inside the plantation and one that is planning an escape would need to be kept on the down low. Still, the connection between the two characters jumps off the screen. Who knew the power of a gaze could be so strong?
“We dip into the romance a little bit,” says Aldis Hodge. “We get romantical, you know?”
With the amount of gazes the actors tackle, Smollett-Bell and Hodge has given names to the different styles of eye-acting. There’s “The Longing Gaze” and “The I Miss You Gaze” but by the looks of thing, the “Don’t You Want To Dance With Me Gaze” seems like the most fun.
“Underground” airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on WGN America.
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.
NY TIMES – It can be hard to drum up excitement for a show that tackles a subject as upsetting as slavery. Even putting “slavery” and “excitement” together in a sentence can feel problematic. But the two words are not mutually exclusive on “Underground,” WGN America’s new series about a group of enslaved men and women who embark on a harrowing escape from a Georgia plantation via the Underground Railroad.
The show, which had its premiere on Wednesday, is set in 1857 and pulls from published slave narratives. But it is best described as an action-thriller, centered around a group of people who use their wits and meager resources to risk their lives for freedom. Misha Green, the show’s co-creator and co-writer, has said that one of her goals was to portray those who risked the dangerous journey as American superheroes instead of victims.
In separate phone interviews, Aldis Hodge, who plays the lead character, Noah, and the musician John Legend, an executive producer, talked about what they learned during the making of “Underground,” and how the current TV landscape led to the unlikely show’s existence. These are edited excerpts from the conversations.
What attracted you to this project?
JOHN LEGEND The Underground Railroad is something we’ve all heard about, but to explore it in this way — through a really powerful and really well-written television show — was irresistible to me.
ALDIS HODGE I loved how colorful and well-developed the characters were. Because especially for this time period and this subject matter, it’s kind of hard to make this subject matter something you want to come back to. But the difference in how they sort of executed things was, we always see the victimization of enslaved Americans back in that time. This is the first time, to me, that I’ve seen these people celebrated for their strength and their intelligence.
VARIETY – On March 9, “Underground” will join “Salem” and “Manhattan” as another WGN America drama centered around of one of the most chilling periods in U.S. history.
Set mostly on a Southern plantation in 1857, the series focuses on Aldis Hodge’s Noah, a slave who is willing to risk his life for freedom as he hopes to find the right trail (and some compassionate souls) to lead the way. In his quest, he finds a surprising ally: The shy and well-mannered house slave Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell).
Hodge and Smollett-Bell talked with Variety about the series, which is created by Joe Pokaski and Misha Green, and why it was important for them both to work on something that was (to use Smollett-Bell’s word) “meaningful.”
”Underground” premieres at such an important time in America’s civil rights history. Did that cross your mind when you were considering the project?
AH: It wasn’t like I was aiming for something like this content. But as an artist, you’re always seeking to look for something substantial and something that’s going to help your career evolve. Every job you do, somebody’s looking at it. You’re leaving an impression on somebody. What is going to be your footprint?
I want to have a resume that is substantial enough to hold itself as respectful. This was a job that could teach me skills as an actor and it is something I’m very proud of. This subject matter, how it’s told, how it’s shot, that’s something I’m very proud of. I got really lucky to be a part of the cast that enhances all of that. As an actor, it’s very rare that you get a choice in a matter. But you’re always looking for something that has some gravitas.
HUFFINGTON POST – Aldis Hodge is no stranger to acting. In fact, Hodge started his career when he was just three years old as a model for commercials and print ads. From there, both he and his brother Edwin were cast on “Sesame Street”, and later landed an opportunity on Broadway in the Tony-winning revival “Showboat”, and as they say, the rest is history. Simply put, Hodge was born a star, and his destiny was to be on our television and big screens.
We have seen Hodge in television roles such as “CSI”, “ER”, “Bones”, “The Walking Dead”, “City of Angels”, “Cold Case”, “Girlfriends”, “Friday Night Lights”, and the list continues to go on. However, he may be better known for his role on “Leverage”. Hodge has been doing what he does for a long time due to the early start of his acting career. The fact is, the best is still yet to come for this amazing actor, and we are anxiously awaiting to see what’s next.
I had an opportunity to catch up with him to discuss his acting career, to laugh a little with him in between our chat, because he is quite the comedian, and to discuss what’s next for him in his upcoming roles.
Who inspired you to begin your dream of acting?
It was a cross between my brother and batman. My brother wanted to be an actor first. He was three years old telling my mother that he wanted to be in a box, and by box he meant the television. He was doing a job, I believe it was an Ebony magazine photo shoot and they needed an extra kid. I was three at the time, and my mom asked me if I wanted to do it, and at first I was like no. She was like look, if you do this job, I’ll give you a batman toy. So I was like let me rethink this. I did the job and got my batman toy, and I kept doing the jobs specifically for batman toys. That’s how the first ten years of my career went.
What has been your favorite role and why?
Oh that’s tough. That’s really tough. I don’t know if I can really compare. When I did “Leverage”, I was twenty-one when I started that, and it was the entrance into where I’m at now. I’ve been in this business since I was three years old, and work has come in stages, but “Leverage” is where I really found my comfort as an actor. Taking that lead role responsibility is where I really found a bit of my confidence. Although “Underground” kind of takes the cake. It’s been the proudest work that I’ve ever done in my career, and it’s been the hardest work, but some of the most fun that I’ve ever had, and I really think that what we did is going to be substantial. It was really tough, but I think “Underground” may be it right now.
Tell us about your role in “Straight Outta Compton” which won an NAACP Image Award.
“Straight Outta Compton” was cool. It was a fun experience. It was hard work. We found our strength together as a group just from our strength and comradery off screen because we had those nights where we were like look we’ve got to get it right. We didn’t know if were doing it right because there’s a lot of pressure around the legacy of who NWA was back then and still is today, so it was fun but it was a lot of work because we didn’t want to mess it up. Also for the fans coming into it, because there were a lot of younger fans and there were a lot of older fans who experienced this, so we didn’t want to be the guys who ruined that experience for the fans. For us, we just kept a keen eye to the kind of work that we had to put into it and it turned out to be what it turned out to be, and it was great. It was a pretty nice experience and I’m happy for that.
You mentioned “Underground” which is premiering on March 9th. What can we expect to see in this series?
So people generally understand that it is the subject matter or the big elephant in the room, or rather the fact that it’s about the Underground Railroad which is set in 1857. We are dealing with impoverished times and enslaved people trying to run 600 miles to fight for freedom. Basically, we feel like maybe we have seen this before, but the beautiful thing about this or most exciting thing about this series is the way that we do it. This is nothing that we have ever seen before, ever. It’s truly an adventure from start to finish. I mean, from the very first scene you realize that you are kind of strapped to your seat going 100 miles per hour because we really engage the true identity of who these people are as people and not so much in the sense of them being slaves. I think there’s a difference in the dichotomy between words. People say slaves and that kind of takes ownership of something, this is who I am, this is what I do, but we see it from the perspective of these people being enslaved and giving someone accountability of having done this to them. You get a chance to understand their hopes, their dreams, and the fact that they still find moments to love, laugh, and enjoy themselves. There are also those moments where they have to fight for themselves, but there are so many perspectives going on within the show because there are characters who want to fight for freedom but they are afraid to, and then there are enslaved characters who don’t believe they are worthy of being free. You also have some of the white characters who believe in slavery wholeheartedly, and then you have other white characters who don’t believe in slavery at all who are the abolitionists who are fighting on our behalf as well. But you truly see the potential of who these people are as a culture, the enslaved Americans. You can get the honest perspective of them being Americans who are enslaved by other Americans.
Talk to us about what it was like working with Tom Cruise in your role in the upcoming sequel to “Jack Reacher”.
You can expect what you got in the last Reacher times ten. In this one, they went in. Working with Tom was great. He comes with so much experience. I’ve been in this game almost 27 years now and the one thing that I’ve learned is that you’re a constant student and you’re always learning. Tom is a natural teacher and a natural leader. He gets on set and he makes sure the entire team is good. He speaks to everyone and gives everyone respect. He’s also a producer so he’s trying to get the best product and he knows the only way to do that is to make sure that your team is working at their best. That really comes from giving them respect and making sure that they understand their values and I think that is something that he does well.
Be sure to check out Hodge every week on the series “Underground”, a drama about slavery and the Underground Railroad which is set to premiere on WGN America, Wednesday March 9th 10/9c. Also be on the lookout for the sequel to “Jack Reacher” later this year, “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” with Hodge starring opposite of Tom Cruise.
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.