VARIETY – Aldis Hodge became an actor because his older brother wanted to be “in the box” and his mother promised him some Batman toys. He’s been working tirelessly ever since — including a stint on TNT’s “Leverage” — but now he’s finally having a breakthrough moment. After appearing in “Straight Outta Compton” as MC Ren, he’s starring in WGN America’s new series “Underground” as Noah, who leads his fellow slaves in a daring escape on the Underground Railroad. (The 10-hour drama, which is exec produced by John Legend and creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, debuts March 9.)
Below, Hodge tells Variety about the role he calls one of the hardest of his career, how this series offers a new perspective on slavery, and the humble beginnings that taught him to appreciate the career he has now.
What drew you to this part? What made you want to take on this role?
I respected the character, and how they were executing the storytelling. The most important thing to me was as far as the characters, usually the subject matter of slavery depicts black Americans as victims. It kind of elevates their weaknesses. This particular story, the way they did it, it exaggerates our strengths and celebrates the fortitude of these people in the times that they were in, and how they actually flourished as a culture dealing with all of this, and managing to keep some sense of sanity. It showed how courageous they actually were, and that’s something I’m proud of.
How did you find your way into this character?
We did research, we studied, we watched documentaries. There’s a really great documentary called “Many Rivers,” which documents the totality of slavery from its inception and then it gives you a little history on how America came to prominence. It’s crazy, the first black man to actually step foot in America came as a free man, as an explorer, with the Spaniards. That’s something for me, as a black American, it gives me a little bit of pride because we were free and respected somewhere else, before slavery became what it was.
We read memoirs, actual accounts from real enslaved Americans who went through it. Also, it really just came from trying to be honest to the fact that I wanted this character to be courageous, I wanted him to be a good man. He has moral value, and I wanted to pay homage to that. I wanted to make sure that this character actually had a life; he had an identity and a soul. Most people say they’re slaves, but in my opinion, to say that I am a slave is to take ownership of actually being a slave — to be a tool, be a thing. Basically cattle.