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.