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- Television Productions > Underground > Season One > Episode Stills > 1.02 “War Chest” Episode Stills
John Legend’s WGN series starring Aldis Hodge explores the Underground Railroad
WASHINGTON LIFE – Music superstar John Legend has a lot on his plate these days: The White House just held a special screening for his new WGN “Underground” series; he’s carrying on heated Twitter exchanges with Donald Trump Jr. on racism; and he’s expecting his first child with his wife, model Chrissy Teigen. We focused on “Underground.”
According to producers, the film centers on a group of slaves planning a daring 600-mile escape from a Georgia plantation. Along the way, they are aided by a secret abolitionist couple running a station on the Underground Railroad during their attempt to evade the people charged with bringing them back, dead or alive.
Legend and his production company were in charge of the score and soundtrack for the series and Legend served as executive producer. “I believe the story of people brave enough to risk everything for freedom will be inspirational,” he says.
We spoke to cast members prior to the White House screening, a smart, introspective, engaged group who gave us their take on the relevance of the series in today’s world as well as the significance of this underreported sequence of events during the revolt against slavery.
We focused on Aldis Hodge … think “Straight Outta Compton”… who brilliantly portrays Noah as he leads his fellow slaves in a daring escape on the Underground Railroad.
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.
TV GUIDE – In the past five years alone, we’ve seen slavery depicted in 12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained and, coming this summer, a remake of Roots – all of which portray the same painful piece of American history in different lights.
That’s why, ahead of Underground’s March premiere, some wondered aloud, “Do we really need another slave story?” Not only do these stories reopen old wounds, the argument goes, but they feel limiting — especially when a conversation about opportunities for people of color on screen is at center of Hollywood’s consciousnesses. Haven’t we seen plenty of black actors being whipped, begging and running?
Underground’s creative team understands those questions.
“That’s out there – that some people definitely felt some fatigue.” says Misha Green, creator, writer and executive producer of Underground. “We’ve heard all the hesitation. We say, “Just show up for the episodes.’ It’s worth coming back to week after week.”
She’s very much right.
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.