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.
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