In season two of “Underground” WGN’s hit series introduces legendary abolitionist, and humanitarian Harriet Tubman with never-before-seen depth and insight into her back-story as a daughter, wife, friend and prolific leader.
Affectionately labeled a “real life super hero” by the creators, cast and producers, the series explores the fact that despite having a brain injury that resulted in bouts of narcolepsy as well as an inability to read or write–the way in which Tubman used botany, astrology and her faith to guide thousands of slaves to freedom is seemingly unfathomable though true. In an exclusive interview the show’s cast and crew share how art imitates life and how the series is a call to action for viewers to feel inspired to use their voice to rise up against the injustices of our time.
LAS: Creator Misha Green revealed that casting Harriet Tubman was hard until you walked into the room. As a seasoned actress with over a decade of supporting roles, how do you stay in the industry long enough even through the ‘No’s’ and the rejection to get to a place that one day you’ll embody someone like Harriet Tubman?
Aisha Hinds: Understanding that what it is that you’re doing isn’t limited to the roles and the rejection, it’s bigger than that, it’s about your purpose in life. Very early on in this process though I studied acting in high school and college, soon after graduation, I walked away from the craft because I wanted to know that this is what I was supposed to do with my life. When I walked away I was compelled by nothing more than doing this work so then I had to reconcile with myself and have the conservation, ‘What does this work afford me? What is it about this work about that’s bigger than me?’ Once I had that sit down with God, I realized without a shadow of doubt, this was the purpose of my life. When you understand the purpose, then you can deal and journey through the obstacles, the rejections, the stops and starts, highs-and-lows with a different lens because you know that you’re moving in what you’re supposed to do.
LAS: Oftentimes it seems as if strong, powerful black women can’t be feminine and sexual at the same time. Many people may be unaware that Tubman was a wife and a stepmother. What didn’t you know about her that you learned throughout this process?
AH: Harriet Tubman is the perpetuation of a “Super Soul Sunday” every day. Learning about her and the layers of her helps you to see that the same woman who holds a gun and an axe felt feelings for a man. She spoke passionately about her parents, her friends, shared stories about her childhood–learning about all these elements and aspects of her was mind-blowing and educational for me as a woman because I have to sometimes remind people that have known me for years, even in past relationships, that I’m still a woman, I still have vulnerabilities even though my aesthetic feels strong, powerful and full of all of the wisdom in the world, I’m still growing and becoming. I was empowered and encouraged that someone like Harriet Tubman was also very much like that as well. This season definitely offers in-depth information and details about her that makes you feel like you’re having a fully-fleshed encounter with this icon that lived for so long in our history books in these one-dimensional photos. You encounter her in a way that you never have before which makes her accessible to you. She had so many limitations set up against her and she wasn’t set up in the way that many of our other heroes are set up. Rosa Parks was primed, she had the Civil Rights Movement behind her, she didn’t just decide to sit on the bus, it was strategic. But Harriet Tubman didn’t have strategy meetings or a movement behind her, she was the movement, she was inspired by being sick and tired of the injustice she was experiencing and she knew she had a right to liberty or death, one or the other she was going to have by any means necessary.
So when stepped off of her plantation, she didn’t have any knowledge of where she was going. She couldn’t read, she didn’t have a degree in botany but she was able to understand plant life and her environment so she could charter a path and know that certain trees were specific to a certain part of the world. She didn’t have a degree in astrology but she was able to find the north star and read the stars to find direction. She didn’t have a degree in theology but she was able to tap into her spirituality and a faith without being able to read a single word of the Bible. This was a woman that was beyond extraordinary, she was otherworldly yet she was absolutely of this world; her feet walked that ground and slept in that dirt, so many colors, so many layers yet she was all woman. This is not a fable, she isn’t a superhero; this is a real human being. She believed that she could do it. What she did was extraordinary.
LAS: What have been some defining moments in your life that intersect with your character’s current plight?
Amirah Vann: In my life, there have been some really strategic moments. The best ones are the ones that catch you off guard when you’re not expecting to be learning a lesson. Ms. Ernestine is so resilient and so strong that even when she’s sold. What this show does so beautifully is really open up the humanity of those experiences. With season 2, Ms. Ernestine bumps into a lot of horrific situations and life struggles, things that can take people out emotionally and physically. The way she navigates—it’s not about whether or not she succeeds or fails it’s just watching her navigate is what’s so interesting. I’m so intrigued by her journey and how she takes on these challenges. Some of my favorite scenes are when she’s sitting down with someone and they’re just challenging each other mentally, they might not necessarily agree with each other but those conversations are the most enlightening. Those 2.0 moments where she questions, ‘Am I going to succumb to my tragedy and my pain or am I going to overcome and rise to the occasion as a survivor?’ To face [those] questions on the show then to interact with the fans who’ve said they’re going through something and they see the strength in my character is amazing.
The beauty of this world is that they’ll never be another you, so when you align yourself with your inner purpose you can really fly. Whatever things that you grapple with that life throws your way, if you stay with your inner purpose you’ve already succeeded.
LAS: There’s a powerful scene where your character is in a noose and it may make viewers very emotional. How did you prepare for that type of scene?
Aldis Hodge: Some people will assume that I’m not connected to it but when I think about the reasoning behind me putting on the noose and the effect it’s going to have and the fact that we’re honoring the people that actually went through this and we’re empowering them, their legacy and the memory of them; the fact that people are going to watch and feel similarly and say, ‘Wow, this was real. Now, I actually have to a degree, a responsibility to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.’ I felt pride. When you’re up there [in the noose] it does give you pause but I’m no stranger to degradation and dehumanization. I felt a lot of pride to be a part of showing something like this because a lot of people don’t know and haven’t been exposed to these types of historical experiences until they see it depicted on our show.
LAS: You’re very passionate about the criminal justice system and the plight of African Americans in our country. As it relates to the show, you’ve previously said, ‘Freedom doesn’t stand in place, we have to be vigilant and fight for it.’ After watching this season, how can this generation be more active in politics?
John Legend: There’s still a place for marching for instance with the Black Lives Matter movement, we’ve seen the importance of causing a scene, being on the streets and making your demands and your voice heard; there’s most definitely a place for that. I also think it’s important for us to hold our elected officials accountable and part of how you do that is simple, call them and let them know when you agree or disagree with what their decisions are and suggest how they should come out on certain legislation that important to you. A lot of times we’re cynical, about these things but they care about being re-elected so let them know that these are you issues you care about when considering who to vote for. It’s also important for us to vote in mid-term off year elections in the times where state legislators and mayors offices are being vacated. These are the elections that actually impact the way we live oftentimes more than the President. So we have to pay attention to those things as well. A subject I’m particularly passionate about is the criminal justice system and almost all of the policies that impact people’s lives are determined on a local level. Our district attorneys make a lot of decisions about who goes to prison, who’ll get the death penalty and who won’t before it ever goes to a jury or a judge so we have to know who those people are and hold them accountable. Democracy only works, as President Obama spoke of in his farewell message, if it’s driven by the people and the people stay active and vigilant and speak out and let their concerns be known.
LAS: What character do you resonate with the most this season?
JL: The introduction of Harriet Tubman is going to be very exciting, she’s a real life superhero so for us to be able to feature her this season is groundbreaking for a television series. Especially during this time where there’s so much debate around her legacy since there’s the possibility of her being featured on $20 bill.
LAS: Can you give insight on what your role as an executive producer (EP) of the series entails?
JL: The first conversations I had with the show creators (Misha Green and Joe Pokaski) when I came onboard as an EP was the role of music, specifically contemporary music. We wanted to feat contemporary music because we felt like it would lend urgency and currency to something that happened 150 years ago and made it feel more present and connected it to the struggles and conversations of today. So we wanted that beat to be the energy of the show. Of course, there are a lot of incredible things happening on screen but music’s job in TV and film is to compliment that and enhance it when possible and that’s our mission when we think about the music of the series.
LAS: How were you able to separate yourself from the role you play on the show to direct an unbiased episode that wasn’t from a “white savior” standpoint?
Chris Meloni: That’s not on the page. You can’t make a burlap sack with silk. My particular episode was very personal to the characters. I was given the episode where an important part of the mission within the journey of these characters needed to be accomplished. There’s no white savior.
LAS: What’s been a pivotal moment in your personal or professional career that helped you to realize new depths of yourself?
CM: This material and the people I was surrounded by—what my fellow actors have awaken, I still ruminate over. I have passion for [this series] because that I think as a white person, I’m over here; it didn’t happen to me or my kin. I’m on the other side so this is a pretty deep thing for me. This whole experience of being involved in this show has profoundly changed me professionally by virtue of the work, the words I’ve been given, the circumstances; when you’re working with great people, you grow when you’re in a fertile garden.
Anthony Hemmingway: This show has challenged me to really think about how I use my platform, to really think about my visibility and to completely serve my purpose. For me, I’m continually trying to find those healing mechanism that I think can help us grow, evolve and change for the better. I’m finding out there are various ways we can contribute. This is show allows you if you don’t already know it to see the worth in yourself and that I think is inspiring and motivating. It fuels my charge for life.
LAS: What new things did you learn about Harriet Tubman that impacted your direction of Aisha Hinds on screen?
AH: I discovered a lot of things I didn’t know. It was beautiful to tap into her humanity on the show. We get to see Harriet laugh and cry and we get understand her personal life and more of who this legend is how and why she began this renown figure. A lot of research was already done when I came on board but it was about discovering her for myself. There were several wowing moments like, ‘wow this really happened?’ And you can find it, it’s a fact and that’s really awesome and encouraging. Joe and Misha really put a lot of thought into trying to figure out how to maximize the use and purpose of the show and they continue to scratch beneath every layer of the surface until they find that thing. It’s awesome they don’t give up and that spirit transcends into all of us and we want to continue to find those gems. As a filmmaker, it’s great to come to work and be able to truly be creative and supported.