Cast of “The Underground” from (l to r) Renwick Scott, Theodus Crane, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Aldis Hodge, Alano Miller, Johnny Ray Gill, Mykelti Williamson. (courtesy photo)

The cast of WGN’s highly anticipated new series, “The Underground” gives their insight on the importance of empowering a new generation with this prolific slave narrative that conveys strength, resilience and ingenuity. Over the past three years, co-creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski have been striving to get their story greenlit. Their patience and persistence resulted in Grammy and Oscar award-winning musician John Legend signing on as an executive producer as well as Anthony Hemingway as a director of four episodes.

The all-star cast includes Jurnee Smollett-Bell (“True Blood”) as Rosalee and Aldis Hodge (“Straight Out Of Compton”) as Noah. With the forthcoming reboot of “Roots” and “The Birth Of A Nation”, many people have questioned why we have yet to see African Americans depicted as kings and queens. Instead many narratives seem to begin black history at slavery, then Civil Rights then present day. As one of the shows scriptwriters, Green said, “I understand that people want that feeling of [watching kings and queens] you’ll definitely get that from “The Underground”. The series is about a revolution. The characters definitely aren’t victims, they take control of their lives.”

Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Aldis Hodge talk to the L.A. Sentinel about their personal transformation into becoming their characters and the greater sense of pride they both feel after committing to such physically and mentally demanding roles.

LAS: Did either of you have any apprehensions about portraying slaves where there’s a shortage of roles in which African American’s play kings and queens?

Aldis Hodge: There was an initial apprehension. We want to see the succession of black American culture. When it came to this subject matter, initially I thought we’ve seen this before but the way this storyline is executed; we do see the progress of black people. We understand their struggle we see what they go through and we see how powerful they actually are as people. I chose this role because I see the kings and queens in these people and how they got to that point of freedom from bare bones.

Jurnee Smollett-Bell: Just because they were in a condition of bondage, doesn’t make them less royal. One thing that we were so proud of with this project is that we see their ingenuity, we see their brilliance, we see the fact that in spite of bondage and being enslaved and not knowing how to read or write, they still used their smarts, their wits and their God given instincts to run over 600 miles. These people did this in an era where there was no technology. They used songs, markings on trees, the stars to find their way to freedom. To have that kind of courage to charter out into unknown waters like that, it’s so inspiring to know that those are the people we come from.

LAS: What did you take away from your characters? Having gone through this experience how did these roles empower you?

AH: The biggest take away was appreciation. When we first visited our set, which were actual preserved slave campgrounds, you immediately felt different. When you walked into the slave quarters you realized that one house is smaller than an average bedroom and this was where a family lived and they had no choice but to make it work so when I go home, I realize I have nothing to complain about. You learn to appreciate people, your surroundings and your opportunities. A lot of people don’t realize the opportunities that lay in front of them because honest opportunity is hard work; success is hard work. The concept of easy didn’t apply to our ancestors. Back in the 1850s, they were forced to do the work and they did it. When you see us running through the bayou in the swamp, that’s real. We were dodging snakes and alligators in the mud and the forest; it was truly a journey. Being able to go home after this makes me able to say I have such a great life. 

LAS: Have you ever felt hopeless or been in a situation that you were able to draw from for this role?

JSB: Oftentimes, in what I do, I feel like I’m awkward and I don’t necessarily belong in this certain crop of people and that’s why I can relate to with Rosalee and that feeling of not belonging. We’re so blessed to be able to do what we do to give voice to the voiceless and this is definitely a result of hard work and preserving because as actors you hear 99 ‘no’s’ to get one ‘yes’ but you can’t give up.

AH: The entertainment industry can sometimes breed insecurity and inequity because we as Jurnee said, we’re getting so many ‘no’s’ and some times those ‘no’s’ come in the form of ‘you’re not this or that’ but it all comes down to achieving what’s for you; that one opportunity is your goal. Sometimes it’s hard to see what’s meant for you and it’s hard to understand the blessing and the bigger picture. I don’t think you’ll ever see the bigger picture until you fit all of the pieces in and you’re done and you can look back and say ‘wow this is fantastic’. That’s what this experience was. I didn’t know what I was getting into when I signed on for this show; I just hoped it worked out. I knew it came to me for a reason because it’s meant for me and I earned my place here so now my job is to manage my responsibilities and take care of it; get on the set and what I’m supposed to do. I happened to be paired with a phenomenal cast.

The Underground premieres March 9 on WGN at 10pm.