As the first scripted TV drama to tell the story of the Underground Railroad, Underground shines a light on the heroic efforts of slaves who risk everything for freedom and the abolitionists who help them.
The drama, which debuted on WGN America earlier this year, began streaming on Hulu this week. With their use of a modern soundtrack and thriller pacing, creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski link America’s legacy of slavery with the current national debate about systemic racial injustice.
Aldis Hodge stars as Noah, an enslaved blacksmith who dares to dream of being free. He organizes a group of his fellow slaves and they devise a plan to run 600 miles north to freedom. Jurnee Smollett-Bell plays Rosalee, one of the house slaves on a Georgia plantation who joins Noah in his dangerous and potential deadly endeavor.
When I had a sometimes emotional and sometimes funny conversation with the actors earlier this year, they agreed it was a privilege playing their characters.
“These were the people who embodied the real spirit that makes our country great, the revolutionaries, the ones who fought against the system when the system was wrong,” Smollet-Bell said. “They were the ones who took their lives into their own hands and tried to make a better life.”
In this edited Q&A, the actors discuss the courage it must have taken to run to freedom, the importance of the stories told in “Underground,” and what they hope viewers will take away from the series.
What does it mean for you to be working on a project like this?
Aldis Hodge: It means a lot. This is the kind of project that I’m very proud of as an actor to be a part of. … I respect my character so much. He carries a lot of traits that I admire. …
The gravity of the story we’re actually telling—being able to present it to the world—is another reason. We haven’t really seen the story told before—not in this way.
It’s a lot of responsibility for us, but at the same time it’s a lot of honor, man, a privilege. There are a lot of people who are going to watch this story and learn it for the first time. A lot of people who are watching will be thinking they know it, but they’re going to realize a whole new kind of respect for the actual history that’s presented.
Even through the fallacy of acting out what they went through I have a different kind of respect for life and an appreciation for what I have. It’s more of an honor than anything.
Jurnee Smollett-Bell: Definitely. It’s very humbling for us. The shoot was challenging for sure. Man was it. To embody this story is taxing emotionally, but you’re trying to do it justice. So for us it’s humbling to even have been chosen to bring their stories to life, to give voice to them. The Underground Railroad is a part of our history that we really don’t know a lot about. … Being that revolutionary and being that bold in 1857 meant death. To have that kind of courage to do what no one else was doing when the stakes were so high—you just thank God that you were actually chosen to be a part of [telling the story] because it is a real privilege.
Do you feel the weight of responsibility for this maybe more than for other roles?
JSB: At the end of the day our job is just to tell the truth of our characters. And so with every project that’s the weight is to be honest and try to be present in each moment.
AH: When we first went to our main set—which was the real plantations and the preserved slave grounds—I felt a different responsibility to honor the people and honor the stories that we were telling and doing it right. I almost didn’t even want to step on the ground.
JSB: It felt sacred.
You said that this is different from the way the story has been told before. How is it different?
AH: I don’t know if the story of the Underground Railroad has really been told before in an extended way. We hear that one line about the Underground Railroad. But they don’t really go further into how it was really orchestrated. They don’t really go into the inception of the Underground Railroad or how people managed to survive through it. They don’t really tell the stories of the people who lived this adventure and some of the ones who didn’t make it and the aftereffects of it all. We get a chance to do that and that is what’s so refreshing.
JSB: The Underground Railroad has never been told as a narrative in a film or television show outside of documentaries and things like that. It’s a rich story. It was the first integrated Civil Rights movement in our nation and one could argue that if these men and women hadn’t been so bold and so courageous, the trajectory of our country would be completely different.
The slaves who started the Railroad, who escaped using it, had to have been so courageous.
JSB: Their ingenuity, their brilliance was amazing. They could use hymns as codes. They could use stars and markings on trees or in the ground to guide themselves. Some looked at the way moss hangs on the north side [of trees and other landmarks]! My character, Rosalee, has never been off the plantation.
So really you have to ask yourself what courage does it take to charter into unknown territory like that. Taking that risk when the stakes were so high just shows [us] how awful life was back on the plantation. If the dogs weren’t going to catch you, the slave catchers weren’t going to catch you. The conditions were going to kill you.
What makes your characters decide or find the courage to run?
AH: What makes Noah want to run is just because he’s heard the rumor of blacks who are free growing up. He’s heard it at other plantations and he’s tried to run before, but he’s always been caught and brought back. Being a blacksmith he’s allowed to outsource his skills and talent to other places, but he always has to come back home. He always has to bring that money back home to the slave master.
For him there is no other choice but to run because you have this grand life that’s been dangled in front of you. It doesn’t involve being rich. It involves human decency, being free. He wants to be able to wake up and not be told exactly what to do. He doesn’t want to face getting beaten.
This has been playing on his mind for years. It’s either a grand dream or grand reality. He knows he can make it a reality because he’s been dreaming it all his life. He wants more, he chose more and he has to do more for himself because he knows it’s out there somewhere. This can’t be life for him. “I can’t die like this.”
JSB: Misha and Joe told me about a letter they had read. A young woman wrote during this time debating whether or not she would run. … That’s kind of what my character explores; why should she run? You have a family here. You have the risk. Are you able to make it; are you strong enough?
Honestly, Rosalee makes the decision out of desperation. It’s not a calculated decision. She had made a decision not to run, but when that event happens with Bill and her it kind of leaves her no choice. But I think the seeds were planted in her already.
It’s interesting, there are moments of strength that show up in Rosalee when she least expects it. When she’s forced to make a choice she makes the bolder choice, the more difficult choice. When she decided to take the punishment for her brother it’s not a calculated decision. Her back is up against the wall. It’s out of desperation.
I think when Seraphina’s baby is killed, it really does a lot to shatter her sense of hope and her faith in the future. Not that there was much there anyway, but that is just kind of like the final nail in the coffin.
She’s at the point where she’s dreaming like any young woman in any time period does. But those are the dreams that get you killed. And so she’s wrestling with all this stuff and when that happens with Bill it really leaves her with no other option but to run.
AH: I think both characters represent two very strong sides of the same coin, which is how much will you do to fight for what you deserve? Are you willing to fight for what you deserve?
Those are things that resonate loudly today because there are a lot of people who know they want better, who feel that they can do better for themselves but sometimes don’t have the confidence to beat the system. Sometimes they listen too much to the external noise that tells them what they’re not worth and what they can’t gain and what they will never be. That’s a part of why these characters really connected with me, or rather why I connected with them. That’s been my whole life and it’s been my mother’s life and my brother’s and my sister’s. We’ve always had to fight for what we deserve, what we feel we worked for and earned. Nothing was granted us or given easily to us. Your quality of life is up to you to a degree, and sometimes you’ve got to sacrifice to get it.
I think you are saying the first hurdle is to understand your own worth and demand others understand it, too?
AH: Don’t be afraid to be great.
JSB: There’s more to life. The brainwashing was honestly one of the most tragic things about slavery. It was the mental enslavement. They did such a number on these men and women by brainwashing them to believe that they were three-fifths of a person. That they had no value. That their only job was to obey, put your head down and do your work. It’s tragic because you can get a whole group of people to do a lot of things if you take hold of their minds first.
You all did research, but were you still shocked by some of the things that came up in the scripts?
JSB: Absolutely. I don’t know how you could be human and not be shocked. The methods of torture that were used, the methods of division and shame. The way they would pit people against each other, like Cato’s character.
AH: They gave him a false sense of power and a false sense of appreciation.
JSB: And a false sense of pride. There should be no pride in that position, but he wanted to have it. Again, it’s about survival.
AH: He was created out of being beaten down so many times. That scene in the first episode where I’m in the chain gang. I have that big contraption around my neck after I was caught and it’s got cow bells on it. I always saw enslaved Americans as being treated like cattle, but that really put a stamp on it because you’re walking around with it on and it’s to make you feel shame.
Even though we were on set and I could take it off at any time, I stayed in that thing the entire time we shot the scene. They weighed on me and I just allowed it in order to feel that. I was shocked because this is what people had to go through on a regular basis.
JSB: Just hearing the sound of the whip, the crack of the whip, it breaks your spirit.
AH: You never get used to that.
JSB: You’ll never get used to being on a plantation, honestly. There’s a spirit when you step onto a real plantation. I don’t want to get too deep into it, but you can’t help but feel it in the trees, in the soil. You just look up at these trees that have been there for centuries and just wonder what they have seen.
AH: It’s overwhelming.
The scene you mentioned when Rosalee takes the beating for her brother was so very difficult to watch. What is it like to act in those scenes?
AH: As miserable to shoot as it is to watch.
JSB: Oh my. Arguably it’s more difficult because you’re doing it take after take. That scene, no matter how much research I did, or how many narratives I read of people describing what it was like to be flogged, or how many pictures I saw of these beautiful bodies that have just been …
JSB: … just been violated with these [whip] stripes. … We had so many debates about the scene and the day of doing it we just didn’t speak about it. I just did it. And what I realized was I just had to open myself up to it and allow it to take over. I just honestly prayed that the spirit would take over me. And when it did, it overwhelmed me, honestly.
Luckily I had my amazing cast, like Aldis and Amirah Vann were on set and Misha and Anthony Hemingway our director, they all just surrounded me afterwards because I couldn’t stop crying. I didn’t stop crying even when I got home. I thought about all the Rosalees who have had to experience that and it just overwhelmed me. But again, it makes you humble because while I felt overwhelmed by their pain, they really had to go through it.
I’m getting teary just listening to you. I can’t imagine anybody watching this series and not feeling something for all the people who had to live through that. I can’t imagine racists watching this and still believing what they believe.
AH: You might be surprised.
JSB: I had asked Anthony, the director, to not let me hear the whip. I didn’t want to hear it until it came time for me to do the scene. There’s something about hearing it, man. I don’t even know who thinks of these [torturous] things.
But surviving it is a triumph of human will, because having your body mangled like that is not just a physical pain, it’s your spirit that they’re really breaking or that they’re trying to break. In spite of all that having the balls, the audacity to run 600, 700, 1,000 miles sometimes barefoot not knowing where you’re going, that’s bold. That’s courage right there. It’s not that you don’t have fear, it’s that you take action in spite of your fear. That’s courage.
Do you find this is sort of the perfect timing for this kind of a show?
AH: I hope it is. I mean it’s not like it was intentional.
JSB: Honestly what’s sad is what’s going on in the world—it’s not like it hasn’t been going on before. It’s not like there’s a time that it wasn’t going on.
AH: It’s been all through the 90s and 80s, 70s, 60s, 50s. It has been going on forever.
JSB: I think we definitely can draw inspiration and empowerment from these stories and the show. We come from these people. Again, it was the first integrated Civil Rights movement. It’s the first time people in the North said, “You know what? We actually have to do something.”
Men and women like John and Elizabeth Hawkes didn’t have a whole lot to gain other than keeping their morals and their conscious and being able to sleep at night. But what else did they have to gain by sticking their necks out?
AH: They could hope to make a change but by even helping enslaved Americans they were kind of touting themselves as criminals.
JSB: Like William Still says in the show, “The only thing worse than a runaway slave is those aiding slaves.” But if there hadn’t been people like the Rosalees, the Noahs, the Pearly Maes, the ones who attempted to run and put a face to slavery, you wouldn’t have had the people in the North who helped. And our country might have been in a completely different place.
With such a serious subject, is there room for laughter, a bit of levity?
JSB: Oh, absolutely. There’s love.
AH: In the show they focus on the strengths and the fortitude of the people. And these people are able to find within themselves moments of beauty and joy in spite of what’s going on around them. So you do have those times where you can love, you can laugh. … It’s mixed very well with the high stakes and the roller coaster ride.
Primarily this show it is an action show. It’s action driven. This is a chase. But every now and then we have to stop and we as the characters have to take our moments to reassess who we are, what we’re doing, where we’re at.
JSB: The show definitely is like an action thriller. They had us doing so many stunts, man.
AH: My body was ohhh.
JSB: So sore. Goodness, it was the most physically challenging project.
Did you expect that?
AH: I did.
JSB: I did not. I don’t know why I didn’t expect it. It’s about the Underground Railroad. What did they do in an underground railroad Aldis?
AH: I think they ran.
JSB: I think so.
AH: Were there trains involved? No.
So it wasn’t actually a train?
AH: [Laughs.] No it wasn’t a train.
JSB: I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me that I was going to be running.
AH: Period shows are tough. I’ve done them before. Shooting in the dead middle of winter at one o’clock in the morning outside in the woods—we’re torturing ourselves. This is the toughest job I’ve ever had. But it’s been the most rewarding job I’ve ever done. The harder it got, the more worth it I felt it was. And to a degree I welcomed the challenge. … Some jobs are easier, but this job was the hardest.
JSB: Some jobs are a little more glamorous. This was not a glamorous job at all.
AH: The wardrobe team carrying bags of dirt around just to chuck at us whenever they felt like it because it was their job to chuck dirt.
JSB: They were just like, “Throw more dirt on her!”
What do you hope people take away from watching this?
AH: I hope they receive us with positivity. But as an artist our job is just to make the work, put it out and then it’s left up to the audience. I cannot assume to want something out of it because what I want can be greater or less than the actual result. It’s in their hands, but I do hope people just understand the necessity for common human respect. I would love for that to happen, to reverberate.
JSB: The Underground Railroad just makes me so proud of who I come from. It really empowered me because they took nothing and turned it into something and really did help tear down a system. I would hope people would draw inspiration for today and the problems we face today. And I would hope that we can look back at our past with appreciation for where we come from, but also with humility enough to learn to never repeat it.
AH: And also to understand our responsibility as it is today, because the system is still very much broken and we still need to do more to change it.
JSB: Absolutely. There’s a lot of work to be done.
AH: Progress has been made, but there’s a lot of progress yet to go.