It may turn out to be the most interesting time of my life. I was just offered a guest spot on MTV2’s Uncommon Sense on the same day I was scheduled to visit the set of one of the most interesting shows coming to television, Underground, a program about a group of runaway slaves being filmed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
There was no way in hell I was going to cancel anything; I was determined to make it work. Because in a world filled with so much racial tension, I had to see how this TV series based on the slave narratives in the Library of Congress was being made.
I pushed my flight back, did MTV, and finished with exactly 60 minutes to get from the middle of Times Square to JFK airport in rush hour traffic. By the time I got to the airport, there were exactly 10 minutes to get through the terminal to TSA and then to the gate. Needless to say, I missed my original flight. But luckily, I caught another and arrived in Baton Rouge by the morning. It all worked out.
Once I landed, I rushed to the soundstage for a tour. I saw what looked like a mansion, but it was just a set made to appear identical to a plantation set in the 1800s. Underneath the mock mansion, they recreated a secret room where stops on the Underground Railroad would hide the slaves.
Shortly after, we arrived at the old Cinclare Sugar Mill, where they were filming a scene at the slaughter-house. In it, actor Aldis Hodge – who plays Noah, the slave who leads a group’s daring escape from their plantation – is hiding in a pool of animal blood while being hunted by slave bounty hunters.
Afterwards, I was able to talk to Jurnee Smollett-Bell, who plays fellow slave Rosalee, about her experience in the heat of the bayou during her most physical role ever.
“I’m so used to it by now; the first thing they say is, ‘Tie her up and put more dirt on her face.’ Out of the context of what we are doing that sounds so bad, but for me it’s freeing as an actor, because I don’t have to worry about my appearance; it’s really about what’s coming from inside,” she said.
The conditions are almost unbearable, yet still rewarding.
“You’re sweating out here, makeup ain’t going to hold in 100 degree heat. This project offers a challenge that I haven’t had in a project in a really long time and that’s what so stimulating for me,” she continued.
The role was so important to Smollett-Bell, she left her family behind to focus. During our conversation, she revealed she was going to be reunited with her husband that weekend after not seeing him in almost a month.
I was also able to chat with Aldis Hodge, who booked the role right after he did Straight Outta Compton. He revealed that being dirty is part of the job:
“My job is to be dirty. Aside from being completely emerged in blood today, we are beat down with dirt everyday because we are on the run. We’re supposed to be going through the woods all cut up and nasty, and wardrobe attacks me with blood all day. It’s the hardest and dirtiest job I ever had, but it’s the best and most satisfying job I ever had,” he said.
Jurnee agreed: “It’s the Underground Railroad, you have no choice but to be physical. They were running, so I’m doing stunts, jumping off of things, constantly running; it’s definitely the most physically challenging role that I’ve ever done.”
Not to mention, the screenplay is on point: “It’s actually good writing and for an actor on a television series, that is the best thing you can ask for,” Aldis said.
“The writing on this show is an actor’s dream to receive these kind of words. The brilliance in the writing occurs in what is not being said; it’s in the subtext, it’s in the look, it’s in a hunger, it’s in a yearning. That’s the kind of stuff you look for as an actor. The material they give us is just so rich,” Smollett-Bell revealed.
The writing is courtesy of Misha Green, who is well known for Sons of Anarchy and Heroes. She reached out to Joe Pokaski, who she worked with on Heroes, to help her – and things just fell into place.
“The more we researched, we found out that truth is stranger than fiction,” Green admitted. “I can’t make up this stuff; the stuff that was going on during this time was kind of perfect for TV. That’s how it all started; the more research we did, we were like, we are going to use this and this.”
Misha and her team tried their best to make real-life storylines for the complex characters:
“There is a lot of documentation of Black history that people don’t know about because it’s not in the mainstream. We listened to the slave narratives at the Library of Congress, so it’s actually slaves talking about their lives. That is when this became not research, but reality for me.”
“I was like, these are fully realized people,” Misha continued. “We are so used to seeing slaves as whipping posts and masters as the people doing the whipping and I’m like, there was so much complicated stuff going on. These plantations were little worlds unto themselves.”
For his part, Hodge is committed to doing this show for the foreseeable future. “Even though it’s the hardest work I’ve ever done, it’s something I definitely want to do for the next five or six years. I love the character; I love how the stories weave in and out, it’s not really typical. A lot of time the good people lose, because it’s real, it’s not the typical Hollywood cookie cutter stuff.”
In a world where we’re still having the debate as to whether or not Black lives matter, this show is more important than ever. Underground premieres March 9th on WGN America.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty, WGN