NOTE: This includes very light spoilers from episode 202, “Things Unsaid,” which airs tonight on WGN America.
This season of “Underground” is shaping up to be incredibly explosive, and only one episode has aired so far. One of the most enthralling aspects of this season has been the storyline around Amirah Vann’s character Ms. Ernestine and the domestic violence that she experiences. Separated from her entire family and enslaved on a rice plantation in South Carolina, Ernestine has found herself attached to an extremely volatile man.
Ahead of episode 202 “Things Unsaid,” I spoke with Amirah Vann and Robert Christopher Riley who plays Hicks, Ernestine’s lover and abuser on the series. We spoke about domestic violence within the institution of slavery, present-day advocacy, and their heartbreaking storyline.
Aramide Tinubu: Slavery was obviously a very brutal institution, but we don’t often consider the violence that occurred amongst enslaved people themselves. Did you know much about Hicks’ journey and trajectory before signing on to do this season of “Underground”?
Robert Christopher Riley: There was specific scene towards the end of the season which was the audition scene. It has a very long monologue, and if you pay attention, it’s all in there. At that moment, you learn who this guy is. I’m no stranger to any of our history, American or Caribbean. So, looking at Hicks’ story and what he’s gone through and obviously what he’s letting pass through him and the behavior that he’s mimicking; slavery was horrific for everyone.
AT: What about you Amirah? Did you have any idea that this would be Ms. Ernestine’s journey this season prior to reading the first few scripts?
Amirah Vann: I didn’t know prior to reading the first few scripts. The writers have such fantastic imaginations. They have an idea of where the journey is going, but they definitely keep things to themselves as they progress because they are always open to doing something else and taking things in a new direction. But once I read the first few scripts and I knew, I was thrilled because it’s another opportunity to speak and give voice to a really important crisis worldwide. I also knew that there was going to be a multitude of people who could identify and hopefully be helped in some way.
AT: Rob, were you apprehensive at all about taking on such a violate role?
RCR: Not necessarily. I say that any apprehension from me didn’t come from playing an enslaved person; it came from playing someone who was domestically abusive. I’m a product of that environment; my mother and my grandmother raised me because my father was abusive. That was actually a much greater challenge to me. Other than that, I was honored to be someone who was selected to tell the story of our ancestry.
AT: Amirah, we are used to seeing Ms. Ernestine as this regal woman, and she’s changed drastically since we were first introduced to her in season one. What was it like to get into that mindset, where she’s just going through the motions? How did you prepare yourself as an actress?
AV: You know what’s funny Aramide, now that I’m taking the time to think about it… When you’re in it, you just commit. I give myself over to the role. But now looking back, I realize that she was in a domestically violent situation when she was with Tom Macon during season one.
AT: You’re absolutely right.
AV: So it was this illusion of power that she thought that she had, but if you think about it, there are so many parallels. Both men appear to be kind and loving. Both men have some power; both men have these moments where they are extremely generous to her and kind. But then, the looming threat was that even with Tom, at any point she could be sold off. At any point, she and her family could be sold off. She couldn’t speak up because death was always looming. Even when you see that first heart-wrenching scene with Rosalee, when her arms are being whipped, you see right there that, if you can’t stop an atrocity like that happening to your own child, then you really don’t have any power at all. I think that’s what she realizes towards the end of season one. So when I see Miss Ernestine with Hicks, it’s so interesting because it’s that same woman who sees this man who has some sort of leadership role in this community. He’s very kind and gentle to her, but at any moment this other side of him comes out. She hasn’t realized these parallels, so the psychological damage has lasted a very long time in her spirit, and she’s dealing with it. It’s reaching its peak here. She has this overwhelming sense of guilt now because of what she did to Pearly Mae. In taking retaliation for Sam being hung, she gets taken away from James. It’s a really overwhelming sense of guilt and shame and feeling almost as if she doesn’t deserve to live.
AT: Rob, I know you said domestic violence has touched you personally and I think it’s so poignant to see Hicks being abused by the overseer and then to see it getting trickled down to Ms. Ernestine and Clara (DeWanda Wise) as well. So how did you prepare to do these scenes?
RCR: I think it’s pretty easy to see the parallels between people mimicking the behavior of their oppressor. A lot of times that’s what happens when you get into a position of power. Obviously, in most male/female relationships, the male is often more physically powerful than the woman. So, Hicks is just going to do what he sees being done to him. It’s a very basic way of existing, but it happens sadly enough more often than we would like. His behavior is as horrendous as it is because I wanted to do justice to victims of domestic violence and abuse. Maybe since it is as disgusting and as visceral as it is, it will spark a conversation or have someone check themselves. Let’s at least open up the conversation. It’s nothing that I’ve shied away from talking about in my life, and I will not.
AT: Amirah, did you do any research on domestic violence or speak with any domestic abuse survivors before getting into character?
AV: I did it along the way. There’s some great websites like the www.ncadv.org, The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. It’s a great resource. For me as an actress, though, it’s really just playing what is on the page. Ms. Ernestine is not aware of the psychology around domestic violence. So, it’s really still always playing what you want and playing what you lost and what you’re still trying to fight for, even if it is a negative thing that she’s fighting for. At this point its. “Please just end this. I’m suffering; I’m in pain.” We do have a PSA that the network is going to run at the end of the episode for people to call 1-800-799-SAFE. We realize how relevant this has been for centuries and it’s always been a part of society. But, as I learned about that, I learned about the brainwashing, and the feeling of no power and also feeling isolated. That’s a part of what enslavement is. Enslavement to me is one of the first acts of violence that Ernestine has ever had to deal with. When you’re taken away from your family that is part of it. You feel isolated. You don’t feel like you have anyone, and you’re forced to feel like this is it, and no one is talking about it, and you have no power. Even if you try to rebel, the consequences of that even in the modern day are potentially so life-threatening that you question if that is, in fact, the smartest move. So for the present day, it’s about policy reform and empowering women and giving them actual true safe havens. So putting a voice to it, it’s such an honor to be a part of that.It seems like all of this, if you put a voice on it, it’s the first stage of change, just acknowledging that it’s happening especially for someone who might not be able to call attention to it themselves.
AT: Working through these difficult scenes, how did you create a rapport and safe space with one another?
RCR: I’m very respectful of any of my fellow actors, especially when it comes to women. This is a very different type of intimacy obviously, but it holds the same weight if not more. So, we just had to set the stage for it and set the parameters to make sure that everyone is good. It helped that Amirah and I had some scenes prior to that, and both Amirah and DeWanda are just amazing actresses so going there wasn’t difficult with them. Again, the difficulty was just embodying that human being because he displays such disgusting behavior. Letting that pass through you is difficult. Everyone is a product of their parents to some extent, and since my father was like that, I wanted to make sure I was as far from that as possible. So, unfortunately, portraying that takes you there, and gets you a lot closer to it then you would like to be. So, that’s a physiological challenge all on to itself.
AV: Rob and DeWanda are really exquisite actors, so you already feel safe because you’re working with a certain level of commitment and dedication to the story and to the craft. With that said, I think it’s mostly just executing your job. You never pause or hesitate or step back from telling the actual truth of the story. It actually does the story a disservice if you do that. So with that scene with DeWanda Wise, as painful as that is, and as much as myself, Amirah Vann may want to have some sort of emotional connection, the character has to reflect the truth. At that moment, she has been brainwashed to think that this is the best answer. The only way the audience can relate is if they see the truth and the reality is that brainwashing is very real. Being convinced that receiving pain and inflicting pain is something that is deserved, or that it’s the only out… I’m not allowed to be an audience member; I have to play the role. For Rob and myself, it was difficult, it was definitely difficult, and it’s allowing room for the person to have their moment. We have an amazing fight choreographer, and our director Anthony Hemingway and the series co-creator Misha Green were there on set just making sure that we had a very safe environment of support. So, if we needed to take a break or if you need to stop, you have the support to do it. Afterward, it is a moment; you have to take a moment to sort of deal with all of the emotions that come flooding in. So, it’s just honoring the space for the actor and being there for each other. I know at one point Rob took a moment, and I gave him his space, and I went over to him, and I gave him a hug. So we all love on each other and remind ourselves that it’s not our reality.
AT: Why is it so important for “Underground” to talk about this aspect of slavery and being enslaved?
RR: I think that it speaks to a lot of the problems that we experience in African American and Afro-Caribbean communities today. That behavior has been passed down through the generations. It’s important that “Underground” doesn’t shy away from any of the realities of what the institution of slavery has wrought. The beauty of “Underground” is that it is this drama that’s set during this particular time period. But it’s one time period; how long have human beings been around. How long have Africans been on the planet? We don’t think past slavery, but we are so much more than that, and I think “Underground” shows us some of that. These are people who lived lives, they had marriages and weddings and birthdays and celebrations. Hell, we built this country, and if we didn’t do a good job, it wouldn’t still be here.
AT: Oh most definitely. We built this joint for free. Thank you so much for speaking with me about this extremely difficult topic.
RCR: Thank you so much.
AV: Thank you very much.
“Underground” airs Wednesday nights at 10PM ET on WGN America.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline’s highly trained advocates are available 24/7/365 to talk with anyone affected by domestic violence. The Hotline provides lifesaving tools, safety planning, immediate support and hope to empower victims to break free of abuse. Resources and help can be found at thehotline.org or by calling 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free number, 1-800-273-TALK (8255) connects the caller to a certified crisis center near where the call is placed. The service is free, confidential, and available 24/7 to everyone in the United States.
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami