The second season of “Underground” premieres tonight, Wednesday, March 8th at 10PM ET on WGN America.
“We make ourselves free by the choices we make.” The inaugural season of WGN America’s stunning series “Underground” followed the Macon 7 as they made their harrowing escape from the shackles that bound them to the Macon Plantation in Georgia, to the free states in the North. A captivating series that has shined a bright light on the Underground Railroad, the horrific and morally corrupt antebellum South, and the abolitionist movement, the second season of “Underground” is out to prove that season one wasn’t even the tip of the iceberg. With higher stakes, heart-shattering storylines and the emergence of real-life historical figures, season two fleshes out the movement in a whole new way.
In late January, I traveled to Los Angeles, California to screen the first episode of the new season of "Underground" and to chat with the cast and crew ahead of the season premiere. I sat down and spoke with the series' creators and writers, Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, director Anthony Hemingway, and cast members Jurnee Smollett-Bell (Rosalee), Aldis Hodge (Noah), Jessica De Gouw (Elizabeth), Alano Miller (Cato), and Amirah Vann (Ernestine). Season two newcomers, Jasika Nicole (Georgia) and Aisha Hinds (Harriet Tubman) were also present to discuss America in 1858, the high stakes of the series, and the challenges they faced as actors delving into this tumultuous period.
Aramide Tinubu: Jurnee, what was it like to step back in Rosalee’s shoes after seeing her go through so much in the first season of the series? Did it affect you differently because you were pregnant while filming?
Jurnee Smollett-Bell: It was definitely unlike anything I’ve ever done before. Physically, “Underground” is already the most physically challenging role I’ve ever done in my life. But, then to be seven months pregnant doing it. (Laughing) Luckily I had a great support team. But, I love Rosalee so much, and I think she’s just changed so drastically. She’s grown up; she’s a woman now. Not only is she a woman, but she is a warrior and a soldier when we see her in season two. I think she always instinctively had that, but now out of desperation she had no choice but for it to come out. She’s lost everyone that she loves, Noah, her mother, her brothers, the Macon 7. Even though she’s attained her own freedom, she realizes that it’s not so free. How can she really live in the North when everyone else is in bondage? So, when she meets up with Harriet; Harriet trains her to be a solider, and that’s what she’s become; gun-slinging Rosalee.
AT: Aldis, what always gets me about Noah is the fact that he is constantly fighting for freedom, he never stops. He’s always got a plan; he’s always got something up his sleeve. How do you get into the mindset to play someone who is always searching for more, who is always trying to figure his way out of a situation?
Aldis Hodge: I’m always searching for more in my real life. (Laughing) Coming up where I came from and especially being in this business for such a long time, it’s always a fight going on. You have to readjust your strategy as the times change or as you change personally. So, going into this, I really just try to play into the fact that Noah’s fight comes from his idea of himself. He understands his value. I carry this character knowing that he walks as if he is free. Mentally he knows he is free; he knows his value, he knows who he is as a man. He just has to convince everyone else around him. But, knowing your worth set in a situation where all they do is take it and try to strip that from you, you’re going to be a little bit aggressive. You’re going to be agitated and a little bit feral, but at the same time, he has to be strategic with how he goes about it. I just carry him knowing that he is free and he understands exactly who and what he is, given the time frame.
AT: Was there a specific moment that really shocked you during this season? I know there are always twists and turns, but was there anything that really stunned you to your core and shifted the way you understand your character?
JSB: Oh boy, yeah.
AH: (Laughing) There are some moments we can’t talk about just yet. But the answer is YES, and you’ll see it later on in the season.
JSB: I know that as Rosalee, I end up doing a lot of questionable things. Just like Ernestine knows how to work the system, we see that Rosalee knows how to as well. But sometimes in doing that you hurt the people closest to you. Even though your intentions are very pure. In your mind, you’re justifying yourself because you love them. So there are a lot of risks, a lot of secrets and a lot of questionable actions. In the first episode, one thing that did actually emotionally shock me to my core was the scene with John, when Rosalee is yelling at him about Noah. John has this naïveté that somehow the justice system is going to be just for a man that looks like Noah. As I was saying these words, I realized, “Oh my gosh! I could be saying this right now! How many of my brothers and how many of my sisters could I be saying this about?” That was just something where it was like, “Man. Yes, we come far, but we’ve got so far to go!”
AT: Let’s talk about the women of “Underground.” For Amirah what shocked me the most about Ernestine’s storyline in the first episode of this season was seeing how violence gets permeated back down into the Black community. It’s the violence against Black people in general and then with your character specifically, Black men towards Black women. How did you feel during that scene?
Amirah Vann: One of my favorite scenes is actually between Robert C. Riley who plays Hicks and myself later on in the season when Ernestine actually brings that up. So Misha and Joe brilliantly address those issues of how race in America in a grand scheme is affecting the daily lives of everyday individuals. It’s always so interesting to say, “I know, I get what you’re trying to say. I don’t know if I can digest it and apply it to my everyday life.” But, the idea that the writers are aware of how that permeates everyday life, I think it’s just brilliant writing.
AT: Jessica, I know that things are going to change drastically for Elizabeth this season. Can we talk about her journey in season two?
Jessica De Gouw: I think for Elizabeth the first season was about finding out her place and her purpose in life. Obviously, she couldn’t have children and in a lot of ways that was what was expected of a woman. It was seen as their role; what they could give. So not being able to do that, I think she really threw herself into wanting to help with the cause and to participate. The second season is about how far do you go down that path and by what means can you go down that path. Her husband John would like to go down the path that is legal, and that is right and is just, but that doesn’t always work. It’s that constant conversation, isn’t it? Do you go through something in a peaceful way, or do you use violence? Which creates change? Which option is more immediate? Which one will follow through? So, I think that’s a real big question for Elizabeth this season. How far will she go?
AT: What did you learn about yourself this season that you did not know the first season?
AV: I'm much stronger, and that strength is not necessarily knowing everything. But just kind of checking and saying that Ms. Ernestine does have an opinion about things and Amirah has an opinion about things, and be comfortable in that skin.
JDG: Can we do seven and half day episodes? Can we shoot ten episodes in three and half months?
AV: (Laughing) Yeah, we can.
JDG: Yeah we can, apparently! (Laughing) Season two came with its own set of new challenges as a crew, and a cast and individually each actor had a whole new set of circumstances to play with. But, I think we all felt that it was a privilege as well. It’s also a gift as an actor to get to go through all of these things. Just to have a character that changes and evolves so much, it’s a wonderful thing to get to experience.
AT: Jasika, how did you get involved with “Underground” and your role as Georgia? What shocked you the most about your character when you first read the script?
Jasika Nicole: What shocked me the most was that they were dealing with dialogue that doesn’t get talked about a lot in terms of colorism. What does it mean to be a Black person in this country compared to how other people perceive you and the privileges that that gets you, and the benefits that you get to live off of from that? I was pretty intrigued by that because I’ve read it in books and I’ve experienced it and talked about it with people, but I’ve never seen that on a television show before. I think it’s a really important conversation to have because…
Alano Miller: It’s still affecting us.
JN: Yes, it’s still affecting us. There is a lot of internal racism that I think people of color deal with in general but also aspects of racism within different communities of color that isn’t always talked about. I think those are really important to talk about if we’re going to move forward together as a unified group of people to fight for the rights of everyone. So, it was exciting. This is a tiny little nugget of conversation to talk about, but I still think it’s important.
AT: Alano, we haven’t seen Cato in quite some time, but I know that he’s up to something. (Laughing) What shocked you the most about his journey this season versus season one?
AM: It was dealing with his internal struggles. That was something that really shocked me. People have pegged him, they don’t know how they feel about him, but they have pegged him to be very negative. So, now we have a chance to acknowledge the internal struggles that he is going through and the goals that he has set out for himself, so we get to now deal with that, and it’s not pretty. He goes through so many emotional changes, mentally and physically and it’s something that was a bit of a challenge because I had to go to some dark places and some deeper places that I had to really dig for because you want to get to the truth of this character. You don’t want to let it just be on the surface and pay homage and respect to someone who deserves to have a voice.
AT: Aisha, coming on to the series to play the legendary Harriet Tubman must have been a bit daunting. What was your research process like? How did you bring your own flair to this powerful and extraordinary woman?
Aisha Hinds: The research process was certainly exhaustive because you want to find out as much as you can find out about this historic icon so that you can serve the work and be in service to her story, which deserves every platform and any platform that it can find. She’s such a hero of this country, and she contributed so much to the fabric of history. Since there wasn’t a lot of information taught to us in schools, I definitely went to Amazon.com, and I bought every single book that had the word Harriet Tubman in it. What I found is that a lot of the stories started to repeat themselves because, during the time she was really leading and guiding people, she didn’t really stop to talk about it. That was one of the things that was characteristic of a lot of the people who worked along the Underground is that you don’t really talk because it was secretive.
AT: You couldn’t say anything.
AH: Exactly, so you don’t really give yourself away and give away the plans and plots so, she didn’t talk about it along the way. But, thankfully she lived this incredible story and lived to tell about it and talk to people about it. By the time she got around to talking about it, there were only a few things that she remembered, and she offered those memories. Then she would come back again when she remembered more and meet with a woman by the name of Sarah Bradford who started writing books about her at the time, in order to help Harriet raise more money so that she continue the work that she had already begun and was doing which was in service to others. She was helping children, helping the disabled, helping the elderly. She had them all in a home that she had acquired in Auburn, New York where she was finally laid to rest. It was beautiful to hear those stories. But, I’ve got to tell you at the end of the day, I could have researched my face off but, it was really the spirit of this woman that raised me to where I needed to be in order to articulate her story and “Underground” does it in such a beautiful way. They honor the way that she told her story by going around and giving you a visual experience of what it was that she went through. She essentially was doing sort of the TED Talk of her time. So, episode six of this season is exactly that. The writers afforded her a platform where she has the entire episode to tell her story. And, you learn so much about her. You learn about her as a young girl, as a child, you learn about her as a daughter, as a mother, as a wife, as a woman coming into herself. You learn about her friends, you learn about her attention to her edges. (Laughing) You learn everything. Things that you wouldn’t think that you’d learn about Harriet Tubman, you learn. So it was a beautiful process and one that that just ultimately required that I rely on her.
AT: Wonderful. Well, Anthony, what was your perspective like as a director coming into season two as opposed to season one?
Anthony Hemingway: It was really pushing myself further and further and further. In season one we started in a place where we wanted to be bold, and we really wanted to be imaginative and we really kind of wanted to break screens. Our mission was to definitely not give a history lesson. We didn’t want to take you to the museum. We wanted to take the picture off the wall and allow you to live in it. So, coming into season two is was about figuring out how we wanted to elevate where we left off and just continuing to push and push and push. And, when we represent and start bringing in real characters, that requires in and of itself a dynamic experience. So it was just continuing at every turn just to be greater than where we left off.
AT: Misha and Joe, why did you decide to bring in real-life historical figures into season two of “Underground?” It’s a major choice instead of just using slave narratives to influence fictional characters.
Joe Pokaski: I think for season one we definitely wanted to stay away from it as much as possible except for touching on William Steel at the last moment. But, it’s hard to tell the story of the Underground without some of the historical figures that were driving it. It was amazing because as we did the research, we realized that they were all speaking to each other. Harriet Tubman at one point was staying at Fredrick Douglass’ house just after John Brown came to visit and they were talking about how to change the world. So, once these two came around, we wanted to start having our characters interacting with them.
Misha Green: And they fit into the fabric of “Underground” very easily because they were really actually badass, so we didn’t have to do much to bring Harriet in or Frederick Douglass in because they were just so dynamic and they were just so ahead of their time.
AT: Was there one particular artifact or something that you read that drove the entire second season?
JP: I think it was a tapestry of everything we read; we do a lot of research. I do think this season was finding out more about the experience in the North. If season one was about running six hundred miles to get over this line, season two is about the fact that once you are over that line, freedom isn’t easy. Freedom is something you have to fight for every day.
AT: Was there any particular character whose journey shocked you by the time you finished writing season two? Did you ever say, “Wow, I didn’t realize we would get here with you?”
MG: Harriet Tubman, because I think we all know the jest and there is just so much deeper to her and her character and what was going on at that time. It was just finding out things like in 1858, Harriet was giving talks to people to raise money to go back to save people. That to me I was like, “What?! Huh?” That blew my mind! So I think just the journey of Harriet Tubman this season and what you think you know about her. By the end of the season, we were just both like, “Wow!” And, Aisha Hinds is just fantastic.
JP: She’s incredible.
AT: What can we all take away from “Underground” especially since we are in this crazy, confounding political environment??
JP: I think we talk a lot in season two about are you a citizen or soldier. I think what’s encouraging is that 1858 was a horrible time in which white power asserted itself across America but we learn from our heroes. These are people who had a much tougher time and tougher battle, but they stood up for what they thought was right and they fought for it. So we can learn from them.
The second season of “Underground” premieres tonight, Wednesday, March 8th at 10PM ET on WGN America.
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