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Glorifying Strength: Aldis Hodge and Jurnee Smollett-Bell on "Underground"

Aldis Hodge and Jurnee Smollett-Bell are just two pieces of "Underground," a new ensemble series centered around the historic Underground Railroad. Premiering on WGN-America, the show is a drama and thriller that focuses in part on slaves who risk everything to break out from their dehumanizing conditions on a southern plantation, following a set of directions pieced together from hymns, footprints, wall markings etc. Imagined by creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski with a wide scope, the show also presents other sides of the railroad's operation, including white characters who either want to help, or are merely pretending to. The series provides a tense, unpredictable look at the many components behind the historic movement, and is one of few productions to tap into its narrative immediacy.  

Seen recently in "Straight Outta Compton" as MC Ren, Hodge has also appeared on various TV shows, including "Leverage" and "Turn," and will be seen later this year in the upcoming "Jack Reacher" sequel "Jack Reacher: Never Go Back." Smollett-Bell has been an actress on various mediums for decades, appearing in the likes of "Eve's Bayou" back in 1997, "Friday Night Lights," "True Blood" and the upcoming Robert De Niro boxing drama "Hands of Stone." 

RogerEbert.com sat down with Hodge and Smollett-Bell for an interview before they presented "Underground" at Chicago's historic DuSable Museum of African American History, touching upon the dramatic intensity of the project, the emotional effects of their most intense scenes, the pilot's usage of a Kanye West song, and more. "Underground" premieres on WGN-America Wednesday night, March 9 at 10/9pm CST

Considering the intense history within this story, as actors, how do you personally wrap your heads around the atrocities that “Underground” is about? 

ALDIS HODGE: From the artistic standpoint, there is an honor in being able to be involved in this way to portray these characters. There is an excitement there. There’s an ambition for sure, but there’s an aggression about that ambition. I want to get this right, but I want to really get into it. If people are seeing this and we are the representation of what this time really is, especially since it hasn’t been distributed before in this way, we want to give them more of an honest picture of it. Because as a child I remember all of this history was not in my history books. I had such contention with history class, I was one of those kids like, “Ay, hold up. What’s up?” They had to kick me out of class a couple times, they had to call my mom. “Can you give him a book to read?” I’m in school, I got books, but not the good ones. But this was something that was not ever glorified, and that’s something that this show does beautifully. We glorify these people’s strengths and who they are as a culture. We also shine a light on Americans chasing Americans. It gives a different perspective from slave owner to slave, it’s American-ensiaved-American. 

We really get in the mindset of how these people lived, how they were capable of thinking that this inhumanity was decency. It’s exciting as actor, it’s very exciting, because it has substance. 

JURNEE SMOLLETT-BELL: You know not a lot of people know about the Underground Railroad. It was very secretive. And history books mention it, but referring to Harriet Tubman. And it was a really complex system of being the first integrated Civil Rights movement where you had free people who had nothing to gain but their conscience. And so you had really this complicated system where people used stars and hymns and mappings on trees and footprints and the way the moss would hang to run 600 miles. I mean, think about that. And then for someone like [my character] Rosalee, she’s never stepped outside of the plantation, so this is a whole other world. It’s just mind boggling that our ancestors had that kind of courage. 

And [the writers] really do a great job at exploring the shades of gray. Not everything is black and white. And it really gets into the motives, and how corrupt the system was. And how really even those who were ... like Mistress Susanne, she’s enslaved herself. Her [slave-owning] husband’s cheating on her, that’s no kind of life for her. 

AH: You feel bad for Susanna? 

JS: Absolutely don’t feel bad for Susanna. However, you realize that this is a corrupt system whether you were a free man or not. For me, I wrap my mind around by starting with research. The slave narratives, there is a wealth of research there, because you are hearing stories from the first person account, and that’s a whole different thing than reading about it in the history books. You’re able to really personalize it. Our job is just to bring humanity to their stories, and not just make them one-dimensional. 

AH: I made mine two dimensional. Two full dimensions. 

JS: He dug real deep [laughs]. And when you step on the plantation, there’s a spirit there. It’s in the soil, it’s in the trees. You can’t even describe it, when you step into the slave shacks and you see the markings on the walls and carvings and letters. You realize that these were human beings, and these were people who we come from. And so honestly, I think for us, this story a lot is about the triumph of human will. And while yes, we try to become them and let the spirit overtake us, there’s a lot of humility in approaching this project, because you know we are not going through what they went through. There is this real privilege that you put on, when you put those costumes on, when you step onto the plantation, there’s a real humility that comes along with this project. 

Was it hard to distance yourself from the character after you were done shooting?

JS: Absolutely. 

AH: This entire experience was an education. For me, it was definitely an education in being grateful. And appreciating the civil liberties we have today, the natural liberties we have at home. The fact that I don’t have to fit a family of six or ten people into a ten-by-ten room. We had our moments on set where it was harder to detach from certain scenes. And sometimes preparing for those scenes was a little rough. It’s not something as an artist that you particularly want to stray from in the moment, because that brings in the honesty of the situation and enhances your craft and educates you as a creator to continue to build and expound on that particular character. You’re living with these characters for years and years, you need to have a lock on who they are as people, what they like what they don’t like, what they experience and what they go through. But even afterwards when you go through a scene and then step off, sometimes you need a minute to just decompress. 

JSB: I sure did. 

AH: In the pilot, the roughest scene for me was that scene where I’m captured and beg for the lesser of two evils when I’m in the slave shack. And [characters] Tom Macon and Bill and Cato and everyone is standing around me and I’m just a piece of meat, pretty much cattle. It’s basically, “Hey, don’t brand me. Do something, beat me. Don’t brand me, don’t kill me.” I remember preparing for that scene and thinking "Wow, this is something people go through on a regular basis, it’s who they were and it was how they had to understand life. This was the quality of life. If I am going to suffer, how can i suffer the least?" That’s what they had to look forward to. And you know, as I man, I have my pride. I’d like to think that in any circumstance I’d say, “You know what? Screw this. Kill me. I’m done. I’m not going to grovel.” But he had to grovel. Of course, he was playing things to survive. And that also becomes the choice, of pride versus survival. Sometimes survival seems like submitting. And that’s really hard on the spirit. Even though we’re just playing out a scene, you kind of take it on, I took a little of it back home with me. Like, wow. You don’t ever want to seem less than a person. And granted, my fellow actors were great. P.J. Marshall and Guy Reed and Alano [Miller], we're all in support of each other. And it was most physical between P.J. and I, and P.J. just kept saying, “Are you OK? I’m sorry,” and it’s like “It’s cool, we've got to do a job.” It was great that he was there to assist. But what you go through mentally, you have to open up parts of your brain that you said you would never in your life, and then realize, “Would I have?” It makes you question certain things. You just gotta sit down for a minute. 

JSB: P.J. was amazing. Considering how evil his character is, he couldn’t be more of the opposite. For me, the hardest thing was when I had to take the punishment for my brother [in a later episode]. I had just saturated myself with so many images of people who had been flogged, and when you get there, and you’re under the trees, you just can’t help but think of what those trees have seen. I kept hearing “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holliday. When you hear the sound of that whip—even though it didn’t physically touch me—hearing the sound of the whip does something to your spirit. And being on the ground it just overwhelmed me. It was probably the hardest scene I had to do the entire season. I had such an amazing ... again, we had such a safe environment: Anthony [Hemingway] our director, everyone; I could not stop my crying. I worked myself up and was crying in the scene, but I could not stop crying for minutes after we were done with the scene. They just huddled around me and allowed me cry and just hugged me. It was kind of like there was nothing to say, but having that embrace, having that safety on our set, really made us have the freedom to go there, because we knew we had that safety to fall back on. 

When telling a story such a potent story like this in such a short amount of time, chemistry seems absolutely crucial. 

JSB: I mean, we didn’t have no chemistry, it sucked. 

AH: Nobody liked each other, nobody hung out … 

JS: We didn’t barbecue every Saturday … 

AH: We didn’t do none of that. Or watch movies. 

JSB: Or have game night, and beat each other at UNO ... we became a family really quickly. It was in the first few days where we felt like we really knew each other for a long time. And it was crazy how close we came. There was no odd man out, we all got along. It just makes you feel like it was ordained in a way, because that’s rare. 

It sounds like a very special professional experience for any actor. 

AH: With any good projects, I feel like the off-screen chemistry factors on-screen. It’s great when you don’t have to force it, but when it’s not there you better focus on getting there, because as we live with these characters we spend more time with one another than we do our families at home. You have to figure out how to make the whole thing work, because it’s not about you, it’s not about the team, it’s about the project you’re making. We got lucky because we did have a natural bond, but I think the weight of this project was much bigger than anyone of us individually, and we all knew that and respected it. So, we all were just trying to make this thing the best it could be. We were there for one another, and that’s what we had to do. Being there for one another is being there for the project. 

Right off the bat, the pilot introduces the series' very unique soundtrack by opening with Kanye West's "Black Skinhead," a fantastic choice.

JSB: Isn’t it? 

AH: As I’m breaking my ankles in the woods! 

What do you think the modern music brings to the story?

JSB: So we have John Legend as our producer, and his entire Get Lifted production company. But one of the things John contributed was curating the music. I think he did such a great job at really not making this, he did a great job at making it feel urgent, making it feel immediate. Making it feel desperate. Really not pigeonholing the music, not limiting himself to genre, era. You know, the creators just wanted this show to be bold. That’s what they said, that was the mandate, of think outside the box. "Be bold, be different." Visually with [director Anthony Hemingway] and Kevin [McKnight] our DP, it looks different than most period pieces. The approach with every single department, actors, costumes, props, set design, was different. It just translates in the music as well. 

AH: We also had Raphael Saadiq as our composer. So we had some legends in the back. But the thing about it is that the music keeps the beat, it kind of pumps the blood through the show. We are shot in a very modern way with a very modern pace. The danger in having modern music tied to a period piece is that hearing something may take you out of the moment. But they understand storytelling, so marrying the music with the right scene in the right moment, they get it. And they pair the right pieces for the mood. Because sometimes listening to something will connect to a feeling, it will allow you to emote subconsciously, and you don’t even understand why you’re in it. But the first thing comes on, and you hear “Black Skinhead” and you feel that pounding, pulsating rush, it’s like, “I’m on a ride.” This is not slow at all. But you’re right there with us. It’s from guys who know what they’re doing. 

AH: And then there’s Aldis Hodge, I don’t want to say nothing about him … 

JSB: He’s alright. I mean now that he’s not here, let’s say what I really think about that guy … 

AH: I’ve never been more blown away by this guy … 

JSB: He’s so humble … 

AH: The most humble person I’ve ever met. 

JSB: When you look up humility in the dictionary, it’s his face right there. He personally submitted it himself. It’s his head shot. 


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