In WGN America’s Wednesday night drama UNDERGROUND, it’s 1857 and the Underground Railroad, which shepherds people to freedom (key “conductor” Harriet Tubman is replacing Andrew Jackson on U.S. currency) is still in its formative days. Seven black people have escaped from the Macon plantation. Miss Ernestine, played by Amirah Vann, is a slave in charge of the Macon household. She is also the mother of Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), one of the escapees.
Plantation owner Tom Macon (Reed Diamond) has offered a huge reward for the capture of the people he sees as his property. However, there are hints that Rosalee may be his daughter with Ernestine. Certainly, Ernestine and Macon have an intimate relationship, with her as the dominant partner. Both of them have extremely complicated – and extremely different – views of the situation.
What’s not in question is Ernestine’s devotion to her daughter. When friend Pearly Mae (Adina Porter) considers betraying Rosalee for her own freedom and that of her child, Ernestine takes drastic measures.
Vann, whose credits include the feature films TRACERS, AND SO IT GOES and ONCE MORE WITH FEELING, sits down for a discussion about playing a complex woman facing a series of unbearable decisions.
AX: How did you come to be involved in UNDERGROUND?
AMIRAH VANN: I auditioned, and I got this wonderful script, and I thought the writing was really fantastic, and then I got a call from [director/executive producer] Anthony Hemingway, some notes, and just my conversation with him – he’s just a wonderful man first, and I remember feeling like, “I know him.” In one conversation, I felt like, “Okay, we operate from the same world, the same plane.” So it made me really excited about the project. I said, “If this is the team, then please, where do I sign up?”
AX: How many levels would you say Ernestine is operating on at any one time?
VANN: Oh, my goodness. I don’t know if I can count the levels, and that’s what’s exciting. I think that she sometimes gets shocked herself, and maybe she’ll think it’s one, and someone walks into the room, and she has to pull out three, four, five, she has to call on some other parts of herself to keep her in the room and keep her kids safe. So what’s at her disposal is a multitude of emotion and possibility. Sometimes she’ll just settle into one, if that’s the one that’s needed at the moment.
AX: Well, for example, when Ernestine is dealing with Tom Macon’s wife Miss Susanna, played by Andrea Frankle, it’s very sort of warm on the surface, and, “I would like to throttle you” underneath it …
VANN: [laughs] Oh, yeah. You know, the funny thing about that is, [Frankle is] such a lovely woman. But she’s a great actress. So when she does her job as amazingly as she does, she gets into my spine in a really intense way. But that’s great, because I love those female relationships, too, they kind of get pitted against one another, and then there are moments where she says things that to me sound like an echo, and I’m just like, “Wow, I know what it is to be a mother.” And I love that that gets investigated, the idea that I’m in her home, and I don’t want to give away too much, but those times are difficult for her, too. And what was it like to have me in her home? What kind of threat does she feel? Does she cry herself to bed at night? There’s a lot happening during this time that I think we never really looked at.
AX: How aware do you think Miss Susanna is of Ernestine’s relationship with Tom Macon?
VANN: I think very aware. I think most people know, it’s just not spoken about. It’s just something of the time, that that was just what it was. And it was in the name of business. More children [born to slave mothers], more profit, sadly.
AX: How do you think Ernestine found out that Tom Macon liked to be dominated sexually? Because that wouldn’t be the safest assumption to make, given the overall relationship …
VANN: It’s a lover situation, and I think in those intimate moments, there’s something about that where there can be a truth in the quiet moments, and someone can really feel free to investigate a side of themselves that they never really get to investigate. I don’t want to speak for Reed or his character too much [laughs], but even for Miss Ernestine, I’ll speak for [her as] myself – I spend most of the day taking care of them, most of the day with my head low, or looking away, not necessarily with my head low, but subservient to them. And so in those moments when I get a chance to be powerful, be sexy, it feeds that part of me, so I would assume that it does the same for him, and we may have just discovered it with one kind of a smack, or one kind of a grab, the beauty of intimacy. Someone looks at you a certain way and you know that, “Okay, that went over well, let’s see how far we can push this.”
AX: With all the pretending Ernestine has to do with the people around her, do you see the actress side of yourself in her?
VANN: I hadn’t really thought of that, and I wonder how much – maybe that’s why I felt so comfortable in her skin. But I think, people say that to me as an actress often. They’re like, “How do I know you’re not lying?” [laughs] And I always say, “I use my powers for good, not evil.” I say that half-jokingly, but I guess with Miss Ernestine – she is doing things, and it’s not a joke at all, it is not at all for anything other than, the stakes are so high that, if it’s to protect her children, she’s going to do it. And I think when you have those kind of stakes, and you have that kind of love for your children, it doesn’t matter. And I think that’s something that parents have. And I actually don’t [laughs] – I say that, and I don’t have children. But I have nieces, and I think anyone who’s loved anyone, you see that, and it’s real.
AX: Speaking of Ernestine and her children, aren’t you a little young to be playing Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s mother?
VANN: [laughs] I call her “Sister-Daughter.” She calls me “Sister-Mama,” and that’s great. But the thing about that is, something about our spirits actually lend themselves to playing our respective roles. First of all, I’ve watched her career, I’ve followed her, and I think she’s a wonderful actress. I remember her from EVE’S BAYOU [which Smollett-Bell costarred in at age eleven in 1997], so there was something in me that was, “Right,” at once. And I just remember that smile from then, when she was a child. So for them saying, “This is going to be your daughter, and you love her,” and I said, “Oh, yeah, that’s easy.” Because I feel like that was already in me. And we both completely understand and love the characters we’re playing, and I feel like that settles us right into whatever else we needed to add on. And then they’re in the times, too – I would have had her around thirteen or fourteen, and for the period, that’s not actually a stretch.
AX: Does Ernestine see any advantage at all in her life, or would she be on the run in the flash if she didn’t feel it would endanger her family?
VANN: I think the idea of running is beyond Miss Ernestine. I think she has mastered the best way to survive in this world, and I think that’s what makes the relationship with her children, for me, really exciting, because she’s looking at them, and once she realizes what they’re going for, it’s just kind of revolutionary to her, not just to the world. I think the parents of today – sometimes my nephew says something, and I’m in awe and I’m proud, and I say, “Wow, okay, it’s a new generation, it’s a new day.” So she’s never been allowed to think outside of survival.
AX: How is it physically playing Ernestine, because you’re in what looks like a confining costume?
VANN: Yes. Karen Wagner did our costumes, and it’s really fascinating when you look at the colors, and how they match the curtains, and you really get the sense that [the white people in the house] wanted you to blend in with the furniture, and were really a part of the house, and would not acknowledge that you’d even be in it, and that helps a lot. The corset helps, because there’s a posture that you automatically can take on, and I think all of that helps for me to convert into this woman. You kind of fall right into place when you’re in that corset.
AX: How much were you learning about the era while working on UNDERGROUND with the research creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski did for the show, and how much did you already know?
VANN: It was great doing the research. Jurnee and I did very similar research, so we were both reading BULLWHIP DAYS, and INCIDENTS IN THE LIFE OF A SLAVE GIRL, and that’s really fascinating. And one of the things that excites me most about this script is that it’s so real that it just made me want to dig deeper, and I hope that that’s what it does for audiences, that they say, “I didn’t know this about this time, I didn’t know how heroic they were, and I didn’t know that I could actually look on this period with pride.” For all involved – the abolitionists of the North as well. And that has actually taken me to be more interested in what else was going on as well at the time. And so I think truth begets truth. And I think that’s why I’m really excited about the project, too, because it’s not a glazed-over version of the Underground Railroad. It’s like what was happening behind closed doors, and stories that you could maybe sit with your parents or your grandparents, and you go, “Oh, my gosh, that’s your story,” and I feel like these stories are now being told in this series, all those marvelously intricate, complicated, clean, dirty stories are finally getting their say.
AX: One of the discussions around UNDERGROUND is that some people keep comparing other things to slavery, but slavery is unique. Do you think that there are types of contemporary characters who would be like Ernestine, or do you think Ernestine is such a product of that unique situation that there isn’t a contemporary parallel?
VANN: Oh, there is – yeah. [Saying it’s too unique for a contemporary parallel] is too much ego for me. I feel like we learn from each other, so there are definitely contemporary [aspects] – that’s the legacy that’s passed on, that’s the excitement about the era, to say, “Oh, this is what we all come from.” We come from that strength, we come from that ability to say, “Even if I have to put my life on the line, I will for my children’s sake.” That’s the beauty of really looking at history, is for us to be able to say, “Oh, I see myself in that. I see, as a black woman, or as a colored woman, I see myself in the eyes of this white woman, as a mother, as a wife.” And vice-versa. And that’s what we hope is happening, and people can finally see them as human beings, and so the echoes should land today, because we’re all human beings, and it repeats.
AX: And what would you most like people to know about UNDERGROUND?
VANN: I would most like them to know that it is exciting, and it’s going to be a lot of truth. So go for the ride with us, strap on your seatbelt, and be prepared to have this world uncovered in a way that you have never seen before.
This interview was conducted during WGN America’s portion of the most recent Television Critics Association press tour.
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Article: UNDERGROUND: Amirah Vann on the period piece WGN drama – exclusive interview