In WGN America’s UNDERGROUND, Wednesday nights in its first season and renewed for a second, Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Aldis Hodge star as, respectively, Rosalee and Noah. It’s 1857. Noah has worked out a plan for himself and several others to escape from the plantation where they are held in slavery – a plan that gets radically accelerated when Rosalee has to defend herself from attack by a rapacious oversee and consequently must run for her life. Eventually, the two begin working together as they unknowingly help pave the way for the Underground Railroad, which conducted many slaves to freedom over the years leading up to the end of the U.S. Civil War.
Smollett-Bell began her career as a child, with an early costarring role in EVE’S BAYOU, going on as an adult to arcs on PARENTHOOD and TRUE BLOOD, among other credits. Hodge starred in five seasons of LEVERAGE. Both actors at various times were series regulars on FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS. The two complete each other’s sentences as though they’ve known each other for ages.
AX: Had you actually worked together before?
JURNEE SMOLLETT-BELL: No. Not on FNL. We were on different seasons.
ALDIS HODGE: Yeah. I was Season 1.
SMOLLETT-BELL: And I was Seasons 4 and 5.
AX: In UNDERGROUND, Rosalee and Noah start out at sort of opposite ends of the spectrum on this show. What would you say is your characters’ initial impression of each other, and where do you think they wind up?
SMOLLETT-BELL: I think I’m initially curious of who Noah is, really.
HODGE: Which means that Rosalee just wants Noah. That’s what it means, basically.
SMOLLETT-BELL: It’s not what it means, but most guys think that’s what it means. As I was saying, she’s curious about him [laughs].No, seriously, I think no one has ever acknowledged to Rosalee that [being a slave] is no kind of life. She lives under her mother, and Ernestine is just trying to survive and keep her children safe, and doesn’t realize what she’s doing, that she’s contributing to the brainwashing and the mental enslavement of Rosalee. And Noah’s the first person to acknowledge that we are supposed to have something better than this, this is no kind of life. And that’s the kind of acknowledgement that can get you killed in 1857. And so I’m curious about what that actually means. And once he plants that seed, when we’re at the funeral and he’s talking about what life is up north, what it is, it’s like, on one hand, Rosaleee feels like she could never have that kind of life, and it makes her sad, but he plants the seed of hope and potential in her.
HODGE: I think with Noah, prior to this particular situation bringing them together, they’ve never spoken. They’ve seen each other, they’ve gazed at each other –
SMOLLETT-BELL: We’ve had a lot of gazes.
HODGE: But I don’t think they’ve ever really gotten a chance to really know each other, because rules are rules. She stays in the house, I’m a blacksmith, I stay in the field, I stay in my shop. We’re not allowed to really intermingle like that. I think she’s always intrigued him, but what really does it is, the moment that he realizes she has a different sort of strength, he sees a different person in her. He sees a different person completely on the plantation. There is just this woman who understands me, or at least has the same energy. She has a strength in her, and I think Noah’s now curious to see how he can stretch that strength, how much he can explore within her. And that eventually turns into what their relationship starts out being at the beginning, and you’ll see further where it ends up in the end.
AX: Why do both of you think when Rosalee goes to Noah for help after she has to defend herself from the overseer, his reaction is, “Okay, I’m going to get you out of here,” not, “You’re messing up my plan, agghh!” At that point, as you say, they don’t really know each other …
SMOLLETT-BELL: I think it’s desperation.
SMOLLETT-BELL: It’s a dangerous situation they’re in, and he happens to be there when I escape Bill’s shack, and there is no time. There’s no time to think, there’s no time for either one of us, to think or doubt the plan. Everything goes out the window, because it’s like, right now, we both have to get out of here. Because he’s now connected to me, and that could mean we’re going to die for having wounded Bill like that. That’s really all it is, in those moments of panic.
HODGE: It’s survival.
HODGE: There is no other choice at this moment. We’ll figure it out later. I think the natural protector kicks in, and they live on the edge twenty-four/seven. This is all they know. The slightest remark – if you even look up into a slave-driver’s eyes, that could mean punishment. So they’re always wired to watch themselves, react quickly, think on their feet, and be cautious and aware. So when this happens, their first reaction is, “Survive. We’ll figure out the rest.”
AX: Earlier, you talked about filming a scene where Rosalee is publicly beaten and that you were crying after the scene ended. Were you crying because you empathized with the pain of that, were you crying because you were feeling angry and you couldn’t express anger as the character, as the actress …?
SMOLLETT-BELL: Honestly, I was crying because I felt overtaken by that spirit, the spirit of the Rosalees who had to stand there, and be in pain, and be disrespected, and violated, and abused, and couldn’t do anything about it. Hearing the sound of that whip is a real terrifying thing. Really, the spirit just overtook me. It’s hard to describe. But I felt that spirit of all the Rosalees whose voices [were] silenced, and whose identities were lost forever, and who were never allowed to be their true selves, and were just violated over and over again. Just embodying that overwhelmed me.
AX: Do you think UNDERGROUND has something particular to say to the year 2016, or that it would have had something to say at any time in history when it was presented?
SMOLLETT-BELL: Absolutely. The show would have had something to say at any time in history that it was presented in history. Honestly, injustice is nothing new. Injustice has always existed, and injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere, as they say. And I think what resonates about this show is that there’s horrific injustice that’s taking place, and you have men and women who make an attempt to resist it, stand up and revolt, and that’s the spirit of revolution that we have inherited today, but that was not invented just yesterday. So I think it would have been relevant at any point in history.
HODGE: It’s like fighting the same battle, just with different standards, because for the timeframe of the 1850s, they’re fighting this dominant oppression, that is, slavery for what it is, as we know it to be, like she said, [fighting against] injustice, people’s rights, equality. We still fight those battles today, just different names, different standards, different subjects. But all across the board, fair is fair, equal is equal, and we’re still fighting for fair is fair, equal is equal.
At the end of the day, it comes down to being able to understand that which you don’t. “I don’t understand you because of the way you look.” Nowadays, people are saying, “I don’t understand you because of your sexual preference,” “I don’t understand you because of what country you come from,” this, that, or the other. Again, we’re still fighting the same battle, just in different ways. Hopefully, this can serve to at least open up people’s minds – if there is any room for them to be educated by this, or influenced by this, or touched by what we’re doing, hopefully, it says, “Hey, look, different is not a bad thing, different from me is not a bad thing,” because at the end of the day, people are saying, “Slaves this, slaves that” – no, these are actual Americans who are enslaved by other Americans. That changes the tone of things.
SMOLLETT-BELL: And I think our job as artists is really, we’re just supposed to show different sides of humanity. Not everything is black and white – it’s really the shades of gray that are fascinating. And in UNDERGROUND, I think what we’re trying to explore is this side of humanity that not a lot of us know about, specifically with the Underground Railroad, in just the bravery, the boldness, the audacity, that these men and women had to say, “This is no kind of life, and I’m going to take matters into my own hands.” I mean, that’s in itself a very inspiring thing to know that these are the men and women that altered history. These are the men and women that built America. And the very thing that makes us so great is that we have men and women who will not quit until we can make a more perfect Union.
AX: In purely physical terms, how difficult was it for you to be out filming in the Louisiana swamps?
SMOLLETT-BELL: It wasn’t easy. The conditions were a character in their own right, honestly.
HODGE: When we’re talking about the conditions, we’re talking about the state, the city itself. I mean, the nature of it, the weather –
SMOLLETT-BELL: The weather, the rain, the heat, humidity –
HODGE: Tornado –
SMOLLETT-BELL: Tornado, yeah.
HODGE: Thunderstorms. Remember that time we had a thunderstorm right over the set and lightning crackled right on top of us?
HODGE: We had nowhere to run. We could stay outside or go back in the trailer, which is nothing but a conductor, so either you’re sitting there and get crispied up – we all ran into the catering tent, and we huddled under there [laughs].
SMOLLETT-BELL: Yeah. I mean, flooding and just swimming in the bayous, and then having to do fight scenes –
HODGE: Uncomfortable fight scenes, where you’re in sticky stuff –
SMOLLETT-BELL: Sticky stuff, and getting injured, and we did our own stunts.
HODGE: Honestly, that was the hardest work ever, but it’s the most gratifying work ever.
HODGE: If I knew all this going into it again, I’m still going to do it.
SMOLLETT-BELL: Yeah, you’d still do it.
HODGE: I’m still knocking it out. I don’t think second season is going to get any easier.
SMOLLETT-BELL: No, it’s going to be more intense.
HODGE: But we are prepared, this time. You hear what I’m saying? I’m doing my stretches, my squats, my yoga [laughs] –
SMOLLETT-BELL: Soak in some Epsom salts.
HODGE: I’m just going to get ready, you know what I mean?
SMOLLETT-BELL: Honestly, I think what we all felt was just privileged, privileged to be able to be a vessel to give voice to these stories.
AX: And what would you most like people to know about UNDERGROUND?
HODGE: That it’s a fantastic adventure. In my eyes, it’s a story about human connection, and it’s something completely different than you may anticipate, so allow yourself to feel it, to experience it, to enjoy it, because you will.
SMOLLETT-BELL: And just to add to that, one of the things I’m most proud about UNDERGROUND is that it’s really a testament to our human will, our strength. We as human beings are very much capable of triumphing over tragedies, when you think about it, and this really does explore that.
This interview was conducted during WGN America’s portion of the most recent Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena, California.
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Article: UNDERGROUND: Jurnee Smollett-Bell & Aldis Hodge – exclusive interview