Jessica De Gouw and Alano Miller have both been giving interviews for hours already when they sit down with Assignment X to talk about Season 2 of WGN America’s Wednesday-night drama UNDERGROUND. However, both actors talk about the pre-Civil War series, concerning the Underground Railroad, with an energy and enthusiasm that belies their long day.
De Gouw plays Elizabeth Hawkes, who is initially drawn into the abolitionist movement by her husband John (Marc Blucas), but who over the first season developed perhaps even more passion for the cause than her spouse has. Miller plays Cato, who bears visible scars inflicted on him after an escape attempt that happens before UNDERGROUND begins. He ended Season 1 not only free but rich.
Miller, originally from Orlando, Florida, played Aaron and Roman Zazo on JANE THE VIRGIN. He had a supporting role in last year’s Oscar-nominated LOVING and is in Fox Network’s upcoming series SHOTS FIRED. De Gouw, who hails from Perth, Australia, played Helena Bertinelli, aka Huntress, over several seasons of The CW’s ARROW and was Mina Murray/Ilona in NBC’s DRACULA.
ASSIGNMENT X: Can you say where your characters start Season 2? Elizabeth was having some marital problems in Season 1, and she’s widowed early in Season 2 …
JESSICA DE GOUW: Well, we were definitely at odds with one another. As a husband and wife, they definitely go through a lot, and Season [2 begins] on quite a violent note for both Elizabeth and John. But the start of the second season is about them moving on from that and them having to grow together, and about the path that they have chosen, and how far they’re willing to go down that path.
ALANO MILLER: We left Cato off in Season 1 with a lot of money, and so it is reintroducing a character you’ve never seen before, because this is, as I’ve said before, this is Cato 2.0. This is the man that you don’t know. With that type of financial power comes a lot of good and bad possibilities, so we are going to see him go into some darker, deeper areas in order for him to gain the goal that he desires. And I can’t tell you what that goal is. I’m sorry. [laughs]
AX: Well, it seems like Cato could either go in the path of securing his own freedom and a nice lifestyle for himself, or he could secure his own freedom and donate to and maybe fight for the Underground Railroad …
MILLER: Well, that’s the thing. There are always those questions that come up when dealing with a character like him. And I think Jessica and I, she’s been saying it all day, it’s about the fact that [Elizabeth and Cato] are parallels, and we are going to have to make some very big moral decisions, emotional decisions, and so we both have very interesting stories that are going side by side as you’re watching. At some point, someone is going to have to make a decision, some change is going to have to happen. And when that happens, that’s TV magic [laughs].
AX: In Season 1, Cato was often very confrontational with some of his fellow escapees, particularly Aldis Hodge’s group leader, Noah. Do you think that Cato had fellow feeling for anybody in that group?
MILLER: Absolutely. You have to remember, Cato was Noah. He’s just a different version of him. He wants to believe in the dream of getting everyone off the plantation and all those things. At the same time, he’s a desperate man for freedom. That is his goal. Yes, there is a bit of a love/hate relationship with him and Rosalee [a fellow escapee played by Jurnee Smollett-Bell], but there’s a love there as well, which is why he goes back, which is why you see him at the piano, and the way he looks at her. There is something there. He is being reminded. She brings something out of him. But Cato is a complicated man, in that he has a wife and kid, and he loves them passionately, and he has done everything that he could to get them. A man like Cato isn’t born, he’s made that way. And so we get to see the good, the bad, the ugly and the possibilities, and I think that’s what’s great about him.
AX: Does playing a character like Elizabeth make you wonder, “Were I in this situation, what would I do?”
DE GOUW: Oh, absolutely. And I think what Season 2 does is really challenge that, because the situations that Elizabeth finds herself in are entirely new and very extraordinary circumstances. Definitely, as the actor, you look at a scene or a story arc, and you think, “How would I behave had this situation happened to me?” But also, it’s not my job to judge Elizabeth. My responsibility as the actor is to play the scenes, play the story honestly, given the situation, given the set of circumstances. An audience will judge her – that’s their role in this relationship – but I would never judge her for the things that she does. I think she does make questionable choices. But also, she’s acting in a situation. Something happens and you make a decision, whether it be right or wrong. You make a decision that is best for you in that moment. We do that in life all the time. You do the best you can. So yeah, it’s fun to watch her journey. But it’s also a pleasure to play.
AX: We’ve seen that for Elizabeth, sometimes the thing to do is hit somebody over the head with a board …
DE GOUW: Sometimes you’ve got to shoot people [laughs]. Sometimes you’ve got [to use] a runaway wagon to free people.
AX: Were there any things that either of you had to learn how to do, like run around in those 1850s-era costumes or fire an antique weapon …?
DE GOUW: All of those things.
MILLER: [laughs] All those things.
DE GOUW: There was one day where we were trying to get a fight scene as the sun was going down. In the first season, I drive a wagon, and in the second season, it was a whole new set of horses and wagons and Teamsters and everything. They were like, “And we’re going to call ‘Action,’ and you go.” And I was like, “I don’t even know the horses’ commands!” [laughs] I guess it’s “Giddy-up.” So yeah, all those things. Guns, wagons …
MILLER: Everything. I had to be a stuntman this year. I did all my stunts last year, but this year, I do a lot more. This show is more action-packed than it was last year, meaning in physicality. So I think there was just more physical [action] across the board for all of us.
AX: How is dealing with Cato’s burn prosthetics?
MILLER: It’s tough [laughs]. We’ve gotten down part of it to an hour. It’s twelve pieces. It’s very tough on my skin. It itches a lot, it sweats a lot, and when we were in Baton Rouge, mosquitoes loved eating it, and that really hurt a lot. But now, we constantly keep changing the prosthetic to help it help me out a little bit. It goes all the way through my neck, and there are going to be different parts of my body that will be revealed this year. In Season 2, you’ll see how deep his wounds really go. And so that’s very exciting as well. But Cato goes through a huge transformation this year. And the full transformation, when you finally see everything, will be a total of six hours, every day in the chair.
AX: Does all of that discomfort help you with the character?
MILLER: Absolutely. Listen, it’s not about the anger. It’s easy to just say “anger.” That’s so general.
AX: Or the pain of it …
MILLER: The pain, too, but it’s also about the way he sees the world. And that is so complicated as well. The discomfort of it all, it’s twofold. It’s a metaphor. It’s not being comfortable in your own skin, not being comfortable in the world. And I think it will definitely show this season.
AX: How would you say he does see the world, and does that change over Season 2?
MILLER: Oh, yeah. Season 2, the world definitely changes in his eyes. Like I say, he has money this time. So that’s one version of seeing the world. But sometimes economics isn’t always the key to happiness, or to joy, or to freedom. So the world and how you see freedom changes for him. His whole goal is to be free. But now even that is being redefined. And so it’s not enough. So I think the world for him, it isn’t pretty. It’s very dark. And it’s very relentless. It’s never favored him, so he’s going to take it out on the world in Season 2.
AX: And what is Elizabeth’s worldview, and does that change?
DE GOUW: Well, I think relative to the first season, it’s quite the opposite. Elizabeth was trying to heal the world in some small way, whereas the second season is the frustration of how little change she feels she has made. So it’s about, she really does throw herself into this path, which is also a very dark and trepidation-filled new world. So what started out as quite a naïve perspective is suddenly very enlightened, but not necessarily in a positive way. It’s a hard world and she’s thrust into that.
AX: Do the two of you have scenes together this season?
MILLER: I will not confirm nor deny.
AX: Do you feel, given what’s happened in this country in the past year, that UNDERGROUND poses much more immediate moral questions for the audience?
DE GOUW: I’m very happy to answer that question. Whereas the first season was about the social conversation about a point in time that is still very relevant, the second season is very political. The parallels are hugely physical [laughs]. Honestly, we couldn’t have shot this in a more important time, I think. There’s no denying the way that these people and their experiences are relevant to the world and our experiences right now.
MILLER: Yeah. [UNDERGROUND creators/executive producers] Misha Green and Joe Pokaski told us about “Citizens versus Soldiers,” and that’s what this is about this season. Are you a citizen, or are you a soldier? You have to decide which side you want to be on. If you’re a citizen, then unfortunately, you don’t really get a say in the world [laughs]. But if you want to be a soldier, you’ve got to fight for it, and it’s not going to be easy, and there’s going to be a lot of sacrifice with that, and what does that look like in today’s time? In this political state, there are soldiers, and we have to be able to have a call to arms, and I think this season is a call to arms, and it will give us all insight, and make us have some very hard questions that we need to come up with answers for. And it doesn’t take any sides, it doesn’t say, “You’re wrong and I’m right.” It just says, “Hey, we have to have purpose in the world, and we need to do more.”
DE GOUW: I think that this show does hold up a mirror, however uncomfortable that mirror might be.
MILLER: Yes. What it does do also is say to you that you can understand how the other human being, meaning the person who is in power, their point of view. That’s what I’m saying. It doesn’t say, “You’re the problem,” it says, “This is what they were born into. They don’t know anything that’s different.” Like a slave master. A slave master only knows to be a slave master, doesn’t know the world of the disenfranchised, doesn’t see it in that way, doesn’t have an emotional attachment to it the same way we, the disenfranchised, are attached to it. So that’s what I’m saying, in that the show does give a different side.
You have a character like Chris Meloni’s character [the slave catcher August Pullman], where he’s doing what he’s doing, which is wrong, but he’s a family man, who is also doing it to support his wife, who is in an insane asylum, his son, his farm. There are economic issues that are going on. So there are different views. And I think that is what’s important about it. So it’s taking the human story and the human struggle, and we all have our view, and they all are important.
Now, we, as the audience, have to decide what side are we on, what view are we willing to take? And that’s an important question to ask, because I think a lot of people don’t really know the answer to that. And there are some people who could easily say, “Yeah, I’d do that.” But it’s not just in what you say, but in the actions and how you do it.
DE GOUW: Action and inaction.
AX: And what would you most like people to know about Season 2 of UNDERGROUND?
MILLER: That it’s explosive this year. It’s bigger, bolder, faster and I think that infusing Harriet Tubman [played by Aisha Hinds] into the storyline is going to be one to watch. This will be our season where I believe we’re going to break television [laughs].
DE GOUW: Ditto.
This interview was conducted during WGN America’s portion of the Winter 2017 Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour at Pasadena’s Langham-Huntington Hotel.
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Article: UNDERGROUND: Jessica De Gouw & Alano Miller – exclusive interview