The cast and crew of WGN America’s Underground were at New York Comic Con last weekend to promote season 2 of their hit show.
Underground was by far the most packed press room I attended all weekend, and it was a pleasure to be given the chance to discuss such an important show with the people who make it possible. There were a lot of great responses to some great questions, and a lot of talk about Hurricane Matthew, which was due to hit Savannah, Georgia, where they film Underground. (The cast was under mandatory evacuation.) Here are the highlights from my roundtable interviews.
Aisha Hinds on the research she did to play Harriet Tubman:
I definitely sought out the books that were initially written…there was a text that was written in 18…, by a woman named Sarah Bradford. She had actually met with Harriet after Harriet had moved and settled in Auburn, New York. And she spoke with her and they sort of came up with this first narrative. One of the things that was so interestingly, heartbreakingly beautiful at the same time was that you learn that Harriet was so on the go that she never stopped to do interviews or to tell her story. So, even in getting that information from her, because she didn’t ever learn to write or read, she wasn’t chronicling along the way. She was also known to have sleeping spells. So, it was hard for her to remember things. So, for her at this age to start remembering these stories and sharing them…that was quite a feat.
And so here was this beginning book and then it took three different versions, because even as Harriet was getting older, she had a home and she was doing and working and serving in order to gain money to keep doing that she sought out Sara just to share more stories like ‘oh! I remember this’ and hoping that she could write a new version of it and republish it and get more money.
And books that came after that, obviously. I studied those books and I studied what Frederick Douglass spoke about, which is played by John Legend, Mike is producing partners with John and John plays Frederick Douglas on the show. So, I read those books but I must say that these are things that I’m absorbing for myself but Misha and Joe roll out the character in such a beautiful way that I don’t want to overpower them with like ‘Well, I’ve done all of this research, so I would like to’ you know.
I definitely want to make sure that I have knowledge, as much knowledge as I can so that her spirit is in me, and permeating and alive but at the end of the day I just want to fill those words with everything that I’ve studied.
Executive producer Mike Jackson on the way the show has grown from season 1 to season 2 (going from a press room with maybe 8 people to one of the most crowded press rooms of the convention):
We were happy when we sold the show. It wasn’t the type of show that networks were looking to buy. The great thing about WGN and Sony was they really supported us and they gave us a straight to series order. Which doesn’t happen for any show really ever, especially with slavery as the theme of the show. Once we knew we had the order, once we got into production and were actually making the show, I think we all thought we were doing something special. That we were doing something different and timely, something that we will be proud of. You never know what’s going to happen once it’s premiere day. We knew we had done all the work to get, to be there and be ready for it. But I’m not going to say I was surprised by the success of the show. I think we make a great f-ing TV show. We have great actors and we have great creators in Joe and Misha, and we’re telling stories that need to be told. There is an appetite for those type of stories and a lot of a time the media dumb down brown and black and they give us the lowest common denominator kind of stories. You know, there are a lot of us out there, brown, black, white, yellow of all races, who want to see and hear elevated stories.
I feel like we were filling a niche with that. So, I wasn’t surprised, I was happy. We’re always cautiously optimistic. I think going into season two we know we have this really great fanbase. I think with the addition of Harriet Tubman and Mr. Legend playing Frederick Douglass in an episode, and Chris Chalk coming back to play William Tell, and our awesome cast, I think we’re going to deliver even more in season two. It’s going to be more of a thrill ride. We’re going to hold our heads even higher in season two. And we’re excited.
Season two is going to be bigger, bolder, faster, stronger, loud, obnoxious. It is going to relentless. I always say that season one is just a teaser to see what the audience can handle. It was kind of the tip of the iceberg. It was like ‘can you handle this?’ and most of them couldn’t handle it, because they kept freaking out every episode. We had someone who tweeted us them throwing their television out of the window. And we were like ‘That’s not good. You’re going to need that later.’ I think it is going to be more of that. There’re going to be a lot of people pacing in their houses and sitting in their chairs, squeezing stress balls and stuff like that. There are a lot more twist and turns.
I think season two for Elizabeth… Everybody is at the higher end of what they can tolerate and what their life is …Elizabeth, in season two, is challenged in the most horrific way that anybody can be challenged. And her wanting to stick to the cause, they really are pushed… It’s a lot. It’s a lot. But it’s a wonderful thing to be able to experience, the highs and lows and what these writers present to us. It is challenging as an actor but also really satisfying.
What you gotta understand with the situation is, and I think I’m misquoting Lincoln here, but you know if I was in a similar situation I might act the same way. So, looking towards the situation, looking at what is the investment versus what is the debt I’m carrying on and trying to make this decision versus this decision, what is the bigger picture. Save one? To sacrifice all or save a few in order to help more people? You know what I mean. It’s a very tumultuous environment these people are in. That’s what we’re playing with in terms of the struggle they went through and in terms how it relates to what we go through today and trying to succeed as a nation. We still are trying to find our way together as one cumulative nation and how we respond and treat each other. It’s such an issue.
I’m glad that we get to play with that and those theories in this show, but often times it’s not right or wrong, it’s sometimes just simple survival. What is the right choice for survival and after that, who is worthy of surviving this moment. Who’s the bigger goal here? One or all? I don’t think they’ve ever really figured it out.
I think it’s also compassion, when you really see humanity in other people. I think that’s one of the benefits of our story is that Misha and Joe bring characters that are fully human; you see their flaws, you see their strengths. People are saying, “Miss Ernestine is so great”, and I’m so touched by that, but then you’re like, “But I killed my sister girl”. And yet we think she’s still so great. It’s just the idea of seeing humanity, and I think maybe that is the beauty of loving Miss Ernestine. And you do see that in season two. She’s lost all her children, so everything she’s fought for and identified herself with is now gone. So, it’s really exciting to find out more about this extraordinary woman outside of that; who is she as a woman? And she’s pretty dope, y’all. She’s pretty dope. And shocking and twists and turns. It’s great.
Writer and executive producer Joe Pokaski on exploring the dichotomy of the black identity:
Fortunately, because we have a little more breathing room in season two we’re going to be able explore a lot of that thematically. Anthony just directed episode three, which is really like you know, what it’s like to be a black woman in America now and then, and then episode four is about toxic masculinity, and how black men have to deal with it, and how woman have to deal with it. We’re very fortunate to… Misha and I are trying our best, with our great writers and all our great directors, to create these beautiful hours of television and three and four explore both of these things. We’re hoping to do a little bit more of that in season two.
Author: Jamie Sugah
Jamie has a BA in English with a focus in creative writing from The Ohio State University. She self-published her first novel, The Perils of Long Hair on a Windy Day, which is available through Amazon. She is currently an archivist and lives in New York City with her demon ninja vampire cat. She covers television, books, movies, anime, and conventions in the NYC area.
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