As a singer-songwriter, John Legend has amassed an intimidating trophy cabinet in his 37 years, with 10 Grammys, a Golden Globe and an Oscar to his credit. More recently, he’s been making waves with his production outfit Get Lifted Film Company, with which he’s executive produced such projects as Richard Tanne’s Obama-date-movie “Southside With You,” and WGN’s escaped slave series, “Underground,” which was recently picked up for a second season.
Before “Underground,” got off the ground, how much reading of slave narratives and Underground Railroad history had you done?
I was an English major in college who concentrated in African-American literature and culture. So I read quite a few slave narratives and stories of escape, and I grew up in Ohio, which was a common stop on the Underground Railroad. These stories are very resonant, and I thought it made perfect television, because first of all, it’s a subject that hasn’t really been covered in this type of format — or really on TV or film in any significant way. And if you just look at the core of what the show is about, it’s about courage; it’s essentially a prison break, a dangerous journey across hundreds of miles where around any corner there’s death awaiting, or capture. And I felt like it would make for really engaging television.
How hard was it to maintain balance between contemporary music — Kanye West, the Weeknd, Zola Jesus — and the 1850s setting?
We knew some people would find it a little bit jarring, so we just had to decide to be OK with that. It was an artistic choice that we made and went with it. And we felt that it was the right artist choice, because we wanted to take the story off of a museum wall and out of the library and make it feel current and relevant. I think music had a big role to play in making that happen.
Are we going to start seeing the introduction of real historical figures? Harriet Tubman, for example …
At the end of episode 10, someone named Harriet shows up. We’re still working on what’s happening in season two, the writers are just now getting together. … But that was done for a reason.
So much of “Underground” is structured like a thriller or an action movie – is it a tough negotiation to keep it an exciting escape narrative without risking downplaying the horrors of slavery?
Some people found it really tough to watch. Especially at the beginning, where it makes it clear that slavery was no picnic, and was in fact quite painful and destructive and evil. And some people don’t want to see that, which I can completely understand. But a lot of people felt empowered by the courage of those who escaped, a lot of people felt inspired by that. And for black folks, I feel like they felt it was something that they could be proud of, because even against all these odds, we chose to resist, and chose to do something really courageous.
How big a role do you see production playing in your career going forward?
I’m not giving up my day job. I’m finishing an album now, I’ll tour on it and do all the things I’ve always done. But I have a great team, and all of us have a mandate to try to tell great stories and make the world a more interesting place by getting those stories out there. So while I’m on the road, I’ll be reading scripts.