In this week’s episode of “Underground,” fans were treated to a flashback sequence that featured none other than Academy Award and Emmy nominee Angela Bassett, playing an early mentor to Ernestine. So how did Bassett end up on the WGN America drama? All it took was a call from series executive producer and director Anthony Hemingway.
“The role was written with Angela in mind,” Hemingway told Variety. “Angela has been a fan of the show since day one. She comes to our premieres and events, and offers a lot of support. And I’m a friend of the family, her and Courtney B. Vance. It was easy to make the connection and make the call and present to her what this character was and why we saw her as this character. She brings so much gravitas and strength to any role that she does. It was just the right choice.” Hemingway also said that “everyone” came out the day Bassett was on set to watch her work.
In the episode Ernestine, played by Amirah Vann, is dealing with her new life on a South Carolina plantation that is rife with physical abuse, both at the hands of the overseers and the slave man with whom she is living. She copes with her new situation by indulging in drug use and contemplating suicide.
“This season her character is cracked open and having to search for her own self since she has lost everything,” Hemingway said. “It was beautiful to watch her navigate through it. How to tap into abuse and how within this paradigm you have to find strength and gain control of it to turn it around and get out.”
The episode also sets up a parallel between Ernestine’s journey and that of her daughter Rosalee, who is on the run with a gunshot wound courtesy of notorious slave catcher Patty Cannon. Her flight is made all the more difficult by the fact that she is pregnant. Jurnee Smollett-Bell, who plays Rosalee, was actually pregnant during filming of the physically demanding episode.
“I literally prayed every day for that shoot for her health and her strength,” he said. “That just goes to a testament of Jurnee because she is so committed. But she had her midwife on set to make sure she was taken care of, and whenever she needed to take a break we would do it. But I knew Jurnee had it in her. I will never go anywhere that’s unsafe, but knowing at the end of the day that she wants to take her performance where it needs to be.”