‘Straight Outta Compton’ Star Aldis Hodge Calls WGN’s ‘Underground’ ‘The Hardest Job I’ve Ever Experienced’

Aldis Hodge Underground Variety Interview Credit
Dan Doperalski for Variety

Aldis Hodge became an actor because his older brother wanted to be “in the box” and his mother promised him some Batman toys. He’s been working tirelessly ever since — including a stint on TNT’s “Leverage” — but now he’s finally having a breakthrough moment. After appearing in “Straight Outta Compton” as MC Ren, he’s starring in WGN America’s new series “Underground” as Noah, who leads his fellow slaves in a daring escape on the Underground Railroad. (The 10-hour drama, which is exec produced by John Legend and creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, debuts March 9.)

Below, Hodge tells Variety about the role he calls one of the hardest of his career, how this series offers a new perspective on slavery, and the humble beginnings that taught him to appreciate the career he has now.

What drew you to this part? What made you want to take on this role?

I respected the character, and how they were executing the storytelling. The most important thing to me was as far as the characters, usually the subject matter of slavery depicts black Americans as victims. It kind of elevates their weaknesses. This particular story, the way they did it, it exaggerates our strengths and celebrates the fortitude of these people in the times that they were in, and how they actually flourished as a culture dealing with all of this, and managing to keep some sense of sanity. It showed how courageous they actually were, and that’s something I’m proud of.

How did you find your way into this character? 

We did research, we studied, we watched documentaries. There’s a really great documentary called “Many Rivers,” which documents the totality of slavery from its inception and then it gives you a little history on how America came to prominence. It’s crazy, the first black man to actually step foot in America came as a free man, as an explorer, with the Spaniards. That’s something for me, as a black American, it gives me a little bit of pride because we were free and respected somewhere else, before slavery became what it was.

We read memoirs, actual accounts from real enslaved Americans who went through it. Also, it really just came from trying to be honest to the fact that I wanted this character to be courageous, I wanted him to be a good man. He has moral value, and I wanted to pay homage to that. I wanted to make sure that this character actually had a life; he had an identity and a soul. Most people say they’re slaves, but in my opinion, to say that I am a slave is to take ownership of actually being a slave — to be a tool, be a thing. Basically cattle.

How do you think “Underground” is different than other similarly-themed stories we’ve seen before?

The immediate difference that I feel is that we’ve seen most stories about enslaved Americans as they are in bondage, and how they deal with themselves in bondage. This is really the first time I feel like we’ve seen enslaved Americans fighting their way out of bondage. Also, we are covering the first integrated civil rights movement, so we’re dealing with enslaved Americans who are black, and we’re dealing with white Americans who are socially enslaved. They’re dealing with standards with which they don’t agree, yet they don’t understand how to live outside of that, because if they do, automatically they become the enemy. We’re dealing with it on all fronts, and the beauty about that is that it’s not pointing the finger at the white man.

Dan Doperalski for Variety

It’s showing that this is really a mental disease that everyone either suffered from or had to suffer through. The biggest enemy here, even with the slave drivers and the slave owners, is the mental enslavement. People dealing with broken spirits, broken hearts, broken wills. You’ll have a plantation that has maybe, let’s say ten white people on it — the slave master and his family — and you’ll have 40, 50 slaves, sometimes 100. You have more enslaved people than the people that are actually doing the enslaving, but mentally, they don’t understand their will or their power. This is the story about people who do understand their power and do find themselves valuable enough to be considered and treated in a humane way. Sadly, I think that resonates today because a lot of people deal with that sort of self-deprecation, in a way.

What was the experience of filming this? It must have been pretty intense.

I’ve been in this business for 26 years, and this is the hardest job that I’ve ever experienced, but it’s the best job that I’ve ever experienced. Personally, I feel like this is the proudest work that I’ve been able to accomplish.

We were shooting in Baton Rouge, all through the summer. We dealt with thunderstorms every other day. If there weren’t thunderstorms, there were heat storms, which still has lightning. We dealt with 90-degree heat, we dealt with mosquitoes that eat through your clothes, with snakes — we actually had a snake wrangler. We were literally running through the mud, running through the woods, running through the bayou and the swamps. Every time I crawled out of a swamp I had a million things living on me that I could not readily identify. We dealt with a tornado. Nine o’clock in the morning, tornado is getting busy and it looks like it’s 12:00 at night. We were pretty much risking our lives on a daily basis, but we were making it work.

For me personally, the way I’ve been trained, just through life experience — the harder something is, the harder you have to work for it, the more worthwhile it is, and you just have to know that going in. You’ve got to have the faith to foresee that going into it. Nothing in my life has necessarily been easy, but eventually I see where it’s gotten me to and I say, “okay, it’s been worth it.” I just hope next time the city is not trying to kill us. That would be nice.

I would imagine, too, it’s pretty emotionally exhausting too, just given what your character has to go through.

We shot on real plantations. We shot at the LSU Rural Life Museum, and then we shot at Vacherie plantation. The LSU Rural Life Museum is a preserved enslavement camp. You have real shacks that people actually lived in, you have real fields that people used to tend. You step there and you realize how grateful you are for things. You’ve got a shack, where an entire family of maybe five or six people had to live on a regular basis. And they had to be grateful for that.

People couldn’t take a shower whenever they wanted to. Sometimes you have to go a couple days or a week of being funky, and get lucky and go hit a river if you can find it. You don’t have food when you feel like having food. You can’t just go open your fridge and get a kernel or two. It gives you a sense of appreciation for life and the basic things, and also, outside of that, getting into the mindset of having to feel less-than. It is tough.

Can you tell me about a specific scene that was particularly challenging?

I don’t want to spill secrets, but there’s a scene where Jurnee (Smollett-Bell)’s character Rosalee goes through a harrowing experience in the first episode and we all were on set and had to watch it play out. Even though you know it’s fake, when you hear the crack of a whip, it brings so much to mind. When you’re in it, when you’re in that setting, you can’t help but feel it. Every time you hear that noise, there’s an overwhelming sensation that just resounds every time that vibration hits the air, and it’s just that nasty crack.

The first scene that I had to shoot was where I’m caught and being interrogated by Reed (Diamond), who plays Tom Macon, the plantation owner. I have to pretty much grovel for a lesser of two evils, which is basically “don’t kill me, don’t brand me, let me off with a pass.” I know I’m going to get beat, so it’s “beat me, don’t kill me. Don’t hang me.”

To think that these people actually had to beg for that, beg for a beating because that was the best option, that was the better choice, that says a lot. It was the hardest scene for me to actually … Even just remembering, I’m like, “wooh.” It was hard for me to break myself down to that point, because I’m like, I have pride. I know who I am. I would like to think that in that situation, I would say screw you. Do what you got to do.

Even though Noah was playing a mind game, it still doesn’t change the fact that the majority of people going through that had to literally degrade themselves on a regular basis. It’s tough.

You’re now filming the next “Jack Reacher” movie with Tom Cruise. Do you prefer TV or film? 

I’m never going to turn down a great job, so that’s why I don’t prefer either/or, but when it comes to film specifically, I would definitely love to become more familiar because the film world doesn’t really know me. For a while, I’m like, “what, am I doing something wrong? Am I not hitting?” But I feel like that’s going to change soon. I have faith. For the sake of interest and being able to explore and just train myself — because every job to me is a school — I want to train myself in as many ways as possible, and film gives you different curriculum than television. I need to be there, because otherwise what’s the point of me doing my job?

I’m trying to practice it every day, because every night when you’re like, “dang, I’m tired; dang, I don’t want to do this” — you’re like, “wait a minute, shut up, dude. You asked for this.” I don’t understand actors who complain when they get work. “I’m working too much, I’ve got to get up too early …” Isn’t this the point? There’s somebody right now who’s bussing tables who would love your problems.

We used to be homeless, so I don’t complain about work. I know one day it’s probably going to stop. I’m trying to not take anything for granted at this point and make sure that my head is on the way it needs to be, because I need to pay respect to whoever’s giving me the blessing. I always know where we could be, and we could be living in the car again, or on the street again, or stealing food from Mickey D’s. We went through that.

I think that my humble beginnings were very deliberate, and I’m grateful for them because I’m not sure I would see my achievements the same way if they were handed to me. I’m not sure my work ethic would be the same. I probably love my work too much, but I love my upbringing. I wouldn’t change it. If you gave me an option to be born rich, I’d say no, put me back in that car. I’m good to go, because I’m going to get out of that car.

“Underground” premieres Wednesday, March 9 at 10 p.m. on WGN America.