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‘Underground’: Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Aldis Hodge Discuss Nation’s Early Civil Rights Movement

On March 9, “Underground” will join “Salem” and “Manhattan” as another WGN America drama centered around of one of the most chilling periods in U.S. history.

Set mostly on a Southern plantation in 1857, the series focuses on Aldis Hodge’s Noah, a slave who is willing to risk his life for freedom as he hopes to find the right trail (and some compassionate souls) to lead the way. In his quest, he finds a surprising ally: The shy and well-mannered house slave Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell).

Hodge and Smollett-Bell talked with Variety about the series, which is created by Joe Pokaski and Misha Green, and why it was important for them both to work on something that was (to use Smollett-Bell’s word) “meaningful.”

Underground” premieres at such an important time in America’s civil rights history. Did that cross your mind when you were considering the project?

AH: It wasn’t like I was aiming for something like this content. But as an artist, you’re always seeking to look for something substantial and something that’s going to help your career evolve. Every job you do, somebody’s looking at it. You’re leaving an impression on somebody. What is going to be your footprint?

I want to have a resume that is substantial enough to hold itself as respectful. This was a job that could teach me skills as an actor and it is something I’m very proud of. This subject matter, how it’s told, how it’s shot, that’s something I’m very proud of. I got really lucky to be a part of the cast that enhances all of that. As an actor, it’s very rare that you get a choice in a matter. But you’re always looking for something that has some gravitas.

How was it working with a smaller network like WGN America?

JSB: They don’t have to work within the conventions that ordinary networks do, so they gave us a lot of creative freedom. They gave the creatives creative freedom and that allowed us to have creative freedom. That makes for a really powerful tone on set when you’re able to just collaborate and try to just serve the project. You don’t have certain boundaries.

HBO is developing a biopic about Underground Railroad heroine Harriet Tubman. How do you feel about your story, which concentrates on fictional versions of people from that movement?

JSB:We did so much research and so our characters are more composite characters. Unfortunately, it’s true that of the thousands of people involved with the Underground Railroad most people know just one name — Harriet Tubman, or they know Frederick Douglass and, if you go a little deeper, some people might know William Still.

It’s unfortunate because it’s such a noble and audacious part of our history. Like [co-creator] Misha Green says, it’s the first time in our history when there was an integrated civil rights movement.

As you said, the Underground Railroad was extremely dangerous and chances are that many of the show’s characters won’t survive the first season. Have you talked about that and what this means if you were to get a second season?

JSB: It’s such a rich world and there’s so many stories we could pull from just because it was so dangerous. The risk that these men and women took, it really altered history. They have a lot of plans, if we’re so lucky, for the next few seasons.

Jurnee, we know that your brother, “Empire’s” Jussie Smollett, appears in the show…

JSB: He’s in episode four.

AH: All we can say is you probably won’t recognize him. He’s that good and the makeup is that good.

Can we talk about the audition process?

AH: First of all, she didn’t have an audition. She had a meeting.

JSB: (gets bashful) They like to make fun of me …

AH: Once I found out I did get the job, you are looking at several years of working with somebody. This is truly an ensemble cast and we share quite an equal weight of holding up the show. We have a different responsibility. We have to do it right.

When you look forward to that, being on set is not really working. Surviving the elements is working, but being on set and having to do a scene and being in a room with the same people who you actually enjoy and respect, your day project was easy.

The music comes from series exec producer John Legend and his Get Lifted partners Mike Jackson and Ty Stiklorius. Some might find it surprising when they hear it in the first episode.

JSB: Music in any film or television plays such an important role, for our show, the song “Follow the Drinking Gourd” [that some characters sing in the show] is the map to freedom. The music is really important. There’s a sense of urgency from the first song in the intro. We feel safe with Get Lifted. They understand what they’re doing.

AH: Get Lifted, John and his team and Mike Jackson and Ty, they’ve been doing this for years and this is something they honed their skills on. They understand what’s important and how to construct the right environment musically that lends us just a few more tools to toss subliminally. The very first song was very deliberate and was written in from the beginning. It sets the tone with the hard beats and the drum … it sets your energy off right. You can’t escape it; you’re just in it.

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

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