Aisha Hinds plays Harriet Tubman, the legendary “conductor” of the Underground Railroad who led slaves to freedom in WGN America’s “Underground.” Such a role might prove humbling for any actor, but Hinds had to summon even more strength than she expected in the “Minty” episode. Tubman speaks of the travails of her life in soliloquy for the entire episode. It’s the kind of performance familiar to theatergoers, but nearly unheard-of in episodic TV.
Hinds: “Here’s the thing about Misha and Joe: They’re very matter of fact. Very early on in the process, the writers were using these terms like ‘TED Talk,’ ‘Harriet’s episode,’ but there was no way that I would wrap my brain around the idea that this would be an entire episode with one character speaking for 55 minutes. My thought was they were talking about maybe 10 minutes, 15 minutes of a monologue, and then the rest would be the usual ‘Underground.’
“I wanted to do all of the preparation necessary. Essentially they were putting on a one-woman show on television. I flew to New York to look at one-woman shows, just to kind of see how the story was told. I read incessantly about Harriet Tubman, so that once I got the script the story would be familiar to me.
“My episode was shot during the last three days of production, so I had to wait for the episode to be written in its entirety. I was handed half the script 10 days before shooting, the other half seven days before, so I essentially had a week to memorize 45 pages of dialogue. I was like, ‘This is not possible.’ I literally slept with the pages of the script. One of my best friends from New Orleans flew in during the Thanksgiving break. We both canceled Thanksgiving, and we just absorbed every single word until those words were tattooed to my brain. I wanted to learn 10 pages a day, but my brain just wouldn’t go for it. When I got through it, I sort of celebrated and began to cry.
“I had to leave and fly out back to Savannah, where we were shooting, the next day. I get to the airport, and I start to feel all the nerves. I started feeling queasy and I throw up on the plane. I’ve never in my life thrown up on an airplane. Here I am throwing up in the bag, and then I land, and I have a fever, spikes to over 100. Now I’m literally breaking down.
“I thought that there would be a Teleprompter and a earpiece as a safety net for me. I still wanted to memorize as much as I could so I didn’t have to use the safety net. When I got to set, I realized that these safety nets were not actually in place. There was no Teleprompter. When I got to the sound cart, the guy put the earpiece in my ear for Misha to speak into my ear if I didn’t know where I was in the story. But there was all this distracting feedback. I asked them to turn it down, and they told me that the feedback was standard. I pulled out the earpiece and handed it off. When I walked to the stage, I realized that I had no more crutches.
“We got through 17 pages on the first day. There were people who were in the crew who said they had been in the business over 40 years and had never experienced a day in television like this, where we shot 17 pages in one day. It was amazing and transformative and life-changing. It really was a spiritual experience.
“I walked into this production and into this role with so much trepidation, feeling like I was so inadequate and that I couldn’t do justice to Tubman’s story and honoring her legacy. I think she just needed a vessel. I surrendered to being that vessel. I just told the story from the center of my soul.”