The Cast of Underground Talks About Working at a Real Slave Plantation

by | March 8, 2016 | Comments


There’s one thing you can be sure of before you watch Underground, WGN’s new drama about the Underground Railroad: this show will make you feel.

Set in the tumult of the Antebellum South, Misha Green and Joe Pokaski’s Underground tells the story of the brave men and women who attempt to escape slavery — and the mental effect it has on everyone involved. Part action-adventure, part psychological thriller, the historical series captures a modern sensibility, thanks in large part to the storytelling style of director Anthony Hemingway (Empire, Treme).

Hemingway, who shot the first four installments of this 10-episode order, uses drones and point-of-view shots to translate the feelings of anxiety, imprisonment, and urgency to the viewer, and a bold synth soundtrack executive-produced by John Legend gives the show a contemporary feel. One thing, however, that was not updated for Underground was the location. The series, set in 1857, is shot in places that bring the actors directly to the past.

Filming on Felicity Plantation along the Mississippi River and within the slave shacks at Louisiana’s Burden Museum, the cast and crew felt the weight of history from the moment they arrived.


“When you’re out here on these real plantations, you see trees that are 250-years-old and you say, ‘Wow, I wonder what happened on these branches,’” recalled Johnny Ray Gill (True Blood), who plays a slave carpenter longing for freedom. “So you want to make sure that you’re giving the character– me, personally, giving Sam — the depth and breadth of humanity that he deserves.”

It’s a feeling echoed by Aldis Hodge (Leverage), who stars as Noah, a young blacksmith with a secret plan to escape. “I remember the first time we stepped on that ground,” Hodge told Rotten Tomatoes. “We [hoped] to do a service to these people and their stories.”

For most of the Underground cast, there was a new appreciation for their ancestors’ struggle for freedom — not to mention a renewed gratitude for the basic creature comforts we all take for granted. The set was hot, the clothes uncomfortable, and the Louisiana humidity unrelenting. But even that was not what made the biggest impression on the cast. It was the feeling of mental imprisonment — and the slaves’ determination to break free.

“These were really empowered individuals,” said Jurnee Smollett-Bell (Friday Night Lights), who plays Rosalee, a young slave woman who has never stepped foot off the plantation. “We get the blessing of exploring the ones who have no other choice but to run because [they’d] rather die than live enslaved… We were drawn to that complexity of the mental enslavement, which is actually way more powerful than putting someone in physical chains.”

At no point does Underground aim to be a tableau of antebellum history. The stories of its characters are meant to be experienced in a psychological way, and not like an old oil painting on the wall. “We always said we wanted to take it off the wall and live in it,” Green explained. “So that was demanded from day one.”


For everyone involved in the project, Underground has been an education about a time in America’s history that is often relegated to a page or two in junior high textbooks. Christopher Meloni (Law & Order: SVU), who was a history major in college and knew a fair amount about the subject before joining the cast, dug deeper into the stories of the Underground Railroad. “It reminded me of how fertile and how chaotic and dangerous that era was leading up to the Civil War,” Meloni told RT. “It was really a nation already on fire… it was a dangerous time.”

And for some, the series is an education in their personal histories. “It’s great to look back on this time period and for the first time say, “I’m so proud of this time,” said Amirah Vann, who plays the head house slave, Ernestine. “I’m so proud of my ancestry, my legacy. I’m so proud that my grandmother is from Augusta, Georgia. I can stand taller, knowing that that’s the legacy — the legacy of survival and the willingness to make sacrifices for the people you love.”

Underground also stars Alano Miller, Jessica De Gouw, Renwick Scott, Marc Blucas, Mykelti Williamson, Adina Porter, and Theodus Crane. Season one premieres Wednesday, Mar. 9, on WGN.

Tag Cloud

20th Century Fox Mindy Kaling DC Comics Emmy Nominations popular BBC America spider-verse crime drama ABC Signature ABC CBS hispanic romantic comedy obituary The Academy comic book movie women Opinion italian movies TCA Winter 2020 Premiere Dates Nat Geo MCU Western rt archives Disney spy thriller RT History dc series Netflix king kong olympics New York Comic Con E! composers target 21st Century Fox Nickelodeon Creative Arts Emmys new zealand First Look 93rd Oscars comic book movies FX on Hulu rotten fresh zero dark thirty Comic Book Oscars teaser PBS 2017 Thanksgiving YouTube marvel cinematic universe strong female leads Super Bowl pirates of the caribbean Pet Sematary Exclusive Video Adult Swim Discovery Channel space child's play documentaries Syfy TV One Legendary science fiction Mary poppins BBC TNT scorecard award winner high school Red Carpet Writers Guild of America telelvision 2020 Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Superheroes Quiz LGBT romance Musical Freeform USA theme song Shudder Star Wars kids The Walking Dead aapi critics south america cops Infographic History zombies worst prank festivals ID TruTV wonder woman superman a nightmare on elm street ratings biography australia cults movie TBS spanish language TCA cartoon Masterpiece werewolf spinoff Countdown DGA richard e. Grant Pirates streaming nbcuniversal quibi cats leaderboard PaleyFest Wes Anderson Awards Summer justice league Universal Avengers scary young adult black japanese PlayStation VICE dogs IFC vampires BAFTA disaster lord of the rings rom-coms comic Mary Tyler Moore FX Holiday Tags: Comedy Horror Pop TV Comics on TV DC Universe casting all-time elevated horror best Holidays E3 Fall TV docuseries toronto suspense Fargo Apple TV+ live event Fox News 90s Lucasfilm unscripted LGBTQ Binge Guide true crime Britbox Brie Larson witnail cancelled Extras Paramount Network know your critic Mystery mutant Nominations VH1 feel good NYCC ESPN parents National Geographic USA Network heist movie twilight rt labs discovery Comedy monster movies Neflix Christmas historical drama sequel VOD fast and furious blockbuster BET comiccon Paramount Plus hollywood TV movies cinemax Television Critics Association IFC Films Chernobyl gangster Film Marathons Pop ITV Warner Bros. The Purge Hallmark Women's History Month El Rey foreign video royal family Reality Competition 71st Emmy Awards canceled new star wars movies psycho mcc action-comedy Epix Amazon Prime Video OneApp festival President laika Song of Ice and Fire cancelled TV series godzilla black comedy Awards Tour 2021 canceled TV shows period drama archives See It Skip It stoner football SundanceTV docudrama die hard diversity OWN Academy Awards Rocky Pacific Islander Election toy story A24 trophy green book golden globes The Witch revenge 4/20 what to watch comedies Television Academy DC streaming service Black Mirror franchise Marvel Studios 72 Emmy Awards versus Set visit Tumblr Broadway slashers video on demand ViacomCBS game show children's TV comic books Anna Paquin dragons X-Men worst movies Lionsgate Sci-Fi Cosplay Winners reboot Music cancelled TV shows Marvel Television Logo Character Guide Hollywood Foreign Press Association Film Festival Image Comics 2019 Drama Spectrum Originals universal monsters doctor who Chilling Adventures of Sabrina animated Musicals kaiju BET Awards Cannes robots indie Fantasy 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards AMC Plus 99% transformers Interview renewed TV shows harry potter talk show BBC One Arrowverse directors Schedule TLC golden globe awards Family stand-up comedy Disney+ Disney Plus Sony Pictures critic resources book Kids & Family Pixar chucky political drama Alien Amazon Ghostbusters free movies Action Photos vs. adventure Year in Review Tubi Bravo Best and Worst game of thrones Cartoon Network debate First Reviews Funimation adaptation sopranos YA superhero new york dramedy Classic Film Crunchyroll Vudu Box Office Watching Series Amazon Studios Sundance Reality comics Spring TV Polls and Games Disney streaming service Mary Poppins Returns HFPA name the review films singing competition crossover nfl Trailer TV anthology HBO Max latino TCA 2017 sitcom SXSW APB The Walt Disney Company FOX independent YouTube Red Superheroe Marvel japan deadpool Crackle Grammys rotten movies we love cooking Stephen King emmy awards boxing documentary ABC Family venice miniseries WarnerMedia based on movie Dark Horse Comics Calendar sequels 2015 Captain marvel screen actors guild legend 1990s Winter TV dreamworks Comedy Central Pride Month Starz FXX 007 Comic-Con@Home 2021 A&E satire dceu Country biopic Netflix Christmas movies asian-american criterion San Diego Comic-Con Black History Month serial killer supernatural CMT saw sports TV Land Disney Channel Food Network international finale Emmys dark television mission: impossible jamie lee curtis cars Showtime blockbusters classics thriller YouTube Premium crime politics RT21 CW Seed aliens mockumentary Certified Fresh 79th Golden Globes Awards Shondaland Baby Yoda blaxploitation American Society of Cinematographers anime police drama 2016 Rock hidden camera spain NBC Star Trek GIFs 73rd Emmy Awards Instagram Live tv talk TCM halloween tv Peacock reviews 2018 Rocketman TCA Awards Trivia social media Acorn TV medical drama trailers Sundance Now TV renewals Video Games Walt Disney Pictures genre CNN Hulu Ellie Kemper joker french batman HBO Go screenings Toys Teen posters technology Biopics marvel comics spider-man rt labs critics edition Columbia Pictures Hallmark Christmas movies remakes spanish Tarantino natural history halloween scene in color MSNBC Prime Video IMDb TV Hear Us Out james bond Tokyo Olympics Disney Plus adenture Elton John Rom-Com Apple TV Plus 24 frames crime thriller live action Travel Channel concert Podcast Paramount sag awards stop motion Universal Pictures Lifetime Mudbound Apple SDCC Trophy Talk ghosts mob Animation jurassic park Esquire GLAAD Turner Classic Movies scary movies Sneak Peek indiana jones GoT nature book adaptation zombie art house facebook breaking bad cancelled television christmas movies Ovation streaming movies Spike razzies Lifetime Christmas movies Heroines Valentine's Day DirecTV The Arrangement news basketball NBA kong psychological thriller Amazon Prime boxoffice Tomatazos HBO binge hispanic heritage month slasher king arthur travel Endgame dexter WGN TIFF Turner Martial Arts AMC CBS All Access Sundance TV MTV Fox Searchlight The CW war hist 45