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.

  • Dennis Finan Jr

    ya im gonna pass. probably gonna leave out alot of historical truths

Tag Cloud

TIFF Watching Series binge TBS RT21 Turner Classic Movies ITV Rocketman WarnerMedia adventure VICE game show RT History 2016 TV renewals 2018 Martial Arts Disney Plus Superheroe stand-up comedy latino GIFs CNN mockumentary 007 witnail CW Seed sequel Lifetime Christmas movies ESPN Apple TV Plus TCM Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt streaming Sundance Now Animation politics Premiere Dates ABC Fox News hispanic Summer Crackle Cartoon Network San Diego Comic-Con finale Netflix free movies TNT justice league Amazon Prime Video Writers Guild of America psychological thriller Reality halloween doctor who cinemax Trivia Music animated Mudbound Star Wars Biopics serial killer diversity Syfy cartoon adaptation Song of Ice and Fire Election ABC Family Mindy Kaling Winners Shudder President war Paramount Country Family period drama PaleyFest IFC Bravo FXX The Walking Dead Fall TV theme song Epix Emmys Hulu blockbuster travel versus Peacock Adult Swim cancelled TV series First Look disaster BBC America SXSW green book The Witch cancelled television Women's History Month Lifetime Marvel Television Pixar tv talk A24 Ellie Kemper LGBTQ 20th Century Fox HBO Max Schedule Best and Worst south america Sneak Peek Infographic Disney Channel zombies movies Holiday The CW what to watch New York Comic Con Marathons TCA X-Men Video Games Crunchyroll sitcom NYCC political drama Superheroes GoT Awards Tour Comics on TV TCA 2017 dceu Universal FX 24 frames Mystery Film Festival sports richard e. Grant Tomatazos TV Nickelodeon spain thriller TV Land werewolf YA aliens biography Rocky Binge Guide Quiz YouTube Premium Warner Bros. Horror Captain marvel technology SundanceTV crime thriller crime 21st Century Fox spanish language MTV true crime GLAAD dc anime Lionsgate American Society of Cinematographers Certified Fresh NBC psycho toy story Chernobyl independent Western renewed TV shows USA cancelled TV shows indie YouTube Nat Geo Disney streaming service Cosplay Pride Month Comedy Central Winter TV DC Universe Mary Poppins Returns Pop Star Trek Lucasfilm Awards CMT Netflix Christmas movies cults Black Mirror Pirates Arrowverse Mary Tyler Moore natural history Heroines SDCC Teen comic comics Showtime quibi Spring TV transformers cops award winner Freeform strong female leads Tumblr IFC Films kids canceled Paramount Network Disney+ Disney Plus Valentine's Day cooking See It Skip It Turner Trailer Polls and Games Action Apple TV+ screenings AMC historical drama Character Guide video Trophy Talk facebook Vudu Brie Larson WGN Ghostbusters Kids & Family DirecTV LGBT Marvel Studios nature Photos Cannes BBC Grammys Musicals Box Office joker Masterpiece based on movie Opinion romance 2015 Thanksgiving CBS All Access DC Comics cancelled Reality Competition A&E Holidays spider-man crime drama crossover Rom-Com Podcast The Purge Ovation TLC blaxploitation Hallmark Christmas movies Stephen King Food Network Sony Pictures El Rey 45 rotten movies we love docudrama harry potter Walt Disney Pictures dramedy Mary poppins foreign christmas movies Toys Hallmark anthology DC streaming service Amazon Prime slashers FOX Amazon Esquire Year in Review Pet Sematary breaking bad composers PBS book Television Academy Film Chilling Adventures of Sabrina MCU First Reviews ghosts spy thriller ratings Rock Anna Paquin talk show Apple discovery Calendar Oscars Spike children's TV comiccon HBO unscripted cars police drama science fiction BET Creative Arts Emmys Comedy VH1 Logo Fantasy The Arrangement Spectrum Originals Elton John game of thrones miniseries Acorn TV space Countdown teaser festivals Tarantino MSNBC Set visit OWN romantic comedy Britbox jamie lee curtis dragons cats Interview golden globes Shondaland TruTV Extras television supernatural YouTube Red revenge DGA Christmas robots Nominations Dark Horse Comics Comic Book Marvel singing competition Disney elevated horror Musical mutant 2017 boxoffice CBS National Geographic Super Bowl APB hist 2019 Sundance vampires series Drama medical drama E! canceled TV shows Red Carpet Emmy Nominations Sci-Fi batman 71st Emmy Awards Columbia Pictures Classic Film Starz casting social media E3 History zombie USA Network spinoff zero dark thirty