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

by | March 8, 2016 | Comments

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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.

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“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.”

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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.

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