I Went to the Enemy's Camp: Rewriting History with the Cast and Creators of Underground

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I Went to the Enemy's Camp: Rewriting History with the Cast and Creators of <i>Underground</i>

A conversation with Misha Green, Joe Pokaski, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Amirah Vann, Aldis Hodge and Alano Miller.

When Amirah Vann is asked to describe the relationship between her Underground character Ernestine and her character’s slave owner, she answers in a way that perfectly captures the tension of the WGN series. Vann takes a deep breath, and begins by, first, praising the show’s co-creators, Misha Green and Joe Pokaski.

“Misha and Joe are just so brilliant because, it’s complicated—but then again, it’s not.” The formidable actor, who seamlessly transitioned from the theater to TV, gives the rest of her answer in the form of a single, fiery monologue that manages to capture it all:

“It’s complicated, because he owns me—so then it’s rape. It’s complicated, because I’m also a sexual woman, and I’m sure there are moments when it feels good to be touched by someone. It’s complicated, because I’ve been there, and I’ve been sleeping with him for—how long? How old is Rosalee? You know what I’m saying? How long has he been my only ‘lover,’ if you can use that word, for this? It’s complicated, because he is the one person who has the power to stop Rosalee from getting her arms whipped—but I have to beg him to do it. It’s complicated, because he’s also the one who stops me from cutting off my own son’s heels. But then, it’s complicated, because he hangs my son.

So, at the end of the day, when you look at all that, it’s not complicated. You still hung my son, you still own me, you’re still a leader in this institution of slavery—so, pardon my French, but—fuck you.”

Welcome to Underground.

The profanity Vann uses is a reflection of the rebellious nature of the show itself, which is an entertaining and educational middle-finger flip to the lessons many of us have been taught about slavery. In elementary school, it’s a unit often glossed over—otherwise it can be just plain depressing. And you can’t talk about Underground without talking about the damage that this series is trying to undo (all, mind you, while bringing us a high-octane, sexy and shocking drama that you certainly wouldn’t show in its entirety to a group of fifth-graders). Vann speaks of her mother, a retired school teacher, when she talks about the way we’ve come to understand American slavery. For her mother, it was always a difficult unit to teach, because she could see that, no matter how she put it, the black children in the room felt less than.

“We’ve all been brainwashed into seeing this as a devastating part of history that is not about heroism—not about revolution or our exodus.”

And for this reason, she didn’t want any part of yet another story about slavery. At least, she thought she didn’t, when she first got the Underground audition.

“Girl, I thank God that I read the script!” she says, laughing.

Jurnee Smollett-Bell plays Vann’s daughter, Rosalee, and she expresses the same initial skepticism, followed by the shock and awe (and excitement) that came from reading the pilot.

“I wondered, ‘How are they gonna do this for season after season?’ And then when I read it, and saw that we opened on ‘Black Skinhead’ by Kanye West, I was like, ‘Wait—am I reading the wrong script?’”

She immediately sent a text to director Anthony Hemingway, who had already become attached to the project (Joe Pokaski said finding Hemingway was like discovering their “third Beatle”), and started “writing a book” to him, explaining why she was perfect for the character of Rosalee. They’d worked together on True Blood, and Smollett-Bell was ecstatic when she received his reply: a picture of his pitching book—the book he’d used to get the job—with a picture of her face beside Rosalee’s name.

Vann and Smollett-Bell’s initial skepticism matched the feelings many of us had when we first heard of the show, as we had no idea what the creators of Underground were plotting. Their goal, as Misha Green puts it, was to give the people of the time “some kind of agency.” Where TV and film-going audiences have grown accustomed to stories featuring black people as whipping posts—stories which are important, but can still be devastating to witness—Green and Pokaski always knew they would go in a different route.

To hear them talk, they just wanted to make a good TV show that also honored the legacies of the people they spent their time with, in literature, autobiographies and testimonies found at the Library of Congress. In conversation, it’s clear that they’re unaware (or at least, disinterested) in the heroic nature of their decision to make such a powerful show. And when Vann brings up the image of young black students being told that their history in America began as mere tragedy, an old gospel song immediately comes to mind. Green and Pokaski did not just make an excellent and empowering first season of television; they went to the enemy’s camp, and they took back what they stole from us—our stories, and our heroes.

This act of reclamation as heroism is an act of rebellion reflected in every episode of the series. And as you watch the stories unfold, it all begins to make perfect sense: Of course slavery was a time when blacks were not just enslaved, but in a constant state of rebellion. It’s the perfect series to premiere in the same year as Nate Parker’s already record-breaking The Birth of a Nation, lest we begin to think that only grand, violent acts of rebellion are worth celebrating. Underground isn’t just about characters who made the 600-mile run to freedom, it’s about all those seemingly small acts of rebellion before someone runs, and it’s about honoring the acts committed by those who chose to stay. Perhaps, most importantly, it’s about the complicated psychology behind it all. In fact, one enslaved woman’s very thought process was really the genesis of the whole project.

“In our research, we’d found this letter written by a slave girl,” Green says. “And she was debating all of the reasons to run, or not to run. It really hit us, and opened the door to the complexities of the choice to run 600 miles.”

The letter inspired Rosalee’s character, whose grappling in the pilot, “The Macon 7,” sets the tone for the first few episodes. While there are characters like Aldis Hodge’s Noah and Renwick Scott’s Henry—characters who we know, almost immediately, have a strong desire to flee the Macon plantation—the desires of some others are not so readily revealed.

Alano Miller recalls the moment when he discovered that his character, Cato, was far more layered than he first expected.

“I just love that at the end of the first episode, he said he wanted to run,” Miller explains. “That sold it for me. He wasn’t the normal Uncle Tom, or a traitor—he was much more.”

From that point on, Miller knew that his job would be to find and unveil the humanity—and even the reluctant hero—within him.

For Aldis Hodge, Noah represented a completely unique opportunity. The actor is known for his great work on shows like Friday Night Lights and Leverage, as well as last year’s Straight Outta Compton. And while these roles surely helped him hone his craft, Hodge says that none of them could really prepare him for this.

“There’s so many challenges with Noah,” he says. “He’s nothing like any character I’ve ever played before, and I’m still learning who he is.”

He committed himself to the role when he realized, upon reading the first episode, that Noah was going to be more than just the leader of the Macon 7.

“When he’s in the shed with Rosalee, he stands up, and none of the pain bothers him. And he tells her that we’re all pretending in some way. That’s what hooked me,” he recalls. “I said, ‘This man is truly a warrior—not just a leader, but a warrior. He will fight to his last breath.’”

The compelling pilot episode introduces us to these great characters, but in retrospect, we really only get a hint at who they are, underneath all those layers. Alano Miller likens the hints to breadcrumbs, and he remains in awe of how diligently Green and Pokaski worked to write a character who has to consistently hold things back.

“I sat down with Misha and Joe, and we made sure that in every episode there was some flash of something [to show you] that he wasn’t just a villain,” Miller says. With Cato, perhaps even more than the other characters, there was constant concern for what should not be shown yet. For this reason, episode eight, “Grave,” works as a brilliant reveal for the former slavedriver, who’s performing alongside Rosalee as a free man. In a seemingly simple moment when Cato is watching Rosalee play the piano, we catch a glimpse of his heart—and it’s one of the most shocking things we see all season: Cato, as an actual human.

This concept of the slow reveal for a character was a difficult, but familiar lesson for Smollett-Bell.

“Playing Rosalee has taught me to have patience with my emotions, and patience with my craft,” she says. “That’s one of the things Denzel [Washington] taught me [during The Great Debaters]—that less is more. A lot of what Rosalee experiences is non-verbal. And it really was about pacing it, and not playing to that strength that I knew she was gonna have by episode ten.”

Not playing to her character’s strength was even harder than it sounds, and the actor admits that she and Misha Green bumped heads quite bit during the early days of shooting. They were both very opinionated about Rosalee, and it took some time for Smollett-Bell to understand that Rosalee’s strength wasn’t necessarily bold, or even completely visible.

Rosalee is not, for example, Ms. Ernestine. By the second episode of the season, “War Chest,” we all knew that Vann’s character was a feminist icon in the making. And you can imagine her shock when she was reading the script for the first time, turned the page, and entered the wine cellar scene.

Vann laughs heartily, as she recalls sitting on a plane when she first encountered the complicated, but steamy, sex scene.

“I’d just ordered a glass of wine, but put it to the side, because I wanted to read clearly,” Vann says.” [And then I see] ‘Tom Macon comes down the stairs and encounters Ms. Ernestine, stark naked.’ I grabbed that glass of wine so quickly!” she says, laughing.

She wasn’t sure what she’d gotten herself into, but she was ready—or, as she put it, “Ain’t no goin’ back.”

Misha Green cut her teeth on shows like Sons of Anarchy and Heroes, which is how she met Pokaski. She came aboard the series in Season Four, and Pokaski was tasked with writing an episode with the new girl.

“Anyone who’s ever written a script with someone else realizes that most of the time you just hate each other in the end.” He adds, with a laugh, “Misha and I had strenuous conversations, but for the most part it was a great experience, and we made our writing better.” They took those experiences, and Green’s love for stories that are equal parts “sexy and violent in context,” and crafted characters like Vann’s Ernestine. And in spite of the occasional comedic elements—many of which we can thank Miller’s Cato for—this is ultimately a show about people living under American slavery. And each actor can recall a difficult day, when they simply did not want to be there.

“Please, don’t let me hear the sound of the whip.”

“Early on, I trusted Misha and Joe and [director and executive producer] Anthony. But when we first shot [the scene when Ernestine murders Pearly Mae], I was in tears. I was like, ‘This is horrific, this is my sister girl. How did we get to this point?’”

Miller can still remember the terror of filming the cotton field fire (Cato delivers a fantastic, equally terrifying monologue, before he torches the Macon plantation field), and Hodge opens up about the physical toll the series took at some points.

“To get a 20-second clip of us running through the woods, we’d shoot for four or five hours—running all day,” he says. “It’s slippery, it’s muddy, you have very little control, trying to run without breaking your neck—and you’re trying to avoid snakes.”

But only one character suffers (on camera) through a horrifying, but routine—for blacks in those times—mutilation. Smollett-Bell remembers the shock of filming one of the only whipping scenes, in the first episode. It had never been explicitly written into the script, and she was furious and scared.

“I kept arguing with Joe and Misha and saying, ‘It’s not on the page!’” she says. “On the day of the scene I refused to talk to anyone about it. The only thing I said to Anthony was, ‘Please don’t let me hear the sound of the whip.’ And I just surrendered.”

It seems this was one of those times when an actor has to let go and be led on by the spirit of something bigger than TV, or even one’s own fear.

“There are photographs of men and women with beautiful bodies and beautiful skin, just ransacked with stripes,” she says, quietly. “In my mind were some of these images, and I could hear Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit,’ and I just walked out there, looked at the trees. And we did it.”

She and Vann both speak of another similarly difficult day on the set. They were filming a church scene, and their characters were required to do something very simple: keep their heads bowed and their eyes lowered in the presence of the many white extras who were in the scene. It nearly pushed Vann over the edge.

“The actors were doing a great job, so their ‘great job’ means that I want to kill them,” she says, laughing. “I sat there with Jurnee and I said, ‘I’m having a hard day.’ She just happened to have her copy of Bullwhip Days on her lap. And she just pats the book. It was so simple. And we looked at each other. I cried for a minute, and I knew immediately that it wasn’t about me. It wasn’t about us.”

Smollett-Bell remembers the day vividly.

“I could relate to Amirah so much in that moment,” she says. “I just looked down at my book, which was like my Bible, because it was important for us to remember why we were there. We were there to bring life to their voices.”

Hodge echoes her sentiments, saying, “We have a lot of support and love around us. Also, we feel so proud. Whenever I have to go through a brutal scene, I know that it’s not for naught.”

Perhaps the most important thing about the show is that these moments of bowed heads are few and far between, and almost never without some act that depicts agency, intelligence and rebellion among the enslaved.

Vann likens it all to the those testimonials you hear growing up in church. Moments of triumph are born out of struggle. Every character on Underground has moments of greatness, but these moments wouldn’t impact the audience in the same way without the struggle. If we hadn’t witnessed Theodus Crane’s Zeke burying his newborn son and losing his wife, the impact of his flight wouldn’t be the same. And when he does go down, he takes so many slave catchers with him that the tragedy of his death is tempered—like so many difficult losses on the show—with an undeniable glory.

These specific decisions to present these black characters as superheroes (not to be confused with magical negroes, super-powered super-predators, or other dangerous tropes) are the reason we can trust Green and Pokaski (along with Hemingway, executive producer John Legend and music supervisors Laura Karpman and Raphael Saadiq) to build on what we’ve seen so far in the forthcoming second season. Vann, Smollett-Bell, Miller and Hodge all use this word at some point or another to describe their experience on the show: it all comes down to trust. It starts with the relationship between Green and Pokaski (“The beautiful thing is that we trust each other and we love each other’s creative opinions,” says Green), and it trickles down to the audience—particularly those of us who were skeptical when we first heard about the series.

We all have our reasons for falling in love with a show, and while I’ve spent the last seven episodes writing about some of the big themes Underground has tackled, the creators and the cast have earned my trust because of their treatment of the small things.

“There are these moments that Misha and I thought were very subtle,” Pokaski says, in praise of the Underground audience. “A look, or a word. It’s amazing how people will pick up on it.” I would argue that people aren’t only picking up on such small things—we crave them.

Vann recalls one of her favorite scenes, between Johnny Ray Gill’s Sam and Rosalee.

“She asks him ‘Are you ever afraid?’ and then she’s just like, ‘I am.’ Those simple, two words—so open and pure. Some of the best moments in TV and theater are those moments when it’s just two people talking. When it’s just sincere and honest.”

Once again, she’s nailed it. It’s not the moon landing, but Peggy and Don dancing together on Mad Men; not Maura coming out to her kids, but the Pfeffermans gathered together, eating barbecue on Transparent. Not the death of Joyce Summers from Buffy, but Willow trying to find the blue shirt she liked so much—it’s always the small, intimate things that give the bigger issues such great weight. On another show these humanizing small things would have been ignored, or exchanged for more devastating scenes of brutality—scenes that would have likely left us calling the show “difficult, but important.” Because of their boldness, and because their intent was to also make a fascinating and, yes, binge-worthy (if you can take all that drama and energy back-to-back) series, we got something better.

So what did we get? Now that we’re here, with just two more episodes left to the season, what is this show, Underground? I don’t think we can answer that, just yet. We’d need about 10 more Amirah Vann-like monologues that begin with “It’s complicated.” We’d need as many essays and syllabi as the ones that black women started flooding the internet with after Lemonade dropped. Most importantly, we need time. We won’t know the significance of this show until the finale premieres next week—a finale which must go down in history as one of the most thrilling, jaw-dropping and devastating TV episodes of all time. And we won’t know the power of Underground until we meet new characters in Season Two, who will likely be given the same, slow-burning treatment as the ones we’ve fallen in love with in Season One—and I suspect we’ll lose many of them, as well.

We won’t know what this show is, precisely, until the actors, all of whom have expressed a deep connection to their roles, go on to star in other shows. Think of Amirah Vann playing a contemporary character, who will no doubt have some trace of the great Ernestine. Can you imagine how she’d bring to life an Annalise Keating-esque lawyer, or a Leftovers-type cult leader, or what it would look like if she got to play a ruthless spy, à la Elizabeth Jennings? When these things unfold, we’ll still be talking about Underground.

And then there’s Green and Pokaski, who have made just one show together.Underground is their baby, their firstborn. What happens when someone like Green decides that she wants to tell a contemporary story, and perhaps brings on some familiar faces from the Underground family? What happens to the culture, when she and Anthony Hemingway team up to direct Beyoncé’s next video/album/movement?

And what of those children—Darielle Stewart and Maceo Smedley—who dominated and devastated us in episode seven’s “Cradle”? We won’t know how important this show is until they come of age and start creating their own works, inspired by the time they spent alongside the likes of Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Aldis Hodge.

And all the same can be said for this particular moment in American history—that we can’t say for sure what it is, because it’s not history yet (and even when it does become the past, we know that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past”). We are in a time where black lives that have not mattered are being held up and reflected back to the world. And we won’t truly understand the significance of all this, for a very long time. Many of us watching a show like Underground do so, in part because we believe that, while history is unfolding, it is our task to bear witness. And perhaps it is also our task to leave such a mark that those who come after us won’t have to work so hard at re-writing history—that, perhaps, there won’t be such an enormous and powerful enemy’s camp for them to take down. Perhaps it’s just a fantasy, but after Underground, I can’t help but imagine a world where the children of my children are not miseducated into thinking that slavery was just a time when black people kept their heads bowed. They’ll know, as sure as they know the name of the first President of the United States, and as sure as they know that Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream, that they are the descendants of American warriors.

So, as much as I’m sure that we can’t define this series, or name its impact just yet, I believe it will be clear when the credits roll on this season’s final episode that Underground, in inspiring a new generation of TV-watchers, educators, showrunners, actors, filmmakers and all manner of artists, and in taking back our stories, and reclaiming our right to flawed and complicated heroes—is changing the course of history; is changing the world. And, lucky for us, this is just the beginning.

Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer and the TV Editor for Paste. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.