(AllHipHop Features) This week WGN America is set to premiere the new hour-long historical series Underground. The show follows a group of slaves on a mission to escape the bondage of a Georgia plantation for freedom above the Mason-Dixon line.
There doesn’t seem to be a more ideal person to star as the lead character in a program about the journey of the Underground Railroad than a seasoned performer named Jurnee. The creators of Underground tapped Jurnee Smollett-Bell (Friday Night Lights, True Blood) for the role of the perceptive and resilient Rosalee. In addition, the cast for the period piece includes TV veterans such as Aldis Hodge (Leverage), Christopher Meloni (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit), and Jessica De Gouw (Arrow).
I recently had the chance to sit down with Smollett-Bell (who also shines in a music video for her husband Josiah Bell) to discuss her role in Underground. The conversation features the award-winning actress explaining what drew her to appearing in a series covering the often times polarizing subject of slavery in America.
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I got the chance to see the pilot. I enjoyed it.
I’m so glad you did.
It was powerful.
Isn’t it? And it wasn’t what you were expecting was it?
Not at all. I have to be honest. I was a bit apprehensive when I heard the show was about slavery.
What did you think when you first read the script?
I thought the same thing. I thought, “It had already been done so brilliantly. How could you do it better or differently?” Then I wondered, “How can you do this as a TV show for possibly six seasons?” It wasn’t until I read the script that I said, “This hasn’t been done before. The Underground Railroad hasn’t been done before.”
And the tone, pace, and feeling of the show makes it a thriller. It’s not a “slave drama.” It’s an escape drama. It’s about heroes. These are our superheroes. Having realized that is when I said, “Okay, count me in.”
I immediately sent our director, Anthony Hemingway, this long text about how and why I am his Rosalee and he better cast me. He just sent me back a picture of a portfolio. The portfolio has the name “Rosalee” and my picture. This was his pitching portfolio he used to pitch to the network, so he already had me in mind.
You talked about this being an escape drama. There’s a lot of physicality to the show. What was it like during filming?
It was the most physically challenging role I’ve ever done. I remember the stunt coordinator came up to me and said, “Jurnee, you might want to start stretching and getting on the treadmill. Make sure you’re loose, because you got a lot of running to do.” Not just running, I had fights, anything you can think of.
That whipping scene was…
Yeah, that was a tough one. That was emotionally tough on me. Out of all the scenes I had to do in the pilot, that was obviously the toughest to have to go there. Mentally to have to imagine that sort of pain that the Rosalees of the world experienced really overwhelmed me physically. I was just shaking and crying afterwards.
Hearing the sound of the whip does something. It shakes you to your very core. Luckily, we had an amazing cast and director where they let me have a moment once I finished. They just let me cry. But I think it’s important to show that they come from that level of oppression and torture in order for us to appreciate where they eventually go and what they overcome.
— Underground (@UndergroundWGN) March 2, 2016
Your brother [Jussie Smollett] is appearing on the show. I know you can’t say too much about it.
I can tell you a little bit. He plays a runaway slave named Josey in the third and fourth episodes. He kills it. He’s so different from Jamal [on Empire]. It will really show his range and depth as an actor.
Was this the first time you worked together since you did the TV show [On Our Own]?
Yeah, it was the first time we were in the same project together since On Our Own.
This is kind of a nerdy question, but I wanted to know about the cinematography. There was a scene of you running through the house that was amazing.
Yes! That was incredible. We shot that with a drone as one continuous take. Kevin McKnight, our DP, and Anthony Hemingway, our director, visually thought outside the box and set the tone of it being urgent, desperate, dangerous, and bold.
As soon as I saw that scene, I thought, “This is going to be something different.”
Yeah. Just visually it communicates, “You haven’t seen this before.”
[ALSO READ: John Legend & Raphael Saadiq Appear In Behind-The-Scenes Music Featurette For ‘Underground’ TV Series]
Underground is scheduled to premiere Wednesday, March 9 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on WGN America.
Watch the trailer for Underground below.
All photos courtesy of WGN America