Underground‘s Noah is off and running — though sooner and with different company than he originally planned.
On WGN America’s slave drama (airing Wednesdays at 10/9c), the Macon Plantation blacksmith (played by Leverage alum Aldis Hodge) was painstakingly plotting a great escape, with a hand-picked assortment of peers. But when house slave Rosalee fended off, in a fatal manner, an assault by the overseer, Noah found his plan accelerated.
Or has it been? Here, Hodge teases the thriller’s twists to come and examines Underground‘s larger role in the depiction of America’s slavery saga.
TVLINE | This is not the series I thought it was going to be, and in the best ways. Did you have a similar realization as you started getting into it?
I had that same assumption. But once I read the scripts, I said if this is how the rest of the story leads, I have an idea of what this will be like. I was excited, mostly because I knew people would assume what I had from the beginning, which is that we already knew [this story] or that we’ve seen it. But I felt like people would be pleasantly surprised with what we actually did with it.
TVLINE | Like I said in my review, it has among other things a Prison Break thriller element to it.
Yeah. Thank you. Honestly, the positive reviews, they mean the world to us. Aside from offering validation, it helps to ease a lot of speculation. Even if people don’t stick with the show, they at least give it a chance because that’s really where it counts. So thank you for all of the good words, man.
TVLINE | Out of the gate, the show set ratings records for WGN. Why do you think that is?
Plenty of reasons. When they cut the trailer, you saw that we are very action-forward. A lot of people probably assumed that the pace of the show is going to be very slow, downtrodden and heavy. But WGN’s marketing killed it with the PR campaigns. They did viewings, everywhere, to very select and very specific audiences just to get people to talk about it in the right way. And when I say “marketing” I account for all the screenings that we did. I mean, we hit the White House. That was a huge success in terms of giving us validity in a way that no one anticipated. A lot of people probably saw that and said, “Let me give it a shot.”
Aside from that, we have a monster cast and we each bring our own audience to this. We have monster producers who’ve all been responsible for fantastic projects. It’s a lot of elements coming together. A seasoned team, very smart executive decisions on marketing and PR, and then at the end of the day we delivered on a good show, because Misha Green and Joe Pokaski wrote the heck out of this. Every single episode. They were really at the forefront of how the story should be executed.
Then you have people like [director] Anthony Hemingway (Treme), who set the tone for how the show needs to look, the pace, the acting potential that needs to come out of it, because he directed and executive-produced the first four. But more importantly, what really got us that result was the audiences’ faith and belief in us. At the end of the day, we can do the best job ever but if the audience doesn’t want to support us, then that’s what it is.
TVLINE | What appealed to you most about Noah?
Simply his moral conduct. He’s a very strong person, inside and outside. He’s willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good, for other people, to do what’s necessary to get the job done. I respected who this character was, and if I’m going to play him for a number of years I want to play somebody that I personally respect. But I love the journey that he’s on because he grows. I’m not going to spill the beans, but he discovers more about himself as a human being, as a black man, as a man, and as an American along this first season’s ride — and that’s pretty awesome.
TVLINE | I think if he has anything in common with Leverage‘s Hardison, it’s that he’s a problem solver.
Definitely a problem solver. He’s the kind of guy that likes to kick down doors when he’s left with no other resolve, but he has to solve problems. He’s a blacksmith on the plantation, which means naturally he tinkers with his hands. He is afforded a different sort of access to the world than the other people who are enslaved because he’s allowed to journey outside of the plantation from time to time to mete out his new skills. So he’s been picking up cues from every facet of his life and waiting for the right moment to piece it together to make this escape.
TVLINE | One of the most interesting dynamics he has is with the slave driver, Cato (played by Alano Miller), how it’s an ongoing guessing game between then. Did you enjoy playing that?
It’s really nice to explore that and see where it goes because it’s almost like two different sides of the same coin. They’re both pushed to extreme ways of thinking… but it’s all to achieve the same goal. They just go about it with different means. When they come together, they’re put in the same situation to discover a lot about themselves individually through experiencing their own conflict with one another. It’s kind of like how Batman needs the Joker, Joker needs Batman. That’s where I find Noah and Cato.
TVLINE | Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) meanwhile is this unexpected “x-factor” in Noah’s plan.
Yeah. [Laughs] I feel Noah has been alone for the majority of his life and inherently searching for a family, even though he may not express that outwardly. But his encounter with Rosalee gave him hope in finding someone who thinks like him. Someone he feels can help him stay together, because she is cut from the same cloth, to a degree.
TVLINE | One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you this week is because after the last episode, viewers are probably thinking they’ve seen the big twist, that Noah runs off with Rosalee. But without spoiling anything, that’s not the case at all. The close of this next episode is what really sets the show in motion.
I won’t spoil it, but I will just say that Noah has his agenda, and that is to get every single person free, even though it takes a great deal of sacrifice. Even though things don’t go the way he thought, that’s his plan and he’s sticking to it. He does not abandon that.
TVLINE | When I rewatched the pilot, I noticed Noah giving August (Christopher Meloni) this long, hard look when they crossed paths on the road. I have to think that’ll come back into play.
I’ll say this: Noah gave him a strange look because he didn’t understand. This was the first time he’d seen a white man speak and protect an enslaved person, because no one knew what was going on. Maybe somewhere along the season Noah gets to acknowledge that curiosity, though I can’t say to what extent.
TVLINE | Outside of anybody that we’ve mentioned so far, who’s another character to keep our eye on?
You’re definitely going to see surprises out of everybody. But be ready for Ernestine (Amirah Vann), man. She’s got surprises like nobody’s business!
TVLINE | In your mind, what role does a show like this play in telling the story of slavery versus what Roots obviously did back in the day?
It’s hard for me to say what Roots did back in the day just because that was a different timeframe where people accepted the subject matter differently. But as far as what this does for depicting slavery for today, I think it gives people a different perspective on the subject because we think we know about it when we really don’t. This younger generation, the Millennials, the teenagers now, it’s lost on them because it’s not taught. It’s become sort of a shamed subject.
I was speaking to a student at Howard University, who asked, “Why another slave story?” I said, first of all I understand your skepticism and why you would ask that, but here’s the thing: there aren’t many. I can literally count on one hand how many slave stories have gotten notoriety over the past few years. What is it, 12 Years a Slave (pictured at right), Django [Unchained], Book of Negroes…. Roots was back in the day. Amistad was back in the day.
TVLINE | And Amistad was about something very specific.
Exactly. There are not many, and there has never been a show like this about the Underground Railroad. We have far more options for black Americans to tell stories outside of slavery, but whenever it comes to slavery it’s an uncomfortable subject. Why? Because it’s the most unresolved subject in American history. It’s something we as a culture have yet to deal with and it’s something people don’t want to readily deal with or identify with. They want to forget it and let it go because it’s too hard to acknowledge head-on because there’s so much pain.
But I asked [the student], “Why ask why?” When it comes to another story about George Washington or Abe Lincoln, no one bats an eye. That’s American history. We get it. But when it comes to a story about enslaved Americans, people say we can’t have another one. Why? I say be proud of it. Have we been predisposed to not wanting to know about culture? Have we been conditioned to not want to know, to want to forget, to want to walk around in ignorant bliss? What Underground does is it answers that question loudly by saying, “We have seen it before” — but maybe what we have not seen is the empowerment of these people, the intelligence of these people, and we’re going to show you that because it took all of that courage, that heart, that fortitude to get them to where they are today, to get them to revolt. This is not about the occupation. This is about the revolution.
It also is about the first integrated civil rights movement, which is bigger than the degradation of black Americans. This is about all colors coming together to make America what it’s supposed to be. That’s where the celebration really happens. And that’s what we need to continue as a tradition in this country, to fight for equality.
TVLINE | And as you touched upon, this is about the most courageous of the revolutionaries, the ones with agency.
When I heard about this story, I said “Why?” myself, but as I read it I said this is the first time I’ve ever seen this culture, black enslaved Americans, celebrated and beautified — because they are attractive and attractive in the sense of they are knowledgeable and they show it. They are cunning and they display it. And to a degree, they’re also sexy. Not in an egregious, perverted way, but they are sexy creatures which is something that we have never really explored. They’ve been exploited for their sexuality, put upon a block and sold because of their sexuality, but we’ve never seen the black enslaved families figure out ways to love one another and laugh in the face of all of this degradation. We’ve never seen them come together and say, “You’re beautiful in spite of all of your scars.” That’s what I mean by sexy, by appealing. That’s what I love. It’s its own character within the show. That has to be there or the show doesn’t live.
TVLINE | Last question, and I’m doing a total 180 here, going from non-fiction to complete fiction. When you and I spoke years ago, you had a great desire to one day play Black Panther in the movies. Does Marvel’s choice of Chadwick Boseman get your vote?
You know, I think he does. I met him once and he’s a nice, humble guy. I like his spirit personally, and I think he’s going to do a good job with it. Yeah, he does get my vote.
TVLINE | Back then, you also noted the great significance of this character getting his own movie.
I mean, finally. Look, we are starting to see that a bit more. These superhero movies are starting to give more love to not only black characters but also to more female characters, which is necessary because you have boys and girls of all colors who are looking at these superheroes saying, “I want to be that. I want to look like that. Show me somebody that I can automatically connect with.” What is a superhero? They’re supposed to represent hope, opportunity and strength for everybody. You can’t just look like one culture and expect to inspire a multitude of people. That doesn’t work over time. Everybody wants somebody to look up to that looks like them, so they can truly believe in that reality for themselves. I’m proud to see that companies are starting to do more of it.