In a TV landscape full of police procedurals, doctor and lawyer shows, and a growing number of super hero stories, WGN America’s “Underground” is a definite outlier. It’s the story of a group of slaves who plan a daring escape from a Georgia plantation to cross 600 miles to freedom. The series was created by “Heroes” veterans Misha Green and Joe Pokaski and features a large ensemble cast including Aldis Hodge, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Christopher Meloni and Mykelti Williamson.
Green and Pokaski sat down with CBR TV’s Jonah Weiland during New York Comic Con to discuss the new series, why it was important for them to tell this story, what they learned about America while doing research and whether or not there’s a way they can speak to current events while telling a story set in the days before the Civil War.
On what drew them to this story:
Joe Pokaski: I think it’s the most incredible, heroic story of history that’s never been told. It started three years ago, where Misha and I were having breakfast shortly after “Heroes” and she said, “We should do a show about the Underground Railroad.” My first instinct was, “They must have already done it already.”
Misha Green: We just started researching, and the more research we did, the more we realized this is just an area that’s ripe for TV. It was a desperate and dangerous time and it created desperate and dangerous people, which is what you want to watch on television. It evolved into kind of this thriller — we were surprised researching it and that’s what we wanted from the audience, too, is just to be surprised every step of the way.
On how much real history will make its way into the story:
Pokaski: It’s all based on history. We start off by introducing William Still — who I didn’t know about until we started researching this project — he’s the father of the Underground Railroad. The most interesting thing is reading these slave narratives, and everything in the truth was stranger than fiction and there was just amazing stories about people primarily saying, “Do I run or do I not run?” That’s one of the things that intrigued us the most.
Green: And the ways in which they were doing it, too. They were wearing costumes, pretending to be other people. The ingenuity that they used, it’s the kind of stuff where I was like, “This is like a spy movie.”
Pokaski: Shipping themselves in boxes! It’s all this great stuff that actually existed instead of having to make it up.
On what surprised them about the history of America while doing research:
Green: It was really the first integrated Civil Rights Movement. There were all kind of people helping. There were stations on the railroad, there were conductors on the railroad and it became this spy-like network for the Civil War, which I didn’t know anything about the Underground, that side. It’s very intriguing, very secretive, which I like. It was a mystery to uncover that was fun.
On whether they hope to impart a message to modern viewers via the show’s narrative:
Pokaski: That’s pretty much the message. It’s we’re not as far away from it as we think we are. And it’s amazing kind of, you look at just some papers written against slavery and they’re kind of a find-and-replace of the arguments against the Minimum Wage. We’re not that far away so we should remember where we came from and push to move along.
On the character of Rosalee, played by Smollett-Bell, and how she drives the show:
Pokaski: She starts off as a girl who was born on a plantation and has never known any other life. Again, one of the most interesting things is I started from a place of ignorance thinking, “Of course I’d run.” But her entire family’s there and she has everything to lose if she runs. What we see with Jurnee in particular in how she plays it is that she goes from being this timid girl to this hero over the course of ten episodes.
Green: We always, because again we come from a comic book background, said that this is kind of our birth of a super hero, our super hero origin story, it’s Rosalee. It’s been fun to watch Jurnee bring that to life over the course of the season.
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