The upcoming historical thriller "Underground" follows a group of slaves that plans a daring escape from a Georgia plantation to travel 600 perilous miles to freedom.
Premiering early next year on WGN America, the series features an ensemble cast that includes Aldis Hodge ("Leverage"), Jurnee Smollett-Bell ("True Blood"), Christopher Meloni ("Law & Order, SVU," "Man of Steel"), Jessica De Gouw ("Arrow"), Alano Miller ("Jane the Virgin") and Marc Blucas ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer").
During New York Comic Con, De Gouw and Smollett-Bell paid a visit to the CBR Tiki Room to chat with Jonah Weiland about "Underground," the period of American history it depicts, and what they've learned about themselves from their roles.
On their characters in "Underground":
Jurnee Smollett-Bell: I play Rosalee. She's a young woman enslaved on a plantation in 1857 Georgia. She works in the house, and she's got this shy demeanor, but this inner strength brewing inside of her. She's capable of doing things she didn't know she was, because there's this crazy strength inside of her. She's facing this choice of 'Do I run or do I not run?' For me, as a woman living now, that was one of the challenges, to figure out, 'OK, how do I understand someone who would even have that as a choice?' Of course we would run -- it's easy to judge that and to say that -- but it wasn't so easy for a woman.
Jessica De Gouw: Elizabeth starts out the series as something of a socialite, a sort of aimless, purposeless socialite, who has sort of a big heart but nowhere to put the energy. Her husband John is a lawyer who's an abolitionist and very much wanting to be active in changing this situation. She's not very on board to start with, not because she doesn't agree with him, but because it's such a huge, huge thing to do, you know, to be active. We always ask that question of how active is your activism, and I think that's what makes it relatable now is that is, 'If I were in that position, what would I do?' We find Elizabeth at that point of being asked the question, what will you do? Will you help these people?
What they've learned about themselves from their roles.
Smollett-Bell: This project has humbled us. You go home, and you're able to step out of those clothes, you're able to step outside of your character, to take a shower and lay in a nice, comfortable bed. And I think I've gained a deeper appreciation for the little things like that -- having a candle to light that smells nice, you know, these luxuries that we take for granted were impossible for them to have available during that time. It's made me really humble just to be able to take a shower and clean myself, the simple things in life.
De Gouw: Especially after that shoot.
Smollett-Bell: I know!
De Gouw: When you really do appreciate a shower -- really, really appreciate a shower, being in Louisiana in 115 degrees, being in a shower is a wonderful thing.
Smollett-Bell: When you're running in the woods and my legs would literally get baked in mud, in layers that I would just kind of -- I could just kind of pull the mud off of it, just scrape it off. When you can go home and you can take a shower, it's the greatest thing in the world. [...] These people constantly lived under danger, whether you were an abolitionist or whether you were someone who was escaping from slavery. Danger constantly loomed, and that's really the tone that this television show maintains, that sense of danger. To be able to live your life the way we are, we don't have to live under that umbrella of danger -- it's really a luxury.
On whether "Underground" will feature lighter moments:
De Gouw: A big part of the reason I really loved my character from the start is the way she's introduced, which I thought was hysterical, because I thought it was the funniest introduction you could have to a character. Yeah, in the first episode, Elizabeth is in this state of being that I thought was a brilliant way -- but, yes, there's definitely lightness to it. But also, without subject matter and dealing with things that are so dark, so horrific, you need lightness to be able to breathe through it. You need to be able to collect yourself and then carry on.
Smollett-Bell: Even though the subject matter is intense and dark, it's still about people, and so they fall in love, they laugh, they have children, they cook, they sing, they dance. They're still living their lives, it's just the situation they're in that makes the stakes so high.