WGN’s historical drama Underground couldn’t be more timely, unfortunately. Set in 1858, Underground is a fictionalized account of the Underground Railroad as its characters fight for emancipation and escape slavery via the historical abolitionist network. Harriet Tubman made her appearance in the season finale, and Aisha Hinds plays her on screen this year. John Legend, who produces Underground, will also play the role of Frederick Douglas.
Underground’s executive producer and creator Misha Green spoke with cinemathread as she was in post-production on season two episodes. With protests on behalf of women, Muslims, immigrants, and many other groups under threat from President Trump’s new policies filling the streets, Green speaks about resistance and the parallels between the Underground Railroad and today. Underground returns Wednesday, March 8 at 10PM on WGN America.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
cinemathread: Something feels bigger just in the first scene on the plantation. Is that just the experience of doing a season and coming back with experience?
Misha Green: We talked a lot, Joe Pokaski, my co-creator, and I, we talked about how to keep moving forward with the story. It feels like we have to go bigger. We have to go different places. We have to open up who was the Underground Railroad more and it was exciting to explore all of that space.
CT: Is this the first chance you’ve had to actually show some good times for the characters, with the campfire dance?
MG: I think last year we saw some good times. I think it’s hard when you’re running for your freedom and I think one of the questions we’re asking this year is this idea of: if you’re free in the North, are you really free? What do you owe to those people that are left behind? What does it mean to be a citizen versus soldier in a fight that you know needs to happen? … We try to intersperse moments of happiness, of fun – because nobody’s life is all crazy all the time.
CT: I looked up the real John Hawkes and his life went in a different direction than your character. Was there a lot of talk about what would happen with your John Hawkes?
MG: We talked a lot about it. We always knew that this was going to be where we wanted to take John Hawkes. There’s always been a thing that’s resonated. There’s this idea that people who try to help, who take on a fight that’s not necessarily in their home, but [who] say, “We’re going to be better and we’re going to do better” – scares a lot of people. They say, “Well, you have a reason to take up arms in this fight? Why are you helping?” Then they react even more harshly to those people.
CT: Today when people are still concerned about threats to Civil Rights, what can we take from the Underground Railroad as methods to fight, resist, and be productive?
MG: This season for me, I’ve really found this idea that they were up against so much at that time. It was impossible to think that anything was going to change in that system and they still fought back. They still worked for change and they made change. I think if they’re up against those atrocities then, what we’re facing today, we can do it and we can do it together when we work together. Also, I feel like a lot of people have gotten depressed recently with the way the election went and the response after the election, but I also go, ‘It gives me hope. It gives me hope that there are ways to fight back and to stop it. It’s just about how active are you in your activism.’ None of us get to sit out this one. We all gotta kinda do what we can.
CT: They had a great leader in Harriet Tubman. Who could emerge as the leader today, like Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jr. or Nelson Mandela?
MG: I think one of the things, for me, that’s very clear is that we’re all Harriet Tubmans. Writing and really exploring and researching her, what she did is she made a choice. She made a choice to say, “What I see is wrong. I’m going to do something about it.” I think that’s a choice we can all make. So I don’t think we need a Harriet Tubman. I think we all just need to actively say, “We’re going to do something.” Even if we all do a small thing, those will amount and they will add up to a big thing. I don’t think we need that leader. I think we need to all take responsibility for moving America in the right direction, which is the direction we’ve been going in. It’s just a few people who are trying to take us back.
“I think one of the things, for me, that’s very clear is that we’re all Harriet Tubmans. Writing and really exploring and researching her, what she did is she made a choice. She made a choice to say, ‘What I see is wrong. I’m going to do something about it.'”
CT: Besides creating and producing Underground, are you involved in any social action?
MG: Everybody on the show is very active in their activism, from John Legend to Jurnee Smollett-Bell, we are all working at the protest marches, actively also finding ways in which we can integrate activism into the show and not just have this message of being more active but also using the show to use do those types of things. Down to everybody, it’s really great to see because again, the show is challenging you to be more active. All of us have to do what we can. We can’t just write about it.
CT: We can now all use social media to speak out. Is that good or was it better when John Hawkes brought a podium to the town square and spoke to whoever would listen?
MG: I think it’s great to talk but again you have to back it up with actual action. I think social media is good in bringing people together, raising awareness about issues. I think it’s so great to see that it’s harder for people to hide and get away with things that they used to get away with because now there’s Twitter that will hashtag and it will go viral. People will not stand for it. You can look at the whole Uber thing. People say, “Oh, I’m not going to delete my Uber account because is it really going to matter?” Well, it did really matter because he stepped down from Trump’s business advisory board. Collective action does matter. You just have to back it up. Once the hashtag happens, you have to get out in the street. You have to protest. You have to use your money and make sure you’re putting it in the right places.
CT: How much of season two intersects with actual historical events?
MG: This year, we have more historical characters coming in. We have Harriet Tubman, we have Frederick Douglas. William Still is going to be back. It’s all around the bubbling up of what’s happening with John Brown and his movement. It’s definitely a lot more historical intertwined with our characters we know and love.
CT: Was John Legend always planning to play Frederick Douglas or a character on the show?
MG: We always had it in our plan. Joe and I talked about the first season, we’re really going to spend time with these fictional characters and fall in love with them. Then in season two, we were going to integrate more of the historical characters. We knew from the start that we really wanted to break down what was going on in the movement and the different ideologies on it. Frederick Douglas was one of the big people in that. We knew because Frederick Douglas was very active in his activism like John is, he was an accomplished pianist like John is, we were like, “He’d be perfect.” Then we called him up and were like, “So, hey, think you might want to play Frederick Douglas?” He said, “I would be honored.” He came onto set and fit seamlessly in front of the camera as he does behind it.
CT: Are there some historical milestones in 1858 that can occur this season?
MG: No, I think the milestones that were happening were at much more personal levels. One of the interesting things we found out about Harriet Tubman is that this was the year she started giving talks and speeches to raise money so that she could go back and get more people and save more lives. I just thought that was fascinating because the question of what does a TED talk in 1858 look like with Harriet Tubman really sparked the idea for our episode six this season. Basically, Aisha Hinds playing Harriet Tubman gives a 45 minute TED Talk. Stuff like that intrigued us about 1858 and what was bubbling up before the Civil War.
CT: What new music will you use this season?
MG: John wrote a song for the show called “In America” that’s at the end of the season premiere. The minute we heard it, we were like, “Love it. It’s, of course, going in.” Then it’s just about again exploring and finding new artists this year and really trying to bring some new artists to the table.