Actress Jurnee Smollett-Bell chats about her new WGN series Underground.
Last month, in honor of Black History Month, the cast, creators, and producers of WGN’s new series Underground visited the White House for a special screening. The escape thriller, which premieres March 9, follows the intense and wildly dangerous journey of the Underground Railroad revolutionaries.
We caught up with actress Jurnee Smollett-Bell, who stars in the show as Rosalie, a house slave on a Georgian plantation, to talk about the role, the history of the Underground Railroad, and what she finds most inspiring about that time period.
Friday Night Lights, True Blood, and now this. You seem to choose your roles carefully. Jurnee Smollett-Bell: I am very selective. I don’t want to just be the girlfriend and your only value is your relation to your male counterpart. There’s no challenge there. When I read Rosalie, a lot of it was nonverbal communication for the first few episodes. That’s not an easy task to think as the character, and that’s the stuff I’m drawn to. The writing is so good.
The show really delves into different aspects of the slave system. Do you find that it’s a bit of an emotional roller coaster? JSB: Absolutely. The story of the Underground Railroad was so desperate and dangerous. The men and women who dared to run 500, 1500, 2500 miles for their freedom, that amount of courage is something I would aspire to have. Imagine not only having that, but also having the weight of what you’re running against. One of the most tragic things about the system of slavery was that they were able to convince a group of people that they didn’t have value. We see Rosalie’s mom as a victim of that. She’s brainwashed to believe that their position in the house is superior [to the field hands]. She’s just trying to survive, but she thinks, “This is good, I should settle for this.” Rosalie’s at this point of, “Do I become exactly like my mother, or do I become the very thing that she’s trying to steer me away from?” Exploring that world is so fascinating.
Are you learning more about the history through this role? JSB: Absolutely. The Underground Railroad is not really taught a lot in history books. I knew about Harriet Tubman and William Still, but the level of ingenuity that they had is really amazing. The fact that they could use stars or songs, like hymns, for code words. Markings on trees. They were denied an education, but they had such incredible instincts and intelligence. I’ve read slave narratives, and it’s different reading first person accounts [versus] a history book [which] has such a removed point of view. Hearing it from them really helped me make [Rosalie] come alive.
There are a lot civil rights conversations being had today. JSB: Until we reconcile the wounds from this time period, we won’t be a fully realized nation. We’re still dealing with the residue, the affects of slavery, because racism is two-fold—it’s overt and it’s systemic. The system, still, is unjust. But the spirit of working together in the Underground Railroad—the abolitionists from the north, black and white, the Native Americans—what’s so inspiring is that they work together. I think we embody that same spirit of revolution and togetherness today. As long as we continue to push the country forward and work together in that manner, we’ll see a better nation.