On a series like Underground, about a group of slaves on a Georgia plantation plotting an escape, death is inevitable. The WGN America drama is two episodes away from wrapping up a terrific first season that breathes new life into the slave narrative by nimbly balancing action and character development. Last week ended with the death of Sam (Johnny Ray Gill), a carpenter and half-brother of protagonist Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), who runs away with six other slaves, leaving her siblings behind. Eventually, Sam tries to make a run for it, too; but when he’s caught and brought back, plantation owner Tom Macon (Reed Diamond) decides to make an example of him. In a brutal scene, we see Tom give a rousing speech to a crowd of Southern politicians, before the camera pulls back to take in Sam’s lifeless body hanging from the rafters.
We spoke to actor Johnny Ray Gill about Sam’s ruthless murder, slave narratives onscreen, and paying tribute to his ancestors.
Flavorwire: I’m sorry about your death.
Johnny Ray Gill: Death comes to us all.
Before we get into that, how did you come to be involved in Underground?
First and foremost, I auditioned. I’m not on the island of actors that get offered things just yet — I’m swimming there, so hopefully it happens at some point soon. But there’s obviously a hesitation with this kind of material that revolves around American slavery, because it’s been treated so poorly in American cinematic history so far. Once I had conversations with [creators] Misha [Green] and Joe [Pokaski] and was able to get a look at the script and think about the journey that Sam was going to take throughout the series, I wanted to get on board.
Was there anything in particular you were wary of when you heard it was a show about slavery?
To be quite frank, stories about minorities in general in American society are usually not treated with respect. I’m not an actor who feels like I should take a project because of a check, especially when it deals with my ancestors and their struggle; their sacrifices are the reason I’m here talking to you today. This imagery is not something that’s unfamiliar to me. And because it’s not unfamiliar to me, it’s not shocking. You want to do your best to tell the story and not get caught up in the romanticism of how shocking it is. That’s what I was wary about.
What was it about the character of Sam that convinced you this wasn’t going to be about shock value?
Just that Sam was going to be a superhero. I treated his death as an honor suicide, like a ritualistic suicide. Sometimes there is more honor in facing death than cowering and staying inside an institution that is monstrous. I just loved Sam’s arc. I got to pay tribute to a different narrative as far as mental health and things like that are concerned — those types of stories within the American slave narrative that aren’t necessarily told.
The death scene was so violent, even though we don’t actually see him die.
It almost reminded me of a scene in the book A Lesson Before Dying, by Ernest J. Gaines, about how this character wants to become a man before he dies. When I thought about that, I thought, how does Sam die well? For me, it was all about reconciliation: In episode seven, he’s nurturing to his brother, making tremendous sacrifices for him, and then in the next episode, he runs. So I had to justify that, and that’s why I went with almost the eastern philosophy that this is like a suicide. Sam knows he’s going to die; he’s so intelligent that he knows he probably can’t make it by himself out on the road, and he knows if he gets caught, he’s gonna be brought back and could be beaten or possibly hung. So it was about meeting his death in a very honorable way.
There’s that really heartbreaking line from Sam’s last episode, when Ernestine says, “We can survive anything,” and he says, “That’s what I’m afraid of” — as if death would be better than whatever’s coming next.
Yeah, there are some decisions that people have to make. Who are we to say what is the most honorable thing to do? I know there’s a film coming out about Nat Turner — Nat Turner led a slave revolt, and taking up arms and fighting for their right to have equity is seen as honorable. [In Underground], you saw a character earlier in this season who killed her infant child and she felt like that was the most honorable thing to do.
I also loved you as Kerwin on Rectify. Have we seen the last of him?
I have no idea. Kerwin is an apparition, so he can come back at any time. It’s funny, sometimes I feel like Kerwin and Sam are somewhere conversing in the time matrix, because both of those characters have gone through very damning experiences that can sometimes define the black experience — Kerwin being caught in the criminal justice system and Sam being caught in the throes of slavery. Characters like that, sometimes they can be very stereotypical but if you embrace nuance and you embrace the human experience, then it’s like, Kerwin isn’t a thug on death row who curls up his lips and is throwing up gang signs. He’s someone who’s trying to become a man before he meets whatever it is in the afterlife.
Same thing with Sam — he’s not a coward because he doesn’t want to run at a particular time. There were people, just like there are people now, that have mental health issues, and that’s not something that’s talked about very often in the slave narrative — in addition to this oppressive system, people had PTSD and paranoid schizophrenia and other disorders. How do you navigate those circumstances? To me, playing with that nuance creates a complete person, and that’s my mission, because that’s what my ancestors are in a sense telling me to do. You can have very interesting conversations with your ancestors on set, because you know the future, and they know the past.
You’re also appearing as Gustav in the new CBS show BrainDead, a comedy-thriller. That must be a nice break from the very heavy stuff you’ve been doing lately.
Definitely, I’m laughing a lot more on this set. But I’m not a method actor in that sense — some people actually walk around and think they’re Batman. I don’t do that, I almost feel like that’s disrespectful to my ancestors. Once we cut, I go back to my trailer, I can go to a mall, I can do all those things they couldn’t do. So for me it’s just about telling the story as completely as possible, and whether it’s a drama or a comedy, it’s all grounded in the human experience. When you see Gustav on June 13, you’ll see another carving from the stone of human experience. That’s my steez.
Underground airs Wednesdays at 10pm on WGN America.