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.