Renwick Scott, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, and Aldis Hodge
Is the story of the Macon 7 based on true events or people?
Joe: Little bits and pieces really helped inform our characters. Misha found this great letter, for example, of a slave girl basically asking the question, to run or not to run? And until we read that, it was a little simpler than we thought — the idea of, do you take this chance, leave your family behind, run into the unknown into a place that may be hostile? It’s so much more dangerous than you learn about in school. The more information we found, the more characters came from it, which is why we have way too many characters.
Who was the first character you sketched out?
Joe: Rosalee was kind of our central character. The house servant who doesn’t know anything else but this plantation felt like our Peter Parker of sorts.
Misha: We talked about it a lot as the origin story of a superhero.
You do see her get a lot bolder as the series progresses.
Misha: Jurnee Smollett-Bell has kicked ass at showing that kind of arc, going from this quiet house slave who doesn’t even want to run to, in the end, becoming this person who’s risking her life for everyone else.
Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Rosalee
I learned a lot about the Antebellum South watching this first season. How do you balance the desire to educate with the desire to entertain?
Joe: I think they go hand in hand. Whether it was Henry “Box” Brown putting himself in a box, or something simple like Necco Wafers existing back then — everything we found that we used seemed to inform the story.
Was there anything in particular you learned that surprised you?
Misha: So many things. Back in the pilot, James fanning them in the parlor [in the first episode, a young boy sits in a little swing suspended from the ceiling, fanning party guests] — when we read about it we were like, wow, so little black boys were being used as A/C in 1867. Those little things. The same thing as the pregnancy corset — who knew people still wore corsets when they were pregnant? That’s crazy! Delving into the research, literally every other page there was something that was like, wow, I can’t believe this was happening.
Joe: One of the episodes takes place primarily on a floating brothel, which I didn’t realize existed, these gunboats that floated down the river to get business. The more we found, the more it opened up our world to the thriller.
Misha: And to the ingenuity of the runaways. For instance in episode eight, when [Rosalee and Cato] dress up [as free blacks] and go to the big house — that’s actually a real story, and that was advice that an Underground Railroad conductor was giving to runaways. Where’s the last place they’d look for you? In the big house. If you walk around like you’re supposed to be there, people will not attack you or question you.
Is there anything you can tell me about Season 2?
Joe: We’re hoping to get bigger in scope. This first season was about following these seven runners, and now we’re hoping to explore the Underground Railroad as a larger network.
Underground airs at 10pm on WGN America.