Jurnee Smollett-Bell whose career in film and television spans over twenty years, is returning to television in the leading role in the upcoming WGN America series “Underground” a gritty drama about the Underground Railroad premiering on March 9th. The Knockturnal got a chance to speak with Jurnee exclusively about the show recently in New York at Macy’s Black History Month Tour.
Can you tell us about your character in Underground?
I play Rosalee a young woman who works on the plantation inside the house and she’s never been outside of the plantation a day in her life. She doesn’t even know what the world looks like outside of it. She’s at a point in her life like most young women are where she’s dreaming about the future but unfortunately her situation discourages that. The kind of dreams and thoughts she’s having could get you killed and she’s really fighting against that sort of mental enslavement, the brainwashing that’s coming not just from the plantation owners but also from her mother who is just trying to get her to survive and be safe. My character Rosalee kind of faces the choice where she has to make a decision to run or not, does she take the chance and get her freedom or does she stay and accept life the way it is.
Where do you think Rosalee found the strength to take the chance to pursue freedom?
You know it’s interesting because without giving too much away she kind of has no option. It’s either life for death for her. The run is a very desperate decision she has to make but she kind of has no other options. That was kind of the situation for most people who made that choice. The conditions were so dangerous. Running a lot of times meant death itself because if the slave catchers didn’t catch you, the dogs caught you, if the dogs didn’t catch you, then the conditions killed you, the weather, the bayou’s, the swamps, the forest having to run six hundred, seven hundred, a thousand miles, fifteen hundred miles to freedom with no ability to get food and no ability to hide. So I think the strength kind of came out of necessity for Rosalee, but she also has this strength inside of her that she didn’t even know she has.
How did you prepare for the role?
I did a lot of research. I read a lot of the slave narratives. There’s a book called The Bullwhip Days, which is a collection of slave narratives, it’s like excerpts from it. I read Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and I read Frederick Douglas’ autobiography, I read about William Still and the whole Underground Railroad. For me it was really about first person account and hearing their stories because it’s different than reading a history book. Hearing the words from men and women who survived slavery and hearing them tell their story really helped Rosalee come to life.
In the series, your brother Jussie also has a role, how was it working with him on Underground?
I would just love watching Jussie work as Josey, he plays a runaway slave. I love the fact that his character on Underground is so different than his character on Empire. People will really be able to see the growth and the range he has as an actor.
John Legend is executive producer of the series, was this your first time working with him, and how was it working with John on Underground?
It was my first time working with him. He I know had been a fan of Friday Night Lights (The TV show I did a few years ago). But he’s just so incredibly passionate about this project and his entire Get Lifted company has supported us and given us the support we need and he’s curating the music and we’re excited because he’s so gifted and the approach he’s taking for the music is really out of the box. It keeps it urgent, it keeps it desperate, it keeps it bold, it’s really not what people would expect.
Now being that this is Black History Month, can you share what is your earliest memory about learning about Black History Month?
Oh man my first memory that’s a hard one. My mom worked in the movement in the seventies, my parents were activist, and I used to always hear stories of Angela Davis who they worked with. Just hearing about her genius and her brilliance in press conferences and just how strong and powerful of a woman she was and still is. I also read the biography of Harriet Tubman when I was seven my mom threw me that book which is really early but it has stuck with me my entire life.