SPOILER ALERT: This story contains details of tonight’s “Minty” episode of Underground.
“I think Harriet’s spirit is one that we certainly need today, which is why she’s sort of revisiting us in all of these different mediums, whether it be long-format television, whether it be film, whether it be her face on the 20-dollar bill,” says Aisha Hinds of legendary abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who the actor plays on the current season of WGN America’s Underground. Tonight at 8 PM ET in a riveting TUB Talk straight out of the 1850s, Hinds reveals a whole new aspect of that real American hero on the “Minty’ episode of the Misha Green and Joe Pokaski-created series about the underground railroad and the race from the slavery of the South that thousands attempted.
Directed by Anthony Hemingway and written by Green and Pokaski right near the end of the show’s production in Savannah, Georgia around Thanksgiving last year, the highly theatrical episode is really all Hinds performing a one-women show as Tubman training a group of would be abolitionists and raising money for the much hunted movement. Coming in the middle of Underground‘s second season, it is unlike anything the frequently heart-pumping and heart-stopping drama has even done before
Having appeared right at the end of Season 1 of Underground, the Under The Dome alum’s Tubman started off Season 2 with a pistol in one hand, an axe in the other and leaving no doubt a new force was on the scene. Talking with Green, Pokaski and Hinds about how they came up with the idea, how they pulled it off, what it means for the season going forward and what they want viewers to take away from hearing Tubman’s tale from her, it is clear that force is flexing some serious muscles, creatively, historically and for America 2017.
DEADLINE: The first question has to be, where did you get the idea of literally and bravely, I think, turning TV into theatre for a night and doing a whole episode of just Harriet Tubman talking?
POKASKI: It started from our research. So we were digging around and found out and this is something that neither of us knew before we started digging deep on Harriet, that she went around and gave these speeches. Frederick Douglass and William Still asked her to speak about her experience for the cause to raise money and when she did it, very much like Aisha, Harriet turned out to be amazing doing voices and singing songs and really kind of captivating everyone.
GREEN: They were done wherever they could get people together in secret. It was always like-minded abolitionists. There was a lot of security around it because I mean it is Harriet and she has a bounty out on her head. So they didn’t want to put her in any danger but it was important for them to do this to raise awareness for the cause, to raise awareness about what they were doing and to raise money, which was always an issue in trying to help runaway slaves.
One of the things we found so fascinating is we think about fundraisers as a very modern thing but it was going on throughout history and it was definitely an important part of the movement. We’ve always thought the story is about Harriet saving runaways but we didn’t hear about what it takes to do that. And I think that really intrigued us with learning that Harriet spent most of the year trying to raise money to go back for her to save people at the end of the year during the Christmas like time
DEADLINE: Aisha, you’ve obviously been playing Harriet Tubman for this season of Underground, but for you, as an actress how was this one-women show you performed different for you than the Harriet Tubman of legend and history?
HINDS: With this one I think it was way more personal and intimate and it gives you this intimate human layered experience with the superhero, which is also an important part. I think for anyone on this planet it’s important to sort of dig into the humanity of people so that it gives us a more sensitive understanding of another person, whether it be an extraordinary superhero or whether it be just an ordinary person, your neighbor, and so forth
So, I sort of went inside for myself and delighted in all of the smaller details that I was finding out about her, all of the fine things that we forget to remember when we look at those one-dimensional images of her, which are largely sort of older images. So, just reflecting on the idea that she was once a little girl and that she had this nickname and her nickname was Minty. That she was quite mischievous and that she just sort of had this instinctual spirit for resistance. A spirit that ultimately manifested itself by the age of 24 into someone who had this undeniable courage to take a step off of a plantation that she had lived her entirety of her life to that point on and move in the direction of freedom, which she had no context for and she had never experienced.
DEADLINE: With all that, why in the middle of your second season did you want to do something that you had never done before on Underground?
POKASKI: That’s exactly why we wanted to do it. This is unlike anything we’ve ever done. The audience will kind get knocked back on their heels and, well, it’s like what Misha was talking about the other day at the Contenders event, we found so many amazing things about Harriet and couldn’t really lay them in across the series. So, this felt like a good place to really understand her.
DEADLINE: It feels like it is a real demarcation line in the season…
POLASKI: We liked the idea of splitting up our season. At the end of episode five last week we called it the end of the first act, the place where everyone’s on their mission. And we liked the idea of just settling down and talking about the themes of what we’ve been dealing with on the action side. So this seemed like the right place to do that, kind of the same thing we did with the “Cradle” episode seven last year. Specific to Harriet, I think when you see her arc over the whole season, it will make sense as to this being kind of a linchpin moment for her.
GREEN: You can’t find magic without risk. Once we decided to do this, we were all in a place where we’re just like we have to make this happen and we have to make it right. It doesn’t matter if it’s going to be filmed a week and a half after we wrote the script or not, the time limit actually also pushed us all to push ourselves to that edge and really try to find something new and magical and beautiful.
DEADLINE: How did WGN America react when you came to them and said we have this idea to do a one-women Harriet Tubman episode, almost like a stage play meets a Ted Talk?
GREEN: (laughs) You know, they felt a lot better about it once we cast Aisha because we all just fell in love with her. She could do anything. Otherwise, honestly, I think they went, huh? You know it was the last episode we shot and we shot it over three days, the last three days of our production schedule and I think that they were like “oh, you’re actually going to have her talk for 45-minute space, oh.” But at that point the train had already left the station and there was no stopping it. We all had decided that it was going to be amazing and that’s exactly what it turned out to be. And a lot of that was due to what Aisha was doing in those three days.
DEADLINE: So how daunting was that, Aisha, once it was clear this was really going to happen and a lot of it was on you?
HINDS: I was absolutely afraid of the material. I won’t even lie to you. I knew that at this point as Misha said, the train had left the station and so everybody handed in their ticket and sort of put their money on me and so I was like wow, I guess I’m going to have to deliver something here. I knew that Anthony had lobbied for it, that Misha and Joe and everyone was so supportive and encouraging and believing that it was possible for me to do this thing. I was hands-down the last person to believe that, but I had to sort of convince myself that it was going to happen because I also had to just remind myself that it was bigger than me and it was supposed to happen and it was necessary to happen.
DEADLINE: Why such certainty?
HINDS: Because Misha and Joe wrote the hell out of that script and so it’s unlike anything I have ever read and so I just wanted to trust it, you know.
I call it my Bible because for me, as a spiritual person, I always say if I waver to the left or to the right in life, I always know that I can trust the Word, the Word of God, which is my Bible, and that’s how I felt about this script. I was like, you know what, Aisha, at the end of the day if I waver left or right in this thing, you know wherever I am weak, I can lean, I can fall into these words. These words are going to guide me ultimately because they’re that powerful and it’s because it’s her story you know and much of it is using the words that she used and so that in and of itself is a privilege to even utter the words that she used to tell and recant her story in forums where she didn’t even want to get up and talk about it. So it was such a tremendous responsibility to do that and so by all means I pushed through the process.
I can’t say, oh, you know, I have this exhaustive rehearsal period and oh, I have this script and you know with enough time to color-code my beats and oh, you know, we work shopped the piece for X amount of weeks. No. None of those things were in place and so all I can do is credit the spirit of Harriet Tubman.
DEADLINE: Joe, not to take anything away from that process or your intentions, but you know this really does, on one level, work as the TED Talk of all TED Talks, the TUB Talk…
POKASKI: That wasn’t by accident. We looked at a lot of TED talks and then eventually I think it’s a rule of the internet, you eventually come upon a TED talk about TED talks, which was helpful. We also looked at the structure of things like the Steve Jobs iPhone watch or the Martin Luther King “I Have a Dream” speech and worked to construct this in a similar way.
DEADLINE: And what was it actually like to film?
POKASKI: As Misha said earlier, it was three days, so very loosely speaking, we had five acts. It was two acts a day and then the last day was half crowd shots and half Act 5, which was a oner. So, on top of asking Aisha to memorize all these pages, the last nine pages, she had to know verbatim in one take.
DEADLINE: As one of the creators of Underground, what was watching those days like for you?
POKASKI: For me at least and I think for a lot of the crew it was kind of a spiritual experience. It was a really long, rough year. We shot a lot of stuff out of order for various reasons and ending on these three days and watching this woman step up and do what she does, there were tears in people’s eyes. It was kind of, in retrospect, the most amazing way to end the season’s work.
DEADLINE: Misha, for you, what was it like?
GREEN: Well, I’ll say this, we didn’t talk with Anthony much about how we wanted to shoot. I think it was that kismet of everybody on the crew just came together, We wrote the script a week and a half before we shot it. We had three days…
HINDS: And she chuckled.
GREEN: …they brought their A games out from Anthony to our camera guys to our DP, Kevin McKnight, the way it looked was amazing. To Megan Rogers, our production designer, who was like I’m going to give you guys the best set that you’ve ever seen and it was amazing. And all of it was great. So I think everybody just stepped up for those last three days to kind of honor Harriet’s legacy and gave her an episode that’s worthy of her name.
DEADLINE: Aisha, on the sheer mechanics on carrying that load, all those pages, all those segments of Harriet Tubman’s life, so to speak – what were those three days like for you?
HINDS: I think it was the convergence of all those parts of me. It’s the foundation of my training, which was and will always be theatrical for me. Training that will always be stripping away all of the extras and relying on the story and telling the story, which I said again is powerful and tells itself. Then, of course, my spiritual life is one that I relied on and leaned on and had to sort of make available to this experience and to that of Harriet Tubman’s spirit.
I have to subscribe to it and so it challenged me to dig to a deeper place in my own faith. You know, my faith is something that I’m deliberate in nurturing through church and reading up my Bible and fellowship and Bible study. This woman didn’t have all of those things. She couldn’t even read. So she didn’t read a single word of a Bible but yet I’m sure her faith level could rival that of the most learned theologian in history.
DEADLINE: And a voice, an example reaching across history with the Minty episode, what do you think Harriet Tubman says to America 2017?
HINDS: I think Harriet’s spirit is one that we certainly need today, which is why she’s sort of revisiting us in all of these different mediums, whether it be long-format television, whether it be film, whether it be her face on the 20-dollar bill. She represents something that we definitely need revisiting today because we’re still living in a day in April 2017 where we’re facing odds that are so akin to the devices and systemic oppression that we read about in our history books, yet they’ve taken on this modern day articulation of itself and so we’re still very much in pursuit of liberty for all.
DEADLINE: One of the few times we step away from Harriet Tubman in the episode is when her audience start arguing about John Brown, essentially along the lines of freedom fighter or terrorist. Where did that come from and why did you guys want to include that in the episode?
POKASKI: Part of it was based on a real-life dinner Misha and I went out with some of the folks from a civil rights museum. They actually had a very heated conversation as to whether or not John Brown was a hero or a terrorist and it was kind of amazing that these academics who have read 50 times more books than I’ll ever see in my life are still arguing about this man. So we just felt like that was endemic, that if she was going to mention John Brown’s name that that was what the audience would do in truth.
GREEN: I mean the movement was very divisive on John Brown and what he wanted to do and what he thought was needed to abolish slavery and I think that’s a question we are exploring a lot this season with the idea of citizen versus soldier is this idea of what does it mean for you to fight back against an injustice and it’s a very divisive topic even to today.
DEADLINE: So, in the end, now that it is all done and about to air, what is the message that you want viewers to get from “Minty”?
POKASKI: I think Harriet and Aisha said it a few times in the show, there are no negotiations on freedom. I think it’s just about that we have a short time on this earth and we should step up and do what we can to make it a better place. Harriet was uncompromising in that so hopefully it teaches people to be the same.
GREEN: I think that fifth act pretty much sums up exactly what is being said about current day America. I don’t think we pull any punches on that so I will leave it to people to watch it and to interpret it and take what they will from it.