Jurnee Smollett-Bell had one mission when she was cast in WGN America’s slavery-era drama, Underground: do the story justice. As Rosalee, a quiet house slave among those plotting their escape, Smollett-Bell had her work cut out for her, knowing full well the physical and emotional toll this character would have on her.
It's definitely paid off.
“It’s mind-blowing how the fans have reacted and just how well the show’s done. It definitely blew all of our expectations,” the 29-year-old actress told ET of the show, which has been renewed for a second season.
“This project definitely pushed me past my limits,” the former Friday Night Lights star said. “This definitely stretched me way beyond what I thought I was capable of doing. It made me dig deeper as an artist and I learned a deeper meaning of what courage is.”
Smollett-Bell jumped on the phone with ET to chat about the responsibility she felt taking on Underground, how her musician husband got involved and having her big brother, Jussie Smollett, experience this with her.
ET: When you signed on for this role and this show, did you have a sense of where Rosalee would go?
Jurnee Smollett-Bell: I met with [creators] Misha [Green] and Joe [Pokaski] before I signed on and they had read a letter of a young girl who was debating whether or not she would run, and for them, that was the entryway into Rosalee -- having to make that choice. They told me Rosalee would become a superhero.
What stuck out to you about season one and can you share one of your favorite scenes?
I enjoyed the physicality of it. We were sometimes shooting in 110-degree weather in a swamp. The scene with [Christopher] Meloni and I, when he comes on the boat, he throws me off the boat and we’re fighting in the water and it’s like, wow. It probably wasn’t the smartest thing for us to do but it was pretty cool.
Was it important to do your own stunts? Did that add some authenticity to your performance?
It adds a level of authenticity. We can go home and take a shower and sleep in comfortable beds and take the dirty clothes off. They had to live in it. Trying to get closer to the conditions and closer to the experience gives you a deeper understanding and a deeper appreciation of what these brave men and women went through.
What was the hardest scene you had to film this season?
The hardest scene definitely was when Rosalee had to be flogged by [plantation owner] Bill (P.J. Marshall), when she was protecting her brother, James (Maceo Smedley). I’d never done anything like that and wasn’t prepared for how much of an impact it was going to have on me once I actually did it.
What did you go through during that process?
Honestly, beforehand, I just surrendered. I kept looking up at the trees and I started hearing Billie Holiday songs, “Strange Fruit,” and thought, “My goodness, what have those trees seen?” I asked Anthony [Hemingway], our director, “Please don’t let me hear the sound of the whip,” and then once we did it, he kept rolling and we kept doing it a few times. Afterwards, I couldn’t stop shaking and crying, and my castmates, Aldis [Hodge], Amirah [Vann] and Anthony, our director, and Misha Green surrounded me and let me cry it out for 10 minutes. It was something that was a little intimidating to do because you want to do justice to the Rosalees who have experienced that.
What was it like having your brother, Empire star Jussie Smollett, working with you on Underground? (Smollett played Josey, a slave whose wife was sold, in an episode of Underground.)
I was so proud of him. He really lost himself in the character and really killed it. I mean, there’s no sign of Jussie in that character. There’s no sign of [Empire character] Jamal in Josey and I think he really showed how much he is able to stretch as an actor.
Did having Jussie there to share a part in this experience important to you?
I think it’s good for your soul to step outside your comfort zone and that’s the thing we all shared, and he shared that as well. Like, this is no joke. He just kept saying, “Wow, I have so much respect for what y’all are doing because it is a challenge on so many levels: emotionally, physically, spiritually.”
And your husband, musician Josiah Bell, also appears on the show.
Anthony Hemingway was the one who had the idea for both Josiah and Jussie to be in the show. He needed a grave singer in the pilot and he’d seen Josiah perform at one of the concerts in Los Angeles. He approached Josiah and said, “Hey, can you do this?”
Why is Underground important to you?
Viewers have responded to the deeper understanding of why we are where we are today. Injustice is either very blatant -- you walk down the street and someone calls you a name, you don’t get a job because of your gender or your skin color or your sexual preference -- but injustice is also very subliminal. There’s injustices within our system that we inherited from this time, from slavery, and until we confront our past, we’re not going to be able to heal the wounds for our future.
Additional reporting by Stacy Lambe.