EXCLUSIVE: How Jurnee Smollett-Bell Got Through the Toughest Scenes of 'Underground'

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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

MORE: 'Empire' Star Jussie Smollett Talks Powerful Experience of Joining Sister on 'Underground'

“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.

MORE: Watch John Legend Take the Musical Reins of WGN America's Slave Drama 'Underground'

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,

And your husband, musician Josiah Bell, also appears on the

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.

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