In its first season, WGN America’s period drama about the abolitionist movement — more commonly referred to as the Underground Railroad — took the small screen by storm.
Lauded with critical praise, “Underground” presented the story of the Macon 7, a group of slaves on a quest for freedom — and the struggles, challenges and victories they’re faced with on their journey.
If you thought that quest for freedom was going to get any easier going into Season 2, you’ve got another thing coming. The stakes are going to be higher, the risks will be even more life-threatening and the movement even more relevant.
Screener had a chance to sit down with cast members Alano Miller (Cato), Jessica De Gouw (Elizabeth) and Christopher Meloni (August) to discuss the changes their characters will face and the evolution of the show’s overall identity. With the statement that this time around, the story will be about “citizen vs. soldier,” it’s safe to say Season 2 of “Underground” to up the political ante!
Alano, going off something you said previously: How is Season 2 of ‘Underground’ going to ‘break’ TV?
Alano Miller: I just think we’re doing stuff that hasn’t been done on TV. I can’t tell you what those things are — I really wish we could tell you — but we do some amazing things with characters that haven’t been done before. It’s not about the way we shoot it, it’s just the storytelling, and the way we do it. So I’m very excited about it.
Jessica De Gouw: I think it challenges our audience this Season. It pushes things to the next level. Our audience, as a collective, is very intelligent and we enjoy that. You take risks when making a show that people might not understand, or might not be with you, but I think that makes for more interesting TV.
Does budget matter when the story being told is the priority? I’m assuming the lower the budget, the more creative you have to be in front of, and behind, the camera.
De Gouw: Yes, you’re right. People like Anthony Hemingway and Kevin McKnight can light and create a scene out of nothing, with the very simplest of resources — and take it to the next level of performance. It’s massively challenging… I’ve never been challenged like I have on this show. And the credit goes to all the creatives involved.
Miller: But all the pieces have to be in the right place for the show like ours to exist. It comes down to the acting. it comes down to the DP, it comes down to the creatives. It comes down to Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, with the writing — where they are willing to take those risks.
Miller: I think what makes our show so successful is that it’s a story that people know very little about and we’re going very different places with it. I believe most of our budget ends up going to our music anyway. Music is such a big component to our storytelling and it allows us to cross generations and bring younger people into the fold.
Music helped inform who the good and bad guys were, too. And in Season 1, Cato was a bad guy… Until he wasn’t. Were you aware of what your character’s general arc was going to be?
Miller: I wasn’t. All I got was the pilot, and as we kept going through it, they said they wanted to turn this iconic character — as we’ve seen in slave narratives — they wanted to turn him upside down. And I said, “Okay, that sounds really great. How are we going to do that?”
Miller: The argument became: How are we going to flesh him out so there’s humanity to him, so there’s fear in him, so there’s love in him? So there are all these places… I fought specifically to make sure that those places were shown. But as far as where we were going, I didn’t know who was going to play with who and how we were going to do it. I didn’t know when I was going to make it off the plantation or even if I was going to make it off the plantation.
When changes come to you in the script, does that change your intentions as an actor, bringing Cato to life?
Miller: What I did do was sit down with Misha and Joe, and they helped me understand the objective is this: You are going to be free. At that point, everything else is just colors.
I can’t just play him as one note. I can’t just have him as this evil guy. It’s not about that — he’s gotta be more than that. Because otherwise, we know what he’s going to do next. The goal for me is to say, I don’t know what he is going to do. I don’t know if I can trust him. I don’t know if he’s on my side… And I definitely don’t want him to not be on my side.
That kind of going back and forth, that kind of frustration — it is what makes characters interesting to me, and that’s what I fought for every single moment. And that’s what they gave into in order to make this character exist.
De Gouw: Also, I think this is probably particularly relevant to you, Alano: It’s not my job to judge my character. I play Elizabeth without judgment. It’s for an audience to judge my character.
Is that a challenge for you, though? You both end up doing some questionable things over the course of the series…
De Gouw: Not for Elizabeth, no. I mean, she makes some choices that are quite reckless — that may be an understatement — but the end goal is something that I completely understand. And I think her heart is in the right place. She may fumble and stumble along the way, but I think there’s a lot about Elizabeth that I can relate to. I can appreciate her — and she is a pleasure to play, as well. It’s not your job to judge, it’s your job to be honest.
Miller: And also, it’s safe to say [Cato’s] story deserves to be told, too. I consider him a hero, too. No one is all good, no one is all bad.
There are a lot of grey areas here…
Miller: A lot of grey areas! So why is it acceptable to be the superhero. It’s not always like that. There’s Batman, by the way…
De Gouw: …Who is an incredibly flawed human being.
Miller: Exactly! But he does these things where you go, okay… But you don’t always love the way he does them. That’s what I mean when we say we need to flesh out these characters and let them breathe. You have to allow those downfalls and those moments of redemption. If we don’t have that, then it’s not exciting television to watch. Plus, it’s not human. I can’t play that honestly.
What about August? Are these grey areas tough to tackle when playing the villain?
Christopher Meloni: It’s just about the numbers. So if you look at it that way… They’re property. I bought these people. They’re mine and now you want to take those people away from me? You can’t do that. These slaves are my property. That’s all, I’m not a bad guy. And let’s not fool ourselves — that type of dynamic is still present today, in a variety of situations…
Speaking of downfalls and moments of redemption, Season 2 brings a huge shift in tone from Season 1. How have your characters changed?
Meloni: I think [August] is a man giving birth to his own conscience — he’s finding his humanity. This is a very shifting world, and things are volatile. People are dying, over states being admitted to The Union. Whether they’re a slave-holder or not, it’s a hard time. He’s a guy still on his journey of awakening.
De Gouw: The first season is finding out who Elizabeth is and what her purpose is. The second season is just watching her discover how she goes about that, and how far she is willing to go. And really — she knows at the start of the second season what she wants to do, and the change she wants to see. But it’s about: How does she create that change, and at what cost?
Miller: Cato knows who he is. He’s always known who he is. I think it’s about accepting that. You’re throwing this man — Cato 2.0, as I like to call him… because he has money now — into a different society, where he is free and able to do a lot more things, because of his financial situation. What does that look like on him, and what is he going to do with that new set of power he’s been given?
Miller: Elizabeth and Cato’s stories are very parallel this season. We both have to make bold decisions and, at some point, one of us has to make a decision on how we cross the line. And once you cross that line, there’s no going back. And so, I think we both go through dark emotional turmoil, in a way, in Season 2 — and that’s going to reveal a lot about our characters and answer a lot of things people have been questioning.
What would you consider Season 2’s identity to be?
Meloni: An awakening. I think it’s an awakening — for the people who ran — as to what freedom means. I think it’s an awakening as to: What does it mean to be a free citizen? Does that mean you just live your life? Is it a submission to activation? Do you have a duty to help others that were left behind? Do you have a duty to the greater aspects of America? To change the system?
It’s an awakening to self, an awakening to… What’s the meaning of life? I don’t mean for this to sound cliché, but what gives meaning to one’s life? What is a fulfilled or fully realized life? Just because you’re free, that doesn’t mean that your life is all of a sudden fully realized. You could be destitute and on the street! You thought freedom was the mountaintop? No, the mountain leads into the clouds, and you don’t know where the top is — you don’t even know how high up you’ve gone.
Miller: Political. It’s definitely more political.
De Gouw: I 100% agree. Season 1 is a social commentary. It’s a comment on a point in history. Along with a lot of other things, I think Season 2 is very political. It’s a hundred times more relevant to now. When we were shooting the show, the political landscape was taking a massive turn. The election was taking place while we were shooting in Savannah, Georgia — which was quite an experience!
That detail pretty much informs everything right there! You’re in the actual location.
De Gouw: It was quite something to witness. That’s a point in my life that I will never forget — being there at that time, shooting the show where these parallels are glaringly obvious. It’s a much more politically motivated season than the first one. Season 1 was more socially motivated, Season 2 is way more political.
Miller: I have an argument that a lot of people didn’t show up this year. It doesn’t matter what side you voted for, people just didn’t show up. And I think that is a call to arms, to say why is that okay for you to feel like you shouldn’t vote, or you shouldn’t have a say in the things that affect you directly. It also is to say that, if you want things to change, you can’t sit on the sidelines.
De Gouw: You can’t be outraged if you don’t participate.
Miller: For me, this is what this is: A call to arms. We can no longer stay silent. If you’re going to complain or throw your hands up and call out all the problems in the world, but you’re not willing to activate yourself or willing to be an activist — to march, to vote, to stand up for something — then I say you’re missing the point of being a citizen of the United States. This season is political in that way: It’s about citizen vs. soldier. And it is about saying we should all be soldiers.
The show’s impact has been huge — and very relevant. You guys got to the White House!
Miller: There was a reason behind that — and at the end of the day, anyone who says this is the kind of show that divides is not watching the show. This is the kind of show where we’re saying it’s about the interracial struggle, and the movement together, to move forward.
Until we do that, until we understand that language — that it is all in love, that we are the reason, that we’re all at fault and we need to make the change together… There is a shift in alliances that have to happen, in order for us to move together. That won’t happen if we just sit quietly and point the finger. Pointing a finger is not active. Getting up and putting shoes on, strapping those shoes up and marching, and saying we’re going to fight together and unify… That’s what gets changes.
We’ve done it before and we can do it again. I really believe in that.
“Underground” Season 2 premieres Wednesday, March 8, at 10 p.m. ET/PT on WGN America.