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'The hero of all heroes': Actress Aisha Hinds talks portraying Harriet Tubman on 'Underground'

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You can't have "Underground" without its most well-known conductor.

Actress Aisha Hinds will portray Harriet Tubman in WGN America's "Underground," beginning with its season two premiere Wednesday, March 8.

Set in 1857 Georgia, the period drama follows the Macon Seven, a group of slaves who escape a plantation to make the journey north. The conclusion of the first season teased Tubman's introduction to the story. Indeed, the show returns with Hinds portraying the abolitionist who'd go on to spy for the Union in the Civil War and make her home in Auburn after it.

I spoke to Hinds over the phone Monday about how she was cast in "Underground," how she prepared to portray Harriet Tubman, and the recent resurgence of interest in Tubman's life.

Q. Tell me about how you came to be cast as Harriet Tubman, and what your conception of her was before joining "Underground."

A. The way I came to the project is from the seat of an audience member, first. I watched the first season and was completely engaged in it. A friend of mine, Anthony Hemingway, is a director and producer on the show, and I was drawn in really through him — wanting to support him and support his work and celebrate him. He directed the first four episodes. And I knew from the first four seconds that I would be watching this show for its entirety. It tells the story in a way that's fresh, engaging and elevating. I knew that they were going to be dealing with this narrative less from the point of view of the occupation and more from the point of view of the revolution. I tuned in and sat through the first 10 episodes and, at the end of the season, they introduce that iconic character of Harriet Tubman and I got so excited because now I had been invested in this journey of the characters and what they're trying to do. So of course the hero of all heroes, the woman known to be the famed conductor of the Underground Railroad — now we're introducing what ("Underground" writer) Joe Pokasi described as the Superman to their Justice League. Then I thought, who's going to play her? How are they going to introduce her, weave her into the story? Never in my mind did I think I'd be the answer to those questions. I hadn't thought of myself having the ability to come near capturing the power, essence and legacy of Harriet Tubman. She was on a pedestal, I had tremendous reverence for her. But I think I was worshiping that one-dimensional portrait of her. You hold so sacred the pages afforded to us in our history books that you forget all about the dimensions of what makes her a human and where she comes from, and her family and friends and siblings and loves. It was so amazing to peel back all of those layers coming onto this piece. I was working on another production for Fox called "Shots Fired," which is also premiering Wednesdays beginning March 22. While I was working on that, Anthony came and worked on an episode. A conversation began that ("Underground") would begin casting for its second season, and he mentioned they were looking for a Harriet Tubman. In my mind, I thought they already had her. So I talked to my rep about pursuing this, and it all started to move really quickly — so quickly that I didn't really have a moment to think about what was happening. If I did, I would have talked myself out of it. I jumped on board, and got through the audition, which was such a spiritual experience for me and would be one for the entirety of the shoot thereafter. I got so full of what I've come to realize are her own words. Misha Green and Joe Pokaski have written such a beautiful script. The audition material wove in some of the things Harriet said in chronicling her own story and sharing it. I just knew that what she was saying was hitting me in such a deep place that it invoked so many feelings and emotions and what came out in the entire journey.

Q. So how did you prepare for the role? Were you conscious of "getting it right," if there is such a thing?

A. Once I found out I had the role, I started with the internet. And I realized there really wasn't a whole lot of information available. Then it occurred to me that I can't YouTube Harriet Tubman. I can't find out what her voice sounds like; there's no video footage of how she walked. Then I felt sort of paralyzed. How do I begin to build this? Then I felt inadequate. I didn't want to confuse her with a dishonesty. I felt like my body, my idiosyncrasies, my behavior could never be what she would do. I felt like all of that would be inaccurate to her. That's when I began to talk myself out of it. I had a few meltdowns. Then I went to Amazon and I must have ordered every single book that came up that was written about her. I saw one of the first came from Sarah Bradford: "Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman," where Harriet had met with her and shared her story. She did that in the hopes that, once the book got published, they could get some money and provide Harriet with a little bit of income. Even though she did all this work for the government, she wasn't compensated. She was still struggling at even being considered a human being. Needless to say, they weren't going to acknowledge her contributions through compensation. So she was telling her story as a means of making some income. She gave (Bradford) enough info for one book, then she came back and told her more. So she created a whole other book. I started with these stories, which were beautiful. Then I moved onto Kate Clifford Larson's "Bound for the Promised Land," then Beverly Lowry's book. That had started to flesh her out a bit. They started to give me ideas, the way they speak of people who spoke about her, and I started to see her in a multidimensional way. It's almost like she'd inhabit this space. After a while, I felt like her spirit was beginning to consume me. I was grateful I could surrender to something much larger than me and use my vessel as her voice box, to tell her story once again. She would go around and give these talks and tell her story, so (writer) Misha created the equivalent of an 1858 TED Talk. There's one episode that captures that, telling (Tubman's) story in the way she told it. It's an episode where I outline so many beautiful details of her story. It's incredible for our audience to meet Harriet Tubman beyond the pages of our history books, and get the feeling I got. It's a fleshed-out experience with this hero and this icon we've kept in a case for so long, worshiping her. It's episode six of the season, "Minty," which was her childhood nickname. It's all Harriet Tubman, all me telling her story.

Q. You mentioned keeping Harriet Tubman in a case. Along with "Underground," there are two Harriet Tubman film projects that have been announced, one with Cynthia Erivo and another with Viola Davis portraying her. Then there's been the news about the Harriet Tubman National Historical Parks in Auburn and Maryland, and of course, the announcement that Tubman will be the new face of the $20 bill. How do you explain the recent resurgence of interest in Tubman and her life?

A. I defer to the power of Harriet Tubman's spirit. What she did in the time that she did it is something that shouldn't have been possible. She credited her spirituality and guidance from God — she talked about having (sleeping) spells and hearing from God and being guided to do the things she did, and overcome the ways she overcame. We're living in a time right now that we desperately need a revisit from Harriet Tubman. Honestly, I feel like it's being guided by God at this moment, visiting a new generation of people to introduce herself to those of us who know very little about her so we can see ourselves in her and see the potential in ourselves to be more like her. In the times we're living in, it's becoming more evident that we may not have attained freedom, that we're still in pursuit of freedom that is not real for all. We're not truly living in a time that reflects life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We need a revisitation from those whose shoulders we have stood on and who walked the land and have done so much of the heavy lifting. With the $20, I had the opportunity to visit the Treasury last week and meet a woman who was behind petitioning for this to happen. We're making history, and here I am walking through history even right now. She explained that everything Harriet Tubman stood for — a soldier, a servant, an enslaved woman who ran for freedom and was so selfless to save others — those are the things she was driven to capture in wanting to represent the power of women on U.S. currency. We're living in a time when we realize freedom is not a geographical point on a map. We're in pursuit of destroying systems, systematized racism that's still very present in the world, any system that would threaten our humanity on any level: socially, economically, sexually, spiritually. We need to break down these systems. In that time we can truly find people who encourage us and give us the guidance we need to get through, Harriet Tubman being one of them.

Q. We obviously haven't seen those other portrayals of Harriet Tubman yet, but in general, how would you characterize "Underground's" vision of her?

A. The subject matter hasn't been exhausted in other formats, so anyone taking this on is now making history. We're making history by taking on the subject of the Underground Railroad and introducing Harriet Tubman to episodic TV, and we're making history-within-history by allowing her story to absorb an entire episode. There's no one involved in that episode besides her, and that's never been done in episodic TV. The executives were like, "Are you sure?" But Misha and Joe stood behind it because they felt very convinced her story needed a platform and was due a platform that solely belonged to her. We're honoring the way she told her story. We're sure it will be fine, and it'll work. If nothing else, we're making history doing it. My take is that her story's so vast that there are so many entry points and perspectives to tell it. We have very little information about her in terms of her story in school. Now, after reading all these books, I realize there's so much we need to know and learn. These projects can enter any perspective, any point of view: as a soldier, as a wife, as a daughter. They can talk about her strengths, her vulnerabilities. I'm honored to be in the company of Cynthia and Viola. They're such transcendent talents telling her story. To be chosen by Harriet to share her story is quite amazing. These are powerhouse women. I know these women will bring their own level of power and authenticity and honor and dignity to whatever version of her story they're going to tell. For me, I'm just excited we'll tell the story, and we'll retell the story. I'd love to inundate our airwaves with the story of Harriet Tubman so that she will never be forgotten. She will never be lost again. One thing that saddened me was learning that when she was living in Auburn, one book said she'd almost gone into anonymity by the time she died. To think that someone as amazing as her could go into any level of anonymity — I grew up in New York City, and I never knew she was right there. As a kid, I would have loved for that to be something incorporated into our class trips. To just go and visit Auburn, the ground she lived in. To be able to escape her unconscionable circumstances and find space where she could be safe and dwell and continue her work of helping others. To know those grounds exist and walk those grounds she walked as a free women. That's necessary information to be widely known. I'm excited for the resurgence of her story.

Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at (315) 282-2245 or david.wilcox@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @drwilcox.

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Features editor for The Citizen.