The Women Of 'Underground' Evolve & Shine In Different Ways, Which Is What Jurnee Smollett-Bell Loves About It
Though WGN America's new series is filled with riveting characters, Jurnee Smollett-Bell's Rosalee stands out on Underground. After spending her life confined within the borders of a plantation, never allowed to make a decision of her own, she decides to seize control of her fate by fleeing slavery. It's a courageous decision that puts her life in serious jeopardy, and the accompanying risks are not lost on Smollett-Bell. "It wasn't as simple as just running," the actor tells Bustle. "Rosalee had never been off the plantation in her entire life, so where do you run? How do you run? Where do you run to? Who do you trust and how do you survive?"
These are the questions Underground will explore when it premieres on March 9 at 10 p.m., and in order to fully understand her character's struggles, Smollett-Bell read and listened to real slave narratives. Her efforts more than paid off, as it is clear within moments of speaking with Smollett-Bell that she has come to know Rosalee intimately.
She is really more of an introvert ... She's lonely, she's an outsider, she doesn't really fit in in the house or in the fields. We really do see her face the choice of should I run or should I not? Our creators talked about a letter they read that a young girl wrote where she is debating that very decision of do I run or not?
For us, it is easy to say of course you run, but it was really complex back then ... You are running over 600 miles, 700 miles, over 1,000 miles sometimes, if the dogs don't catch you and the slave catchers don't catch you, the conditions can kill you.
Rosalee's journey will take her from a world with enforced borders to one of freedom, but it comes at a high cost. For Smollett-Bell, it was an emotional, rewarding ride, and she reveals that her character will undergo tremendous change along the way. "We will see her change enormously," Smollett-Bell says. "It's interesting, but when I finished episode 10, they needed to do a pickup of me running during episode 1. Just stepping back into who I was in episode 1, I literally said to [series creator] Misha [Green], 'Who is this girl?' Because I had changed so much, so greatly by episode 10."
Underground filmed in Louisiana using real former plantations to add another layer of authenticity to the series, and Smollett-Bell was eager to play every emotional and physical beat Rosalee went through, no matter how demanding the scene. She says that she would often ask to do even the scenes where her stunt double was brought in.
"Shooting in Baton Rouge in the dead of summer in a corset in five layers, nothing prepares you for that," the 29-year-old says. "No matter what amount of training you do. They had us in swamps and fights and it was really hands down the most physically challenging role I ever had, but I love that stuff."
Even more than that, Smollett-Bell loves what Rosalee and the other women of Underground represent. They are each brave in the face of unimaginable conditions and heartbreaking choices. Rosalee, in particular, is torn between her love for her mother and her desire to live as a free woman. However, her turning point comes from a moment of tragedy. There is a moment in the Underground premiere that Smollett-Bell reveals will "chip away at [Rosalee's] faith, but also empowers her." From that point on, Rosalee will choose to rebel not only from her life as a slave, but from her mother, who believes in keeping her head down and not angering the plantation owners.
Though they show it in different ways, the strength of Rosalee and Underground's other female characters is undeniable. "You've got really strong, complex women who are standing right beside the men who aren't just set dressing, who aren't defined by their relationships to the men," Smollett-Bell says. "These are all really strong complex women and I'm seeing that more and more, which makes me really proud to be on a show where everyone gets an opportunity to shine."
Images: WGN America (3)