I don't know if you've heard, but Harriet Tubman is one of the most badass American heroes to ever walk the Earth. The trailblazing abolitionist helped free hundreds of slaves during the 1850s, and now she's finally getting some Hollywood recognition in WGN's Underground. Played by Aisha Hinds, Harriet Tubman made her Underground debut in Second 2, currently airing on the network. And as Hinds tells Bustle in a recent phone interview, making Harriet Tubman historically accurate on Underground was no easy undertaking.
Taking on the role of one of the best known abolitionists in history required quite a bit of research for Hinds, who, like many of us, only knew the basics of Tubman's place in history from what she learned in school. The actor says she was astounded by all the things she didn't know before taking on the role of Tubman herself, some of which have been incorporated into the show. For example, in Underground, Tubman suffers from uncontrollable sleeping spells, something Tubman herself dealt with while on the run.
"One of the things that was astounding to me was that she suffered with these sleeping spells that made her extremely drowsy, or that she would fall asleep at the drop of a dime," Hinds says, noting how this significantly elevated the risk to Tubman's life every time she stepped into Southern territory. It's small, lesser known details like this that the actor hopes will help humanize Tubman for audiences who might not know a lot about her beyond the myth.
To that end, Hinds prepared for the role by reading many books, including two written by author and historian Sarah Bradford. Tubman was unable to write her own story, but she did recount her adventures to Bradford before her death. Through her research, Hinds was able to discover Tubman's own authentic voice, something she says Underground creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski emphasized in the scripts. "It often felt like such a privilege to be uttering the words of Harriet Tubman," says the actor.
By reading Tubman's first person accounts, Hinds says she was able to find the woman behind the icon. "All of those things were helpful in flushing out this human version of Harriet Tubman, so that we could feel that we had a flushed-out encounter with her," she says, noting that the trick was to humanize Tubman, not idolize her.
By bringing more of the icon's story to light in Underground, Hinds hopes that Tubman can reemerge as a figure in the rebellion today. "As we learn more about her and have such a human encounter with her, and take her out of the superhero perspective, we realize that she was an ordinary human being who was able to do an extraordinary thing," she says. The actor also hopes that by taking Tubman off her historic pedestal, Underground can inspire modern audiences to embrace their own rebellion as she did. "We're ordinary human beings, but we all have the power to do an extraordinary thing if we try to put our mind to it."
There's no word yet on whether or not Tubman and Hinds will stick around for a potential third season of Underground, but should she continue to be a presence in the series, Hinds says she would like to continue exploring the figure's life on screen. "I would love, love, love to explore every part of Harriet Tubman if I could," the actor says. I think I speak for all Underground fans when I say, we'd love that too.
Additional reporting by: Samantha Rullo