Underground, Season 1, Episode 105

You’ve also done historical dramas, but never quite this far back.

Never quite this far back. A Beautiful Mind is historical. Cinderella Man is historical. By the way, having said that, we treated I Am Legend as if it was historical. We really extrapolated with the same kind of attention to imagined detail as you look back. You have to be thorough. I think audiences know when you’re not.

Is it different telling a historical story when none of the characters are still alive?

Oh, 100%. Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, especially today. I read an article in the Times recently which I really quite liked about the endless controversy over that notion of “based on a true story.” I think that as soon as you start telling a story about, you’re fictionalizing. Life isn’t real in movie terms. Life takes longer. So the degree to which you extrapolate and abstract is a judgement call. For me, I’m very happy to imagine my way through thinking I understand what is essential. Doesn’t mean I’m right or wrong. It’s just my view of it, and then try to tell a story about it. If the person is alive, or there are a lot of people around who remember when that person was alive, they will tell you you are right or wrong. Far more frequently than something that is historical. In terms of that component, that particular component, it is less complicated to do something historical.

How directly were you and John Legend involved together with Underground?

Only in the kind of beginning. I met Michael [Jackson, producer] and John a very long time ago. They also I think had a relationship with Sony and Misha [Green]. So there was a lot of everybody going, “But wait, would you?” This is one of those ones where people are in it for the right reasons. Doesn’t make the storytelling better or worse at the end of the day, but it is the truth of this which is everybody just cares about this one. They do too. We started talking about a song and suddenly we were getting little rough tracks. John was like, “Yeah, my friend came in.” It has everybody leaning into it in a way that’s lovely.

Were you and your team already thinking musically with a percussive soundtrack before John Legend came in?

Yes, so what happened was when Joe [Pokaski] and Misha first wrote it, and then we worked on it for a little while, they put together a rip reel. That rip reel was to that Kanye song. It was declarative. We uses this to sell it. So this is before WGN. This was to say this is not your father’s version of the Underground Railroad. This is not a historical drama, at least with the connotations you might imagine when somebody says historical drama. This is modern. It is surprising and it is contemporary. I think music was their way of saying that before it was sold. They knew it from the start. The fact that they then got an actual musical partner in John Legend was unbelievably fortuitous.

How far does the first season take us in history?

I don’t want to tell you what the ending is. Here’s how this thing works. A year of story time is about a year of historical time, a little less. The hope is it runs and runs and runs. But if it ended after one season, it would’ve been a complete story.

How much did you already know about this story from school or from researching it?

I think I know more about it than it seems people are taught today, but I certainly didn’t know anything like I know now. For me, Harriet Tubman and her plight was a real sort of teaching tool in New York in the ’60s and ’70s. I think we were much more aware of that time than Joe, but we were not versed the way I am now.

I’d heard about how politicians used to really set up a podium in public and campaign. Do you have a certain nostalgia for that idea, that John Hawkes may only reach one person one day?

Well, it’s complicated. I think communication to masses of people is a really interesting thing. I think all of us who are in the entertainment business are somehow drawn to it. I also watch it change. The conversation with the world now that takes place on Twitter is, for the most part, well beyond my desires to be in conversation with the world. So I don’t long for the podium. I don’t long for the bully pulpit but I guess I long for something because I don’t really want to be in a conversation that is a few words back and forth with everybody.

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