Written by | Ray Cornelius
In 2013, I vowed that I would never watch another slavery movie, television series or special again after seeing “12 Years A Slave.” The climactic scene involving Lupita Nyong’o’s character, Patsy, was the last and final beating of any African-American I ever wanted to see. The way that whip pulled the flesh off of her back was more than I could bare and reminded me of Jesus’ cruxifixction scene in “The Passion of the Christ.” Both movies left me traumatized and an emotional wreck for days. However, WGN’s new series “Underground” has made me eat my words and I am watching a program about (you guessed it)…slavery.
“Underground,” is a new series about the underground railroad that features a heroic group of men and women who lead a revolution against their masters with the hope of finding freedom and making a better life for themselves. This is not your typical Harriet Tubman narrative but rather a story about a group of determined souls who fled the South for the North. The series also infuses hip-hop music and this heavy surround sound breathing that simulates a slave running alongside you. Another reason I tune into the series each week is because of actress Adina Porter, who plays the fearless field slave Pearlie Mae. She is a strong-willed wife and mother who is literate (unlawful at that time) and she possesses a quiet strength that is both captivating and inspiring.
I had a chance to chat with Porter recently about the buzz surrounding the show and her character. We also talked about last week’s episode and what she gleaned from her first acting coach…the late Butterfly McQueen, who portrayed the maid Prissy in the 1939 classic film”Gone With the Wind.”
Check out the conversation below:
Last week’s episode where Pearlie Mae gets left behind was so powerful and heartbreaking at the same time. What was it like filming that?
“When we were shooting that scene, we really wanted to point out the two parents. Chris Meloni’s character, August Pullman and what he’s doing for his family and what my character, Pearlie Mae is doing for her family. Misha Green, one of the show’s creators, purposefully wanted me to put my hands in the air and pay homage to the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MI. Once my hands are up in the air the director, Anthony Hemingway, told me that when his gun moves, you move. So that’s where that comes from when I just kept putting myself in front of the riffle whenever it moved.”
You’ve always played strong female characters and Pearlie Mae is no exception. What made you say ‘yes’ to the role?
“I first auditioned for the role of Ernestine and my agents tried really, really hard to get me in for that part. But they were like no we really want a light-skinned actress for this part and they really wanted to go with a slave field hand and the house negro scenario but they couldn’t find her. They finally brought me in for an audition. I had worked with the director Anthony on ‘True Blood’ and ‘ The Newsroom’ and so he was a fan of mine and knew how good my work could be. I blew them away with the audition but they still wanted to go with the other narrative. So they asked me if I could sing and I was like I can carry a tune. Then they asked me to come back and sing and audition for Pearlie Mae. I then found out I was the only one person auditioned for Pearlie Mae. So I am the only Pearlie Mae. But when I read the script and after a very good job, I went back to my car and called my agent and said, ‘I don’t want to do this!’ I don’t want to have to go to this ugly world for 10 episodes and then if it’s successful for three or four years. I don’t want to go there. Being a slave is one thing but having to deal with not feeling good about my black skin and my kinky hair and my wide nose, I was like I really don’t want to do that. But then when Pearlie Mae’s (arc) came along I was like, OK. This is something I can do. So that is why I decided to be a part of the show.”
I vowed to never watch another slavery movie again but yet I’m a fan of the show. What do you think is the appeal of Underground?
“The cast of ‘Underground’ went to Comic-Con and I remember asking Misha, ‘Why go to Comic-Con?’ She said, ‘These guys are superheroes!’ When we did press before it began, we thought about the great escape. I grew up thinking that the North had granted the slaves freedom and didn’t concentrate on the individual people who made sacrifices everyday. See, it’s not about looking at these downtrodden slaves. It’s about looking at these fierce Americans who did whatever was necessary.”
You were actually taught by actress Butterfly McQueen, who starred as a slave in one of the most iconic American films of all time, ‘Gone With the Wind.’ The irony in you playing a slave years later is crazy. Were there any lesson you learned from her as a student?
“She was my very first acting teacher. She was a member of my sister’s church in Harlem where I grew up. She was in charge of our Holiday pageants and she still had that voice. I don’t remember much because I was really young, like a toddler but I knew she was an actress. I didn’t see ‘Gone With the Wind’ at that age nor could I understand it. But the lesson that I learned from her was this; years later I had found out that she had died in a fire in her home. The kerosene lantern in her home had turned over and caused a fire and she died tragically. The lesson that I take out of that is you have to have multiple streams of income because you just can’t rely on acting alone. When I learned about that I started my retirement fund and went a step further. I became a landlord and I now own three rental properties and am about to acquire a fourth. That was the lesson I learned from her is you have to diversify your income so that when you get older you can take care of yourself and your family. She didn’t need to give me that lesson but that’s what I learned.”
Underground airs tonight at 10:00 p.m. EST on WGN
Photo Credits: TVInsider.com and Deadline.com