‘Underground’ Star John Legend Opens Up About Playing Frederick Douglass: ‘He Was So Monumental’
The resistance continues. WGN America’s Underground—an epic saga of pre–Civil War slavery and the secret escape network known as the Underground Railroad—is back for its second season with several historical figures in on the action. Among them: freedom fighter Harriet Tubman (Aisha Hinds), slave trader Patty Cannon (Sadie Stratton) and writer and businessman William Still (Chris Chalk), widely considered the father of the Underground Railroad. Plus, Underground’s best-known executive producer, Oscar and Grammy winner John Legend, will make a guest appearance as Frederick Douglass, the self-taught slave who went on to become one of our nation’s most revered statesmen. Legend spoke with us about this landmark program and taking on the weighty role of Douglass, who—despite what you may have heard—is no longer with us.
Could the timing for Underground be any better? It would be relevant any time, any decade, but when I went into this project I never imagined it would be so resonant. People need inspiration to stand up for justice and civil rights right now. I don’t want to compare what’s happening in our country today to the era of slavery, but I believe it’s important to remember that America has gone through some tough times before.
Snoop Dogg doesn’t agree. He famously blasted Underground, as well as the remake of Roots and 12 Years a Slave, saying the TV and film industries should not be reliving slavery but focusing instead on the positive things African-Americans have achieved. Safe to say you don’t buy that? Here’s the irony about what Snoop said: If you want to focus on the great things black people have done, you must talk about the Underground Railroad! It was a leading voice for abolition. We are not wallowing in suffering and misery and oppression with this series. We are celebrating the response to that oppression. We are celebrating the courage, the heroic acts that freed people from that oppression. So you have to talk about slavery. You have to talk about Jim Crow. These things cannot be ignored.
As one of the Underground producers, did you cast yourself as Frederick Douglass? Not at all. I had no plans to act on the show. Music is still first and foremost in my life. But our creators, Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, knew I’d done a role in La La Land and they were curious if I’d caught enough of the acting bug to try it again. I loved the idea of playing Douglass, not only because he was so monumental, but because I was working on my album Darkness and Light right then, and the part didn’t require that much time. Anything larger would have been impossible, but I definitely want to do more acting. I take it very seriously.
What was it like seeing yourself in the full Douglass getup? I got such a kick out of it! Our production team did an incredible job with the makeup, hair and wardrobe. I was snapping selfies and sending them to my wife [supermodel Chrissy Teigen]. She loved the look. [Laughs] Maybe a little too much! Douglass was known to be an incomparable orator, but there are no recordings of his voice, of course, so I had to find that voice for myself. But there’s no question about how he looked. He was the most photographed man of the 19th century.
And he recently made news again. Yes! I just hope our president doesn’t get confused and think our show is set in modern times! But I must say, Trump has been great for the publishing business. Books by and about Frederick Douglass are selling really well. So is 1984, and Congressman John Lewis’s [graphic novel trilogy] March. Trump does wonders for everyone he’s gaffed or come out against. It’s also perfect timing to bring Harriet Tubman to Underground. She too has been a big topic of national conversation thanks to the controversy over the $20 bill. Our show trended a lot on social media last season, and I just know that Aisha Hinds’s incredible performance as Harriet is going to make that happen again.
On that topic, do you think white viewers have a different takeaway than black viewers? I’d like to think Underground is something we can all celebrate. Pretty much everyone’s ancestors had different roles in slavery—they were on one side of the problem or the other. And some are direct descendants of slave owners. I can’t begin to know what it feels like for them to deal with that association. But the show serves as a warning that even human beings with plenty of good character traits can find themselves contributing to a system that is evil. The reason we learn about our nation’s tragic history is to learn from it. And, hopefully, to not repeat it.