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'Underground' star Jurnee Smollett-Bell: 'These were the revolutionaries'

Jurnee Smollett-Bell says WGN America’s show about the Underground Railroad “makes me so proud of my history.”

"Underground," a new drama on WGN America, stars Aldis Hodge and Jurnee Smollett-Bell as slaves escaping via the Underground Railroad.
"Underground," a new drama on WGN America, stars Aldis Hodge and Jurnee Smollett-Bell as slaves escaping via the Underground Railroad.Read moreSKIP BOLEN / Sony Pictures Television

10 p.m. Wednesday on WGN America

Jurnee Smollett-Bell grew up in television, appearing in shows from Full House and Cosby to Friday Night Lights, and costarring with her brother, Empire's Jussie Smollett, and their four siblings, in the 1994-95 ABC sitcom On Our Own.

But she had never seen, much less been part of, a show like WGN America's new drama Underground, in which Smollett-Bell plays a slave on a Georgia plantation who joins a plot to escape to the North.

The show is the story of the Underground Railroad, one "we've never seen told," the actress said during a visit last month to Philadelphia, and it "makes me so proud of my history. Because these were the revolutionaries, these were the resisters, these were the men and women who were bold enough to fight back, and try to take their life in their own hands. And attempting [to escape] - whether they succeeded or whether they failed - the actual attempt helped tear down the system of slavery."

The score features contemporary artists and is being overseen by Penn grad John Legend, an executive producer of the series. The Wednesday premiere, which will be presented without commercials, is as much thriller as history.

But the history's there.

Among the ways Smollett-Bell, who plays a house slave named Rosalee, researched her role was by reading and listening to the narratives of former slaves collected in the 1930s by the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration.

"It's their actual voices," she said, "and I kind of like stripped them [from the Library of Congress website] and put them on my phone and would listen to them."

She also read stories collected by William Still, the freeborn black man who chaired the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society's Vigilance Committee. (Still appears in Underground, played by Gotham's Chris Chalk.)

"William Still kept a pretty detailed account of people who came through his [Underground Railroad] station, and he would ask them, 'Tell me your story,' " said Smollett-Bell.

One thing she appreciated about the stories in Underground, the actress said, is "that not everything is black and white. . . . Not everybody's good, and even the good people are not all good."

Christopher Meloni (Law & Order: SVU) plays one particularly confounding character, a man named August Pullman.

"He's complicated. You find yourself thinking, I hate what he's doing, but it kind of tugs at your own conscience. Like what would you do if you were in [his] situation?" she said.

Other regulars in Underground's sizable cast include Aldis Hodge (Straight Outta Compton) as Noah, a blacksmith and slave who conceives the escape plan; Alano Miller (Jane the Virgin) as Cato, the plantation's much-hated head slave; Mykelti Williamson (Justified) as Moses, a slave and preacher; Jessica De Gouw (Arrow) as Elizabeth Hawkes, who along with her husband, John (Marc Blucas), decides to open her home to the Underground Railroad; Amirah Vann, who plays Rosalee's mother, Ernestine, the head house slave; and Adina Porter as Pearly Mae, the slave who helps decipher the clues that could lead to freedom.

"Part of an ensemble show is realizing it's a collaboration. It's like a symphony. Everybody takes their turn," said Smollett-Bell, "but it's really the collective group that matters."

It's a lesson she learned growing up with four brothers and one sister.

Her parents, she said, stressed "education and not fighting with each other. Those were the two main things in our household."

She's particularly grateful to her mother for knowing when to say no, "which is something a lot of parents in this industry don't do. They're afraid to turn things down. . . . And she knew how to say no. She knew how to say . . . 'No, my daughter doesn't have to straighten her hair. She can have wild, curly hair. No, I'm not going to let her play that role because she's got to kiss an adult in it,' " said Smollett-Bell.

"I think that was one of the most powerful things she could have done for us. Because she removed us from situations. She remained our mom first."