Saturday, September 18, 2021

WGN’s ‘Underground’: John Legend Talks Playing Frederick Douglass [EUR Exclusive]

john legend, underground series
John Legend as Frederick Douglas on WGN’s “UNDERGROUND.”  (photo: Twitter.com)

*John Legend will make his debut as famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass on Wednesday’s episode of “Underground.”

The singer and “La La Land” star is producing the second season, which follows a group of plantation slaves as they try to escape for their freedom by the Underground Railroad in the 1850s. The Grammy, Golden Globe and Academy Award-winning star also penned the song “In America” specifically for the series.

“I’ve always had aspirations of activism. I always thought that part of the role of an artist was to tell the truth about what’s happening. What they see and what kind of change they want to see,” Legend said during the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour.

“I’ve always listened to artists that did that, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Paul Robeson…people who use their platform to fight for justice. So I always thought that was part of what being an artist was, and I still think that’s what it is. That doesn’t mean that every song I write is about my activism but I write about the things that I’m interested in that I experience myself. But I use the success that I’ve gained, in some part, to highlight issues that I think are of concern and then hopefully galvanize people to make change.”

READ RELATED STORY: Underground’ Star Aisha Hinds: Playing Harriet Tubman ‘Elevated Me As A Human Being’ [EUR Exclusive]

Cast of WGNs 'Underground'
Cast of WGNs ‘Underground’

When EUR/Electronic Urban Report asked Legend if his experience on “Underground” so far, (producing, scoring music, researching history and acting), has been transformative for him in any way, he said, “I’ve learned about the process of making a full on series and making it successful but also about the historical aspects that we’re covering.”

Continuing, “I hope people watch this show and are inspired to study that era of American history, not because we want to wallow in the misery or the oppression but because it’s important when we talk about what’s happening in America now, when we talk about the racial divide that we still have in America, some of these issues we talk about right now with the police and with the race relations, you can’t talk about them if you don’t understand America’s history with race relations. And you can’t understand America’s history unless you understand slavery,” John explained during TCA.

“So whenever we’re thinking about what’s happening in America now, without context of history, then we’re operating with a handicap because you have to know what happened before for you to understand what’s happening now. You have to understand what Hitler did, and what FDR did with the internment camps in Japan, for you to understand why it’s dangerous to hear Donald Trump talking about registering all Muslims for a registry and banning all Muslims. You have to understand history to understand why that’s a slippery slope and you don’t want to go down there. Without that context, it’s hard to understand what’s happening now.”

slave drama series
Photo source: Twitter.com

Frederick Douglass was one of the primary leaders of the abolitionist movement and was an internationally renowned writer, activist and human rights leader. In taking on this role, Legend confessed that there was “some pressure,” but it’s not the same pressure of having “a bunch of video on Frederick Douglass” to use as a guide so that you can “sound like Frederick Douglass.”

“No one knows what he sounded like,” Legend points out. “It’s more of a photo and his words. It’s not the same pressure as maybe someone who is a 20th century icon that everyone knows what they sound like and look like and their mannerisms.”

When we ask if he finds it challenging to recreate the worst aspects of American history for “Underground,” Legend notes, “I think the power of the show is that it shows the worse and it shows the potential to overcome that. And I think that’s the saving grace of the show because no one wants to wallow in misery for a five season series.”

Continuing, “You want to see how bad things got but you also want to see the possibility of redemption, of hope or change of resistance, and I think that’s the power of this show, is that it shows both the pain and the resistance. It shows the struggle and the accomplishment of reaching your goal. So I think that’s the power of the show and that’s what makes it fun to make. It’s not just about how bad things were, it’s about the possibility of changing things. The possibility of resisting and moving the world.”

Tune in to “Underground” on WGN Wednesdays at 10.9c.

 

Ny MaGee
Ny MaGee is a screenwriter and freelance reporter from Chicago -- currently living in Los Angeles and covering A-list entertainment for various outlets, including Emmys.com. She has worked for: Miramax, MTV & VH1, The Jim Henson Company, Hallmark Channel, Paramount Pictures, and for iconic indie film producer Roger Corman.

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