Interview by: Abbey White
Last spring marked a dramatic beginning for one of television’s most compelling new series, which followed a group of fleeing slaves and those they left behind. Now halfway through its second season, Underground is tracing its survivor’s journeys across the US, at various points along and around the underground railroad. Danger and hardship loom everywhere, but the determination to not simply survive, but truly live—free—is a powerful reminder of the unparalleled resilience of early Black America. After a season and a half that has already redefined what it means to be a great “American drama,” April 12 will deliver one of the show’s most monumental episodes. This Wednesday, WGN will air “Minty,” an hour-long television event that will star actress Aisha Hinds—and only Aisha Hinds. Set to the backdrop of a nation deeply divided and embodying the legend of Harriet Tubman like no one before her, Hinds will perform a powerful one-woman retelling of Tubman’s life and mission.
Black Girl Nerds had a chance to sit down with the actress to discuss her portrayal of one of the history’s most famous and fabled heroes. During our conversation, we covered everything from crediting the achievements of black womanhood to Hinds’ arduous and altering experience bringing a true American icon to life.
Black Girl Nerds: Harriet Tubman in many ways is this very mythic figure whose had specific aspects of her work and identity exaggerated, downplayed or forgotten over time. What do you think this coming episode, and really all her time in Season Two, will do to help audiences become better acquainted with aspects of Tubman as the hero and human?
Aisha Hinds: First of all, Misha [Green] and Joe [Pokaski] are devoted to making a show in which the details that they’re gathering and the information that they’re researching would be articulated in a way that is honorable to [Harriet Tubman’s] legacy. They have a research team that exhausted all that they could find about Harriet Tubman, and they researched in such a way that they weren’t trying to come up with subversive text to create a narrative for her. They were more so trying to create the narrative that was closest to her—honoring her story by telling it the way she told [it], and doing it against the grain of the way people watch television or the way that television is presented to audiences.
With that, I think there are so many beautiful details to be learned about Harriet. It affords audiences this fleshed out experience with an icon and hero, someone that we do sort of keep trapped in our minds in this reverential position, as this mythical superhero. I think that there will be so many pieces of her history and her legacy that people either didn’t know a single thing about or will get more context for it as they watch the episode. It all reminds us that she was an ordinary woman who did an extraordinary thing.
BGN: Over the last couple of months you’ve spoken a lot about your preparation for the role. As you and the team learned more about her, did you find anything that you really wanted or thought should be injected into the show’s characterization?
Hinds: Yes, there were quite a few things that made it into the story. One of the things we forget to think about with these mythical, strong figures is that they also have a heart. That they can love and want to be loved. I thought it was important to have the part of her story that talks about her relationship with her husband and how that began and ended. She really started these runs to get her family and solely her family to freedom. That situation with her husband was sort of the catalyst by which she would realize she had something that wasn’t just valuable to her, but also to hundreds and thousands of people.
That part of it also affords us the opportunity to experience her as a human being and not just as that superhero. We sort of all think of Harriet Tubman based on those one-dimensional images that we see in our history books. Where she looks like this old woman. We forget that this old woman was once a little girl. She came out of the womb as someone’s property, yet resistance was sort of woven into her intrinsically. Though she had no context for freedom, she was willing to step off of a plantation in pursuit of something she had no experience with, no knowledge about. That’s something I think is important for this generation to understand. If you have a feeling about something that doesn’t seem right, then you have every right to want to pursue the thing that is right.
BGN: She also struggled with what some might now identify as a disability.
Hinds: Yes, from another perspective it was also wonderful to understand that she had these limitations that were built in from birth—the idea that she was suffering from sleeping spells that were exacerbated by being hit in the head as a child by this blunt object. Yet she took on the responsibility of leading these runs and traveling through conditions that were incredulous with the knowledge that she could fall asleep at any moment, putting herself and the other people she was leading in immediate and imminent danger. The fact that she saw those spells not as a limitation or disadvantage, but as an advantage—she said in those moments she heard from God telling her which way to go and which path to take. [We are] looking at a woman who could not read—she never read a single word of a Bible—yet she had a depth and level of faith that could rival some of the most learned theologians on this planet.
BGN: Diverse illustrations of black womanhood are something Underground has done really well. What do you think Tubman exemplifies about womanhood in the series’ and even in our tumultuous present?
Hinds: For me, Harriet Tubman was someone amongst many who was at the forefront of a movement. It’s so easy to forget sometimes how to present black women are and have been in the history of many movements. So as we look at and examine all of these women, the Harriets and the Rosalees, it validates our presence in the world as we fight against forces that try to reduce our voice, to decrease our presence, to claim that we don’t have power—power that we do. We saw this just recently with Maxine Waters. That she basically had to even craft a response to such ridiculous, disgusting, and hatred-filled banter by… I won’t even raise the name. But it’s having to continuously remind people how powerful we are, how purposeful we are. Seeing everything that Harriet Tubman was able to be and accomplish truly reminds women of our importance, place, and purpose of the fabric of history. We’ve been here and we’re not going anywhere. The world can’t spin without us.
BGN: Freedom was the literal purpose of the underground railroad, but in the show, everyone defines the concept of it a little differently. How do you think Underground’s portrayal of Tubman defines freedom and how will that be explored in this coming episode?
Hinds: Harriet was pursuing a space where she and her family would no longer be enslaved. However, there were moments even before she went off on that pursuit where she still tried to find it in smaller places. And realized in one moment that not allowing her spirit to be taken or overwhelmed or broken was a huge part of freedom for her. When she first crossed the threshold and made it into Philadelphia, now in the land of the free, there was no one there to welcome her. That quickly taught me that freedom is not limited to geographical coordinates on a map. It’s the complete destruction of a system by where any man or woman could be enslaved, whether it’s physical, mentally, spiritually, economically, or otherwise. Even today I think we are still in pursuit of real, true freedom because we have so many systemic, oppressive systems in place that are threatening the fullness of our experience as human beings on this earth.
BGN: We know that Harriet will give a major speech during “Minty.” Can you talk about how you prepared to do that? What was the process like for putting together this one-woman episode?
Hinds: So here’s the deal about that. [Laughs] I came into this thing thinking, ‘Alright. Here is the moment you put all of your learnedness into practice. Here is the moment where that BFA that you paid $30,000 a year for, gets used.’ You start pulling out those notes, pulling out those journals. I wanted to journal as Harriet Tubman and write a backstory. Write letters from Harriet Tubman’s older self to her younger self. Underline the beats and transitions in the script. I wanted to do it all.
BGN: You had the script at that point? That early?
Hinds: I thought that I would have it two months before so I could have exhaustive research and rehearsal time with the material. But we’re shooting and two months in I realize I still don’t have a script. A month before we’re supposed to shoot the episode, I’m like, ‘Are we going to get a script to me anytime soon cause I just kinda wanna get started.’ [Laughs] I’m talking to the other theater heads in the cast—Alano [Miller] and DeWanda [Wise], Amirah [Vann], you know—and I’m like, ‘Guys, how close do you get the scripts before you shoot?’ We were shooting out of order, first of all. So being that we were shooting this episode at the end of production, that was when the script was written—at the end.
BGN: Oh wow. So you weren’t even shooting this mid-season episode until production was almost over.
Hinds: If you talk to Mischa, Mischa will tell you that she was writing the script in her head the entire time. It’s just that it doesn’t make it to the page until she has the time to do it because she is also writing the other scripts that come before it in her head. I remember going up to Joe one time, he was sitting in a cafe, and I’m like ‘Do you think I’ll be able to get that script any time soon?’ At this point, I think it was like three weeks before. I see he’s reading and I’m ‘Oh, what are you reading?’ He’s like ‘A book about how to write one-woman shows.’ They had never written a one-woman show. Anthony Hemingway our director had never directed a one-woman show, and [I] had never performed a one-woman show. [Laughs]
So now, I’m starting to get anxious. I’m calling my New York friends who have done one-woman shows like, ‘Hey, how did you prepare for your one-woman show?’ They had had a semester-long course in college. I email my college professor that I paid $30,000 a year to learn from, ‘Uh, hi, is it possible for me to learn 45 pages in a week?’ He’s like ‘No, not possible.’ I called DeWanda and Alano on facetime. They start giving me that fix my life speech. After I hung up, I literally wrote on the top of every single one of those 45 pages, “Trust or Bust.”
BGN: So when did you actually get the script?
Hinds: I got the first half of the script 10 days before we were supposed to shoot and the second half seven days before we were supposed to shoot. So I’m like, ‘Okay, here’s what we’re gonna do.’ I say I’m gonna learn 10 pages a day for four days straight and then the next four days I’m gonna run those pages. Then the last two days before we shoot I’m gonna rest for one day, wake up and run the whole thing the next day. When I go to approach my first 10 pages, my brain is not having it. I was at max four pages a day because I had to stop and eat, which I hadn’t thought about when I made my plan. I started calling Mischa and arguing with her about words… trying to find anything so she can minus a word or two so I wouldn’t have to memorize all of those sentences. [Laughs] Thanksgiving is canceled because they gave me the script two days before Thanksgiving. My homegirl cancels her New Orleans Thanksgiving, flies from New Orleans to California. She came, and me and her—we woke up with that script and we went to bed with that script. It was around the clock and after the tenth day, I literally collapsed with 45 pages stuck in my head.
BGN: It happened.
Hinds: I couldn’t believe it had happened! So I get on the plane to go back to Savannah and now the smell of food makes me sick. I start throwing up on the plane. I had never threw up in that little bag in front of me in my life! I get to Savannah, go to a fitting, and I have a fever over 100 degrees. So the word is out, it goes around production. Panic sets in because one person is on the call sheet. Subject of emails: Aisha Is Sick. I go back to the hotel and I’m trying to sleep and break the fever, but I’m getting anxious because I’m losing memorization and rehearsal time. Now I’m arguing with God, like ‘Why would you do this?’ I was doing everything. I was drinking juices, eating vegan so that I wouldn’t get tired or sick. I wake up the next day, the fever breaks, I’ve drenched the hotel bed, and… [this] was literally taking blood, sweat, and tears out of me.
I get to work, they ask me how I am and I’m like ‘Great! Ready to rock!’ because I didn’t want them to start worrying. Meanwhile, I’m taking down gallons of water, drinking Emergen-C. [Laughs] So I’m there and because the script came to me so late they had started making safety nets for them as well as me. They talked about ‘Maybe we’ll get you a teleprompter or an earpiece for you, and CGI it out.’ So I was there thinking I had these safety nets in place and show up to set and see no teleprompter. They bring me to the sound guy and they put this thing in my ear. It’s just static, and I say, ‘Sir, can you lower it a little bit?’ He says, ‘Oh no, that’s standard. Until Misha talks in your ear, you’ll have the static.’
BGN: Oh no.
Hinds: Yes! I know I can’t do this whole thing with one ear of static. That will throw me completely off. Instinctually my hand reaches to my ear, pulls the earpiece out and puts it in the palm of the [sound guy’s] hand. And when I tell you that in that moment—I get so emotional when I talk about—in that moment, it was like the spirit of Harriet Tubman just consumed me. Anthony came over and said, ‘We’re gonna run a rehearsal,’ and it was the rehearsal that I had been wanting for three months. But he was like, ‘I’m gonna shoot it just in case, just so we don’t lose anything.’ I’m just like ‘No, don’t do it!’ But then he calls to action and every single word came out. Every single word. It was outside of me, it was beyond me, it was bigger than me. Harriet’s spirit consumed me and I knew in that moment I was just a pawn in this thing and there was nothing that my craft was adequate enough to do to communicate her story better than her. When I thought about it, it’s significance was not lost on me. Everything that [Harriet Tubman] was and everything she had accomplished, it was a guiding force for me.
BGN: Clearly this role has had a dramatic impact on you as an actor and as a person. What does it mean to you out of all the others you’ve had?
Hinds: It was a transcendent experience among the many projects I’ve worked on. But I also think it was the culmination of my creative experiences and also my life experiences to this point. I was definitely burdened by the state of our country and the state of this world. I started to feel helpless about what it is that I can do to contribute to the world in a way that leaves it better than when I came into it. And I think this role and the ones that sort of proceeded it, have been the answer to that. Taking on this project was exciting for me. But it was also a call to duty, and I felt a tremendous amount of responsibility to honor [Harriet Tubman’s] legacy as well as to dig within myself and find the extraordinary within my ordinary.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Abbey White is a freelance entertainment and identities journalist who has written for USA TODAY Network, The Mary Sue, Black Girl Nerds, ScreenSpy and Paste Magazine, among other outlets. She currently lives in New York City where she serves as an editorial intern for The Nation magazine.
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