John Legend doesn’t consider himself a hero.
He reserves that title for our enslaved African-American ancestors who endured unfathomable dehumanization, racism and cruelty. This is what the new WGN series Underground will explore as well as the handful of heroic men and women who valiantly fought to escape. Legend, an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, is one of the drama’s executive producers.
In advance of the March debut of Underground, Legend, 37, and his producing partner Mike Jackson sat down with ESSENCE to talk about the 10-episode series, how its Wednesday night airing will be helped and not hurt by Empire, his Oscar win and even actor Chris Pine’s tear.
Underground stars Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Aldis Hodge and Christopher Meloni with Jussie Smollett making a guest appearance.
What made you want to be a part of this project?
We have a production company called Get Lifted Film Company and our whole mission is to tell interesting stories; stories that we personally connect with and that we can help get out to the people and hopefully, they’ll connect with as well. This is the kind of stuff I studied in college and I knew about this a lot, but I didn’t ever see it on television in this way. When (executive producers) Joe (Pokaski) and Misha (Green) reached out, I was so excited by the idea that this show could even exist, and that we could do something now that could make a story from 150 years ago feel so relevant and urgent and full of action and intrigue and suspense.
With the Southern Rites documentary you did for HBO and now this, your production company seems to be on a mission. Is that reading too much into it?
It’s part of our mission but it’s not the only kinds of stories we want to tell. As a production team, we want to tell a range of stories and not just about the racial divide. It is an important part of our history. In college I studied African-American history and culture, and I was an English major as well, so these resonate with me. This particular story represents such an interesting part of American history. I think it’s important that we understand what happened 150 years ago for some more context about what’s happening now. We’re still having conversations about the racial divide and the things that divide us are the things that we hopefully can come together on.
There’s an interracial sex scene that was really racy and complex. I know you’re going to get a lot of tweets on that one. What are we supposed to feel in that moment? Repulsed? Turned on?
People had sex back then. [Laughs] This is real life, you know. These things all happened. Obviously, that’s how light-skinned people exist. Clearly that [scene] was a more consensual one than others.
Thankfully, it’s not fetishized but that is still a complicated scene.
Right. Even when it’s consensual, there’s a power dynamic that makes it less than consensual because clearly she is owned by that person and her life is in that person’s hands. So it can’t be truly consensual in any sense. Either way, this was really happening.
It felt like a scene out of Scandal. Like wow, they’re going there.
Yeah. It’s real and we wanted to take it off of the wall of the museum and make it real. And I think all of the things we try to do in the show, we’re trying to make it real so we really connect to the characters. That scene is so important because you understand that even though he’s truly the one in power, she has a bit of power as well. And you see Ernestine – she’s my favorite character. She’s incredible.
Some people see you as a hero especially given your Oscar speech.
It wasn’t that risky though when you compare it to this.
True. But a lot of people in your position wouldn’t have been as bold to say that in that setting. How was the feedback for that – aside from Chris Pine’s tear? How did people respond?
Legend: We were just watching him in Horrible Bosses 2 yesterday. [Laughs] That was very different. I was glad we moved him.
Mike Jackson (Legend’s producing partner): David Oyelowo was crying, too.
Legend: That’s who I knew was crying because I ran into David as we were walking off and I could see him crying. My friends at home were telling me there was a bunch of people crying and the camera kept panning to people crying. I’ve never been a part of a performance that was that powerful or moving to me and to the audience. What a moment to have in my career. I don’t know if I can ever top that really.
Is activism a mission you take on willingly?
I feel compelled to because when I grew up, my understanding of what it meant to live an important life was not just to try and accumulate things for yourself, but to try and help other people. When you see injustices, speak out. I feel like that’s part of our legacy and the tradition that we came from, especially as artists in the public eye. All the great ones never shied away. Harry Belafonte, Stevie, Marvin, Nina Simone. Whether they were actual activists or they just provided a soundtrack for the activists, either way, they were aware of what was happening and used their platform to do what they could. I always thought that as an artist, that comes with the job. Like this is what we do. It’s what we’re supposed to do. It’s not for everybody. Some artists aren’t interested in these subjects, but I read about this all of the time. I’m a political junkie.
When Underground airs, it’s going to air on Wednesday nights. Is that the Empire hour?
Legend: Underground is at 10 o’clock
Jackson: Empire is at 9 o’clock
What does that mean in terms of TV viewers?
Legend: That’s not my thing.
Jackson: They’re two different shows. They happen to have brown and Black people on both shows but they’re completely different. Hopefully, you know, we’ll have some spots on Fox and people will change the channel. Here’s the great thing, Jussie’s episode, episode No. 4, coincides with the season 2 return of Empire (March 30). Hopefully, when Empire comes back you’ll see the promos for our show.
Are people ready for Underground?
Legend: I think a lot of people are excited about it. We get some feedback. Why are we telling another slave story? We don’t want to see ourselves as slaves again. And I understand that feeling. But first of all, there is quite a range of great storytelling featuring black and brown people right now. We’re seeing ourselves advising presidents, as Viola Davis in How To Get Away with Murder, we’re seeing ourselves on Empire and Black-ish and Power. All of these are great shows and they show a range of black experiences and this one is ours. It’s obviously from one of the darker periods in African-American history but it also shows us as heroes, willing to defy the odds and break free from a really evil regime. And so I think it’s powerful and a lot of people are going to gravitate toward it and once they start watching it, we’re going to get them.
Underground premieres Wednesday March 9 at 10 pm ET on WGN.