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Aisha Hinds finds Tubman a spiritual calling in ‘Underground’

Kam Williams
Aisha Hinds finds Tubman a spiritual calling in ‘Underground’
Aisha Hinds stars as Harriet Tubman in “Underground.” (Photo: Courtesy WSG)

Aisha Hinds is a Brooklyn, NY native who initially entered showbiz in modern dance. She parlayed her success in that field into an acting career, which has encompassed a vast array of projects ranging from feature films such as “Star Trek: Into Darkness,” “If I Stay” and “Beyond the Lights” to such hit TV shows as “True Blood,” “Prison Break,” “Under the Dome” and “Weeds.”

Here, Hinds talks about playing American icon Harriet Tubman on “Underground,” a docudrama about the Underground Railroad. The second season of “Underground” is set to premiere on the WGN network on March 8. She also reflects upon her role as Pastor Janae James on “Shots Fired,” a timely TV series debuting on the Fox network on March 22.

What interested you about “Underground”?

Aisha Hinds: I became an instant fan of the show seconds into the opening frames of the pilot. When that drone shot carried us through the main house with Rosalie, played so unflinchingly brilliantly by Jurnee Smollett Bell, I signed on for the ride. I saw that this show was about to elucidate this age-old narrative in a way that was both edgy and engaging. The artistry on the show is apparent in each episode. From the riveting writing to the purposeful and precise direction, the masterful work of the DP [Director of Photography] Kevin McKnight and his crew, and the layers and depths each actor goes to to ensure we the audience feel a human connection to these characters — that all led me to sign my name on the dotted line. The cherry on top was the pulsating and powerful use of music to punctuate the story.

What does Harriet Tubman mean to you and how did you prepared to play her?

AH: She is a legend, an icon, a soldier on the side of justice, a spiritual warrior and a servant of God, as well as the one of the baddest women to literally ever walk the land. I surrendered to her spirit. She lived such a full, complex and irrefutably dynamic life that all the craft in the world would be insufficient in honoring her legacy. I did my homework, of course, by inhaling as much literature as was available to find, so that when it was time to shoot I could hopefully exhale her. However, the real truth is that her spirit is so POWERFUL that it consumes you. I was literally reduced to basic breath and blinks while she inhabited my vessel and told her story through me.

Will any episodes will be shot on location in Canada and will the series explore the historical connections between the Underground Railroad and Canada?

AH: Thank God for Canada! In the context of this narrative and beyond, Canada was certainly an additional option for the many traveling the treacherous terrain of the Underground Railroad in pursuit of what was perceived as “freedom.” Once the Fugitive Slave Act took effect, the Northern states were no longer safe for those who managed to escape from being enslaved. The second season of “Underground” does explore Canada’s role in providing a welcoming place for the thousands who were in danger of being captured and returned to their owners, and those who escaped by way of rerouting beyond the American borders. Though this part of history is included in the season, we did not shoot on location in Canada.

Will the show cover less well-known aspects of Tubman’s life, like the fact that she was a spy during the Civil War for the Union army and that she collaborated with John Brown to free slaves?

AH: There will be a wealth of facts revealed and revisited in this season pertaining to Harriet Tubman. That is a huge part of my excitement — the fact that this generation will get such a beautifully detailed introduction to a hero and icon that has largely lived in a few pages of our history books and in one-dimensional photographs.

How would you describe the series’ main message?

AH: Each season, the series has explored a theme. This season, it is “Citizen vs. Soldier.” Are we citizens watching the world and its atrocities unfold from the sidelines, or are we engaged in the battle as soldiers, taking a stand and joining the army to fight against injustice?

Tell me a little about “Shots Fired.” Sanaa Lathan was very excited about the show, when we talked about it last fall.

AH: I share her excitement!! It was a project that, interestingly enough, provided a unique opportunity as an artist to engage in the fight against injustice, and explore the ongoing debate and dialogue surrounding whose lives matter. The show is an autopsy of our criminal justice system, a space where the conversation surrounding the issues in our country is offering a seat at the table to all the voices to be heard, a murder mystery and grassroots look at our own humanity as we move through the parts and pieces of the story.

The plotline sounds very timely, although it flips the script by having a black cop shooting a white teenager.

AH: Sadly, this plot is one that doesn’t lack source material. It’s a narrative that has been timely for a very long time. In such, when Reggie Rock Bythewood and Gina Prince-Bythewood began to assemble the cast, which is a rather large ensemble of very talented powerhouse players, everyone wholeheartedly signed up to stand in service of this story, knowing and understanding how important it is to exhaust and explore its many facets.

What’s it like playing a pastor and what role does your character play in terms of keeping the peace?

AH: It was such a delight to express a part of myself that has long been reserved for my own sacred journey through life spirituality. Digging into the depths of my heart to widen its capacity and unpack what it would mean to carry the burden for an entire congregation and community that looks to you for answers and guidance during trying times was both a joy and a revelation. Pastors carry a tremendous responsibility. Pastor Janae is a lifelong Gate Station resident, a community activist and a powerful pastor vested in the lives that have been entrusted to her by way of The Chosen House, her small neighborhood church. Throughout the 10-hour series, she finds herself in positions that challenge the government, expose deeply-rooted conflicts and then contemplates effective methods for her community to resist in the face of blatant injustice. Her journey also demands she take an autopsy of her own humanity, examining what she is driven by and what she cares about ultimately.

What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

AH: Study and know that we are always a student of the craft well after we’ve completed any course of study… and approach the work as a servant, not a star.