The actress explains how she prepared for 'the 1800s version of a TED Talk'
Harriet Tubman was not just a smuggler and protector of African-American slaves desperate for a chance at freedom. Like her fellow abolitionist Frederick Douglass, Tubman knew the power of her own story, and would sometimes tell the tale of how she escaped slavery in order to inspire others.
Aisha Hinds has been playing Tubman on WGN America’s Underground since the beginning of this second season, but this week’s episode will be the first time viewers get to see Tubman’s public speaking side. In an unusual move for television, the entire episode titled “Minty” consists of a powerful speech by Hinds’ Tubman to a meeting of abolitionists. Hinds gives an epic and intimate performance as she discusses the horrors of slavery, how she escaped, and how she plans to keep fighting for freedom.
In an interview with EW, Hinds described the unusual process that went into making this episode, why Tubman’s spirit seems to be revisiting us these days, and how this role connects to her other current one on Fox’s Shots Fired.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This is a big episode for Harriet Tubman. Where is she at this point in the series?
AISHA HINDS: At this point, she’s been grooming Rosalee to sort of take the torch and go back, get her family, and help lead others to freedom. She has also been talking to William Still, another abolitionist, and they have encouraged her to talk more about her experiences so that she can encourage other abolitionists to get engaged and pick up the fight in this as well.
How do you conceptualize what you do here? It’s kind of a monologue, kind of a one-woman show, kind of a lecture.
It feels like all of those things. It’s basically the 1800s version of a TED Talk. If you want to know where TED Talks come from, Harriet Tubman started it. This is how she actually moved about. She would go around and share her story in this way. They’re actually honoring her in a way that’s specific and telling her story in the way she told her story, which I think is so brave and beautiful because it is not only honorable to her but also challenges the way that people watch television. Our attention span has a stopwatch on it. It really is challenging in that way. But I would’ve given anything to sit at the foot of Harriet Tubman and hear her story of how it is she became Harriet and why. My hope is that people will be compelled by all the information they will learn and feel like they’ve had a fully-fleshed vision of this hero that we hold in our minds.
How did you prepare for this?
I started by reading Sarah Bradford’s books. She was one of the first biographers who met with Harriet Tubman while she was still alive, and Harriet talked to her, and she sold these books to help the cause. Those were smaller books, but they included some of Harriet’s own language because she was actually sharing, so you get some of her account personally. Then I also moved into a book by Beverly Lowry called Imagining A Life that sort of elucidates the other books and gives you these vignettes that flesh it out a little bit more. You feel the humanity of Harriet Tubman in those pages. After that, I continued to read as much as I could, because the idea was if I could inhale as much as possible, then when it came time to exhale her it would all be in there.
That was my approach, but I gotta tell you, I was incredibly intimidated. This is a subject you can’t YouTube, so I couldn’t get visuals or a sound for her. But at the end of the day, what I realized was most important was how compelling her story and her spirit was. It was less about mimicking her and more about just allowing her to consume me, which is what happened. I thought I would have this extensive rehearsal period, I thought I would get the script a month in advance, but I didn’t. All of the things I would’ve relied on as an actor, I didn’t have those luxuries. I just had to assume the posture of a servant, and it elevated me more than just as an artist. It elevated me as a human being because I realized there are some projects that are way bigger than that. That is what happened in this experience. I got half of the script 10 days before, the other half seven days before. They were talking about having an earpiece for me so [executive producer] Misha [Green] could read lines to me off-set if I needed. When I was learning the material, I did it with that safety net in the back of my mind. I’ll aim for as high as I can get, but if I can’t get it, then I know these things are in place for me. But when I was trying to learn the material, I was so focused on stuffing these 45 pages in my head, I got grossly ill. I got a fever, I was throwing up, I was fatigued because I wasn’t sleeping. And so I show up on the set and I put the earpiece in my ear, and there’s tremendous static. I ask the sound guy to turn it down, but he said that’s standard until someone speaks into the earpiece. Instinctively my hand just reached up to my ear, pulled it out, and handed it off to him. When I opened my hand and released it to him, I realized there was no choice here, there were no safety nets. I couldn’t even rely on myself because I didn’t believe those 45 pages were securely in there enough to come out. But then [episode director] Anthony [Hemingway] called for a rehearsal and then said he was going to shoot the rehearsal. He calls “action,” and every single word came out, and I knew in that moment that Harriet Tubman’s spirit was going to be the guiding force in this.
It makes all the sense in the world to me when I look back retrospectively. The woman who would lead these people to freedom was the same spirit that led myself and that entire production team through three days of filming this thing seamlessly. It was such a beautiful, transcendent experience for us all. None of what we did should’ve been possible because none of us had ever done it before. This is not a convention that is custom for television, it’s never been done before. We were all traveling grounds we had never traveled before, which is very much like Harriet Tubman. When she stepped off that plantation pursuing liberty, she was traveling ground she had never traveled before, and the stories just began to line up. Even me getting sick was important, to remind me that this was bigger than me. It’s almost like she reduced me to basic breaths and blinks, so that she could completely inhabit and completely consume me and use my voice box to tell her story.
How did you approach the responsibility of playing this iconic historical figure especially amidst the show’s other (fictional) characters?
It helped that I was a fan of the show in the first season, so these characters became real for me. I had built a relationship with these characters, so stepping in as Harriet Tubman I borrowed from that relationship. I already had a built-in affinity for Rosalee, a built-in concern for her, and a desire to see her win and be free and happy. That was something I allowed to be brought over from that side of the experience. I also approached it by not putting an enormous pressure on myself to not do a Harriet Tubman biopic. I knew I could rely on Joe and Misha to craft words that were amazing and honorable and powerful. I didn’t have to do much, I just had to show up and say it, because ultimately there was nothing to add to the life and the story of Harriet Tubman. She had already lived this life and she had done all the heavy lifting. I showed up basically just open and available.
It’s always interesting to watch historical dramas because we have 20/20 vision, we know what comes next. Over the past few episodes of Underground, you can feel the shadow of the coming Civil War growing bigger and bigger – people are talking about John Brown a lot, that kind of stuff. How does that shadow influence this episode?
I think that the presence of Harriet is one that has to ready everyone. She was involved with John Brown, so it’s important to make sure we illuminate that aspect, especially as it relates to the Noah’s and Rosalee’s. Our show is about the revolution as opposed to the occupation, and if we’re going to be dealing with that, she has to make sure they’re ready for all aspects of the revolution. That’s why I think it’s important to roll it out for them.
Underground has always been strong on connections to the present day, such as the use of modern music and parallels to modern struggles for freedom. How do you think Harriet Tubman’s story speaks to us now?
I think her spirit is one that we need today. I think that’s why she’s revisiting us in different forms, from the $20 dollar bill to biopics in the works. I think her spirit is one that is deliberately revisiting us. She probably said, “God, I’m gonna go down there, they’re in trouble.” As we face odds that are akin to the divisive and systemic oppression that we read about in our history books, but yet it’s taken on a modern-day articulation of itself, it’s important that we revisit the heroes of our past and be reminded of how it was that they transcended their oppression so that we can be empowered and find the Harriets within us, so that we too can transcend our modern-day oppression.
Speaking of which, your character in Shots Fired, Pastor Janae James, is sort of leading a modern fight against some of the same forces we see in Underground, like racism and police violence. Working on these characters in parallel to each other, what similarities have you felt between them?
Obviously both characters are activists in their own right and passionate about the fight against all injustice. But they’re also two characters who are driven by a spiritual compass, which I thought was quite interesting because there’s also this sense of righteous anger against all of this injustice. Sometimes when you think of people of faith, people attribute a complacency, that we pray through everything. But with these two women, not only did they pray, they were very active in fighting against this injustice by any means necessary, putting themselves in the line of fire and treading the path of danger. But they both sort of live by that scripture that says “though I walk through valley of death, I shall fear no evil.” Both of them are fearless of those evil forces, so in that way they’re able to do what they feel purposed and compelled in life to do, which I think is incredibly beautiful. That’s sort of the cornerstone of why I came in to do the work I do and choose the projects I choose. I hope to create a body of work that will hopefully explore and expose all injustice, that will inspire our youth, that will explore levels of sensuality and sexuality, as well as honor all of my ancestors. I’m happy to get to do so in the bodies of Pastor Janae James and Harriet Tubman at the same time.