It’s not as if Underground star Jurnee Smollett-Bell and director Anthony Hemingway had never collaborated on physically challenging work. As the 30-year-old actress recalls, “I’d initially worked with him on True Blood in some very uncomfortable scenes.” But “Ache” — the third episode of Underground’s second season — doubles as a hellacious test of will for Smollett-Bell’s character, Rosalee, a pregnant runaway slave fighting for survival and to reconnect with her family. Over the stretch of several harrowing scenes, she contends with stalking slave traders, leeches, snakes, bullet wounds, and starvation. Rosalee even buries herself alive for hours to elude would-be captors.
And that protruding belly was no prosthetic: Smollett-Bell was very much with child during the filming of “Ache.” In a conversation with Vulture, she discussed the logistics of third-trimester stunt work, leaving Rosalee’s struggles on the set, and knowing that her son Hunter vicariously experienced her onscreen tribute to a legacy of powerful black women.
Have you seen the final cut of the episode yet?
I haven’t seen any version yet. I’ve seen clips. I’ve been told a lot about it though. It’s a lot of like, “Jurnee, I can’t believe you did that.” [Laughs.]
Can you believe you did all that?
Being removed from it, no. [Laughs.] When I got pregnant, I didn’t think I’d be doing that sort of stuff, but honestly the mama-bear spirit in me kicked in so much, and I think that’s what we tapped into with Rosalee. It’s real, and it’ll make you feel like you can lift cars.
How did the crew make sure the scenes weren’t too rigorous?
We definitely tapped into cinema magic and illusion, but a lot of it was me really doing that stuff. I had my midwife on set, and she’d definitely never had a job like this before, where she was following around an actress in mud and checking her vitals between takes. [Laughs.] We had an amazing set team. Tierre Turner was our stunt coordinator, [along with] Kelsey, his daughter, and together we worked things out. I did what I could do. I didn’t do anything that was going to put me in harm’s way or endanger the baby. If someone’s gonna kick at my stomach, it’s not gonna be my stomach. But I can be on the ground and pretend he’s punching my face. Coming out of the ground, that was really me, and Hunter was definitely kicking at the tiny bits of mud they had on my belly. [Laughs.] And I would not have been able to do this without Anthony Hemingway. He was right there, in the trenches, protecting me every second.
Watching Rosalee endure, it definitely resonates that her child had already experienced so much trauma before even being born.
What was important for us was to honor that there were women who, out of desperation, would have to strap their babies on the back. Maybe there’s a baby in the oven cooking, and they had to run to freedom. With Rosalee, her situation’s a little different because she’s running toward danger, but it’s out of the same desperation. Unfortunately, black women who birthed children in this era already had so much working against them. Rosalee does not know what it would be like to be born into a world in which you are free, but she’s so desperate for that not to be the case with her child. Yet, she also has to honor that she’s desperate to free her family. She cannot rear this child without them. She’s not even thinking about this experience. She’s thinking about the mission.
Rosalee’s been through a lot since season one, but was it especially difficult to compartmentalize what she went through in this episode?
You’re right: The stakes are so much higher now, in spite of the fact that to gain her own freedom she lost everyone that she loves. That’s such a heavy burden she can’t bear. This resilience she has, she’s only been building it more and more. For me as an actor, I had to let go of a lot of the actor-y tricks I normally hold onto. I had to shift in this season. I couldn’t stay in Rosalee’s world the way I normally do. I wouldn’t say I’m a Method actor, but there are times where a role will require you to live in their world. I really tried to consciously shut Rosalee off when I would go home, because I really was growing a human being, and that was more of a priority than anything. I found ways to get into her and get out.
I’m guessing easy shorthands for those tricks can be elusive.
Yeah, it’s hard to describe how you do that when you do it. Luckily, my husband was on set, so that helped snap me out of it a lot. But that was a priority — I can’t live in Rosalee’s world. I can visit it. If anything, I felt this privilege that my child is actually coming along with me in this tribute I’m paying to my ancestors. How incredible to pass down this spirit of resistance to Hunter, and for him to know that while he was growing, he was a part of this.
Not to mention he’ll be able to grow up and say, “Oh, cool, there were fake leeches all over mom’s belly when I was inside there.”
[Laughs.] Exactly. They would not stay on my belly. My belly was so tight. We had such an incredible makeup department, and [makeup department head] Debi [Young] tried her hardest to get those leeches to stay on my belly and they kept falling off.
When Rosalee’s at her most dire in “Ache,” Patty Cannon’s biographer spots her and gives her his canteen. But he doesn’t exactly come to her rescue either. The show continues to walk that fine line between acknowledging some white people’s good intentions without glorifying them.
[Underground creators] Misha [Green] and Joe [Pokaski] do such a good [job] at exploring the shades of grey. He could have been the white savior where he gets me back home, but no. He’s conflicted. He realized the bare minimum we’re all deserving of is clean water. He’s going to do that much, but he’s not really going to step out of character, because the fact of the matter is he’s writing a biography of a slave catcher. But it shows the truth: It’s not about black and white. Not every black person on the show is good and not every white person is bad, and vice versa. I, Rosalee, am capable of very questionable things. You could argue that what she’s doing, even though it’s for the right reasons, maybe it’s not the best thing to be doing. I, in season one, stabbed a child. Unfortunately, in this season, I ride this line even more. “What am I able to do?” And that’s the Ernestine in me.
Speaking of Rosalee’s mother Ernestine, it’s tragic that she torments herself but has no idea what Rosalee is enduring to get back to her.
The separation between Ernestine and Rosalee kills me, because I just want to be in a scene with Amirah [Vann]. But it’s absolutely a motivating factor for Rosalee. I think she, more than ever, understands the sacrifice her mother made and the price she paid for her children now that she’s growing a child inside of her. Again, we as women are capable of doing great things in the name of our protecting our children. She’s been walking around with this burden of guilt that she left her mom, and God knows what situation she left her in. She has no way of knowing. She feels like she’s messed up everyone’s life, really.
Given that August, the slave catcher whose son you stabbed, is back in the picture, is it safe to assume this season only gets more physical for Rosalee?
Yeah, the physicality for my character does not end with episode three. I took his son away from him, and August is definitely one who likes revenge.