It’s not the first time Aisha Hinds has worked with director Anthony Hemingway. The pair collaborated on True Blood several years ago, and since worked on Fox’s racial-justice drama Shots Fired. It was during the latter experience that Hemingway shared with Hinds that he was returning to helm several episodes of Underground’s second season, and that she’d be perfect to play iconic freedom fighter and former slave Harriet Tubman. (“I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll fight for that,’” she recalls.)
What Hinds didn’t know for some time subsequent to landing the part was that episode six, “Minty,” would stand alone as a virtually uninterrupted hour-long oratory delivered by Tubman to a small room of abolitionists in Philadelphia. The resulting performance is remarkable and inspiring, and in lieu of a traditional recap (those shall resume next week), we felt it more fitting to speak with Hinds in depth about such a daunting and duty-bound task. On the eve of it airing, the 41-year-old veteran of stage, screen, and film discussed the feeling of Tubman’s spirit moving through her, implicitly trusting Hemingway and writers-producers Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, and not giving critical reception of the episode a second thought, at least not yet.
This was the last episode filmed. How did you manage your nerves knowing it was looming all season?
In the beginning, I didn’t wrap my head around what “The Harriet Episode” actually was. When I learned it was what it was, it was something I’d never seen before. It’s challenging audiences to look at television in a way they never had before. I had grown used to the structure of episodic television. They were using language like, “You’ll be doing a TED Talk.” In my mind, I thought it was max ten minutes, somewhere in the middle of the episode. [Laughs.] When the full revelation was given that, no, you are giving a one-hour TED Talk as Harriet Tubman, then the nerves began to expand. But I come from a theater background, so I was excited at the possibility of bringing theater to television. As we drew closer, I started to get anxious. I wanted at least a month in advance to do all of my homework, but I didn’t have that luxury, and that turned out for the better. It forced me to be a servant of the story and rely less on my craft and education and to rely way more on being open and available and allowing Harriet Tubman’s spirit to consume me and use my vessel as her voice box.
That notion of Harriet speaking through you is a very personal connection that I can’t necessarily identify with. But is there any way you can put into words what that tangibly feels like?
The funny thing is, I can identify with what you’re saying. As I was researching about Harriet Tubman, so much of what she was able to accomplish seemed foreign to me. I’m like, “Am I reading a biography about Harriet Tubman or am I reading a comic book?” [Laughs.] It was superheroic, the way she transcended the obstacles before her and woven into her. But the more I started to learn, I was like, “This could only be possible if there’s a force greater than her guiding her.” I got the first half of the script ten days before we were supposed to shoot and the second half seven days before. I e-mailed an old professor and said, “Is it possible for me to memorize 45 pages in a week?” He wrote me back two words: “Not possible.” I was like, “That’s the wrong answer.” [Laughs.] I ended up having to create what I call my crisis curriculum. I approached the first day trying to get ten pages in my head, and my brain would not go beyond four. I would try to run what I learned and it wouldn’t retain more. I was so afraid to consume any other information in the world because I didn’t have space. I get on the plane and feel nauseous. I pull out the bag in front of me — I’ve never used that bag — and I throw up in the bag. I land, go to a fitting, and my temperature is over 100 degrees. They call me back for another fitting, and I was like, “I’m not feeling well.” So now there’s a company-wide e-mail with the subject line: “Aisha is sick.” [Laughs.]
So I’m losing all this time I wanted to use for rehearsal. Now the anxiety is setting in big. The next day, I show up to set, and I start lying, like, “I’m good, I’m ready to go.” They said, “We’ll get you a teleprompter and an earpiece,” so I memorized with the idea that there would be a safety net in place. I put the earpiece in, and there’s all this static. Instinctually, my hand reached for my ear, pulled out the earpiece and handed it back, and it was in that moment that I began to feel an overwhelming sense of her presence. Something had filled me up, and all the nerves settled. I walk to the stage and I’m mumbling to myself, “I don’t know what this is gonna be.” Our director, Anthony Hemingway, comes up to me and holds my hand and prays with me before, which is not customary. I was like, “Wow.” Just to know how foundational God and spirituality was in Harriet Tubman’s life, there couldn’t have been anything more significant he started the day with than to hold my hands and pray. I sat down in the chair, he went back to the camera and called action, and every single word of that story came out of me as if it were my own. That continued to happen again and again, and the ease with which the story was just flowing, I started to feel like I wasn’t even present. When he called cut on that final take, I felt emptied, like I could have used an IV gag. It felt like her spirit had inhabited me, shared her story, and as I was sharing the story, parts of her were coming out of me, and I was empty.
It’s almost like a birth, bouts of sickness included.
Exactly. And the funny thing is, people are lauding this as a solo performance, but when I think about it, I’m like, “This is a solo performance much like childbirth is a solo performance.” The mother is given credit for bringing the child into the world, but there’s doctors, nurses, so many elements to making sure there’s a delivery. So, yes, it definitely was childbirth, replete with all of its symptoms.
At the end of the monologue, Harriet breaks the fourth wall and talks directly to the audience. How subtle did you need to be making that shift midstream?
Luckily, we shot in order chronologically, so at that point, not only am I trusting Misha and Joe and Anthony, but I’m trusting these people to populate the area as local abolitionists. We built an intimate relationship. Even the cameras have become a part of that, so shifting to connect with the audience that is out in the world was a natural, instinctive invitation to our audience to activate. Will you stand by as a citizen watching the injustice that’s happening, or will you engage and contribute to the world, leaving it better than you entered it, as a soldier?
At the risk of sounding trivial, how do you focus on the responsibility at hand without occasionally drifting to thoughts of public reception? This is the kind of performance that invariably creates critical and awards buzz.
When I first walked into this, I was full of so much reverence. I don’t know how to explain it except to charge you to think about the most influential heroes in your life, or who you think about when you think about the fabric of who you are as a person. That was what Harriet Tubman was for me. My singular thought was to do everything I can to bring honor to her legacy. Because I was learning so much about her, I was like, “My god, this is a revelation.” I get excited about the fact that I am the chosen vessel to bring this wealth of education to a new generation. I was a troubled teenager until somebody guided me in the right direction, so it’s important for me to know where I’m positioned in the world and what I’m doing here, and how that can impact troubled teens. That’s just a fraction of the audience I’m considering, but I’m thinking about those girls who are in the position I was, and if I could have looked onscreen and seen someone who looked like me and walked like me and talked like me, telling the story of someone I don’t have much context for … that was the riveting thing. I have shied away from watching the episode because I don’t want to step out of the moment we had yet. I don’t want to move into the place you’re talking about. I know it’s human, it’s inevitable. I work in this industry. I’m acutely aware of the conversations surrounding this level of work, but I also want to hold onto what was precious. Maybe in a few weeks, I’ll move into the next level of that conversation. [Laughs.] It’s not trivializing, because any acclaim that comes to this performance ultimately comes back to a woman who didn’t get those awards and was rightfully deserving of a platform that could speak to many. If she continues to use me so that her message is spread and legacy is spread, I would be honored.