Exclusive: Dynamo Aisha Hinds Talks ‘Underground’ & Her Journey To Become Harriet Tubman
On this week’s episode of the critically acclaimed antebellum set series, Underground, Aisha Hinds’ Harriet Tubman takes center stage.
Though we’ve watched General Tubman bestow wisdom upon Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) this season, this episode which has been entitled “Minty” will give the audience a look into Harriet Tubman’s backstory and her fervent plea to abolitionists to take action against the institution of slavery. The extended episode will air at a special time, 8 PM ET on WGN America.
Hinds’ riveting performance as Tubman is just one of the stellar characters Hinds embodies on television Wednesday evenings. You can also find the Brooklyn native commanding the screen as Pastor Janae James on FOX’s compelling miniseries Shots Fired.
Ahead of “Minty’s” debut, JETmag.com spoke with Aisha Hinds about the extensive research that she did in order to embark on this journey, how she prepared for this ground-breaking standalone episode, and the one thing she learned about Harriet Tubman that shook her to her core.
JET: Did you know coming on to Underground that Harriet Tubman would be getting her own episode?
Aisha Hinds: They kept using this language like, “Yeah so you know her TED Talk. We’re going to have Harriet do a TED Talk.” People were like, “This is Harriet’s episode,” but it just didn’t translate that it would be one character absorbing the entire episode. That didn’t translate to me because that’s something that has never been done in the history of television. So my brain didn’t process it; couldn’t process it. It’s revolutionary television that’s challenging audiences to watch TV in a way that they have never watched it before.
JET: Oh most definitely, I was stunned when I saw it.
Aisha Hinds: It also challenged the crew to capture television in a way that it had never been captured before. So, not only was I sort of in a space that I had never been, our director, Anthony Hemingway had never directed a one person show. Our writers, Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, they have never written a one-person show. A few weeks before we were shooting, I ran into Joe sitting down in a hotel lobby. I was like, “Hey do you know when I’ll be able to get that script?” And by this point now I had started getting anxious in wanting to have the script. I could see he was reading a book and I was like, “What are you reading?” He’s like, “A book on how to write a one a solo show.” I was like, “What?!” (Laughing) I’m supposed to be studying right now as we speak. So in my mind, I thought that it was just going to be heavy on Harriet’s story, I never thought it would be me talking as Harriet for one whole hour. But, the writers were willing to take this risk to honor her legacy with a tremendous amount of integrity. Of course, at that point, I was just like whatever it takes, whatever is required I’m up for the challenge. But with that, I thought surely I’ll have a three month lead time.
JET: Of course! I just assumed you had a tremendous amount of time for prep.
Aisha Hinds: Yes for rehearsal and preparation. I saw this as an opportunity to now put all of my years of theatrical training into practice. But when I tell you, I didn’t even have time to be an actor on this. I think that was God divinely, orchestrating that in my life because this experience was so much bigger than me. It transported me to a place that I had never been artistically or even much more as a human being. [Harriet] just reduced me, her spirit was so powerful that it consumed me and it inhabited me. I was just basic blanks and breath, and I know that I’m not the only one that felt that. People came up to me and told me afterward they had been working in the business for 40 years and never experienced what we experienced in the three days that we shot that last episode. Even that was something so significant. The fact that we only had three days to shoot this episode.
JET: Isn’t is usually almost two weeks per episode?
Aisha Hinds: Eight business days. And so the fact that we only had three days was not lost on me. It was held in a special place in God’s hands, which I think is where he holds Harriet Tubman. I truly feel like the depth of her faith was one that challenged me to dig way deeper in my faith walk and my own spiritual belief. I considered myself a spiritual person walking into this, but I can tell you that I haven’t even scratched the surface. I don’t have access to the level of faith that Harriet was working with. She could not read, she had never read a single word of the Bible.
JET: You said previously that in order to prep for the role you read everything that you could with Harriet Tubman’s name in it. However, in this hour we find out so many gorgeous details about her life. Was there anything that was in Joe and Misha’s script that you didn’t know in your exhaustive research of General Tubman?
Aisha Hinds: No, thankfully by inhaling as much as I could, once I started reading the script it felt familiar which helped with the memorization process. Her story had become a part of the fabric of my being, so now I could just fall into these words. I would carry Misha and Joe’s script around with me. I knew that if all else fails, I can trust these words. These words on this page are powerful. Harriet’s story is so powerful and packed with so many beautiful nuggets and pieces of humanity and history. It was so beautiful because all of the things that you find out about her are truly a treasure.
JET: I think that one of the things that shocked me the most was the story of her getting hit with that iron weight. She was peering in a window, trying to fix her hair. I’m not sure why it’s such a shocking aspect of her journey to me. Was there anything about Harriet’s journey that has really shocked you or stuck to your soul?
Aisha Hinds: That’s so funny because that was one of the points too for me. She was consumed with her hair, and I was like man our consumption with our edges has been historical. (Laughing) That’s been going on for generations. That injury exacerbated a condition that she may have been born with and caused the sleeping spells. To know that she was suffering from these sleeping spells while leading people along these treacherous journeys in pursuit of freedom was confounding for me. At any moment she could fall asleep putting herself and the people that were with her in immediate danger. It perplexed me that she had the courage to go out knowing that this limitation was built into her, and it wasn’t something that she could medicate. It was something that she invited and embraced because that’s where she says that she heard from the Lord. She didn’t see it as a disadvantage. It was the thing that almost kind of saved her life. Since she had a perceived disability, it made her less sellable. Had they thought that she was whole and full and well she might have been sold off more readily.
JET: So she never knew anything about where she was going on her journeys to and from the South?
Aisha Hinds: Exactly, she was determined that that is where God spoke to her and led and guided her on which path to take, and how to stay away from danger. So that was really her guiding force. She didn’t know botany, she didn’t study anatomy, yet she was able to read the stars, she was able to read plants and chart a course. She guided herself along the way to freedom. It’s amazing to me.
JET: Was there anything that you discovered about her that you wish was in “Minty” for audiences to see?
Aisha Hinds: No, you know they really gave so many details. They gave so much. Just to know she lived for so long after that. She was living up in Auburn, New York. If I had known … because I grew up in Brooklyn if I had known I think in the education of Harriet Tubman, that Harriet Tubman’s feet were actually, in the same state… We could have taken a field trip and walked the grounds that she walked to see the place that she lived. I think that’s valuable information and necessary for school kids. Honestly, there was so much that they give in this episode that I think that people’s cup with truly runneth over. And I pray that all of these aspects that are missing from our history lessons in school will sort of be completing for people who are thirsty for this knowledge about her.
JET: Underground along with Shots Fired, they’re just so powerful. They’re totally different stories but compelling in their own way. I was just curious about the timeline for you filming these different shows.
Aisha Hinds: I had a three-week break in between the two of them. At the end of the first one, I didn’t even know that I was going to shoot the second one. I went home from Shots Fired, and it was such heavy material that honestly I was looking forward to going home and sitting for a moment. I wanted to decompress. So when Underground came up, it was like out of the fire back into the fire. Pastor Janae James was a role that I did that preceded the role of Harriet Tubman. Harriet Tubman’s history precedes Pastor Janae. If there were no Harriet Tubman, there would be no Pastor Janae. So, that was so beautiful to sort of move in a way that was complimentary. Pastor Janae’s voice is amplified by the work of Harriet Tubman. Both of these women are activists in their own right, both of these women are guided by a spiritual compass that is inarguable. Both of these women are devout Christians but I think when we think of Christians sometimes in the fight for justice we think that Christians can tend to be complacent and sit in a posture of prayer as opposed to …
Aisha Hinds: Yeah, of action. But both of these women, they walked proudly through the valley of death shouting that they should fear no evil, because both of them are truly fearless warriors. I was glad to be the vessel chosen to inhabit both of them, and now that they’re both on the same night I just was overwhelmed.
JET: Well thank you so much. This is so lovely.
Aisha Hinds: No thank you as well. I appreciate that so much. Thank you.
Underground airs Wednesdays at 10 PM ET on WGN America