By Darlene Donloe
If you’re not watching the television drama, Underground, on WGN America, you’re in the minority. The original escape thriller, about the Underground Railroad, is killing it in the ratings and garnering praise from critics and audiences alike who are tuning in each Wednesday night to watch the story unfold.
The 10-episode, hour-long program follows a group of gutsy men and women determined to change their circumstances by attempting a courageous escape from slavery.
The group is lead by Noah (Aldis Hodge), a determined and headstrong blacksmith who organizes a small group of his fellow slaves and puts together a daring plan of escape across hundreds of miles to freedom.
Underground stars Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Aldis Hodge, Mykelti Williamson, Amirah Vann, Alano Miller, Marc Blucas, Jessica de Gouw, Christopher Meloni, Adina Porter, Chris Chalk, Jussie Smollett, Reed Diamond, Renwick Scott and Theodus Crane.
I recently caught up with Crane, who plays Zeke, to talk about the show and his character.
Theodus Crane, who is from Atlanta, is an actor who loves the stage and screen. Some of his projects include Christmas in Conway, The Bag Man, The Starving Games, and The Walking Dead. He has worked with Robert DeNiro, John Cusack and Andy Garcia. A diverse artist, he has also trained at the Groundlings Improv Program in Los Angeles. Far from a slacker, Crane is also a fighter. He is learning Filipino knife and stick fighting. For kicks (pun intended) he trains in Judo, kickboxing, boxing, Filipino martial arts, and Sanda. He’s a two-time Amateur World Champion in the World Sanda League, winning his most recent title in July 2014.
DD: How did you come to be involved with Underground?
TC: It was funny. I actually had just moved to LA two months prior. I got a stunt job back in New Orleans. I came back for that. My agent in New Orleans asked me my availability because there was a show that had some interest. Whenever I hear about a project, I do some research - as much as possible. I didn’t get a lot of info on the show, but I saw who was involved. Joe [Pokaski] wrote for Daredevil. When I saw his name I was taken aback. And then I saw Akiva [Goldsmith]. That was all the info I had until I met with Anthony [Hemingway] to read for the part. It was this secretive project that had an interest in me. Next thing I know we’re in Baton Rouge shooting. It’s amazing being part of this. Everyone is amazing including the cast and crew. I still keep in touch with everyone.
DD: Tell me about the audition process.
TC: I came out to Baton Rouge with Anthony [Hemingway] and we read some sides. It was a quick and painless process. I hadn’t gotten all the information about the character leading into that. I didn’t know Zeke’s family life was what it was. His baby died and the wife killed him. There was a lot of shock involved. Other than that – it was relatively painless.
DD: What was your initial thought when you heard about the show and got the script?
TC: I was definitely curious. I thought it was a regular slave narrative. I thought it was the Roots remake. Once I read the script, I said, “OK, it might be interesting”. When I got the script it was nothing like I expected it to be.. Everything was done well. The story is so well done.
DD: Tell me about your character, Zeke. What do you like and what don’t you like about him?
TC: His resolve. There is a lot of drama in his life. He has a lot to overcome. A lot of the characters in this show are inspired by real people. Even with sadness and grief, he still had to make a hard decision. The one thing I didn’t like was that we didn’t get to a dialogue between him and his wife. I would have liked that to be a possibility. They tell the main aspects of that story. It’s TV. You have to be mindful of the entirety of the plot.
DD: When playing a role – do you have to like the character?
TC: You have to accept it. Realistically speaking there are people who don’t like themselves. That can translate and be part of what you bring to your character.
DD: Why is this show important?
TC: Because this is an aspect of that part of history that isn’t told very much anymore. Growing up my family was into knowing our history. My famiy did that. Knowing that this is a part of American history – the plantation, the politics behind why people did what they did. Why you would help slaves run? What is the meaning of the Underground Railroad? What kept slavery alive so long in America? Things like that need to be discussed. You can see parallels and personality types in the show. You can see the mindset of some people that you run into today. You have to know the roots of the situation.
Theodus Crane as Zeke
DD: Is it more important for white folks or black folks to see this show?
TC: I don’t think the color matters. Everyone should watch this show. That’s the issue. This is a show for America to watch. There needs to be less of a divide between the races in America if any real dialogue is going to occur. We have human issues, not color issues to deal with. Underneath it all, we’re all the same.
DD: Are you actually watching the show each week? If so, with whom?
TC: I am watching. I’m watching at The Country Club in New Orleans. Me and a bunch of my friends watch. The Country Club has been so nice in accommodating us. We can all watch it together. I’m live tweeting while I’m there.
DD: What kind of feedback are you getting from people?
TC: Everybody has been blown away by the show. It has taken some people’s breath away.
DD: What do you say to people who say we’ve had enough slave movies?
TC: I’ve heard some of that. The thing about it for me is - there are people who feel that way. I understand it. It’s been a story told a certain way for so long. It’s refreshing to see it another way.
DD: What does acting do for you?
TC: It’s a way to express myself and communicate artistically on a broader scale. I’ve been involved in several different mediums. I was a visual artist. I wanted to be an illustrator. As I got older it shifted. I got into music. But acting was the one thing I could do and actually make a living. I have a love and passion for it. It allows me to be passionate.
DD: You have a diverse background. You act. It’s obvious you like to fight. (He’s a two-time Amateur World Champion in the World Sanda League, winning his most recent title in July 2014). I understand you dance. (He has been known to ‘cut a rug’ with The 610 Stompers in New Orleans). You also do standup. What else do you want to accomplish in your career?
TC: Everything. I want everything. I want all of it. I want not to be limited by anything. The world is my oyster and I will indulge as I see fit.
Underground, which debuted March 9, is from creators and executive producers Misha Green and Joe Pokaski. Academy Award® winner John Legend is also an executive producer. The show, which airs at 10 p.m. ET/PT on WGN America, concludes May 9.
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