Actor Johnny Ray Gill is one of the stars on WGN America’s new period drama “Underground,” which follows a group of slaves in 1857 who decide to leave their Georgia plantation to travel north in hopes of finding freedom. Gill, who plays a gifted carpenter named Sam, recently dished about the series, telling International Business Times that the show is a great way to pay homage to those who risked their lives traveling on the Underground Railroad.
“After reading the script and having a conversation with myself about how black people are portrayed in the media and things like that, I thought this was a step in the right direction and a chance to honor my ancestors,” Gill told IBT in a phone interview ahead of the show’s March premiere. “So that’s why I wanted to get on board.”
The John Legend-directed show is already proving to be intense. The first episode featured catchy, heat-thumping music courtesy of Kanye West, gritty scenes and heartbreaking moments. The show’s debut episode ended as the slaves were beginning to form their plan of escape.
“Every time you have this kind of show, with this kind of subject matter, with this kind of truth attached to it, I feel like you’re going to be on the edge of your seat,” Gill said. “And I think it’s going to measure up to some of the other fantastic shows that keep you on the edge of your seat.”
Gill told IBT that while on the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, set he felt like he was a part of “a more profound” Justice League, referring to the DC Comics superhero team.
“The Justice League is fictional characters and these people actually traveled 600 miles with no electricity, through swamps with no shoes, barely fed,” he explained. “And if that’s not superhero-like then I don’t know what is. I also think the way it’s been shot is very action-packed. It’s a thrill ride.”
As far as what’s in store for Sam, Gill teased that fans will find the character’s journey very interesting and moving.
“[Sam’s] a sublime carpenter and it was one of the most interesting things about playing the character because he reminds me of the way John Nash’s mind was portrayed in ‘A Beautiful Mind.’ He sees numbers and scientific data out in front of him so a lot of times he’s three, four, five steps ahead of everyone else,” Gill said. “I think Sam’s journey is going to catch a lot of people by surprise … some of the work I did in episodes 7 and 8 was very heartbreaking stuff and I think it’s going to give a very specific understanding of how tragic it was at that particular time.”
Besides starring on “Underground,” Gill is also gearing up for the new CBS comic thriller “BrainDead,” in which he plays an eccentric genius named Gustav who is the first to recognize that aliens are attacking Capitol Hill.
“I’m really, really excited about that,” he said. “It’s super fun and interesting. Gustav has a million conspiracy theories [about the alien attack] and he’s occasionally right.”
“BrainDead” will premiere this summer and “Underground” airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. EDT on WGN America.