“12 Years a Slave.”
“Birth of a Nation.”
A reboot of “ROOTS.”
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by Hollywood projects centered around the stomach-churning subject of slavery in the United States, even the star of “Underground,” can’t blame you. Alano Miller, who plays the devious, deeply troubled overseer “Cato” on the ensemble drama, acknowledges that he nearly passed on auditioning because of his gut reaction to the topic.
“I immediately cringed,” the Florida native admits of the WGN America hit about a group of slaves attempting to travel over 600 miles to freedom. “I thought: ‘How could you do a series about slavery? How long could something like that last and how could African-Americans as a whole deal with watching this week after week?’”
Miller also feared that the ambitious project— starring the super talented cast including leads Jurnee Smollett and Aldis Hodge— would center on Black bodies (once again) being liberated by a sympathetic White savior. This is a trope that, in addition to the bombardment of the N-word, sullied Quentin Tarantino’s spaghetti Western-slash-slave-revenge film “Django Unchained.” Though Django (played by Jamie Foxx) is the lovelorn hero and titular ass-kicker, he clearly wouldn’t have made it as far in his mission without assistance from Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz).
There are indeed White abolitionists interwoven within the exhilarating, quickly unfolding “Underground” plot, but they are bit players. It is ultimately the beautiful, bold and extraordinarily intelligent “slaves” of a Georgia plantation who attempt to rescue both themselves and their loved ones from the cruel institution.
“I was blown away by the script,” Miller recounts of the work penned by writers and producers, Misha Green and Joe Pokaski. “It was so very well written with such fleshed out characters.”
He was initially invited to read for the fearless, quick-thinking hero, Noah, played by Aldis Hodge. But it was Cato, with his half-burned face and seemingly fluid morals that immediately appealed to Miller.
That’s a good thing too because Miller, whom many may remember from his turn as twins in “Jane the Virgin,” is immaculately cast. His sneering, cynical yet quietly desperate overseer connives his way into joining the breakout gang. Using his inside knowledge of the Master’s mindset and playing against their fear of capture, he proves to be just as (or as he might believe, better) suited to lead the perilous run for freedom.
Not everyone is on the same page. Some fans on Twitter have vehemently disagreed with Cato’s methods, which include blackmailing Noah into allowing him in the gang, accepting a whip and whiskey from the morally bankrupt Master and later disabling a beloved character to foster his own escape from slave catchers.
“They are brutal on Twitter,” Miller says his struggle to defend Cato in 140 characters during live tweeting sessions of the show. “They call him an Uncle Tom. People are saying he’s brainwashed. Well, I would argue that he’s neither of those things. He’s a survivalist.”
He points to the moment when Miller, in a pivotal scene, reveals that he has made two escape attempts, one of those leading to the horrible disfigurement of his face.
“Of all the people in the group, he has the most at stake,” argues Miller. “He has tried twice. He won’t get another chance. If Rosalee gets caught, she might get in trouble but she is of value to the master in the house, so she won’t get killed. Noah might get branded, but if Cato gets caught again, they’re going to kill him.”
Miller shares that we will learn even more about Cato as the season continues…perhaps including what has left him so self-preserving and seemingly disgusted with the love blooming between Rosalee and Noah. He believes those revelations will portray the overseer-gone-rogue as less of a prototypical villain.
“This is a man who was not born that way,” states Miller. “He was made this way. It’s easy to play a villain. What’s a challenge, and why I love this part, is I want to get people to wonder about him and root for him because he shows some moments of goodness, of faith, of love. We all want to believe we are Noah, but most of us probably aren’t in real life and we don’t know what we’d do if we were in the situation these people were in…We’re probably closer to Cato than we want to admit.”
Naysayers who saw his shocking acts in the last few episodes may disagree, but Miller hopes that “Underground” fans will continue to see Cato evolve. He also shares that he wishes more Black people would join the journey and watch this harrowing drama, no matter how difficult it is to witness this horrific chapter of American history.
Oddly enough, and this writer concurs, the show is “empowering.”
“We should embrace this,” he asserts. “We are living in a time when we are dealing with racism every day. Slavery is the root of this situation, and we can’t heal until we deal with it head on. At a time of inequality and being looked at as being worthless bodies that can be beaten and killed with impunity, don’t you want to watch something that can show how our strength, hope and faith helped get us out of this horrible situation?”
“All of us, even my cast mates, we live in this bubble at times,” Miller explains. “We forget these slaves helped each other, strangers they didn’t even know and risked their lives because they believed in a grand purpose of freedom. It wasn’t about them; those who were enslaved knew that what they did to get free was about the future. They looked inside themselves and saw their own beauty and now we have that opportunity to reflect and do the same.”
Underground airs Wednesday nights on WGN America. Check your local listings for showtimes. P.S. It’s not too late to catch up.