Misha Green, the 32-year-old co-creator of WGN America’s hit drama Underground has always been a storyteller. “It started when I was young,” she says. “I got a dollhouse when I was six, and my sister would always say, ‘You realize you’re just talking to yourself. What are you doing?’ That kind of opened up this creative need to tell stories.”
After attending New York University, Green moved west to Hollywood and started writing. Her first script landed on the Black List–a service that connects screenplays to producers, studio execs, and directors–and Green got several gigs writing for shows like Heroes, Sons of Anarchy, and Helix as a result. While her career has skyrocketed since relocating to Los Angeles, Green’s latest project, WGN America’s Underground, has millions of people tuning in and talking each Wednesday night.
Though some have been critical of narratives about slavery, Green was drawn to the stories she unearthed during her research.
“Sometimes you don’t find out why you needed to tell a story until you’re telling it,” she tells EBONY. “I needed to hear these people tell their stories and be full people who laughed and loved and cried and sometimes did bad things and weren’t just whipping posts being beaten, or the people whipping there weren’t just the whippers. There’s so much depth to these people and their strength that I felt like we hadn’t seen before.”
Some merely focus on the story of enslavement, but at its core, Green argues, “the story of the Underground Railroad is the story of American heroes, and who doesn’t want to hear a story about American heroes?”
During its first season, Green and Underground co-creator Joe Pokaski not only delivered heart-pounding drama each episode, but they also challenged each other to tell a story many have never seen before.
“The Underground Railroad was the first integrated civil rights movement and a lot of the stuff we explore and talk about on the show, Joe and I talk about,” she says. “We push each other to be the best storytellers we can be.”
“We have five seasons of this show planned, so we have time,” Green explains. “That slow burn, the telling of big stories is exciting and fun. The first season we always knew we wanted to end with Harriet Tubman. But how exciting is it to connect with all of these characters and then have her come in and interact with the characters we spent 10 episodes falling in love with?”
While Underground is full of juicy fictional plots, some of the stories are rooted in historical accounts. For Green, researching the time period and unearthing details that help tell a deeper account of who people were is a treat.
“Every day there’s something new; it’s the tiny details that get me,” she says. “With Kato in season 1, that was actually a true story, where an enslaved man took down all the buckets on the plantation so they couldn’t bring water to the fields when he set them on fire and ran. I was like that’s amazing, how come this is the first time I’m learning about this story?”
While Underground’s writers do an amazing job of carrying out Green’s vision to tell full, complex narratives, the show’s stars bring her mission to life–and take their work extremely seriously, too. In fact, Green admits she and series star Jurnee Smollett-Bell regularly butted heads in the beginning.
“When we first got on set, we literally hated each other,” she recalls with a laugh. “We both had very big ideas about Rosalee. It became a running joke in the beginning.”
Thankfully, Green and Smollett-Bell’s love of the character brought them closer together. “Now, we’re like best friends and we do all this stuff together, but in those first two months if you would have said this was gonna happen I would have said no,” she says. “She’s very active in her activism and I am to, and we’re like literally the same person and it took us a minute to realize that.”
While Green and Pokaski have five seasons of material planned out for Underground, the writer admits the story could last must longer, especially if they decide to probe deeper into the Civil War.
“The Underground Railroad was a spy network for the North and that story has never been told,” she says. “The fact that all of these enslaved people were not just running away at that point, [but] they were being spies in the South for the North–it’s that kind of thing where there’s just so many stories.”
Underground airs Wednesday nights at 10 p.m on WGN America.
Britni Danielle is EBONY’s Entertainment/Culture Director. Follow her on Twitter @BritniDWrites