Adina Porter is one of those wonderful character actors who’s been popping up with increasing frequency on every great TV show of the past 20 years. But in about half that time, the 45-year-old has been gaining even more recognition through some high profile recurring roles, such as her turn as Lettie Mae in HBO’s True Blood, and, of late, as the leader of a Grounder clan in the post-apocalyptic sci-fi hit The 100.
Great as those parts were, one of the most challenging and intense roles that Porter has taken on recently is that of Pearly Mae in the WGN drama Underground. The series, which centers on the building of the Underground Railroad in pre-Civil War America, joins recent efforts like 12 Years A Slave and the upcoming remake of Roots (set to air in May), in keeping the truth about slavery in the American consciousness.
While the horrors of that time period are represented unblinkingly on Underground, it is also by far the most traditionally entertaining of the bunch, building as it is toward a group of slaves potentially escaping their captors and heading south. Key to their efforts is the help of Porter’s character, a wife and mother with the rare skills of being able to read and write. Her services to help forge papers for the escapees and to read—and sing—the hymn that features the clues that will guide these people to freedom becomes more and more essential to the cause as the series rolls forward.
After filming wrapped for The Jury, a pilot ordered by ABC, Porter spoke with Paste about the challenges of playing a role like Pearly Mae and how her family’s past has informed her take on this character.
Paste Magazine: How did this role come to you? Did the producers seek you out, or did you see a script and knew you had to be a part of it?
Adina Porter: I auditioned for it. I have worked for the director and one of the executive producers, Anthony Hemingway, in at least two other projects, True Blood and The Newsroom. I knew how wonderful of a director he was. And he’s a fan, so [I always] want to audition for someone who already likes my work, it’s always good to keep them happy, or keep them as a fan. For the longest time, my agents were trying to get me in on the role of Ernestine, but the creators really wanted to explore the dynamics of dark-skinned field workers, and light-skinned house servants and that drama. I’m a good actor, but I could only be one. I came in and auditioned for Ernestine, and they saw the kind of actor that I was. Then they said, “Can you sing?” And I said, “Well, I can carry a tune.” So they wanted me to come in for the role of Pearly Mae. I learned later on that only I came in for the role, and only I auditioned for it, so I was the one and only.
Paste: Now that you’ve spent so much time with this role, who is Pearly Mae to you?
Porter: I’m a mom of two kids. I have a boy who just turned nine yesterday and a five-and-a-half year old daughter and I’m raising them on my own. I know what it’s like to do whatever you need to do to make sure that your kids are happy, and well and succeed. I see Pearly Mae as a mom—a mom who takes her job very, very seriously. There’s a new expression that I’m hearing more and more often that I really appreciate: being an enslaved person. Because there’s a difference between an enslaved person and a slave. The implication is that if you are an enslaved person, you know you’re being wrongly held. If you’re a slave, there’s the impression that it’s your cast in life. Pearly Mae, because of some history that you’re going to find out in later episodes, knows that she is an enslaved person.
Paste: What you’re saying about the difference between being a slave and being enslaved, some of that feels tied in with the fact that she’s one of the few people on that plantation who knows how to read and write. She knows that there’s more to the world that she doesn’t have access to.
Porter: She knows that there is a world beyond the plantation. She has more of a perspective, so she knows that this isn’t the only way things have to be.
Paste: Did you have to do much research ahead of time about this period of American history, or were you already well-versed in the particulars of the pre-Civil War South?
Porter: I’m gonna say that I already feel like I had a deep knowledge of it, being African-American. My father was born and raised in Sierra Leone and my mom was from Bermuda. I am first generation American, so I didn’t grow up in the South or have any relatives who were slaves. My forefathers were colonized. It also means that I knew history, like my forefathers sold other Africans into slavery. Of course, slavery was happening in West Africa but American slavery was like slavery cubed. They took it to a whole new level. But I didn’t think I knew this world completely. We all talked about reviewing the PBS series The African-Americans: Many Rivers To Cross, by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. That was eye-opening to me, about how the development of slavery happened and how it went from indentured servants and people who were working off debt to going, “Well, if you’re this color, you will be a slave.” That kind of knowledge informed me [with someone] like Pearly Mae, who would have that kind of knowledge, but would have been passed down a bit of history to know how to not get sold downriver. So, I didn’t just walk in going, “Oh, I know this world.” I felt like I knew a lot, but did research to get emotionally there and to get some facts along the way.
Paste: I’m curious about that emotional side to playing a part like this. You and your castmates are willfully putting yourselves back into this awful period of American history. How much did that weigh on your shoulders throughout? Or can you separate yourself from it, and look at it like it’s another acting job?
Porter: After I went in and auditioned for Ernestine, I called up my manager and said, “I don’t want this role. I don’t want to go to this place for 10 episodes and if it goes beyond Season One, then Season Two, Season Three—living in this world for that long? I don’t want that.” When they came to me for Pearly Mae, and she’s only in five episodes, I went, “Okay, alright. I can go there for five episodes.” That’s the difference between committing to six years of this world. [Show creators] Misha [Green] and Joe [Pokaski] weren’t playing. I can, quite honestly, deal on set with being owned by someone else because I know that’s not true anymore. But having to go into the world of not feeling good about yourself because of the kind of hair you have, and the color of your skin, and the wideness of your nose and how non-Caucasian looking you are—I’ve spent too much money on therapy to go back there again! That’s the truth of it. That’s the ugly, ugly, ugliest part of it for me.
Paste: As difficult as it is, is it still important to tell stories like this, or to have films like 12 Years A Slave in the world to keep the truth of this time fresh in people’s minds?
Porter: I really believe that Joe and Misha—as well as Anthony Hemingway and John Legend—were taking a different approach to Underground. I remember asking Misha, “Why are you guys going to Comic-Con?” And she said, “Because these people are superheroes.” And I went “Oh… yeah…” It is about the badass motherfuckers who know that they are enslaved people and will do whatever is necessary to get the hell out, instead of, “Oh, thank you North for granting us our freedom.” I very much appreciated that take on it.
Growing up, I didn’t know about the Japanese internment camps until I saw a movie of the week as an adult. I remember going, “How come that wasn’t covered in history class?” Moving to California, you run into people whose grandparents lost everything, and their businesses and were put in these internment camps. I have no worries that my children, or grandchildren, or great-great grandchildren will grow up in a world where they aren’t aware that there was a time when African-Americans were enslaved in this country. But you can [grow up with the] idea that there were enslaved people, and that there were only educated Northerners who knew it was wrong and worked really hard and helped free these people. When you say “abolitionist” to me, I imagine a white person, I do not imagine a black person. I think black people and white people knowing that [enslaved people] did amazing things to change this system is important.
So, yeah, I think that it is good to be reminded of this. And I’ll go one step further: we’ve got Presidential candidates suggesting that a whole group of people not be allowed into this country for a while, or a whole group of people be judged by the acts of a few. I think keeping this kind of information in the front of our minds is healthy.