The last time we saw Christopher Meloni on TV was in the summer of 2015, in Netflix’s Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, as Gene, the Vietnam vet turned summer camp chef who takes advice from cans of vegetables. So it’s hard to imagine a more vastly different role than the actor’s latest small-screen outing, as a slave catcher in 1850s Georgia in the WGN America series Underground, which tells the story of a group of runaway slaves seeking freedom at any cost.
When we first meet Meloni’s August Pullman, in the pilot episode, he appears to fit the trope of the “white savior” we’ve seen in other slavery-era stories, but that illusion is swiftly shattered. He offers help to a runaway slave in immediate danger of capture, only to turn on her and collect the bounty himself. As he teaches the family business to his 11-year-old son Ben (Brady Permenter), whose mother is locked away in a mental institution, he repeatedly insists it’s merely a matter of collecting a much-needed paycheck. But his connection to the hunt turns out to be much more complicated than that.
In advance of Underground’s season finale Wednesday night, Meloni talked to TIME about the danger in underestimating children, the glacial pace of change in America and how to turn such a difficult subject into gripping entertainment.
TIME: There are a lot of morally ambiguous characters on the show, including yours.
Christopher Meloni: To [creators] Joe [Pokaski] and Misha [Green]’s credit, every character. It’s not the big bad slave owner; there are moments of levity and sadness and conflict in him. The runaways are not allergic to double-dealing and looking out for their best interests. With my character it’s, “Oh, I thought he was a good guy. He’s the bad guy? I don’t like him!” Then you see his circumstances a little more intimately. You present it to the audience and leave it up to them to make decisions.
Is August’s behavior a calculation between what he feels he should do and what he feels he must do?
I think he is a functioning addict, and the drug is the hunt. I don’t think he understands consciously the power that it holds over him. He secretly feels he’s not very good at raising his child. He lost his wife, and I don’t think they understood mental illness back then, I don’t think a guy like him would understand—is it his fault? His farm is failing, it’s his fault. He’s being drawn by forces beyond his control.
In a way, his tactics as a slave catcher feel more insidious because he feigns benevolence to get people’s trust. Do you think that's just an effective tactic or a window into who he wishes he could be?
I don’t know. I think his humanity is crying to come forward, but I felt his tactics were—you know, a pack of coyotes will send one coyote out to lure a dog to come either have sex or to play with them. This happens very often in California. And then the pack will come and tear it to shreds. [August] is very connected to everything natural, everything animal. When he’s in the throes of the hunt, he turns into more wolf than human.
It almost feels like his son, Ben, is an external reflection of his conscience.
You know, I have children, and I can’t say how many times I’ve been in a moment with them just going, “Oh, I thought I was teaching the lesson. I just got taught.” They’re the wise ones and very often they’re unvarnished, their truth is without guile—deep and intimate and honest and innocent.
The children on the show are central to the narrative. There's this sense that the future hangs on how they learn from their parents to operate in the world.
It really is a story that plays out over and over again. As human beings, we all start out open like that, but then in order to survive you must make certain rules that you feel comfortable with just so you can operate in whatever world you’re in. If you’re in, I’ll say, a poor choice of economic systems such as slavery, if that’s all you’ve ever known, it takes the next generation to think more deeply, more compassionately or more humanely.
We’re a lot of generations removed from that and still seeing incremental progress.
It took 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation to get the Civil Rights Bill, you know? Glacial.
The music and the cinematography really make the show feel contemporary. Do you see that as part of a strategy to bridge the 150-plus year gap between viewers and the characters?
I think there was absolutely a conscious choice. [The creators] had very stiff headwaters to swim against. People may not be too amenable to history. It’s about a touchy part of history. There are not going to be a lot of laughs. They didn’t want to get too bogged down in the seriousness of this topic. So they looked into, let’s contemporize it, let’s get music that gets the blood moving. I think it was a conscious effort to make it sexy, without being disrespectful to slavery. When is slavery sexy? It’s not, but there’s the idea that people haven’t really changed that much. They still had desires. I thought it was unique to make the camera work a thrill-ride. Because it is, it’s the great escape.
Toward the end of the season, there’s a conversation between a slaveowner and John Hawkes (Marc Blucas), a member of the Underground Railroad, about whether white lives matter more than black lives. The language felt very resonant as a viewer in 2016.
I thought of it more as a discussion about the economics of hot-button topics. An example would be the minimum wage today. The same arguments that were made about deconstructing slavery were made about raising the minimum wage—you know, it’s going to destroy the economy. Hawkes says the inflammatory, So, only white lives matter? And the other guy says, No, black lives matter. They’re property. I have an economic interest, but I make calculations as to, can I afford this guy to be a runaway and should I cut his achilles tendon? To me it was just about the perversity of it all.
Do you see a show like this as part of a larger conversation about the state of race relations in America?
Absolutely. And I think that’s part of its value. I think our country will be a better country the more openly and consistently we address the issue of race. Both sides need to be heard. Black citizens, white cops. White people, black people. All sides need to be heard.
Do you have hopes for where your character will go in the next season?
I really don’t, because to Joe and Misha’s credit, I’ve suggested like eight or ten things, and they’ve nodded very patiently and said “thank you” and then absolutely ignored me. And then the way they went has been ten times better than anything I could have suggested. So I’m going to keep my thoughts to myself. I think they’re just fine without me.