Best known for his role as attorney Jonathan Rollins in LA Law, Blair Underwood has secured a successful career on TV and in movies. His films include Deep Impact, Just Cause and Gattaca. On TV he’s appeared in Sex and the City, In Treatment and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
In perhaps his most daunting role to date, Underwood portrays President Elias Martinez in NBC’s new series The Event. The newly elected President discovers there is a mysterious group of detainees, led by Sophia Maguire (Laura Innes) that have been keep hidden since 1944 – and who have barely aged since that time.
You’ve had so many great roles in your career, but I’m pretty sure this is the first time you’ve played the President. How does it feel taking on a role like this?
Laura Innes and I actually did the film Deep Impact (where Morgan Freeman played the President) 15 years ago and at that time there were lots of questions from the press asking, ‘Do you think we’ll ever have an African American president?’ It was unheard of at that time. And now that it is a reality in the world in which we live and we have seen it on television, it’s not an enigma anymore. It’s not even unique.
That said, to play a character that is a leader of the Free World is very exciting for me and especially the way we’re approaching it. The producers of the series said from the very beginning what they wanted to do with this president was not just see him as we would on news stations, but really see the human being behind the office. They’ve done a great job of doing that so far.
What was it about the script that drew you in?
I initially sat down with the producers and discussed what this whole world would be and what was most impressive to me was how much they strategized the seasons.
They’ve thought through the mythology of this world, these characters and plotted out for the first five years, and really clearly the first two years. So what impressed me was their expertise and clarity. Great cast, great pedigree of talent to helm the whole project.
What is The Event?
That’s the overriding question. The way the series is laid out is that there’s a pre-event. The event is something that is to come. It’s all about ramping up to the event. We will see the event at some point and then it’s the consequences and the aftermath of that event.
Is there a timetable? Do you think we’ll see the event before the first season is over?
That’s a good question. We can’t really answer that right now just because we don’t know. If I ask the producers, I can find out but I think it’s quite a fun exercise to figure it out as the characters figure it out. I know they know; I just don’t want to ask.
Can you talk about how you decided to play the President? He seems like a furious person and I’m wondering if you draw on anyone who has been president?
That’s interesting. No one in particular. I don’t see him as furious. This is a man, President Elias Martinez, who was born of Cuban refuges. He’s Afro-Cuban in our story. But he’s a good man morally, ethically and he’s a man of faith and wants to do the right thing.
I think he feels he’s put upon, he’s newly elected and he realizes once he’s in office that there are secrets that have not been told to him that he feels are very important. So I think there’s a certain sense of self-righteous indignation, but not fury or anger for the sake of being angry.
Have you heard from President Obama?
I have not. I ran into the First Lady about a month and a half ago and I told her about the project. She was not aware of it at the time. I said, ‘You haven’t seen all the marketing? You haven’t seen the ads? Come on now.’ She said she’d be looking out for it. But they’re a little busy right now.
Do you believe in any conspiracy theories?
Yes I do. My father was in intelligence at one point. He was 27 years military and so I grew up knowing there were always things that the government knows about that we don’t know about and don’t need to know about.
There are things I don’t think we really want to know about in terms of what goes on in protecting our country or protecting our way of life. So yes, I do believe in some conspiracy.
There are a lot of new shows, what is really special about yours?
The tone of the show has elements of 24 and Lost. To have a political thriller with science fiction undertones is something that obviously speaks to an audience.
24 is gone. Lost is gone. Heroes is gone. FlashForward is gone. So this show, The Event, fills the void and it’s not just tapping into those touchstones and those elements. It really is well done and well written.