No twist here: any primetime TV schedule that prominently features Blair Underwood is a better primetime TV schedule. There are plenty of twists ahead for Season 2 of Quantico, however, and they will certainly include Underwood’s Owen Hall, the CIA trainer who will… actually, we can’t tell you much more than that.
But read on, as recent Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. alum Underwood spills a few hints about his character and Season 2’s darker, “edgier” storyline. The L.A. Law alum also talks about whether he plans on joining that classic series’ upcoming reboot, his historical connection to President Obama, and the very special documentary that’s sending him to the White House.
Are you having fun playing this year’s Quantico instructor?
I’m having a ball. I really am. It’s the kind of show that I was looking to do next. It’s fast-paced, it’s got great character development, great relationships, a lot of mystery. Josh Safran, the creator of the show, said to me, “Being the FBI, at least within our show [in Season 1], was all about finding truth and justice and working together as a team, whereas in our CIA [in Season 2], it’s all about deceit, how well you can lie, how well you can keep a lie, how well you can keep a cover. It’s all about espionage and being a spy. It’s about the mission, not the individual or the team, necessarily.” It’s a very different path that they’re taking this season. It’s a little edgier, a little darker than last year, but it’s good. I saw the first episode last night, and we created some good stuff.
I just saw the first episode today, and, first of all, quite a shocking ending. Definitely darker.
Right? I’m glad you saw it.
And I’m sure there are many surprises to come about Owen.
Yes, there are. A lot of the elements that the audience loved last season, you’ll still have, primarily Priyanka [Chopra] and her character and the relationships, the relationship with Alex and Ryan. I think that’s important. People are used to a certain tone or style and certain characters, and it’s important to keep that while the world around Alex may change and morph. Yeah, there are going to be a lot of twists. Already the show is known for the twists and turns and the cliffhangers before every commercial break. You’ll have that in general, and you’ll definitely have that with Owen’s character. He’s got a lot going on, a lot of mystery in terms of who he is, where he’s from, what he’s doing, what he’s attempting to do, why he’s so hard on Alex, what he sees in her. A lot of layers to uncover, which is great fun for me to play.
Because Owen is an instructor, people are going to immediately think he’s this year’s Liam, who did not make it out of Season 1 alive. Should that worry us for Owen’s future?
I don’t know if it’s worry so much… but who knows? They want to keep you guessing, as opposed to doing the obvious.
We shouldn’t assume he’s ultimately a bad guy then?
I don’t know. What I can tell you is I think everybody’s hands are a little bit dirty in this world. What I can do is tease a little bit. The way [the premiere] ends, I dropped my script when I read it. I said, “I can’t believe we are going to do that!” But it’s such a great way to end an episode and leave you hanging. Those last 30 seconds are shocking.
It sets a new tone right away. The stakes seem higher this season. Is that part of what drew you to the show? When we talked to Josh earlier this summer, he said he’d wanted to work with you for a long time, and you were his first choice for the role of Owen.
I have to tell you, Josh had said all those things to me about the direction of the show, and I’m so glad to hear you feel that from watching the first episode. He said that’s what he wanted to do this season, and that’s why I signed on. He said this season is the show he wanted to create. It’s always challenging when you’re creating a show from scratch, finding all the right tones and [establishing] what that world is going to be. I think this is more in line with what he was hoping to create, or definitely the next evolution. I was a fan of the first season. I saw where he wanted to take it. We’re shooting Episode 7 now, and I continue to be excited about where the show, and [my] character, is going. You see even in the first episode they establish a very strong relationship between Owen and Lydia [played by Tracy Ifeachor]. That carries on and goes much deeper and becomes more interesting and more complex.
You have another new show coming up — Give — on NBC’s Saturday morning schedule. I got teary just watching the sizzle reel of the series, which will help viewers get to know a lot of smaller charities that make huge impacts in their communities. How did the series come about?
I am so excited about this show. It premieres October 1, and we will do 26 episodes. This was an idea that was brought to me by my business partner, Gary Reeves. We went to Anthony Melikhov, who founded an organization called Unite4:Good. He’s a phenomenal philanthropist, and he said, “Yeah, I love this, I’ll finance this. I want you to produce it.” I said, “Okay.” It’s about getting a team together: 30 minutes, one celebrity — like Derek Hough — two charities. We see the work the charities are doing, where they may have a need, and by the end of the show we give them some assistance. Jenna Bush Hager is hosting it for us. She’s in every episode. I’ll do at least three episodes as a celebrity ambassador, and I’ll come back and do some deliberations. I tell you, we pitched the show around Hollywood and people said, “It’s a good idea, but how do you make it interesting? How do you make it engaging and compelling and entertaining?” You don’t want to make charity competitive. Our thing is, every foundation is almost a business unto itself. Some work and operate more efficiently than others. Some can use help, whether it’s financial, maybe they need assistance in guidance, how to build and scale a foundation. They’re all doing good work, they’re all helping people. Anyway, it’s one of those projects that is a win-win-win situation for everybody involved. At the very least, they all get some financial benefit, and the exposure is a win for the foundation and the charities.
I have to ask you about L.A. Law. Steven Bochco has confirmed he’s working on a reboot. Would you be a part of that?
I heard that recently, but I haven’t talked to Steven. I don’t know if I could now, because of my ABC contract. It was challenging enough dealing with that [issue] to do Give on NBC. So I don’t know, but I think it’s exciting that he’s doing that. It’s fun. Listen, Steven Bochco and the decision to put me on the show changed my life and my career, and I will be forever indebted to him for that.
Many people think President Obama, and his role as the first black president of the Harvad Law Review, was the inspiration for your character, Jonathan Rollins. But Jonathan was the first black president of the Harvard Law Review in TV land, before President Obama was in real life, right?
That’s true, that’s very true. I had met [Barack Obama] because the law school at Harvard had invited some of the producers from L.A. Law and myself to come to Harvard to speak to the law school students.
Had you followed his political career after Harvard, before he became a presidential candidate?
No, I had no idea. He made a comment in The New York Times [about the similarities between him and Jonathan Rollins], and The Times called my manager and relayed the story, and it hit me then. I said, “That’s that guy with the big ears, that’s the same guy from back in the day.” Who knew?
Have you had a chance to spend time with him since he became president?
Yeah, I went to his first state dinner in January 2009, which was with the Prime Minister of India. It’s interesting… now I’m finally getting to know about India and the Indian culture while working with Priyanka Chopra.
I’m going to the White House, actually, next week if all goes well. There’s a film I executive-produced called Olympic Pride, American Prejudice. We all know about Jesse Owens in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, that he won four gold medals, but there were 18 African-American athletes total there, and nobody knows about these other people. I was able to narrate and executive produce with Deborah Riley Draper, who wrote, directed, and produced this incredible documentary. Long story short, those African-American athletes were never invited to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s White House. Olympians are always invited to the White House. So President Obama, next Thursday, is going to honor those athletes posthumously. They have all passed away, but he’s going to honor their families. It’s extraordinary. All 500 Olympians from this year will be there, too, and he’s going to do a special honor for these [1936 Olympics] athletes. I think there’s a new award called the Jesse Owens Spirit Award. To see these family members, watching their fathers and grandfathers on the screen when they see this documentary… a lot of that footage they had never seen before. It’s profound what Deborah Riley Draper has done in dusting off these individuals’ stories. So I will be there for that, and I will see [President Obama] again.
Quantico Season 2 premieres Sept. 25 at 10 p.m. on ABC. Give premieres Oct. 1 at 11 a.m. on NBC.