Rapper-turned-movie-actor Common wasn't looking for a TV role, but something about Elam Ferguson drew him to AMC's new Western "Hell on Wheels."
"I hadn't seen any material written this great for a black character, especially of this time period, and I was so attracted to the role because I felt like, man, this is some depth. There's depth in this human being," the Chicago native said during a phone interview last week. "They wrote Elam Ferguson as a person who was a slave that had been oppressed but [was] very strong and intelligent and had aspirations and was not perfect."
In the 10-episode drama set against the backdrop of post-Civil War America, the former slave Elam is looking for a better life as a free man working on the westward construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. Elam’s patience is tested, however, when he continues to experience the racism that outlasts slavery to this day. He’s angry, disillusioned and distrustful of his white bosses, which include railroad baron Thomas “Doc” Durant (Colm Meaney) and his new foreman, Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount).
The series premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday after “The Walking Dead.”
Common, whose acting career began with appearances on TV shows but who has since done mostly movies such as “Just Wright” and “American Gangster,” called his latest role "a dream come true." The 39-year-old worked hard to bring the character to life, preparing physically in the gym and by taking horseback riding lessons and training with Elam's weapon of choice, a long dagger often called an Arkansas Toothpick.
He also researched the period, the railroad's history and all he could about slavery. Rattling off some of the atrocities of slavery he read about, Common called this his most challenging acting gig to date, but also his most rewarding.
"I get to express what a black man felt at that time, you know? It's just like a frustration that arises. [Elam] has his freedom but isn't totally free," he said. "I feel like I have a great responsibility to our forefathers to be respectful and truthful … It was one of the most fulfilling creative experiences, if not the most, that I ever had."
Born Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr. and raised on the South Side, Common didn’t watch many Westerns and had never spent so much time in wide open wilderness spaces like those on lands of the Tsuu T’ina Nation outside Calgary in Alberta, Canada, which stands in as the American west for the production. Calling the air there “super fresh,” Common said he was taken with the calmness of the area.
That tranquility, however, lasted only as long as he wasn’t filming. As viewers will see in the premiere, the actor and his co-stars spent much of the filming in the mud playing characters that toiled years to build the Union Pacific Railroad from east to west. The actor got so used to being covered in muck that after wrapping Season 1, he joked, being clean just wasn’t a priority.
“You just stay dirty, man. I started really just adjusting to that life and being like, ‘Hey, if I’m dirty so what?’” he said, laughing. “When I came back to LA it was different; [I thought], ‘I ain’t even gonna care about looking like this or looking like that.’”
Common had a more difficult time adjusting to the show’s liberal use of the “N-word.” “I doesn’t matter how many times you hear it, it still hits you. You feel disrespected,” he said.
He supports the writers’ decisions, however. Being a Western set in 1865 when Union and Confederate soldiers mixed with freed slaves, immigrants and Native Americans, “Hell on Wheels” offers up plenty of racial epithets.
“First of all, that’s definitely how people spoke in that time period,” Common said. “It’s still how some people speak, or still have those feelings. They might not say the word, but they have those feelings. I think it’s very important that we put it out on the table, that we don’t sugarcoat it or try to be politically correct. That’s not how you get to good results is by just acting like something doesn’t exist.”
Common’s now back to work on his ninth album, “The Dreamer, the Believer,” which is due Nov. 22. The socially conscious musician says his experience on “Hell on Wheels”—all of his acting experiences—help color his music.
“The more I grow as an actor the more I grow as an artist, too, because I feel more free as an MC to do what I want to do,” he said. “I get loose with the styles more, even just because as an actor you free yourself up. You can’t be inhibited when you’re acting.”