Hell on Wheels, 1.05 - Dominique McElligott and Colm Meaney
Episode 1.05 "Bread and Circuses" - Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott) and Thomas “Doc” Durant (Colm Meaney) © 2011 AMC

In AMC’s popular new western Hell on Wheels, Anson Mount (Straw Dogs) portrays Cullen Bohannon, a former Confederate soldier who, following the Civil War, is out for vengeance against the Union soldiers who murder his wife. Irish actor Colm Meaney (Star Trek:Deep Space Nine, The Conspirator) plays Thomas ‘Doc’ Durant, an investor in the transcontinental railroad, and hip-hop artist Common portrays Elam, a freed slave who is working on the railroad, under Cullen’s supervision.

The three actors spoke with us about the thrill they feel to be filming a western.

Colm, you’ve spent an awful lot of time dwelling in this period between this and The Conspirator. Not being American, how much did you know about the period coming in and what have you learned about it either through research or just from ‘living there?’

Episode 1.07 "Revelations" - Thomas “Doc” Durant (Colm Meaney) and Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott) © 2011 AMC, Photo by Chris Large

Colm Meaney: I’ve always felt drawn to this period. I like history, and I read a lot of history, and I wanted to work in this period. It’s just coincidental that The Conspirator and this came up at the same time. But careers tend to go like that.

We each do our own research and find little bits of information, and it’s a fascinating, great period in history to be dealing with. This period had these great characters that you don’t see in modern scripts very much. They are larger than life, and as an actor I felt this kind of writing doesn’t happen anymore. This character, Durant, is just a wonderful, epic kind of character to get your teeth into.

What’s the benefit to have this on AMC?

Anson Mount: The network is really letting us get away with a lot more than I thought [they would]. We are taking some risks and doing some stuff that I didn’t not think, even on cable TV, that we really would be able to push the boundaries on.

Common, your character even though he’s a free man still is working for a slave master, so to speak, did the racial attitudes after the Civil War surprise you?

Episode 1.07 - Elam Ferguson (Common) © 2011 AMC

Common: I can’t really say that it surprised me, because when you look at history, you still saw a lot of prejudice and racism going on up until the Civil Rights [movement], up until present day sometimes.

What I thought was very interesting and what intrigued me the most was the relationship between races wasn’t all just black and white. Tony and Joe (Gayton, the series creators and producers) said something to me about how even my character and Cullen would relate. And I was like, ‘Man, I didn’t even think black and white people related that way during those times. But there were some relationships that existed.

My character is a freed slave who is of mixed race. So his father was his master. That’s already confusing. Elam’s out there in a landscape where they are saying we have freedom. He can read. He read the Emancipation Proclamation, but it’s not being practiced. So he has to keep trudging on and trying to create this environment where he can be seen as a human being and as a free person.

There are relatively few period dramas being made right now. As a actor is it very freeing and liberating, or is it a lot of extra work to immerse yourself in this unusual world?

Episode 1.05 "Bread and Circuses" - Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) © 2011 AMC

Anson: I’m from the rural South, and the interest in this period borders on religious, and I’ve been paranoid that I’m missing something. But there’s a point at which people really don’t know; the accents have changed, the way of speaking has changed. Manners have changed. There’s a tremendous amount of source material.

Common: It’s definitely liberating, but I feel a true responsibility to be as truthful as I can to what black Americans were at that time, because we suffered a lot of things, and we also prevailed in a lot of ways. Sometimes when we get to do this work you go home and you feel emotionally drained.

I love the way that Joe and Tony and the writers have put things on the table. It’s not like we’re trying to hide issues that were going on there. And that’s liberating in itself, because I think we have a tendency in many places to be politically correct all the time and it’s like we’re hiding what’s the truth, and the truth will set you free.

Colm: I was thrilled to get a chance to work in this period of history. Everybody who read this pilot was very excited about it. As actors we saw the potential in these characters and the brilliance of the writing,.

Science fiction, which I’m not really a huge fan of, having spent seven years in a spacesuit I learned to appreciate while I was doing Deep Space Nine that they actually could address many issues in a way that contemporary television probably couldn’t. And in a funny way, by going back, we can do the same thing.

As Common was talking about, there are the issues of not just black-white race relations, but Italian-Irish, Irish-Polish, all these things. People tended to group together, so there’s a huge amount of social issues that can be addressed in this that are still hugely relevant today.

Common, can you and Anson talk a little bit about your relationship in this?

Episode 1.05 "Bread and Circuses" - Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) and Elam Ferguson (Common) © 2011 AMC

Common: My character is like, ‘Man, I’m taking this opportunity to try to change my life, and then here it goes again.’ Cullen represents that, ‘here it goes again.’ This guy is the boss who is no different than a slave master, in my eyes in certain ways.

But there’s something there that I respect about him at a certain point. I see our relationship evolving in each episode as things happen, but we’re still not buddies. There’s still that tension that exists. It’s like when you like someone, you have a certain affinity to them, but at the same token there’s still some walls up.

Anson: Yeah, I think it would be a mistake if you fell into the PC groove of, ‘Oh, the white guy and the black guy are going to be buddies now.’ We’ve been making Silver Streak jokes on the set. That really would not be the way to go.

I wouldn’t say that Cullen is operating out of guilt. I think that he’s as very practically minded man. And that’s just the way of the world, and he’s not going to apologize for it. And because of their different agendas and their different personalities, I don’t think that Cullen is so used to such an outspoken black man.

I don’t think Elam really cares one way or the other how Cullen feels. So I think that we end up butting heads in a way that you haven’t seen before.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter. More by Judy Sloane