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Rapper and poet Common talks to Subhadra Devan about playing a freed slave on the television series Hell On Wheels
HIP-HOP artiste and poet Common finds playing an ex-slave in the television series Hell On Wheels a powerful if “tiring” experience.
“I think the role is very tiring for me because being a black person at the time, you have to be a very strong and intelligent individual to survive that condition — to come out to the railroad to fulfil the dream,” said the artiste over the phone last Tuesday.
Hell On Wheels, to air on Sundance Channel, is an epic drama series about the American West. The story revolves around the construction of the transcontinental railroad just after the American Civil War around 1865.
According to the Sundance Channel press release, “the drama transports audiences back to post Civil War America and examines the struggles and hardships of rebuilding and repairing the country after the bloodiest war on American soil. The series examines the railroad’s institutionalised greed and corruption, the immigrant experience, the plight of the newly emancipated African-Americans during Reconstruction, and the ravaging of the Native American land and people, in the name of progress.”
The series is created and written by Joe and Tony Gayton who also serve as executive producers along with Endemol’s Jeremy Gold and John Shiban.
Says Joe Gayton in a New York Times report: “We want to tell a story about civilisation vs untouched nature. The imposing of civilisation can be absolutely brutal, sometimes more brutal than nature itself. I’m amazed by the tenacity, the boldness and the sheer courage of what people did in order to complete the task at hand. There was death around every corner, but they continued on.”
The series premiered in the US last year, drawing 4.4 million viewers, becoming the network’s second highest original series premiere in its history, states the Sundance Channel release.
Common, real name Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr, plays Elam Ferguson, a freed slave “working to achieve true freedom in a world entrenched in prejudice”.
The release states that “Elam struggles to come to terms with who and what he is, half white and half black”. As he rises to a position of power in the railroad hierarchy, working with former Confederate soldiers among others, he finds trouble, reports state.
For 39-year-old Common, this is his first full-time job in a television series. The usually nattily-outfitted musician who grew up in the poor area in Chicago, says: “I feel a great responsibility to represent and reflect what a black person could be at that time.
“People in the US and all over the world are diverse people. Being one of the characters that is black on the show, I need to take (up) this role. There’s a lot of depth and I knew they (the producers) wanted to develop it into something intriguing.”
Music fans will know of Common from his 2000 breakthrough album, Like Water For Chocolate. That brought him into the public eye as someone who was socially conscious. He was invited to recite poetry at the White House in 2011.
He also does humanitarian services through his Common Ground Foundation.
His first leading man role in Hollywood was in Just Wright, opposite rapper-turned-Oscar nominee Queen Latifah in 2010. He has had supporting roles in American Gangster (2007, with Denzel Washington), Wanted (2008, with Morgan Freeman and Angelina Jolie), and Date Night (2010, with Tina Fey and Steve Carell).
Hell On Wheels is not just an entertaining TV series for Common who told the NYT that “I feel like, in my life and in my career, I needed to be here.”
He says over the phone: “I’ve learnt more. To develop as an actor and sharpen the history. What I enjoy most about the character is that he was written so strong, not as just a person that was oppressed and kept his head down. It’s a powerful experience... to play a slave, (and) to feel the humanity of the person, the intelligence.”
Asked how Hell On Wheels would resonate with an Asian audience, Common says: “I think it would be very interesting for Asian audiences. They would be able to relate to the struggle of the people, just as human beings. They can appreciate the soul that exists in the story writing and characters. Asian audiences would enjoy the action that exists on the show.”
Common stars with Anson Mount (City By The Sea, Cook County), Colm Meaney (Get Him To The Greek, Star Trek: The Next Generation), Ben Esler (The Pacific), and Eddie Spears (Into The West), among many others.
On working with the main cast, Common says: “Anson Mount, he’s a joy to work with, very talented. He’s so into it. I feel like our characters are similar to our relationship off-screen. I learnt a lot from him, we had fun. It took some challenge to work with someone that talented.”
Common also found time to record a new album, The Dreamer, The Believer, which released late last year, while his memoir, One Day It’ll All Make Sense, about his childhood and his music career, was released last month.
The opening track on the album is called, The Dreamer. Common raps about dreaming to do bigger things, punctuating the words of poet Maya Angelou.
Asked if playing a freed slave or the series itself had any influence on the songs, he replies: “Songs in the album? No, I don’t think so.
“Hell On Wheels has influenced my life, but I don’t think it influences the songs really. I didn’t really dig into that type of topic, though I talked about rise to the top, not the depth that Hell On Wheels takes it to.”
The second season of Hell On Wheels is scheduled to premiere in the US in August. Asked how many seasons did he think Hell On Wheels would go on for, Common says: “Pray and believe that it’ll go for like 17 seasons. Yeah, that’s a good number.”
Hell On Wheels premieres on Sundance Channel HD (Astro B.Yond channel 438), at 8pm on Saturday.