There are many reasons to watch Hell on Wheels, a ten-part AMC series set in the post-Civil War period and centered around the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, but Common’s performance as former slave Elam Ferguson tops the list.
“I thought it was one of the greatest characters I’ve come across for an African-American actor, where a character from that time has so much depth, is so intelligent, so strong. Usually when we see Black characters from that time period, they’ve been oppressed so you see that side but you don’t see the other things. Elam went through slavery and was abused, but he’s got a strength and heart about him, and you see that,” says Common, “and his struggle to be a better person.”
Despite cold, wet, and dirty conditions filming on location in Calgary, Alberta and physically demanding scenes that required him to dig trenches and take blows in a brutal fistfight, Common calls the shoot “one of the most fun experiences I’ve had. The weather was crazy but really put us in the atmosphere,” he says. “They told me when I auditioned that it was going to be tough and I said, ‘Man, I’m with it.’”
Although he’s descended from slaves, Common did outside research to prepare. “I didn’t deal with my own ancestors. I wanted it to be more of where Elam comes from,” he explains. He did mine family influences for his new memoir One Day It’ll All Make Sense.
“It’s the evolution of who I am now, how my mother shaped me as a human being and how I’ve grown into who I am now and what I want to spread to the world and give to the world,” he describes.
For the family audience, Common voices a rapping papa penguin in Happy Feet Two, out November 18, and next summer appears in the Disney comedy The Odd Life of Timothy Green. On the recording front, his current single/video “Blue Sky” and next track “Sweet” precede his ninth album, The Dreamer, The Believer, due out next month. “I think we all are dreamers and believers in many ways,” notes Common, who recorded the album with producer No I.D. Compared to his previous CDs, “It’s definitely different. I’m a new person. I’m hungry, I’m enthused, I’m more free as an artist,” he says. “You get the rawest part of Common and the most loving part of Common.”
Hell on Wheels premieres November 6 on AMC.