*This Sunday at 10 p.m., AMC will try to match the popularity and critical acclaim given their original dramas “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad” and “The Walking Dead” with its newest offering, set in America’s post-slavery Reconstruction era.
“Hell on Wheels” uses the building of the transcontinental railroad to reflect the era from several points of view – among them, Thomas “Doc” Durant (Colm Meaney), a greedy entrepreneur taking full advantage of the changing times; Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), a Civil War veteran hell bent on avenging his wife’s death and Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott), a newly-widowed frontier woman having to survive in a man’s world.
And then there’s Elam Ferguson, a former slave out to make something of himself by working alongside other freed slaves on the ambitious railroad project. As previously reported, rapper-actor Common takes on the role of Elam, a mixed-race, defiant man who soon realizes that true freedom for the African American does not come automatically along with Emancipation – particularly since his railroad boss, Cullen, is a former confederate soldier…and one-time plantation overseer.
“My character is like, ‘Man, I’m taking this opportunity to go out here and try to change my life, and then here it goes again,” Common said during a press conference for the show. “Cullen represents that ‘here it goes again,’ like this guy is the walking boss who is not too much different than a slave master, in my eyes, you know, in certain ways.
By the end of Sunday’s pilot, Cullen and Elam find they have something in, well…common. “There’s something there that I respect about him at a certain point,” Common explains. “I see our relationship evolving in each episode as things happen, but it still is not, like, oh, we’re buddy-buddies. There’s still that tension that exists. It’s like, you know, you like someone, you have a certain affinity to them, but at the same token there’s still some walls up.”
In the audio below, Common explains why he feels the role of Elam comes with “a responsibility to be as truthful as I can to what black Americans were at that time.” [Scroll down to watch a video about Common's character, Elam.]