As the 2012 Calgary Stampede winds down, work continues on the Transcontinental Railroad, or at least the version being built in the fictional world of AMC’s Sunday sophomore drama “Hell on Wheels.”
“It’s hot right now,” says star Anson Mount, calling from the Alberta, Canada, city, “and we’re dealing with the mass confusion that is Stampede.”
Mount plays Cullen Bohannon, a former Confederate soldier trying to escape his haunted past. He has become attached to the traveling community of vice and corruption that follows the Union Pacific Railroad workers as they march across the country on the way to meeting the Central Pacific Railroad and linking the two coasts of the recently reunified nation.
Along the way, Bohannon has forged a link of his own with biracial emancipated slave Elam Ferguson (Common). They may have come from different worlds in the former Confederacy, but their fates are intertwined as the now United States of America struggles to remake itself.
“In a lot of ways,” Mount tells Zap2it, “it’s the most interesting relationship in the series. Cullen ends up having a position for the railroad that Elam covets, and it’s interesting watching how the writers have Cullen deal with that.
“He doesn’t face off with Elam directly. He’s led men before, and Elam hasn’t. He realizes you don’t lead a man by beating him into submission. You lead a man by letting him choose when he comes around and then slowly allow him to take the reins of his own destiny.
“What makes the whole series work in terms of its brand is the fact that you have a huge group of men here who had, only months before, been trying to kill each other or owning each other. Suddenly they’re in a situation where, to some degree, they’re equal.
“When you’re getting paid to heave a sledgehammer, it doesn’t matter what color your skin is or where you’re from; you’ve got to get the job done.
“It’s a really phenomenal framework for a Western.”
Taking a break from shopping in a local health food store, rapper-turned-actor Common sees how the two characters have found a basis for, if not exactly friendship, then a sort of accommodation.
“We’re from different parts of the world,” he says. “We’ve got some similarities, but we’ve got some differences. I don’t know if it’s a bromance, because at the end of the day, [for Cullen] to be a slave master and Elam to be a slave, he’s definitely coming from a different angle.
“But then to find the similarity, to find the connection somewhere, is something in itself, too. Honestly, it represents certain aspects of America, if you think about it.”
Of course, it would be easier for Elam to find Cullen’s humanity if his grief over losing his family didn’t cause him to stuff it so far down.
“He doesn’t let a lot out,” Common says of Cullen. “He’s not that expressive. But intuitive people, and people that have some spirit, can see beyond that. You could see that he has something under there that’s humanity, and I think he wants good for people.
“He’s not a bad guy; let’s put it that way.”
In the Season 2 premiere, on his way to an uncertain fate, Bohannon went from humming to singing “Dixie.” According to Chicago native Common, that’s his Tennessee-born co-star’s only vocal talent.
“I definitely don’t think he can rap,” he says, “but he can sing. Ask him about his singing. I think I might have taught him a little bit, just about hip-hop even more. I think he knows about it, not just hip-hop, but somewhat of black culture.
“He’s been telling me about the southern Tennessee culture, of the white people in Tennessee.”
Told of Common’s assertion about his lack of rap ability, Mount says, “Me? That’s bulls***, because I’ve never tried to rap around him, unless I was really drunk and don’t remember it. I think he’s making a cultural assumption about the Southern boy in the cast.
Asked if this means that he really can rap, Mount declares, “I’m saying, right here, right now, I challenge Common to a rap-off. I challenge Common officially right here. You heard it first.”
But the actors have learned from each other.
“He’s very precise and experienced,” Common says. “I’ve definitely learned from that. By the same token, I enjoy being kind of raw and natural about things, but still prepared, because it allows me to be free with it also.”
“I’m definitely learning from Common,” Mount says, “how to be more intuitive and to be less technical sometimes. I take my work very seriously and at times, too seriously. And Common is really better about enjoying himself and his time on the set.
“He helps me do that as well.”