The history of slavery in America is a history of resistance, rebellion. Yet, movies and TV do not always showcase those themes.
That’s one reason why Common is excited about AMC’s new series, “Hell on Wheels,” a Western that chronicles the building of the transcontinental railroad.
Common plays mixed-raced former slave Elam Ferguson, who works on the rail system. Portraying a slave, he says, is a big deal, particularly because his character defies the stereotypes often seen in films and television.
“A lot of times we’ve seen slaves obviously going through so much pain and trouble, they were oppressed and downtrodden, so it was more of a lower position. (My character) has been through a lot of things, but is holding his head up high and his shoulders are up strong,” says Common, who was born Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr.
At first, Common says he wasn’t interested in a TV role, but then his agent suggested he read the script for “Hell on Wheels.” Common says it’s the first time he has played a character so complex.
The Grammy-winning entertainer researched by reading about African slaves of the 19th century and visiting former plantations in South. He calls his journey “deep” and “heavy.”
“I feel blessed that I’m able to represent what a black man, what a black person was at that time,” he says, “but it definitely was some weight and some pain.”
One experience in filming the show, though, was really difficult for Common: when white cast members used the N-word.
“Even if you try to think that they’re acting, it still just doesn’t feel right,” he says. “You get that feeling like, ‘Man, this is not good.’”
The series, which airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET, was filmed in Canada. It centers on Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), a former Confederate soldier and slaveholder who is avenging the death of his wife. Bonhannon set his slaves free a year before the Civil War. He takes a job overseeing the workers on the transcontinental railroad, which includes Elam Ferguson (Common).
Common, who appeared in “Smokin’ Aces,” ‘‘American Gangster” and “Terminator Salvation,” and does a voice in “Happy Feet Two,” says the show focuses on issues that still exist in today’s world.
“Things that we try to hide and put under the table, things that we act like, ‘Oh no, that’s not how I feel’ – some of that is still there from hundreds of years back. It’s still in us and we’ve got to remove it,” he says. “Along with it just being entertaining and being fresh – it’s an important show.”