Although he did a good bit of research for his role as Elam in AMC’s “Hell on Wheels,” rapper Common said some of it came naturally.
“I did a heavy-duty amount of research into our history and the history of African people once we arrived on the shores of America. But I must say some of it is just innately in my soul. I am really connected to this struggle, beyond even any research,” he told AMC.
The series takes place post-Civil War, an era in which enslaved Blacks were free but still highly dependent on White Americans and victim to their whims.
In the premiere episode, Common’s character murders a White man who caused the death of a fellow worker, at the risk of his own life.
“I definitely learned a lot of U.S. history, especially dealing with the struggle of Black people at that time. Just some of the working conditions. A lot of slaves worked from the time that the master blew the horn, when the sun was coming up, to sundown. Sometimes you’d have a five-minute lunch, if that, and then they’d throw it all in this bucket and you gotta eat what they give you. And then you work throughout the whole day, no matter what the weather,” said Common.
Although the actor is channeling a fictional character, Common isn’t able to fake the hard labor that goes into the role. He might be speaking Elam’s words, but it’s his body doing the physical work.
“When you’re out there in the sun, swinging that pickaxe, you’re gonna sweat. When it’s raining and it’s muddy, it’s gonna be harder to walk through the mud. Those natural elements are there. We’re doing the labor and, man, some of the work that people did back then was tough,” he said.
Common, one of the most conscious rappers in the game, said he’d like to believe that he’d speak out against injustice and social ills as a slave the way he does as a music artist; however, he’s not sure.
“I could easily say I would do this and do that, but that’s a difficult place to be in,” he said. “I believe I would fight for my freedom and stand up for what I believe in, but you never know until you’re put in that situation.”
Watch a clip from “Hell on Wheels” below.