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Common on AMC’s Hell on Wheels, Playing a Freed Slave, and Nineteenth-Century Outlaws

As the White House has pointed out, Common is known for being a "socially conscious" rapper. He rose to prominence in the mid-nineties for bringing African-American culture and minimalist beats into the mainstream's collective awareness. And in recent years, he's made as many headlines for his polarizing ideals (he supported Assata Shakur, who was convicted of murdering a state trooper in 1977, for example) as he has for his music. Now he's starring on AMC's post–Civil War shoot-'em-up drama Hell on Wheels, as a recently freed slave working in a gun-slinging railroad town. We spoke with him ahead of Sunday's series premiere about the challenges of playing a former slave, writing music versus acting, and nineteenth-century outlaws.

Have you watched the show yet?
I only got to see a clip of it. My first look at anything I'm doing, most of the time, I'm just so critical of it, it's not like I'm even watching it.

I'd imagine it is challenging to portray a former slave.
Very challenging. And that's why I took it on. It's a lot of responsibility because what black people went through in slavery, within that system of slavery, was really treacherous. And for me, I felt like I owed it to the people that lived during that time to bring something truthful to the character. And even just revisiting some of the experiences of it, [there] was just a lot of emotion and a lot of pain. At the same time, a lot of strength came from it. What I enjoy most about the character is the fact that he was written so strong, not as just a person that was oppressed and kept his head down.

Were outlaws in the Civil War era more badass than they are now?
I think they were a little bit more to the point at that time. It wasn't as much beating around the bush, even with the racial tension. Really, if they got a problem with you, they gonna let you know, come at you face-to-face and have a shoot-out. That's what it felt like during that time. I was coming across certain stories, there were certain slave masters, they would beat a slave to death and throw him in the woods and just keep going with their day. This is not every master, obviously. But those were the cases at certain times. The point I'm making is the whole position of being an outlaw, or being somebody that was like a gunslinger or anything at that point, it was real truth. It wasn't like you were hiding behind so many things. You just didn't have the comforts of life that we have now.

Your music has always advocated social justice. In this, you and Elam are not all that different.
I definitely can see the correlation since you bring it up. The truth of the matter is, I do speak up for certain social issues. But I think my character, he had even more of an energy for fighting for justice. Because I speak up for a lot of things, but man, your life is in jeopardy when you speaking up during that time. Your life is really in jeopardy. There are certain things that I can speak up for [today] that can jeopardize things — somebody can retaliate against me, against Common, and I do have that courage. But living during that time, just to even say certain things, just being able to express yourself the way Elam is expressing himself … you never know when you gonna die.

In regards to self-expression, how is writing music different than acting?
They're very different. First of all, when I'm acting, I really go into that person. And that's what I'm doing. It's harder for me as an actor to do a lot of other things when I'm doing a role. It's easy for me when doing an album to go write a children's book, to go do speaking engagements and do these other things. But when I'm deep into a role, it's difficult for me to pull out of that role and do other things. Put it this way: Acting for me, it’s more of a time commitment than music. I kinda get one track minded.

Photo: Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic