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

Photo: Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic
Common. Photo: Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic

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.

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.

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