WALNUT CREEK, Calif. - It might seem strange that AMC, a cable network exalted in recent years as a home for cutting-edge television, would hitch its wagon to something as old-school as a Western. Then again, it might seem even more strange that a hip-hop artist raised in the projects of South Side Chicago, figures prominently in that Western.
In "Hell on Wheels," Common, a Grammy-winning rapper turned actor, plays Elam Ferguson, an emancipated slave who takes a job working with the Union Pacific Railroad. For the role, he had to don dusty period garb, master vintage firearms and learn how to ride a horse.
At one point during production in rural Alberta, Canada, Common and co-star Anson Mount were atop their steeds, filming what he calls a "hero shot." The rap star breathed in his surroundings, considered the improbability of it all, and thought to himself:
"Man, wait 'till the people from Chicago see me doing this."
"Hell on Wheels" whisks viewers back to post-Civil War America and the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. The series examines the railroad's institutionalized greed and corruption, the immigrant experience, the plight of newly freed black citizens during Reconstruction, and the ravaging of the Native American land and people in the name of progress.
It's a sprawling ensemble piece tied mainly to the exploits of Cullen Bohannon (Mount), a bitter former Confederate soldier who goes on a quest to avenge the sordid wartime murder of his wife. Home base for Cullen is Hell on Wheels, a mobile tent city that actually existed. It's a place where violent crime, diseases and prostitution were prevalent.
"(The series) is about dragging this almost urban ghetto across the prairie and industrializing the country," co-executive producer Tony Gayton told journalists during TV's summer press tour.
The series might seem like an odd choice for a burgeoning network that has earned critical raves for out-of-the-box shows like "Mad Men," "Breaking Bad," "The Walking Dead" and "The Killing." Westerns, after all, haven't ridden tall in the prime-time saddle, for decades. Even HBO's widely acclaimed "Deadwood" never achieved more than cult-hit status.
But a closer look at the history of AMC reveals that "Hell" might not be such a huge risk. "Broken Trail," a 2006 Western miniseries starring Robert Duvall, was the AMC's first piece of original programming, and it generated record ratings for the network. Moreover, AMC has traditionally drawn substantial audiences to re-airings of big-screen Westerns such as "Pale Rider," "Unforgiven" and "Dances With Wolves."
Gayton figures the series will naturally draw comparisons to "Deadwood," which also was loosely connected to historical facts. But it's a matchup he dismisses.
"If there are favorable comparisons to 'Deadwood,' we'll take them. That's terrific. I'd love that," he said. "But we really wanted this to look and feel different from any Western you've seen before."
"Hell" certainly doesn't contain the kind of stylized dialogue that the HBO drama did, but like "Deadwood," it is edgy, blunt and, at times, brutally violent - so much so that Mount told TV critics that AMC "is letting us get away with a lot more than I thought. We are taking some risks."
Among those risks is a liberal use of the "N-word," something that took some getting used to for Common, 39.
"I doesn't matter how many times you hear it, it still sticks in your gut," he said in a phone interview last week. "Even if a fellow actor apologizes before you do a scene, there's a certain anger and angst that rises up in you. You feel disrespected and belittled."
Still, Common, who was born Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr., approved of using the racial epithets in "Hell on Wheels," and not just because they were true to the era.
"It's important that you express the truth of what people thought and said. You don't want to sugarcoat it," he said. "Besides, there are still people who feel that way, even though they might not say it. It's important that you put it out there on the table, instead of acting like it doesn't exist."
Common, known for his socially conscious music, is due to release his ninth album ("The Dreamer, the Believer") on Nov. 22. And while he has appeared in several movies, he wasn't necessarily looking to add his first full-time TV role to the resume. But once he got his hands on the script, he was hooked.
"I've never played a character with this much depth," he said. "This is like a dream come true: I get to express what a black man felt at that time - a man who has his freedom, but is not totally free. I feel like I have an incredible responsibility to our forefathers to be respectful and truthful. I wanted to do this the right way."
As for riding a horse, well, that didn't come easily.
"I've never watched many Westerns, and I think the only horse I ever got on was at a little kids' trail ride," he said. "I got the hang of things eventually, but it's not like I got on there and looked like a straight-out cowboy."