When you first consider the drama that may be invoked with the building of the Union Pacific Railroad, you may not think about the interpersonal issues that surely arose. Ideas like premature death from dangers on the job, exposure to extreme weather, and malnutrition or starvation, as well as politics of the “race” involved between the east and the west. But AMC was able to see beyond the obvious– beyond the stale details we all read in our history textbooks in school. Considering the racial, religious, and romantic relationship issues that would arise when newcomers ride into town and ultimately take over, they have crafted a new hour-long drama meant to challenge how you think about biggest moments in our history. Hell on Wheels will force you to look at the actual people that did the dirty work and how their own lives were changed (for better and for worse) by something that ultimately changed the whole way of the world.
Hell on Wheels will not be a stylized version of a western but instead an attempt to take viewers into the world. The producer joked at AMC’s TCA presentation in Los Angeles that the show is really “almost an eastern, as opposed to a western” because of the part of the world they are focusing on and therefore the “style” of that region. Comparisons to Deadwood may be inevitable, but this show should be able to live and breathe on its own because the characters are so vastly different. In other words, there is no good guy in a white Stetson and bad guy in a black one; all of the characters are complex and have elements of both.
Anson Mount, for example, is a guy looking for revenge on the man who killed his wife. Revenge may not be a noble thread, but when done in the name of love, the line is blurred. But Mount’s character is also an ex-slave owner and Confederate soldier, complicating things especially when having to work semi-alongside African American railroad workers. Common is one such man dealing with religious and racial tensions as the tent city begins popping up around his portion of town in which the railroad is now being laid. He is a freed slave now, but he is mixed race, and his biological father was also his master.
“I feel a true responsibility to be as true as I can to what black Americans were at that time because we suffered a lot of ways but we prevailed at times, too…You think about our forefathers who all built this, whatever nationality they were, it can weigh on you,” Common admitted. “We’re not trying to hide issues that were going on, and that’s liberating in itself.”
Mount, who is from the rural south, shared he was always interested in this time period, but there is a lot that we don’t know about it because as time goes on, details have changed. Research is key for the actors, as well as the writers and producers, therefore.
“There are a huge amount of social issues in this that can be addressed that are still relevant today. By going back you can give yourself a huge canvas that you probably can’t when doing a contemporary show,” series co-star Colm Meaney explained.
Comparing the characters of Hell on Wheels to the New York region of Hell’s Kitchen, the producers promised a lot of diversity to really touch on the way the world was changing at the time. Native Americans, Italians, Norwegians, African Americans and their individual struggles will all be represented.
“What intrigued me the most is the relationship between races wasn’t just black and white; it was between human beings,” Common explained.
And of course that means we will see the good, the bad, the ugly, and everything in between. Through the trials and tribulations of the time, characters will have to come together in ways they never expected, and in the process they will learn about each other and themselves. The result won’t always be positive or “we’re changing our minds about what we think of you;” they won’t shy away from characters butting heads in big ways or being as unpolitically correct as the time period allowed, but that is a true slice of life of the time.
Mixing baptisms with prostitution, healing with corruption, and trying to change one’s life at any cost, Hell on Wheels is sure to be a perfect fit for AMC, the network where “story matters,” come November 2011 (November 6th at 10pm, to be exact).
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