Even if you missed the premiere of AMC’s Hell on Wheels last night, you’ve probably seen the photos of Common looking considerably less smooth than usual. As freed slave Elam, he’s got a seriously scraggly beard and some of the dirtiest clothing this side of The Walking Dead‘s zombie wardrobe. VH1’s Melissa Smith sat down with the rapper/actor/controversial White House guest last week and asked if he and his castmates are just a wee bit jealous of the cast of that other AMC period drama, Mad Men.
“They get to be all fresh and get the Banana Republic endorsements — I wonder what type of endorsements we gonna get!” Common laughed, though he admitted that growing his beard out was kind of liberating. “At a certain point, I wasn’t even thinking about how I looked. It was like, you’re in Hell on Wheels; this is not pretty. This is dirty, this is rugged. I was walking around bearded, dirt, bugs be around, horses taking dumps. You just get immersed in the world of Hell on Wheels.”
While he was gaining this tolerance for 19th century conditions, Common said he also gained a new perspective about what America was like in the much mythologized Wild West of 1865.
“I hadn’t watched a lot of Westerns [before this],” he said. “To me the Western was just the backdrop. You’re really dealing with all these people, dealing with issues that we dealing with today: the back and forth of relating to human beings and being from different races and different walks of life. It’s really dealing with the American dream and the pursuit of that. … When you do pursue it? What do you have to give to get it?
“I didn’t know to the extent of how bad slaves were treated,” Common added. “I knew certain things, but getting to know certain stories was really bad. But I also didn’t know that it wasn’t all just black and white. … I pictured it as black man against the white man and that’s it, but it was a lot of different complex relationships that happened in those days.”