AMC’s Hell On Wheels debuts tonight, joining Mad Men as the latest of the network’s line-up of period dramas. Taking place in post-Civil War America during the construction of the Trans-Continental Railroad, the show focuses on the titular Hell on Wheels, a town that moves with the railroad itself, setting the stage for a historical drama starring Common, Anson Mount, Dominique McElliot and Colm Meaney.
Canadian actor and National Native Role Model Gerald Auger appears as real-life historical figure Pawnee Killer, leader of the Native American resistance, fighting against the approaching railroad. We sat down with Auger to talk about his character, his co-actors, and the show itself.
“Expect true grittiness and truth in the events that occurred in the building of the railroad ,” Auger said. “The reason they call it Hell on Wheels is because as the railroad was being built, they had whorehouses, gambling houses, saloons. People were dying every day, as the railroad was being built. Hence the term Hell on Wheels. The population for Hell on Wheels was one left every day.”
“The themes the show is going to be dealing with are the personal journeys we take in life. Anson Mount, who plays the lead, goes on his own personal journey, taking revenge in his own way… We’re looking at religion, we’re looking at personal journeys, we’re looking at progression–the dark side and the bright side of progression.”
“[Pawnee Killer] is anti-Christian, anti-progressive, and very unforgiving to the encroaching white man, who are desecrating the land… It was very liberating in being able to live history every day, and being a part of it was really a gift in itself.”
Common plays Elam Ferguson, a freed slave trying to establish himself, and Ashon Mount is Cullen Bohannon, a ex-Confederate out for revenge. Meanwhile Colm Meanery is “Doc” Durant, a businessman trying to make money in the shifting alliances of the moving town.
“Common is a very humble, very down-to-earth, goodhearted human being,” Auger said. “Colm is awesome, too, and very happy-go-lucky. Both Common and Colm, Ashon, Dominique, and the other cast members–they were real people, and at the end of the day, they were really appreciating where we all were as actors.”
Like Mad Men, Hell on Wheels emphasizes historical accuracy. The show has a unique focus on the Native American resistance. “[Tony and Joe Gayton, the creators] did their research,” Auger said. “They did all they could to reveal the truth about what really happened to the Native American people, and how that was kind of the beginning of the end for our way of life, in terms of living off the land, and being attuned to Mother Earth, and life in general, really… Hell on Wheels really tries to portray what really, really happened in history. They incorporate storylines that make you really wonder, ‘Where have we gone?’ in terms of humanity… Who we are a hundred years ago is who we are today.”
But the show also doesn’t skimp on excitement and drama. “There’s a perfect balance,” Auger said. “I have to give props to Joe and Tony for writing the series, and David Von Ancken, the executive producer.”
With the character of Pawnee Killer and the resistance, the show focuses on Native American spirituality in a way that other Western shows don’t have. “One of the challenges was creating Pawnee Killer based on the research I’ve done on him,” Auger said. “And trying to portray history as accurately as we can.”
“In episode six, we do a ceremony, and we recreated that. Our ceremonies are very sacred to Native American people, and I actually went into ceremonial mode for the actual scene… On that day, the wind picked up, and the director said, ‘Load those cameras, let’s shoot this. I have never seen this before in the work that I’ve done’…. There’s a level of authenticity.”