Common Discusses ‘Freed Slave’ TV Role & I Used to Love H.E.R. 2010

Versatile emcee Common is defying normal Hollywood expectations by taking a leading TV series role while still nurturing a growing movie career.

Common will star in AMC’s “Hell on Wheels” as biracial freed slave Elam, who struggles to find identity while working on a U.S. transcontinental railroad in the 1860s.

Even with successful movies this year in Date Night and Just Wright, Common was drawn to the complexity and emotional challenge of the role.

“The writing of the show was such quality and the character had so much depth to it. This is one of the best characters I’ve come across regarding reading any script in my life,” Common revealed to Beats, Boxing and Mayhem. “To play a freed slave to represent that time was a challenge to me as an actor. Whether it’s TV or not I just want to be a part of quality things. And being on AMC the season doesn’t last as long so I’ll still be able to do films and tour. That made it even a better situation.”

The concept of a “tragic mulatto” is a stereotypical portrayal of biracial people created in the 19th century by white American authors. Notable traits include despair and suicidal feelings due to being ostracized from black and white communities.

Both Common and AMC are aware of this delicate history and seek to deconstruct the myth by making Elam a dynamic, three dimensional character.

“Common brings a layered intensity to a very complex role,” said AMC programming representative Joel Stillerman. “This part required someone who can transcend the stereotypes of the period and bring the character to life in a truly unique way, and he brings that.”

Common is 16 years removed from his classic single “I Used to H.E.R.,” which drew praise from many and also ire from Ice Cube for a perceived coastal slight.

When asked how much different the song would be if addressed to today’s audience, Common explained some criticism still applies because of Hip-Hop’s continued loss of purity.

“Some of it would still be the same because I think Hip-Hop in many aspects still doesn’t have the purity it had even when I wrote that [in 1994],” Common said. “But I will say it does have some good aspects. So if I was writing that letter now I would definitely say I know you’ve been through the [bad] periods you’ve been through, but I still care about you. I still respect you.”

Using the song’s theme, Common explained that all relationships will have down or dark periods. But those cycles call for understanding and work, not abandonment.

“Everything has to evolve. Hip-Hop might not have gone the direction I always wanted, but that’s part of being a person in any relationship,” he reflected. “[Hip-Hop] or someone might not do exactly what you want, but you have to love them for who they are. I would let Hip-Hop know I still love her.”

This month, AMC’s “Hell on Wheels will shoot its pilot in Alberta, Canada.

Common’s most recent music performance was a headlining set on Saturday (July 31) at Atlanta’s 1st annual One MusicFest.