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US TV Interview

Colm Meaney 'Hell on Wheels' Q&A: 'It's a terrific experience'

By and Clarissa Place
Colm Meaney

© WENN

Western drama Hell on Wheels makes its UK debut on TCM (Sky 317, Virgin 415) this week - the series, starring Anson Mount and rapper-turned-actor Common, is set in 1865 and comes from AMC, the cable network behind Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead...

Digital Spy spoke to star Colm Meaney - who plays ruthless mogul Thomas 'Doc' Durant - about the success of Hell on Wheels in the US, his battle against the elements and what the future holds for the show...

For a new viewer, how would you describe Hell on Wheels?
"I sort of shy away from the Western [description], which immediately puts it into Deadwood territory. It's a fascinating story of historical events that happened in the West, that's how I would describe it. With extraordinary characters, most of whom are historically accurate but are actually larger than life."

What can you tell us about the character that you play?
"I play Thomas 'Doc' Durant who is one of the more real characters from history. He started out life as a doctor - an eye doctor - which I didn't think existed at the time. Barbers were still pulling teeth in those days, you know! But he really quickly shifts over into finance with a Wall Street guy, various investment schemes...

"During the Civil War, he was in the blockades running for the South helping to export cotton, things like that. In Hell on Wheels, it's the start of the Civil War and he has decided to attempt what people think is impossible - the connecting of the East and West Coast by rail.

"At the time the only way to get from New York to San Francisco was either wagon train - which took months and months - or by sea - which also took months and months! You had to go all around Chile and then back up the Pacific.

"So when we meet him at the beginning of the series he's a guy with a lot of history, shady dealings, but he's kind of on a mission."

Hell on Wheels, Colm Meaney

© AMC



Do you personally see Durant as a villain?
"Well, you try to find some... not necessarily redeeming features, but certainly humanising aspects of him, and even in the writing of show, by episode five or six, you start to see that he does have feelings.

"He is a very greedy guy but his motivations aren't just money - his motivation is to be the first to build this railway. At the time it was considered as huge as going to the moon in the 1960s was. So he is desperately on this quest to be the guy - the first one to do it - that's the important thing."

Are there aspects of the character that you admire?
"Yeah, he's terribly driven. The speech he gives at the end of the pilot episode... I mean, he is slightly drunk, but it's an incredibly lucid and clear and unemotional analysis of himself - he talks about his place in history and he talks about what he does.

"He's very aware of what he does - that he frequently mistreats people - but his argument is that the end justify the means, that without doing these things we would never get this railroad built. He also says that history will not remember him and people like him well, but without them again the railroad would not be built."

As you mentioned, a lot of Hell on Wheels is based on real history and your character is a real historical figure. Did you research the real Durant?
"Very much, we read about the real guy and what he was up to and what he did. All those plots that I explained there came from the history books and the research, they're all documented."

Did you feel like that research was an important thing to do?
"Yeah, I mean the good thing about this [role] is that sometimes if you're playing an iconic historical character, you have to try and look like him and sound like him, if people are familiar with him.

"Fortunately this guy... he's not that well known. People don't remember what he looks like, what he sounded like, so that wasn't an issue. But in finding the kind of character he was, it's immensely useful to see photographs of him - to see how he stood. He had a way of going about his business."

Hell on Wheels, Colm Meaney

© AMC



Did you do any deeper research into the period in general?
"We've all read numerous histories of the building of the railroad - it led to a few disagreements and arguments because people took a famous anecdote from one book and put it up against another! There's actually quite a lot of historical work on the period. I read a bunch but I didn't read everything."

It seems like the production team have gone all out to recreate the period - what was your reaction to all that work?
"It's wonderful, it's a show we're all immensely proud of and anybody can see why. It's beautifully filmed and the art department have done an amazing job. When we saw the pilot episode, we saw it on a big screen in a cinema.

"It truly has feature-film production values - it doesn't look like a TV show, it's very rich and authentic. It kind of reminded me of [1980 Western film] Heaven's Gate when I saw it, because of this prairie landscape.

"They've really done a first-rate job - both AMC and Endemol work really well together. There are two writers, Tony and Joe Gayton, and they're geniuses, because they give us this dialogue every week. I haven't seen the vocabulary they use or anything like it outside of literature. It's very rare."

How was the whole filming experience of shooting the first season? You had a bit of trouble with the elements...
"Yeah, we have an extraordinary wet May and early June. We had really torrential rain which is unusual for that time of the year up there, but it turned the whole Hell on Wheels camp into a swamp - it was pretty rough. Then we hear that back in Los Angeles they love the rain!"

Have you been pleased with the reaction to season one in the US?
"Yeah, it's a great response. AMC do a great job with their other shows - Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead are phenomenal - and we've been fortunate to be on a great network like that, who do a good job.

"They certainly got the show out there and supported it and the initial response has been great. It's been a long time since I've done television - you do a feature film and it usually comes out a year and a half, two years later...

"But with this, you could be going through an airport or a supermarket and people are coming up and saying, 'It's a great show' - so the immediate response is great."

The show has already been picked up for a second season. Did you expect it to be renewed?
"It had done very well, everybody was happy with it and the numbers were great, so we kind of did expect it, I suppose. We would have been shocked if it wasn't picked up.

"We're extremely happy about it, it's a terrific experience. From the network to the studio to the producers, it's been great people to work with. It's a great cast, we get on well and we're all very happy to develop it to the next level."

Hell on Wheels begins on Sunday, May 20 at 9pm on TCM (Sky 317, Virgin 415).
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