Set in the post-Civil War Reconstruction period with the construction of the transcontinental railroad as a backdrop, AMC's new drama "Hell on Wheels," a 10-week series premiering Nov. 6, depicts how this industrial imperative changed the American landscape forever. But for the production, shot on native land in Calgary, Alberta, the mandate was to preserve the environment in its wild state.
"Much like each and every film we produce, it is imperative that when we shoot on a pristine, untouched tract of land, that we leave it in better shape than when we found it before we set foot on that land," says producer Chad Oakes. "For example, the site chosen on T'suu T'ina Native Indian Reservation for the actual tent town site of 'Hell on Wheels' was put back (seeded) into prairie grass, to ensure we left no scarred earth, tire marks or foot print behind."
"We were one of the first Canadian production companies to use the new Scenecronize System, which digitally distributes scripts and all production paperwork to the crew, network, studio and talent, cutting our photocopy usage down by 500,000 copies on the first season alone," Oakes points out, adding that after realizing that the crew consumed more than 25,000 bottles of water in the first half of the season, "We implemented water coolers and 'bring your own bottle to set' policy to cut down on our plastic bottle consumption."
At a "Hell on Wheels" premiere event in Los Angeles, we learned more about the series from its stars, many of them also doing their part to protect the environment.
Anson Mount was hooked the minute he read the first scene in the script. "I couldn't put it down," says the actor, who plays Cullen Bohannon, a former Confederate soldier who gets a job on the railroad crew while plotting revenge against the men who murdered his wife. "I think that Cullen is a man of substance, a man who can get behind an impossible dream and believe that it's possible to make it happen with hard work," says the Tennessee native, whose great-great-great grandfather served in the Confederate cavalry. He chose to do less personal research, reading Steven Ambrose's book about the transcontinental railroad, "Nothing Like it in the World." While the conditions were dirty and difficult, "Nobody ever said making a Western was a clean affair. I can show you the rings around my bathtub," he says, noting that his next film involves a different kind of dirty business: "It's called 'Cook County' and it's about methamphetamine cooks in East Texas."
Even though he had to dig ditches and fight mano a mano in his physically demanding role as freed slave turned railroad construction gang worker Elam Ferguson, Common calls "Hell on Wheels" "one of the most fun experiences I've had. The weather was crazy but it really put us in that atmosphere." He seized the rare opportunity to play a man "who has so much depth, is so intelligent, so strong, and is at the same time going through the struggles of being a better person" and embraced the emotional and physical challenges of the role. Himself the descendant of slaves, he "didn't deal with my own ancestors" in researching the time period. "I wanted it to be more of where Elam comes from," says the actor, who also voices a rapping papa penguin in "Happy Feet Two," opening Nov. 18 but hasn't forsaken his recording career. He'll follow his new single "Blue Sky" with an album, "The Dreamer, The Believer," in December and he has written a memoir called "One Day It'll All Make Sense," about "the evolution of who I am and how my mother shaped me as a human being." As for being eco-aware, "I turn the lights off more," he says.
Irish actress Dominique McElligott landed the role of widow Lily Bell shortly after moving to Los Angeles in July 2010, and enjoyed her four months filming in Calgary despite the often harsh location conditions and wearing layers of corsets and petticoats. "I love that she's feisty, tough, no shrinking violet. She looks fragile but she's not," McElligott says of her character, who, early on, stitches her own bleeding wound. "The average life span for a woman in 'Hell on Wheels' was 17 months," she reminds. "She's up against all these conditions and has to survive in a man's world." McElligott, now also in the Butch Cassidy tale "Blackthorn" as Etta Place opposite Sam Shepard, is a vegetarian-turned-vegan, recycler and vintage fashion fan. "I want to find some really cute 1930s dresses," she says.
Dublin-born Colm Meaney personifies the greedy, ruthless industrialist as Thomas "Doc" Durant, who's determined to build his railroad to the Pacific no matter the cost. "I get to say things like 'There will be perfidy of epic proportions.' This is one of the best-written and executed things I've done," raves the actor, who has several, mostly contemporary-era films coming up including "The Perfect Stranger" and "Whole Lotta Sole." While he regrets that he must fly often for work, he saves energy in another way. "We're spending more and more time in Spain and we're building a new house there. The solar and wind power there is fantastic. It's going to be off the grid."
Eddie Spears plays Joseph Black Moon, a bright young man torn between his Cheyenne tribe and the Christian way of life he's adopted. "The cultures didn't get along and Joseph wanted to bridge that gap," says Spears, who applauds "Hell on Wheels" for portraying native characters "in an unbiased way. It's raw and in your face and depicts how people didn't understand each other's beliefs."
From the Lakota Sioux tribe, Spears has played native characters on TV in "DreamKeeper," "Into the West," "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" and "Comanche Moon" and has a few more coming up in the movies "Yellow Rock," "Timberwolf" and "The Red Man's View," but is understandably most excited about "Hell on Wheels." A recycler and "advocate for being green," he believes that "entertainment is a great vehicle to use to spread awareness about the Earth, because people treat it so selfishly," says Spears. "I encourage people to go to NativeEnergy.com and see what their carbon footprint is, the emissions that they put out every day."
In a case of art imitating life (or perfect casting), Christopher Heyerdahl is an actor of Norwegian descent who's playing a Norwegian character, a menacing enforcer type called The Swede. "It's a dream role, a fantastic experience," raves the towering thespian, who also plays Volturi vampire Marcus in "Breaking Dawn Part 1," opening Nov. 18. A "total tree hugger," he lives green by using less. "I don't have a car, I ride a bike or walk. If something is wrapped in plastic I don't want to buy it. Plastic bottled water is ridiculous. I have a Sigg bottle."
As the McGinnes brothers — Irish entertainers with an endless supply of get-rich schemes that never quite succeed — Ben Esler and Philip Burke bring a bit of comic relief to the story. "We're always trying to figure out what our next move is," says Burke. The chance to develop a character over time and play someone "that's poor and starry eyed and has big dreams and gradually makes more and more moral compromises in order to achieve those dreams," intrigued Esler, an Australian who was in another epic period drama, "Band of Brothers." "When you're a kid and you want to be an actor, you think about doing Westerns, period pieces, or being a hero in a war movie. I suppose it would be nice to go to work and not come home covered in dirt every day, but it's so much fun. The costumes, the sets, everything about it helps you as an actor to immerse yourself in the role."
Esler admits he probably doesn't do enough to be green but does recycle, as does Burke, an Irishman now living in New York. "I always turn off my lights and completely unplug everything; I don't use more than I need. I have a little flowerbed outside on my fire escape made from old pop bottles."
Photos: Frank Ockenfels/AMC (Common, Meany, McElligott), Chris Large/AMC (Esler & Burke, Heyerdahl)