On the new AMC Western series Hell on Wheels, actor Colm Meaney plays Thomas “Doc” Durant. Based on a real life character, Durant is a rich entrepreneur taking full advantage of the changing times, as he becomes more and more concerned about his place in history.
During this exclusive interview with Collider, Colm Meaney talked about how he thought the pilot for Hell on Wheels was one of the best things he’s ever read, how good writing is very easy to learn and perform, that Durant is a man on a quest, and how show creators Joe and Tony Gayton have been a tremendous help in the research for the time period. He also talked about another historical story he’s a part of, with the drama feature Bel Ami (starring Robert Pattinson, Uma Thurman, Kristin Scott Thomas and Christina Ricci), what it’s like to have been a part of Star Trek (with The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine), and why he loves returning to the theater. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
COLM MEANEY: This pilot was being circulated last summer, and the word in town from everybody was that it was a great pilot. They asked me to have a look at it and I did, and I thought it was one of the best things I’d read, possibly ever. It reinforced my belief that the best writing today is in cable television. It really is, from a character’s perspective. The film scripts you read are schlock, compared to cable. It was very exciting. They wanted to meet with me, so we did and we both said, “Fantastic.” They wanted to make sure I wasn’t impossible to work with. I just said, “I’d love to do it,” and they said, “We’d love to have you,” so away we went. I usually read a script from an audience perspective first, and then look more closely at the character. With this, it was a complete page-turner. It was fantastically entertaining. And then, specifically looking at the character that they wanted me to play, it really got my juices going. You don’t see writing like this, nowadays. The vocabulary he uses is just fantastic. There was no hesitation.
MEANEY: That’s Tony and Joe’s great writing. You never feel like it’s exposition. It doesn’t feel that way reading it, it doesn’t feel that way playing it, and hopefully it won’t feel that way for an audience either. There are so many burning issues to be dealt with that it’s completely understandable and natural that a character is struggling with these issues themselves. In that struggle, you inform the audience. The thing about this writing is that it’s very easy to learn. Good writing always is.
What can you say about Durant and how he fits into the story that’s being told this season?
MEANEY: The story is about the railroad and the building of it. Anson Mount’s character (Cullen Bohannon) comes to the railroad because of his quest for revenge on the people who killed his family. He knows that a number of those guys are working on the railroad. Durant owns the railroad. It’s his baby. The stakes are huge for him. As the show develops, the relationship between Durant and Cullen, and Durant and Lily (Dominique McElligott), and Common’s character (Elam Ferguson), as a very smart, free black man who is very literate and who reads. There is potential there for all sorts of different relationships to develop. With Cullen, even though he comes to take a laboring job on the railroad, he was an officer in the Confederate army and he owned a plantation, and Durant spots right away that he’s not your average laborer. There’s potential for Durant to use Cullen. Durant is always looking at people for how he can use them and what they have to offer his project. He’s prepared to put up with a lot of negatives, if it’s useful to the project.
MEANEY: I don’t see him as a villain, at all. He’s certainly not a straightforward villain. I don’t even think it’s necessarily about greed with him. Greed is there, of course, and I think he probably was a greedy businessman to begin with, but this goal is something he’s driven to do. It’s the equivalent of going to the moon in the 1860’s. He’s on a quest. It’s become more important to him than the money. You become aware of that, as time goes on. That’s the way it felt to me, even in the pilot. He realizes that he has to make money and bribe people, and there has to be all sorts of chicanery going on, in financial terms, but ultimately, it’s to achieve this goal he has, and to be the first one to do it.
How collaborative was the process in developing your character?
MEANEY: As we get the scripts, it’s a joy to read them. The way it’s developing and the way the characters are interacting is just such a pleasure. You make the odd line change, here and there, to make it more playable, but that’s very rare. Usually, it’s easy to learn this dialogue because it’s so well written. And either Joe and Tony is usually there on set, all the time. If we have any questions, of any sort, we deal with them right there. We don’t have to wait for a phone call to be made to Los Angeles. They’re there, and that’s great.
MEANEY: They’re both important. Tony and Joe have done a huge amount of research to write it, and they pointed us in the right direction, in terms of reading material. There’s the Ambrose book about the building of the railroad. We’ve all read and referenced that. But also, on a day-to-day basis, getting there and getting into the costumes helps. When you walk through this tent city, it’s incredible. We’re in the middle of nowhere and this strange village, city or camp is incredibly atmospheric. That really helps, too. I would love to be able to shoot this in L.A. because it gets very complicated, having to spend time there with a house here and a house in Spain, and my little one going to school in Spain. We’re stretched thin as it is, and now we have to go to Calgary as well. I said, “Can’t we shoot on the Warner Bros. ranch?,” but they said, “Don’t be ridiculous! We’re going to get this sky and this landscape.”
You have another period piece with Bel Ami coming out. Do you enjoy doing that type of work?
MEANEY: It’s interesting because I haven’t done a lot of period work in the past, but I always wanted to because I’m interested in history. Also, as an actor, my background is in the theater and I feel that my strong suit is period work, but I actually didn’t do much of it at all, until the last three or four years. I’m loving it!
MEANEY: It takes place in France, in the last 1870’s and 1880’s, with all the shenanigans and wheeling and dealing going on in the business world. The story is about this young man who gets out of the army. He was an officer in the army and he goes to Paris to get a job, but he’s not doing too well. He’s down on his luck. And, he meets a friend of his who was an officer with him in the army, who works the press, and he gets him a job on the newspaper he works for. And then, he meets this guy’s wife, and he meets the wives of the editors, and he ends up having relationships with all these woman, and basically screws his way to the top. That’s the story.
It was a great cast. The three women were Kristin Scott Thomas, Uma Thurman and Christina Ricci. And, Robert Pattinson is terrific. He’s a very, very good young actor. For him, it was an important step away from the whole Twilight thing. I think they’re having some post-production questions about it, so it’s taking a lot of time to come out, but it was such a pleasure to do. Kristin Scott Thomas is such an actress. What an amazing actress. My character is married to Kristin.
Do you still get people coming up to you, all the time, about your work on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine? What’s it like to have been a part of something like that, that people will always remember?
MEANEY: It’s kind of odd. Yes, the people who watch Star Trek knew you from that, but it was like it was two different groups of people. I’d meet people that knew me from features that I did, and didn’t even know I did Star Trek because they didn’t watch it. It was almost like Star Trek was a world unto itself. But, it was a great show. We had seven good years, a great bunch of guys, and pretty good writing, for the most part. We did 26 episodes a year, which is a lot, but it was pretty good writing, for the most part. It was a pleasure. It was a great show to do. It’s been 10 or 11 years since we finished the show, and I’ve moved on a lot from there and done a lot of different stuff, but it was an iconic show, so it’s bound to stick in people’s memory.
You seem to effortlessly transition between comedy and drama. Do you prefer one over the other?
MEANEY: I love doing comedy. You don’t get many good comedy scripts. They’re rare. But, I do love playing comedy. Even in drama, I like to try to find the humor because I think it’s very human. Even in the depths of dreadful situations, there’s usually something rather comic, or something you can laugh about afterwards, at least. So, I do look for the comedy in those things.
Why is theater still so important to you?
MEANEY: I do a play once every seven years or so. I love the theater, but it’s very difficult to balance. It’s a huge commitment to make. The last theater I did was A Moon for the Misbegotten, with Kevin Spacey in London at the Old Vic, and then we brought it to Broadway. I did that with the wonderful actress Eve Best, who’s now on Nurse Jackie. I loved doing that. It was great. But, eight shows a week with a big, heavy part is tough. It’s a bit like work.