On AMC’s new series HELL ON WHEELS, Sundays at 10 PM, American Civil War Confederate veteran Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) is on the trail of the people who murdered his wife. To that end, he takes a job with the Union Pacific Railroad, working on construction of what will be the first North American transcontinental railroad at the same time he seeks vengeance. The man in charge of this gargantuan rail expansion is Thomas “Doc” Durant, played by Colm Meaney.

Durant may come across as a larger than life figure, but the man is a part of real American history, which is part of what attracted Meaney to the part. Born in Dublin, Ireland, Meaney is perhaps best known for his role as Miles O’Brien in both STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION and STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE 9, and for playing the same character, albeit with three different names, in the movie versions of Roddy Doyle’s novels about the Rabbitte family, THE COMMITMENTS, THE SNAPPER and THE VAN.

ASSIGNMENT X: Most characters are not entirely good or entirely bad, but you very rarely have a character who says, “I’m the villain,” as Durant does in the first episode of HELL ON WHEELS. Is that fun to play?

COLM MEANEY: This guy is fun to play. I think what he actually says is, “I’m prepared to play the villain,” which is slightly different than saying, “I am a villain.” I don’t think he sees himself totally as a villain. He realizes that in order to get things done, dirty deeds must be done. And that’s his rationale, that the ends justify the means and all that sort of stuff. It’s great writing. Just his vocabulary alone is so wonderful. You very rarely see writing like this in any period, but especially today.

AX: So he feels like someone with a simplistic view of the situation might feel he’s a villain, but he doesn’t necessarily believe that’s the case?

MEANEY: Yes. He realizes he has to do cruel things, he has to do nasty things and all that, and he will be seen as a villain, that people will look back and say what a dreadful man he was. But I will build your railroad for you.

AX: Were you looking to do a series at this time, or was Durant just a great part that came up?

MEANEY: I was very aware over the last five years that the best writing, the best scripts I was reading were for television. Most feature scripts are really schlocky. When you look around at what’s been produced in the last five years or so, or even longer, ten years almost, a the quality stuff is in television, it’s very rarely in features. So I was starting to look at more television because of that. And this one just jumped out.

AX: How did you become involved with HELL ON WHEELS?

MEANEY: We had a meeting. They [series creators Joe and Tony Gayton] wanted me to do it and I wanted to do it and we sat and talked on a couple of occasions to make sure that I wasn’t impossible to work with, I guess [laughs]. I think we were coming in on the same page – that was one of the things that made us both say, “Yeah, this is a good idea.” We felt the same way about it.

AX: What was the gist of what they had in mind?

MEANEY: Well, my feeling, having read it, was, this character’s like a throwback – he reminded me of characters I’d watched as a kid. And it was very dialogue-driven, with very, very intense dialogue. It wasn’t just three words every five minutes. When these guys actually talked, they talked a lot and they were very energized, very energetic. And that’s the way I felt Durant was, that’s the kind of character he is. I love that about him. You just don’t see that any more.

AX: Did you have a discussion about what his accent should be like?

MEANEY: Well, obviously, he was American, so I’m playing American. That was not raised as an issue. Historically, he’s from New York. I developed that sort of old-fashioned, very well-articulated Yankee accent, which can be mistaken sometimes for being slightly Southern, but it’s actually a Katharine Hepburn-type accent. It’s very well-articulated always. That’s the way I wanted to go with it and they seem to like it.

AX: In your acting career, you go back and forth between contemporary, naturalistic pieces to historical drama to some futuristic material and some surreal fantasy – I believe you turned into a tree in one film?


AX: Do you have a preference for one genre over another?

MEANEY: I enjoy historical work, because I’m interested in history, I read a lot of history and I do enjoy playing period. Since I was a kid, I’ve read a lot of history. Years ago, I’d read quite a bit about the Civil War period – I thought it was a fascinating period. I was actually kind of surprised – I didn’t think the railroad was started until later, I thought it was more the 1870s, 1880s, so I was a bit surprised that it started immediately after the Civil War. And I also enjoy comedy, I love playing good comedy, but they don’t come around very often.

AX: It seems like there’s a comedic element in HELL ON WHEELS’ Durant, at least in terms of how he phrases things.

MEANEY: Hopefully, yeah. Even with dramatic [characters], you do look for comic possibilities or a comic edge. It’s always there. Even in difficult situations, people very often after the fact see the funny side of them, and somebody observing it might have even thought it was funny at the time. There’s always a little bit of that to be looked for.

AX: Once you’ve got a character, do you like playing them over a straight run, as in a series like HELL ON WHEELS, or did you enjoy going back to the character created by novelist Roddy Doyle with long breaks in between, THE  COMMITMENTS in 1991, THE SNAPPER in 1993 and THE VAN in 1996?

MEANEY: Well, that was a unique opportunity to play the same character in three different features over a period of three or four years – it was a joy. Because when you get a great character like that, you never want to give him up [laughs], you want to do more. I remember, when we were getting to the last few days of shooting on THE VAN, [director] Stephen Frears came to me and said, “Colm, what are we going to do? It’s over and Roddy hasn’t written anything else [about the character].” And we were very sad to let it go, but you also need to know when to let it go. The reason we never did a second COMMITMENTS [a musical that focused on the children of Meaney’s character and their friends] was there was never a compelling script. You don’t just do it for the sake of doing it.

AX: Speaking of roles that lasted a long time, you played Miles O’Brien over seven seasons of STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION and then seven more seasons of STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE 9. Do you still do the occasional appearance at STAR TREK conventions?

MEANEY: I haven’t gone to a convention in a long time. If I’ve done two in the last ten years, I’d say that would be about it. I can’t remember when I did them last.

AX: Is that disinclination, or is that just because you seem to be constantly working?

MEANEY: I’m busy, but I’m happy to show up and talk to STAR TREK fans. I thought it was a good show, it’s a show I’m proud of. For a show doing twenty-six episodes every season, the writing standards were pretty high, I thought. It’s a tough thing, doing twenty-six a year. I have nothing but happy memories of STAR TREK.

AX: Is HELL ON WHEELS taking the same amount of time to make ten episodes that STAR TREK took to make twenty-six?

MEANEY: No. They’re taking the same amount of time that STAR TREK took to make ten episodes. It’s about the same – it’s usually a seven- or eight-day shoot on this, and that’s kind of what it was on STAR TREK.

AX: It seems like this might be a little more arduous in terms of the physicality of the production …

MEANEY: The schedule is very, very tough. Basically, you’re shooting a little movie in seven days, every time. The thing about STAR TREK was, it was a completely studio show, the sets were pre-built, you can knock it out in seven days if you have to. With this show, every episode, with different directors, it’s been a struggle to get done in seven days.

AX: Was there anything you had to learn for HELL ON WHEELS in terms of handling period props or anything else?

MEANEY: Well, I’m back on a horse for the first time in about twenty years. I don’t ride horses for fun, I just do it when it’s part of the job, and it’s been nice, actually. I’ve enjoyed the little bit of riding I’ve done, but that’s really about it. Smoking cigars and stuff like that is like not difficult to do.

AX: Is there a difference in playing somebody like Durant, who’s in charge of a bunch of other people, versus playing somebody who is employed, or somebody who’s off on his own?

MEANEY: Yeah, because I think the stakes are higher [playing an in-charge character] in some ways, especially for this guy in this situation, where he has to make his forty miles [of railroad track]. It comes up in the plot – it’s very important, because he has to make these forty miles by a certain date, or the government subsidy won’t kick in. So if he doesn’t make the forty miles by that date, it’s all over for him, it’s the end of the road. So that explains why he’s driving himself and everybody else so hard. That in a way, going back to the whole deal of being a bad guy, that in a way justifies to him, and to some extent the audience, an awful lot of what he does.

AX: This might be more a question for the writers, but that speech that Durant has about being seen as a villain and his foreknowledge of what will happen in the building of the railroad, was that there partly so they had a summation that could be put in the trailer?

MEANEY: No, no, I think it was very much just a statement of intent on Durant’s part. It’s at the beginning of this epic quest, and he’s in a sense analyzing it for himself as well.

AX: Did you read up on the real Thomas Durant?

MEANEY: Yeah. He’s mentioned prominently in the Stephen Ambrose book [NOTHING LIKE IT IN THE WORLD: THE MEN WHO BUILT THE TRANSCONTINENTAL RAILROAD 1863-1869] that we all kind of used as a bible. The interesting thing is, again, as Joe and Tony [Gayton] mentioned, [the railroad] was Abraham Lincoln’s idea. It was his idea to salve the country, to bring the country together, which was a very noble quest.

AX: Do you feel that HELL ON WHEELS has any resonance with current issues?

MEANEY: Totally. Absolutely. I mean, in a way, this guy is a bit like Halliburton [laughs]. He’s going to milk the government for all he can, the wheeling-dealing that’s going on, the issues of sustainability and industrialization – they’re all questions that are still going on with us today. What are we doing? Where are we going? So I think very much so.


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Article: Exclusive Interview with HELL ON WHEELS star Colm Meaney


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