Damian O’Hare, who plays Declan Toole on AMC’s Hell on Wheels, compares the show’s themes to Shakespeare and talks about bonding with fellow Irishmen Phil Burke and Colm Meaney.
Q: You’re a big Western fan. What’s your favorite thing about the genre?
A: Most of the universal themes in Westerns are actually very Shakespearean, like revenge and love. Also, the settings and the new land — it’s so epic and vast. It’s beautiful territory where everyone is finding themselves in this brave new world. It lands itself in such great storytelling — and of course, with Hell on Wheels, it’s a true story as well.
Q: You appeared in Hatfields & McCoys, another Western period drama. Did that help with your work on Hell on Wheels?
A: It did, and it was great in terms of research. It was the same time period, when the war had just finished, so it’s the same people trying to live their lives amidst this newfound democracy.
Q: Did you know about the history of the Irish on the Transcontinental railroad before Hell on Wheels?
A: I was familiar with it, but not to the encyclopedic level. It was great to delve into that more and get to know the conditions these men worked with. The framework is so meticulously researched [by the production], so you can just do your job and not worry about historical inaccuracies.
Q: Were you aware of the Irish custom of marrying your brother’s widow?
A: To be honest, that one had passed me by. I was surprised, but it did exist. It was something called “levirate marriage.” In Latin, “levir” means husband’s brother. I think it had a lot to do with making sure the widow was financially supported afterwards, and so was the child. It was a very noble thing to do.
Q: Did your own Irish heritage affect your approach to playing Declan Toole?
A: I’m from the North; I’m from Belfast. Duncan Ollerenshaw (Gregory Toole) was doing a Southern Irish accent. I tried to match his as close I could. It helped having heritage and having friends from the South of Ireland as well. It was quite easy to tap into. I must say the writing was very good. Sometimes when you’re doing an Irish accent, the writer hasn’t quite gotten the speech patterns or the rhythms down, but everyone on this show had gotten it bang on.
A: We did. It was a great experience. Certainly the Irish drank one or two pints of Guinness some nights. That helped bond us together!
Q: Tell me about shooting the scene where Psalms kidnaps Declan and beats him up…
A: It was very intense. Dohn [Norwood] and I tried to keep ourselves in the moment as much as we could. We would work 5 or 10 seconds before the cameras actually started rolling. Working with Dohn was incredible… It was great fun, though exhausting. I threw myself into the railroad cart and, of course, you always forget that you have to do this four or five times in a row. My shoulder didn’t thank me for it the next day.
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Q: Did you have to practice using the billy club to make it look realistic?
A: Normally, I carry one anyway in Los Angeles. [Laughs] No, that was a stuntman, the guy I was working with, and it was a rubber club. He actually said, “Strike me as hard as you can in the back.” Of course, it’s against your nature to do that, but he was padded up and it was fine.
Q: Do you find people are sympathetic to Declan?
A: I think so. A lot of people were sympathetic to [Gregory] Toole at the end, when his demise came. When [Declan] first arrives, he has this confrontation with Elam. So, you think, “Here’s another hard-knock coming into town,” but he’s actually got noble and moral intentions. It’s great that for the first few episodes, you’re thinking, “Is this a bad guy? Could he have stolen the baby?” That’s part of the complexity of the character. He’s not just one-dimensional.
Q: Think we’ll see a spinoff series, Declan & Rose?
A: One man and a baby? I could see that. [Laughs]