One of the many things that I love about Hell on Wheels is that it’s brought actual historical figures into the mix, and one of those is Collis Huntington, played by the always-terrific Tim Guinee, who started the role on a recurring basis in earlier seasons and is now a regular in Season 5. I’m a fan going way back–20-ish years, so I was thrilled to get on the phone with him this week and talk about Hell on Wheels and breathing life into a historically significant character.
When Guinee first came in to play Huntington, he didn’t have a set arc, but given the role the man played in the Central Pacific, he thought the likelihood was there for him to come back. “To the degree that they wanted to bring in the Central Pacific, I had a pretty good shot at continuing,” he laughs. Guinee takes that responsibility seriously, exhaustively researching the role. “It’s kind of a joke in the writers room because I do a lot of research. I think, happily, I’ve discovered a couple of things that have been helpful. John [Wirth] and Anson [Mount] have sent me books. I found something about Strobridge that I told Reg [Rogers]. People share what they find.”
Guinee says Huntington was the equivalent of today’s wealthiest one percenters. “[He] was fantastic. He was wealthy enough that there was a lot written on him, and a lot you can dig up. There are photographs of him. I think after his death, his wife was the wealthiest woman in the world,” he explains. “He owned some art that he donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and [a biography] tried to discount it as something that he did to try to improve his status.”
“I went to the Met and asked to see the art. He donated 181 works, which included Vermeers, Rembrandts, and Rosseaus. The scope and breadth of the art he had is phenomenal He didn’t donate it until his death. He lived with it on his walls. The curator turned me onto this incredible book, The Art of Wealth: The Huntingtons in the Gilded Age. The houses he had were like Versailles. He had a mansion in New York City that stood where Tiffany’s is now. He had these rooms filled with extraordinary paintings. That’s been delightful to discover.”
Guinee has great affection for Huntington because of his many layers, and because he was so complicated. “I love him because he’s this great Gordian knot of contradiction. He was an abolitionist who also sort of a racist. There’s something about the phenomenal greed that Durant and Huntington had, and their associates in the railroad, that’s analogous to today’s 1%. There’s a fantastic anecdote. At one point, he helped create the first Black college after the Civil War and first college for Native Americans, maybe ever. His one requirement was that he be included in financial decisions. He was sent a letter that somehow had a blank piece of paper in it and he was furious [about them being wasteful]. He was that detail-oriented that every percentage of penny was important to him.”
Guinee adds that the accomplishment of the railroad at that point in time resonates for him today, too. “The more I’ve dug into the research, there’s something about the extraordinary greed and extraordinary triumph of building the railroad, [that] if you understand this, you understand how the government works. For all its glory and all its horrific flaws,” he points out. “There’s something in the magnificent triumph of what was accomplished, I feel kind of buoyed by it. When you think about something like climate change, and look back on what was accomplished [then], it gives me great hope. It [also] brought the country together after the horror of the Civil War. There was real unifying factor to the achievement.”
He’s thrilled to be regular this season, and praises the writers and cast for making it a terrific job. He particularly loves the scene that began this season where Huntington confronts Bohannon about his loyalties. “This sounds [trite] but it’s actually true. The writing and across-the-board, the actors are so exciting that I get really, really excited to go to work and do scenes,” he says. “The level of writing is sort of extraordinary, and it’s an extraordinary Western.”
“I was talking to somebody on set who said that calling it a Western is almost a disservice because it’s such a great story of ambition and personal intrigue that diminishing it by [one] genre isn’t necessarily right to do because people either love Westerns or they don’t. The scope is so extraordinary and rangey. The cultural interaction and constant geographic movement doesn’t feel like television to me. It’s gigantic the ambition of the show–in a way that’s really glorious.”
He echoes what we’ve heard from earlier interviews that the Calgary location informs both the creation of a family and the very specific look and feel of the show. “On a location shoot, [the] only thing you have is to focus on the job. You become very close to folks and it’s a wonderful gift. There’s a beautiful ruggedness to Calgary. We were shooting yesterday and there was a gigantic funnel cloud and they made us run out of the set and down to the low point and people were pretty sure it was a tornado.”
“One of the things when you look at Hell on Wheels, especially the exteriors…the shooting schedule is at the mercy of this extraordinary weather. It does things to the show and adds things to the show that you can’t imagine or define probably sitting in a writer’s room. There’s a whole added thing of having the elements. They’re really playing a character on the show. It’s a wonderful gift. Marvin Rush is the DP and he’s extraordinarily gifted.”
I had to ask about the howler monkey line from last week, and he says he can’t remember it having the same effect in the room as it had on fans (including this one), i.e. whether anyone broke down laughing. “People have gone nuts about the line,” he says. “I honestly don’t remember. In TV you work very fast, very hard, and very concentrated. That was the genius of the writers.”
Guinee has been fortunate to work across genres and projects and he says the writing is the big influencer about whether he wants a job to run long or short. “The variety is fantastic. I feel very lucky that folks have let me do [all of these roles]. I’m thrilled that I get the variety. It depends on the writing. It is a lovely thing when you’re on a job for a while because you get to build the relationships,” he explains. “When you come in to do one show, it’s important that you a) do your work, and b) you don’t required anybody’s energy. The regulars have enough to do. I try to keep my head down.”
Guinee graduated from Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, and he’s still engaged with the school, inviting a group of students to a screen his film, One-Armed Man, when he brought it to Houston last year for a local film festival. “That school was a real gift to me, and a lifeline, and a wonderful thing,” he says. “I love it and hold it close to my heart.”
Another thing dear to Guinee’s heart is tightrope walking, which he tried out in college and picked back up later in Los Angeles. He recently put that to practice assisting his mentor, world-renowned high-wire artist Philippe Petit, as Petit trained Joseph Gordon-Levitt to play him in the upcoming Robert Zemeckis film, The Walk, about his 1974 walk between the Twin Towers. “It’s a very weird little passion,” he explains. “I’m not an expert but it’s something I really love and enjoy and find very relaxing.”
One of Guinee’s older projects was Strange World, an ahead-of-its-time, one-and-done series from Howard Gordon back in 1999 (co-starring Motive‘s Kristin Lehman) about a Gulf War vet battling his own mysterious illness and a larger government conspiracy. It’s a drama that I love to this day but ABC didn’t quite know what to do with. After a couple of rerun cycles on Syfy in the early Aughts, it disappeared and has never surfaced online or on DVD. “It was certainly the hope that it would go on [but] Howard’s done fine,” he jokes. “He’s let me work with him time after time and I’ve been grateful to him. I always thought it was slightly early. If it had airedÂ a couple of years later when Anthrax was being mailed round [it might have been received differently]. It was prescient.”
Speaking of projects that have been discovered online, Guinee points to one of his personal favorites, Sweet Land, that fans have discovered and kept going through social media. “I love this movie. It’s beautiful movie. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of in my life,” he says. “Especially in the world of Facebook and Twitter, people talk about, It’s had his long beautiful life it might not have had. I think’ it’s about 10 years old and people are still watching it and I get sweet comments about it. It’s a lovely thing.”
Guinee’s Twitter feed is equally parts HoW and social responsibility, and he says that’s important to him. “Whatever your politics are, whatever your belief and passion is, I think you need to stand up for it, because then we have great conversation,” he shares. “Great conversation is the way to sort things out.”
Hell on Wheels airs Saturdays at 9/8c on AMC.
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