Tom Noonan, who plays Reverend Cole on AMC’s Hell on Wheels, talks to AMCtv.com about converting weakness into strength and why acting is a lot like playing Bach.
Q: What do you enjoy most about playing Reverend Cole?
A: I’m just up there being personal… Acting is great when it’s really personal and when the audience sees somebody who is really there.
Q: Since acting is so personal to you, what kind of internal reality do you try to bring to a show like this?
A: I’m just looking to talk about what it’s like to be alive and what my experience is, in the frame they’ve provided… It’s the same as if I were to learn a piece by Bach, for example. My experience when I played piano is that when you learn how to play a piece so well you can actually sit back and watch your hands move, you’re not even thinking about it, it just happens.
Q: Do you remember the first time that happened to you as an actor?
A: I could go back for all the jobs I’ve done and it’s probably happened five or six times in my life. I had a job like that — the second job I ever had, acting in a play called Buried Child by Sam Shepard. I had only been acting for like eight months and years went by before that happened again — and then years go by again! You’re lucky if it ever happens in your own life.
VIDEO: Building of the Church and Other Locations in Hell on Wheels
Q: You have a history of playing characters with dark sides — what do you think draws people to cast you that way?
A: I don’t know! Everybody has a lot of darkness in them because without that you’re not a whole person. In that play I mentioned, I play a somewhat scary character — and then casting directors come, they like what you do and they think that’s what you do best. There’s also my natural qualities — I’m very big and tall.
Q: I hear you’re 6′ 6″. Does your height work for you or against you as an actor?
A: When I first started acting, somebody once said to me that anything that is a problem that prevents you from getting a job will eventually be a strength. It works both ways. The odder you are, the harder it is to get work but once you sort of establish it, you have no competition. If you are 5′ 10” and blond on the other hand, you can get jobs easier, but you’re also competing with a lot of other people.
Q: I’ve read you write music — have you been inspired by the show to compose anything specific?
A: I play piano, organ, accordion, guitar, mandolin and a little violin. I practiced a lot in my room and there was a piano on set that I played a lot in Canada. And there was a piece I wrote for a movie called Seraphim Falls, based on the sort of music that was popular in religious cults in the 1860s, but it didn’t make it into the movie. I gave some of that to Tony and Joe [Gayton], the writers of the show, and I’m hoping that they can sort of integrate it: a lot of it is me singing with an accordion. There was a thing called the second Great Awakening [during the 1800s], with a lot of nuts out there pushing various belief systems and a lot of it involved music and violence, which created sort of an interesting time — and I studied that a bit.
Q: Your character says, “I was fool to believe that love would win over hate.” How would you have addressed the situation?
A: The situation of being discouraged to the point of negativity? You deal with that every day. You try and work and you know you’re heading towards your death and you’re not going to get any better. I like to be proficient and excellent at things, but as you get older you get worse and worse no matter how hard you try and practice! It’s sort of what makes people have soul!