Q&A – Dohn Norwood (Psalms)

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Dohn Norwood, who plays Psalms on AMC’s Hell on Wheels, talks about his real-life relationship with Common and the fight scene he kept going between takes.   

 Q: For a bit last season it looked like Psalms might not make it. What did you think when you found out that you’d be promoted to series regular for Season 3?

A: Like all actors, it’s great to have the upgrade from recurring to regular… I was looking forward to some meatier moments for Psalms.

Q: Cholera hits Hell on Wheels this season. Were you worried for Psalms?

A: No. At this point, with them investing in me being a regular, I hope the pendulum is no longer swinging over my head, you know what I mean? I knew that there would be some dangers that come, whether it be the Mormons, the natives, or disease… I just knew that it was another one of the hardships that the characters have to endure.

Q: What have you learned from the show as an actor?

A: James Dean said that the best acting class is in front of the camera, and I think anyone, whether they be a trained actor such as myself or a novice, can only get better by performing in front of the camera… [Director of Photography] Marvin Rush does a great job of bringing certain things to our attention. For example in Episode 305, there was some sunlight that was taking place… and he was letting me know that when I lean forward at certain points, it would highlight my eyes or my mouth and that I could sort of play with that to create an effect or a moment.

Q: Last season you said there was one late night where you had to do pushups to stay awake. Any nights like that this season?

A: Luckily we weren’t doing many night scenes and wrapped at ten at the latest, so there was none of that… I just had to do the typical acting things like keeping your voice warm. For Psalms, I put a lot of resonance in his voice and there is the challenge of not going over to the craft services and eating things that take away from your performance. The more tension you have in your voice, the higher it is… You have to do some vocal pitch exercises and go from high to low.

Q: Do your castmates look at you like you’re nuts when you do the vocal warmups?

A: [Laughs] The crew might look at us like we’re nuts, but all actors have these private moments, whether it be mental exercises or physical exercises that helps us with our characters. Some people yell. There are times when Common, he just straight yells between takes to get his energy back up or focus in the moment.

Q: Psalms is de facto uncle to Elam’s baby. What’s your relationship with Common like in real life?

A: We’re definitely becoming closer. He’s a very generous guy, and he’s been famous for twenty years, so he serves as an example to me in my career in dealing with fans, or production, or how to advance yourself in your career. I like picking his brains about certain things, and then we just love to hang out… There’s time when he and I need to just kind of kick it to get some cultural and social time… Both of us are from the Midwest and raised in an urban environment, so sometimes you just kind of need to feel like you’re around family.

Q: You’ve posted some fun photos online of the cast hanging out off set. Do you spend a lot of time together when you’re not filming?

A: Yeah, we definitely we do… Phil [Burke] has a lot of barbeques at his place, and we get together and relax and just talk and do anything but acting and anything related to the show. It’s definitely revitalizing, and there’s a familiarity between us that extends onto the set and allows our characters to have a similar bond because we’re all in the same world together.

Q: We see inside Psalms’s housing this season. What do you know about freedmen’s quarters in the real Hell on Wheels?

A: I believe that not only represents the housing for freedmen, but for all the workers on the railroad. In his time in the wilderness, Cullen realized what could be improved for the workers on the railroad, and this was one of the elements — the housing… I can imagine that what the freedmen had was subpar to what everyone else had, but because everything was so stock in those days, we may very well have the advantage of having similar housing.

Q: Did they actually film inside that double-decker sleeping car?

A: Yes, and the camera was literally right on top of me. Those wooden cars are the real thing. That’s one of the great things about the show — there’s some CGI added just to fill in the space, but everything else, from the sky to the water to the weather, all that stuff is there… Our art department does a great job building things like the saloon and Cheyenne town. It’s very impressive… So being in that car is pretty much stock to what it was like back then, like a double-decker military barracks type thing.

Q: What was it like to shoot the scene where Psalms beats up Declan Toole?

A: Damian [O'Hare] is a great actor and when he came in, he was solid. He had been watching the show, and he was just so tight, it allowed me to really really focus… As a person, he’s a funny and lovable guy, but his character was so stimulating because he was such a nemesis… There was also a scene we did together where we’re arguing in the saloon and we kept it going between takes. We’d argue and yell things back and forth and it really kept everyone in it.

Q: You seem to get your fair share of fight scenes. Do you ask the writers for them?

A: No, I think what ultimately happens is that’s the world that Psalms resides in, with the freedmen being on the constant receiving end of what’s going on or the brunt of everything. Whether it’s building a water pump or trying to protect the rail. I represent what the freedmen’s lifestyle is in that era, so I’m always going to deal with physicality and mental and emotional issues that they were all going through.

Q: You do a lot of humanitarian work with youth activism. How’d that come about?

A: I see myself in young people because I came from an adverse background… so education and the arts would allow me to escape all that. For some people its sports or rap or music; for me it was acting and good grades. I remember in fifth grade, I brought home a report card with all As, and my mother started giving me college brochures to encourage me… I stayed performing and acting and getting the best grades I could get, and I learned the value of education. I’ve always done outreach work when I could because I wanted to pay it forward with the time and the wisdom and the resources that were given to me by different teachers and mentors.

Click here to read an interview with Common, who plays Elam Ferguson on AMC’s Hell on Wheels.

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