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What attracted you to AMC's new Western, Hell on Wheels?
I had never come across a character with so much depth for an actor of African-American descent. [Elam] shows strength, intelligence and leadership. But by the same token, he's struggling and trying to fulfill certain dreams while coming across more and more obstacles.
Elam is a recently emancipated slave who's also half-white and half-black. He doesn't really fit in anywhere, does he?
During that time, you're still considered black—even if your father is white. Even if he's bringing you in and treating you like a son. It's a lot of love and hate being given and received.
Did you research the time period?
Oh yes. I went through slave interviews, read a lot and just digested as much as I could, so that I could be as truthful and respectful to what black people experienced during that time.
If you could live in any era, which one would you pick?
I think I'd probably want to live in the beginning of time, when everything was first created. Or I'd live in the early '60s.
So either dinosaurs or peace, love and hippies?
Yeah, or the stories of Abraham.
Now that you've acted in dramas, Westerns and comedies, what do you want to try doing next?
I'd like to do a character like the musician Gil Scott-Heron. He just passed. Or [I'd like to] be in a film dealing with Martin Luther King, or play a James Bond--like character. I just want to grow as an actor.
You're also still working on your music and recently collaborated with Maya Angelou for your new album, The Dreamer, The Believer (out December 2011).
That was an incredible experience. She's on my record saying a verse about the dreamer and achieving dreams. It just motivates me when I hear it. She's just a wonderful human being to create with.
A lot of people are referring to you as a rapper-turned-actor, but you've also written a book. Which medium feels most natural at this point?
I think they all do. I feel really passionate about acting. I'm very driven by it, and I'm inspired to act. And I'll forever love music. I don't feel like I have to separate them. That's like telling a man he can be a son but not a father.
How does that influence your future plans?
These are all sides of me that I'm able to express, and I want to continue that. I'm a writer, and I'm also an activist. I'm going to speak out for things and be there when it's time to show up for something I believe in.
So what's the next milestone?
I'd like to achieve an Oscar and an Emmy award and do a play.
Going for that EGOT?
Hell on Wheels airs Sun 10pm on AMC.