“Dude, I wasn’t just thinking of Eastwood, I was stealing from Eastwood,” Anson Mount laughs when I ask about the iconic Western influences on his revenge-minded central character in the new AMC drama “Hell on Wheels.”
That’s never a bad place to start.
Set in 1865 along the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad, “Hell on Wheels” is also the story of Cullen Bohannon (Mount), a former Confederate out to avenge his wife’s death. He’s a violent, tormented guy who finds himself in the midst of the lawless traveling town that gives the show its name.
Mount previously toplined a string of short-lived network shows that ranged from highly respected (ABC’s “Line of Fire”) to instantly forgotten (The WB’s “The Mountain”) all while getting seasoned for his first cable vehicle.
Earlier this week, I caught up with the impressively candid Mount, who was in Savannah for their local film festival, via phone to talk about this dark new role.
Click through for the complete interview…
HitFix: You’ve got a character who does some very dramatic things, some very violent things, but you still look to be taking a less-is-more approach to playing him. How did you decide on the scale to this performance?
Anson Mount: The first thing I try to do when I’m handed a quote-unquote “tough” character or a “strong” character, the first thing I try to do is find moments of weakness and that means finding moments of stillness. Otherwise it’s just boring to me. What’s more interesting about characters and people in general for me is not in their strengths, but in their weaknesses. So it’s not necessarily a “less-is-more” as it is that sentiment combined with the fact that the primary action in the pilot is watching and waiting. To be honest, there are times in the pilot where I feel like I’m successful in making that active and there are times where I find I’m not successful in making that active. But part of that is just getting used to to playing a new character and you need a little bit to get into it. Not necessarily for other characters, but for my character, I feel like the primary actions become more than just watching and listening later in the series.
HitFix: It’s hard to watch this without thinking of Clint Eastwood, frankly, and thinking of a number of Western archetypal characters. Were you thinking of Eastwood or any particular Western favorites?
AM: Dude, I wasn’t just thinking of Eastwood, I was stealing from Eastwood. I’m a big believer in stealing from other actors, so yeah, I watched a lot of Eastwood. I watched a lot of Sergio Leone. I watched a little bit of Budd Boetticher. And yeah, I watch a lot of things within the genre of whatever I’m doing at any particular time.
HitFix: Go into a little more detail on that, if you would. What were you studying in the Eastwood performances you were seeing?
AM: Well, there’s something that Eastwood does not only well, but kinda defined in what’s become the iconic Western hero, which is the need to listen to one’s gut in the face of lawlessness. When we’re left without rules and laws as a structure in a society, you’re forced to follow your gut and that means listening to your gut and that’s something that he portrays so consistently beautifully. So I just studied that. He’s very good at watching and listening and that happened to be a primary staple of the pilot episode of the show.
HitFix: When you have a character who is so clearly part of a Western tradition and so clearly designed as iconic, how conscious do you have to be of trying to make him your own at the same time?
AM: I think that in any role, you have to be careful that you’re not simply structuring something that’s beautifully constructed or it’s just a dead sculpture. You have to be able to inhabit it and live in it and breathe in it and that means bringing yourself to it on a day-to-day basis and being awake and interested on the day and also creative on the day. If you do that, you will be there, you will bring your own stuff to it. Does that make sense?
HitFix: Sure. What do the producers and writers and directors have to do to enable that process for you?
AM: These guys, the Gaytons and the other executive producers and the network, I’ve really never been in a situation where my opinion has been so well regarded. I’ve never really been in situation where, when I have an opinion, it’s not just listened to with a sense of “We have to appease this actor about his problems,” but it’s listened to in a real creative conversation sense. So I’m given a lot of breadth in which to create and breathe and make it my own. There are little things here and there that don’t necessarily exist on the page that end up becoming in the day, through creative conversations with the Gaytons.
HitFix: One of the first things we learn about your character is that he was a slaveowner, but he ceased to be at his wife’s urging. When you have something like that that’s so notable so early, how do you let that define the guy? What does it say about him to you?
AM: Well, that happened and it happened quite a bit, but it certainly wasn’t the popular thing to do at the time. So I think that it says that he’s a man who stands by his gut, as I spoke of before, and his convictions and is not easily swayed by his environment. I also think it speaks to the relationship he had with his wife and how she meant more to him than just being his partner in the farm, in that she was the partner in the development of his soul. I think that that deepens what it is that he’s trying to bandage.
HitFix: But you keep his initial status, the status before the change, in the back of your mind? You avoid just letting that be a character cop-out? “Sure, he did something that we think is bad, but he changed…”
AM: [Laughter.] Well, to be honest with you, yeah I think that it could be… When I first read the pilot script, I won’t lie to you, I felt like that aspect of the character was a cop-out for the sake of PC, but what I was reminded of later and what I think people who watch will be reminded of later, is that this is a network that has built its reputation on conflicted leading men. The case is no different here. While he freed his slaves on paper and legally, his opinion of race relations is certainly nothing like what we would think of today. He is still a man who is convinced of fundamental differences in the races and a fundamental reason to be in the caste system of society of the time. So that comes into play in the next few episodes. I went in very early on, and Common was in agreement with me on this, and very early on we said to the creators that this cannot turn into the “Well, the white guy and the black guy are gonna be buddies now.” Where does the show go? And also, it would be f***ing offensive to anybody who had any knowledge of what it was like at that time and to where we’ve come and where we still have to go as a nation. It’d just be too easy. And they were in complete agreement. So it’s not going to turn into “Silver Streak.” If we have anything to say about it.
HitFix: Well, it could be less “Silver Streak” and more like “The Defiant Ones.” There are ways of doing it that needn’t be total cop-outs.
AM: Right. Right. And the relationship, it definitely develops, but it’s out of utilitarianism. It’s not out of friendship. But I do very much know what you’re saying in terms of the “Oh, he’s freed his slaves, so he’s not really THAT bad.” I think more than anything, it’s the creator’s attempt to make him conflicted from the outside.
HitFix: You’re from Tennessee. What does your own Southern background do in terms of informing or helping you understand the character?
AM: It helps to have some knowledge. Obviously, I was born in 1973, so that’s pretty well removed from this time, as most people are. But I think it helps to come from a place where you have at least some inkling of what it’s like to come from a conquered culture, a conquered society. I think that growing up in the South definitely helps me to appreciate what that is like. Now you have to be able to extrapolate from that what it was like to live under martial law and that takes a more imaginative leap, but I do think it helps that I’m from the South. But also, it helps with little things, like that the writers trust me with tweaking little colloquialisms or turns of phrase that help my dialect and help the dialogue. Yeah, I’m really, really happy — obviously — that they wanted an American and particularly a Southern American to play the role.
HitFix: I wasn’t going mention that there are people on your very network who are playing Southern Americans who are… not.
AM: [Laughter.] Yup. Yup.
HitFix: We’ve talked a lot about the internal nature of this character, but he’s also fairly externalized. You’ve got the gun, the hat, the cigarettes, the boots. Was there a favorite prop or piece of costuming that knocked you right into character?
AM: Uh-huh. Yeah, that gun is f***ing heavy, man. And as soon as you put it on your hip, it changes your entire stance. It changes your walk. It changes everything. That kinda became the “On” button for Cullen.
HitFix: Did you get to do any choosing? Or were you just handed a gun?
AM: It was determined in the script that he carries a Griswold, which was a Confederate issue sidearm. But it’s very hard to find those. It’s one of the rarest guns in antique gun-collecting, because the Confederacy didn’t bevel the seal and then the Union destroyed the molds, so the ones that are in existence, most of them have rusted away. All the ones that exist are hermetically sealed.
HitFix: How much training did you get to do?
AM: Oh man, I grew up with guns. We went out for one afternoon and shot a bunch of antique ones, but I grew up, we literally had a gun in every corner of the living room.
HitFix: But different sorts of guns, I would assume.
AM: Yeah, we had two .22 rifles, an antique muzzleloader, a 12-gauge Remington automatic and then my father had a Colt 45 set away somewhere.
HitFix: Given the tensions you alluded to earlier, it’s not spoiling too much to say that you and Common have a rather epic brawl in one of the early episodes. How long did that take to shoot and to block and whatnot?
AM: We choreographed every weekend, just one day per weekend for three weekends, before we started shooting the episode and then the last three days of that episode were all the fight. So that was a long process. To do a fight scene believably, it takes a lot of choreography and the more sloppy you want the fighting to look, the more choreography it takes. We didn’t want it to look like a typical TV-choreographed fight. We wanted it to look improvisational, so that took a lot of time. We also didn’t want the hits to sound like the sweetened smacks you hear in TV fights, so we did all original looping for this and we actually had our foley man in Los Angeles bloody his fists up against a side of meet trying to get all of the hitting sounds.
HitFix: What’s the level of trust that you have to have with a co-star to pull that off?
AM: Enormous. Enormous. There were at least two times when I accidentally clocked Common, one time in the face and I bloodied his lip. I was really scared he was gonna get pissed off and he just looked at me and said, “Keep going.” And we kept going.
HitFix: And he didn’t return the favor?
AM: He is one of the calmest, loveliest guys I’ve ever worked with in my life. He’s one of my favorite people I’ve ever worked with.
HitFix: How fast were you able to establish that rapport with him?
AM: Early on. I knew he was a guy I could hang out with when we started talking about music and it turned out that he’s interested in every type of music he can possibly get his hands on. We would just talk. Common’s really tuned into something on a higher plane. He’s a wise man. We could talk about some pretty deep stuff and I just appreciated his presence. I’m learning a lot from him, not just professionally, but as a human being and as somebody who’s interested in God, for lack of a better word. It’s been great time.
HitFix: Over the years, you’ve worked with a number of musicians-turned-actors. Do you like sharing scenes with people who come from a completely different acting background than your own?
AM: You know, I don’t think that great acting is necessarily rocket science. I think that being a diverse actor has a whole set of challenges to it, but in terms of working with somebody who feels that they’re still learning, as long as they’re aware of that and are ready to come to work on time and having done their homework and having ideas and ready to go, there’s absolutely nothing to complain about.
HitFix: As a last question: It feels like your character’s arc within this story, specifically as its laid out, could be kinda finite. Have you had talks with the producers about what this show, particularly for Cullen, in its second season, in its third season, etc?
AM: We had just pick-up conversations that come out of the blue on the set and the amazing thing about these writers is that they’re open to having a conversation. They want to get ideas. But to be honest with you, I don’t think they’ve even started thinking about where they want to go in a second season. For now, we’re still focused on finishing the cuts of the last episodes of the first season. They’d like to get back in the writers’ room in December and figure that out, but I think they’ve got more than enough ideas. Even just the history of the construction of the railroad itself presents a huge number of ways in which it could go and eventually they’ll just have to select one.
“Hell on Wheels” premieres on Sunday, November 6 on AMC.