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Anson Mount – Raising Hell On Wheels

Updated: Mar 18, 2021

Anson Mount of “Hell On Wheels” in New York City, August 4, 2013. Photos © 2013 Mark Doyle.

Anson Mount

Raising Hell On Wheels

by Jay S. Jacobs

When you conjure up a mental image of the iconic American cowboy, it wouldn't be too surprising if he looks a whole lot like Anson Mount.

This is not just because Mount has spent the last two years starring in the best western currently on TV, AMC's Hell on Wheels, a dusty, downbeat and dramatic look at the building of the railroads in the Old West. Mount has the rugged, manly, slightly hardened look of a frontiersman, making him a natural to play the show's flawed hero Cullen Bohannon.

Mount not only had the look for the genre, but he also had the love for it. This made the role of an imperfect former Confederate soldier who winds up being a huge part of the birth of the railroads even more of a perfect fit for Mount.

"I can honestly say it was the best pilot script I had ever read," Mount says. "I'd been dreaming of doing a western for about two years. The thing that intrigued me is that it was a Southern protagonist who was not stereotyped in any way. That I just loved because that is a very rare thing in the industry today."

Mount is proud of his southern heritage. In fact, much like his character of Cullen Bohannon, Mount's great-great grandfather was an officer in the Confederate army. Mount was brought up in an athletic household. He is the son of the well-known late sportswriter of the same name. His mother was a professional golfer. In many ways, Mount had a typical southern childhood, hanging with friends, playing games, listening to music. He also grew up watching Westerns on TV.

"When I was a kid growing up, we had five channels," Mount explains. "We had PBS, CBS, NBC, ABC and the local UHF channel. The local UHF channel, on Sunday afternoons after church, you'd have a double header of a martial arts film and a western. So I grew up a huge fan of Sergio Leone and Budd Boetticher and all those guys. You know, [John] Wayne. I just think it's a quintessentially American genre."

And yet, while Mount has the look of those archetypal American heroes, he's not sure that he really has the attitude.

"I'm kind of a nerd," Mount laughs. "I'm getting thrown into a lot of these quintessentially male roles, which I find very flattering, but I'm still a geek at heart. I read a lot. I still have a very informal Dungeons & Dragons group. That's something that people would be surprised of, I guess. It's hard, because all my friends are married and have jobs, so we only manage to get together about five times a year. I also have a two camping trip a year deal with me and my best friends. It's the way I recharge my battery and it is very necessary for me to do what I do."

Mount found his passion for acting in the theater department of his undergraduate university, Sewanee: The University of the South. "I am continually nostalgic for that place," Mount says. "It is a beautiful, beautiful campus on a mountain in rural Tennessee. I try to get down there as often as I can."

Even before that, he had long been a fan of films and great acting. As much as he was inspired by the westerns he grew up watching, he also took inspiration from a huge spectrum of films. In fact, the performance that first opened his eyes to the power of acting was in a movie which could not have been more different.

"The performance that astounded me the most when I was in high school was in probably the last movie I saw with my father before he died," Mount recalls. "My father was a huge classical music buff. He took me to see Amadeus. In that movie, F. Murray Abraham was just jaw-droppingly good. I had an opportunity to meet him at the Sutton Place Hotel in Vancouver just like a year and a half ago. He was just the nicest fellow. We had several friends in New York theater in common. It was just a really interesting full circle experience for me."

This wide range of genres has been a constant, not just as an actor, but also as a fan.

"If Amadeus comes on, I can't turn it off. I'm a huge Kubrick fan. Two of my best friends just came up to visit me here and [Hell on Wheels co-star and rapper] Common had never seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, so we screened that for him. I've seen all of Kubrick's films multiple times."

When he graduated from college, Mount threw himself into a varied career that included movies like Poolhall Junkies, Boiler Room, City by the Sea and All the Boys Love Mandy Lane. He also worked regularly on TV, starring in such series as Conviction and Third Watch and guest starring on everything from Law & Order to Sex & the City.

"For me it all comes down to the quality of the material," Mount explains.

Mount has also become a respected writer, penning the plays "Atomic City" and "Love Liza." He also has two screenplays in development, Pure Fantasy and Hysteria.

Still, before Hell on Wheels, Mount was probably best known for another one of his career surprises. He played the male lead and pop star Britney Spears' love interest in the 2002 film Crossroads.

"Man, I swear to God, it's going to be etched on my tombstone: 'Worked in movie with Britney Spears,'" Mount laughs. "Well, first of all, it was a fantastic experience working with all of those ladies. I really like it when a film has a lot of female voices involved. Tamra Davis was our director. Ann Carli was our producer. I felt so safe. [And] Zoe [Saldana] and Taryn [Manning]. Britney was just an absolute dream to work with. She was completely prepared, completely collaborative. She was on time, polite, responsible and mature. I loved working with her.

"I was working on a movie with Robert De Niro (City by the Sea) at the time and somehow my name got brought up. I was asked to have a meeting with the producer and the director. I thought they were going to audition me. I was running lines with Robert De Niro on set," Mount laughs again. "Then I went, and it was just a meeting. We just talked and the next day Brit came to visit me on set. We had a conversation and the next thing I know, they asked me to do the job. I thought, hey, why not?"

He was not quite so laissez-faire when the opportunity for Hell on Wheels presented itself. As a western fan and a lover of the great outdoors this was a no-brainer.

"Man, we are on 40,000 acres of usable set," Mount smiles. "I'm on a horse that's got his own ideas about things. I'm shooting real guns. I've got a great, great cast. It's almost like I don't have to act. It's wonderful."

Continuing Mount's interest in diversity, Hell on Wheels has a cast which comes from all angles. There is a beloved Irish character actor (Colm Meaney), a rapper-turned-actor (Common), a gorgeous leading lady (Dominique McElligott) and a cult film favorite (Tom Noonan).

"We have a great time together," Mount says. "We often go out together. About once a year we organize a group float down the Bow River. I can honestly say that at this point, everybody loves being at work. We have a really fun time together."

As Hell on Wheel's third season starts, the show will in some ways be starting anew. Hell on Wheels, the town where the series takes place, was burnt to the ground at the end of the second season. Considering the huge expenditure of work and budget to redo the Canadian sets that had been so painstakingly built over the past few years, it showed that the series had gained the trust of the network to follow its muse.

It also showed that the series had something else: "A subsidized budget to cover the expense of building a new set," Mount laughs.

However, Mount took the opportunity to change things up in the show very seriously.

"There are a couple of things that I was very adamant about wanting to do this season," Mount explains. "One is, from a character perspective, Cullen Bohannon at the end of season two hit such rock bottom that there are only two places to go: death – you know, the gun in the mouth – or he has to figure out a way to crawl out of this rock bottom place and begin to rebuild his soul. That determines a certain amount of maturation. That's been my catch phrase for this season for Cullen.

"In terms of the world, I feel that since the pilot we had lost track of the sense of this enterprise being a mobile production," Mount continues. "A mobile enterprise. A mobile business. So I've been really hitting the writers and production hard about helping to bring the urgency of the movements of this construction project into the plot and the mise en scène. I think that we're succeeding."

Indeed they are. However, the series is a drama and shows the emotional arc of Cullen Bohannon. Life is shooting arrows at him and some will hit flesh. Beyond the loss of the town, the season two finale also included the death of Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott), the first woman who seemed to be a potential salvation for Cullen since his wife was murdered in the back story lead up to the first season. So, will Cullen Bohannon ever find love and settle down a bit?

"I would answer that in a broader way than perhaps you're looking for," Mount acknowledges. "I believe that at the end of this series, I want one of two things to happen. I don't know how, but I either want Cullen to gain the world and lose his soul or vice versa. I don't know how to paint that. That's not my job. I'll leave it to the writers. But in my mind, it's one of those two things."

And will Cullen go back to trying to find the murderer of his wife?

"Maybe," Mount allows. "Maybe. We haven't been exploring that recently, but it's certainly a part of the history of the character and therefore is always up for discussion."

Of course, Bohannon has no shortage of bad guys to keep up with. The third season is previewed with an amusing scene in which Bohannon tries to hang The Swede, the man who killed Lily Bell, from a railroad bridge. However, the bad guy jumps off into the river below before the noose is secured.

Mount is a little coy as to how this plot thread will play out, but he does laughingly acknowledge this: "Well, I'll say two things. Number one, a network as smart as AMC is never going to fire an actor as good as Christopher Heyerdahl. And number two, just wait!"

Another man from Bohannon's past who we must wait for is Durant (Colm Meaney), the former boss of the railways. Durant ended the last season in jail, with his town, his railroad and his dreams burnt to the ground.

"Colm has a fantastic arc to play this season," Mount says, excitedly. "He has to play a man who has literally lint in his pockets. You see him use nothing but his intelligence to orchestrate his rise back up the ladder. It's great."

Working on the series has given Mount a whole new respect for the visionaries who created the railways.

"My bible for this show is a book called Nothing Like It in the World, by Stephen Ambrose," Mount explains. "He's the same fellow that wrote Band of Brothers. This is pretty much the only book [he wrote] on a non-military subject. Once you read the book, you realize why he wrote it and it really is a military subject. Most of the guys that built this were either former Union soldiers or former Confederate soldiers. A lot of the people running the show were former Union Generals. They conducted it very much like a military operation. It was, at the time, the single greatest engineering project in the history of mankind. When the plans were announced, most engineers all over the world laughed. It was like Kennedy saying in 1960 that we were going to put a man on the moon."

Of course, in the 1860s, when Hell on Wheels takes place, just getting to New York was almost as difficult a trip as that long-in-the-future moon shot. But, during season three, Bohannon will visit that far-off city, which back then was much more rural than the urban metropolis of today. Still, realizing the setting of old New York turned out to be a little more complicated than the show originally had hoped.

"All credit for that goes to our production designer John Blackie," Mount says. "We were set up to use the sets on Copper [a TV series for BBC America, which also takes place in the mid-late 1800s] for a few days, in exchange for letting them use our railway. At the last minute, the lawyers on their side pulled the plug on it. So we were left scrounging, trying to figure out how we were going to do this in Calgary. We did it with some very smart location choices and some very well-done green screen. I should also mention credit also goes to our CG house, Fuse and our graphics supervisor, Bill Kent."

The series seems to be fleet on its feet, able to make deals like that on the fly. For example, through a mutual love of social media, Mount was able to convince famed country musician Charlie Daniels to do a song for the show.

"Charlie and I follow each other on Twitter," Mount explains. "He had mentioned that he was a fan of the show a couple of times. So I sent him a direct message. I said: 'I'm sorry, I have to ask. Would you be interested in writing a song for the show?' He wrote back, 'Sure, what do you want?' So I put him in touch with the show runner and he did it absolutely for free. All he asked for in return is I play a round of golf with him sometime."

Mount also had the chance to get his sister a role on the series.

"She came up for a visit and I said: 'Hey, I'm going to turn you into a whore,'" Mount says. "How often can you say that to your sister and actually follow through on it? We put her in the background in episode five and she had a really good time."

As is Mount himself. And with a respected, popular series on AMC – the cable home for such acclaimed hits as Mad Men, The Killing and Breaking Bad – Mount is leading the way in yet another frontier. Where once film or network TV were the dream destinations of actors, now it seems that the most interesting work is coming out of cable and download.

"I think that a lot of artists are moving into television for one reason primarily: they're paying," Mount admits. "In film, there are really only about five big movie stars that get big pay days. The same goes for directors and cinematographers and editors. So you've got a lot of people that have mortgages to pay that are looking to TV going, 'Well, hell, they're paying.' So a lot of the talent has started to gravitate. But the talent's pay is still the talent's pay.

"The obvious answer to why they are all going to cable is because there is better material on cable. Now why is there better material on cable? I can't say that I know the answer to this, but I guess that the answer is that cable tends to be smaller operations and therefore there are fewer fingers in the soup. Therefore the soup is less tainted."

Copyright ©2013 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: August 8, 2013.

Photo Credits:

#1 © 2013 Mark Doyle. All rights reserved.

#2 © 2013 Mark Doyle. All rights reserved.

#3 © 2013 Mark Doyle. All rights reserved.

#4 © 2013 Mark Doyle. All rights reserved.

#5 © 2013 Mark Doyle. All rights reserved.

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