On Hell on Wheels, Anson Mount’s portrayal of the Southern anti-hero Cullen Bohannon is a welcome addition to a long line of classic Western leads. The character’s quiet nobility while still performing acts that shock us makes for fantastic television. As Hell on Wheels approaches the finale for its rollercoaster of a second season on AMC, we caught up with Anson on a break from working on the show and asked him about his character, his approach to acting and teaching.
Anson Mount: It was probably the best pilot script I’d ever read. I was in tech week for a play when it was sent to me. My manager at the time called and said, “Have you read it?” I said, “No. Leave me alone. I’m in tech week.” She said, “Do me a favor: just read this first scene.” I read the first scene, the scene in the pilot when I’m pretending to be a priest and I shoot the guy in the face. I just couldn’t put it down. I was like, “Wow, it was like somebody had written a role for me.” I’ve been looking to do something like that for a long time, something Southern and complicated and period. I had actually been praying for a Western for a couple years. I just threw myself at it. It wasn’t easy. It was a very long audition process.
N: Cullen is very complicated. What’s the dynamic been like finding this character?
AM: There’s always a dialogue between the writers and I in terms of what they think the motivation is and where it’s going. We don’t always agree. No, I don’t ever play just from the page. I think that would be irresponsible on my part. Acting wouldn’t be a craft if you just played things from the page. In terms of wanting to hunt down and kill a bunch of people, I, Anson Mount, have never wanted to do that. I probably never would. I had to think through imaginatively what that is like for Cullen. Then, I take it on a moment-to-moment basis and play it according to each scene. Each scene is a building block to a whole. I find ways to relate to him at any given moment, but not as a whole. If I was trying to relate to him as a whole, I’d go out of my fuckin’ mind. I don’t think any actor has the responsibility to do that. I think actors who think that they have a responsibility to do that either need to take a vacation or spend some time in a local mental facility.
Nerdist: Early in the season he was having some internal struggles about where he belongs and getting away. Your thoughts?
AM: In terms of going to Mexico, that was a stumbling block for me. I certainly don’t think that Cullen is the type of person who’s ever going to fantasize about having a ranch in Mexico and settling down. The way I justified it is that I decided that was just an excuse, that this whole thing is just a suicide by train robbery.
AM: To a degree. Growing up in the South, it’s pretty sure that if you go to a decent school, you’ll have a firm education in the Civil War. It’s rare that you get a good education in the Reconstruction. It’s the Civil War, and then you skip ahead to World War I. Everything is just referred to as “the most recent unpleasantness.” I had to go back and do some research on the Reconstruction, particularly the reconstruction on the Transcontinental Railroad. I read a great book by Stephen Ambrose called “Nothing Like It In The World,” which filled in a lot of gaps for me and was a source of good information. It didn’t necessarily activate character. At a certain point, you just got to toss all that aside and go out and play make-believe.
Nerdist: For you, what are some of the daily challenges of doing a period piece like this? What’s the daily grind like? Are you able to take a break from the environment and just feel like you’re making a show? How do you break from character? How do you enjoy your moments when you’re not filming on-set?
AM: I don’t know. I take off my hat and I talk about sports. I’m serious. For me, acting is a process of make-believe. There’s no getting stuck in character. That’s a complete mess. Sometimes, I feel like I’m on a one-man mission to change American minds about this. I think that there is this tendency in our society to think about actors as these shamans who channel these alter egos and go through soul-crushing experiences in order to create a performance. It’s not. It’s just not. It’s make-believe. I think that there’s a lot of actors out there who buy into that myth because it makes their job seems more important. It’s just not. It’s just make-believe. It’s playing make-believe well. It’s playing make-believe with a sense of craft and responsibility to the material, but it’s make believe.
Nerdist: That’s interesting. Laurence Olivier had a lot of the same ideas when it comes to acting.
AM: He’s a damn good actor.
Nerdist: In your filmography, you’ve led shows, but you’ve also been the guest actor. Does that ever matter to you in the way you approach work? Would you play a part differently if you were coming in for one week as a guest actor, similar to what you did with Dollhouse?
AM: In terms of my commitment: no. In terms of how I approach a character: to a degree. When you’re playing the lead or the eyes through which much of the material is seen, there could be a very large open portal for the audience to be able to participate in that with you, you know? I don’t think it’s often successful for an actor to come in with a wholly formed character on Episode One. First of all, I don’t think it’s possible. Second of all, I think you’re setting up traps for yourself later on down the line when you start to learn more about the character. It is a little bit different. There are times when I prefer to play this small, one-off role that’s coming in and doing some sort of flashy thing. That’s what I got to do in the movie that I did recently called Supremacy. I’ve heard it’s going to Sundance. I don’t think that’s guaranteed. I don’t know what’s happening with it right now.
AM: For me, the Western was definitely a genre I wanted to do. I like Westerns as a whole aesthetic. But I don’t normally think of work in that way. I like classical stage. That’s where my training is. I keep going back to it. I just had the opportunity to do The Three Sisters. I think I want to do the rest of the Chekhov nature plays. In terms of genre, I don’t know. I was a comic book geek when I was a kid. There is part of me that wants to do stinking action comic book-based movies. Other than that, not really.
Nerdist: Who was your favorite comic book character growing up?
AM: Gambit. He’s a Southerner. [LAUGHS] I think it would be a great franchise.
Nerdist: What else do you have coming up?
AM: I’ve got a movie coming out later this year that the Weinsteins are releasing called Code Name: Geronimo. It’s about the operation to kill Osama bin Laden. I’ll be interested to see how that turned out. Other than that, there are things floating around. There are a couple opportunities. I haven’t decided what I’m going to do or if I’m going to do anything yet in the off-season. There’s a big part of me that just wants to take a vacation. I’m also still teaching at Columbia. I’m going to be spending some time with my class.
Nerdist: What level of students do you teach at Columbia?
AM: I teach the third year of the Masters program. I teach the third year of the Acting Program and the MFA, the MFA acting program at Columbia.
Nerdist: How did that come about?
AM: I would go back occasionally. I would talk to the third years. After doing it a few times, I was answering all the same questions. Then, I noticed there weren’t a lot of people from the program other than myself that were working. There were a few that were working in theatre. I was running into people from NYU or Julliard who were auditioning all the time. I wasn’t seeing a lot of people from Columbia. I suggested maybe I come in and help them re-haul the third year of the program. They took me up it. That was a lot of work for three years. Finally, I passed the position onto another alum. I still teach theater. I still teach the audition class for the third year.
Nerdist: What drives you to want to teach?
AM: It’s fun. It’s good for me. I learn so much from teaching. First of all, it forces me to be honest about my work, if I’m telling students to do certain things in a certain way. Second of all, it reminds me how far I’ve come in a nice way. It gives me a perspective.
Hell On Wheels airs this Sunday on AMC and the two-hour season finale airs October 7.