We go on location in Canada with the star of Hell on Wheels for a conversation about the 1860s railroad drama, the actor’s Tennessee roots, and the value of knowing that horses don’t like umbrellas.
Take a one-hour drive south of Calgary, Alberta, this time of year, and you can be smack-dab in the middle of 19th-century Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Head out of Canada’s cowboy town on the Macleod Trail (now Highway 2A) and down a twisty road across the rolling landscape of Albertina Farms, and you’ll find the first few buildings tucked away in a secluded corner near the Bow River: a general store here, a saloon over there, a bordello just over yonder — all set along the muddy streets of a soon-to-be-bustling railroad town. Or a reasonable facsimile thereof.
This is the primary location for the fourth season of Hell on Wheels, the acclaimed AMC cable network series about the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad during the aftermath of the Civil War.
You see the strapping fellow over there? Yes, ma’am. The hunky guy with wavy long hair and neatly trimmed beard? Yes, sir. The one making a comically rude gesture to folks working inside the building? Ladies and gentlemen, meet the star of the show: Anson Mount
“Glad to see you,” he says, greeting me with a warm grin and a hearty handshake. Then, noting my gaze shifting to the French bulldog straining at the leash in his other hand, he explains: “That’s Mac. He’s a rescue dog I adopted. He’s glad to see you, too.”
Judging from his period-inappropriate attire — blue jeans and boots, but also a wine-colored T-shirt — it’s clear Mount isn’t going to be part of any scenes shooting today in this faux pioneer community. Indeed, this is, technically speaking, the 41-year-old actor’s day off. But as he quickly explains, that gives him all the more time to speak with someone from Cowboys & Indians — a magazine, he pointedly notes each time he introduces me to a member of the cast or crew, that “has supported the show for years” — and to generally display his own brand of Southern hospitality.
For the benefit of those who tuned in late: Hell on Wheels, the show that has brought Mount and several dozen other folks to this frontier-facsimile corner of Canada, is the ongoing saga of the men and women drawn together by the common goal of constructing a cross-country railroad and, maybe, reuniting a recently war-torn nation in the process. The title refers to the makeshift assemblage of gambling dens, dance halls, saloons, and brothels that sprang up at each new construction site as the Union Pacific crew and follow-along opportunists worked their way west with the tracks in the 1860s.
In other words, this is not your father’s TV western. (Remember: I did say this was on cable television.)
Among the central characters: Thomas “Doc” Durant (Colm Meaney), a wheeler-dealer who’s driven to complete the railroad on his terms, under his control; Elam Ferguson (rapper-actor Common), an ex-slave determined to reinvent himself as a proud freeman while working as a railroad employee; and, first among equals, Cullen Bohannon (Mount), a Confederate Army veteran who initially signed on as a walking boss on the transcontinental project in order to find — and kill — the rogue Union soldiers who killed his wife and son.
By the end of the second season, Cullen began to shift his focus away from revenge to, if not redemption, then railroad completion. At the start of season three, he wrested control of the transcontinental project from a temporarily imprisoned Durant, with a little help from Elam. At the end of the season, however, faithful viewers witnessed a dramatic reversal of fortune: While Durant, out of prison and back in favor, regained his power, Cullen found himself under the thumb of an old foe, the conniving psychopath known as The Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl).
Right now, playwright-director Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men) is setting up an elaborate shot inside a railroad office — a “practical set,” with four walls, a roof, and appropriate furniture — that will require Meaney to deliver key dialogue while, through the window behind him, a TV viewer will see men on horseback casually drifting by. Mount would dearly love to stick around for a bit, to deliver a few more rude gestures to his buddies, but he knows better than to interfere with their work. So he, Mac, and I mosey over to a nearby half-completed set, a crude saloon, to begin our conversation.
Since Hell on Wheels is, after all, a western, it doesn’t take long for the conversation to turn to horses.
“I rode some while I was growing up in Tennessee,” Mount says, all the while monitoring Mac, now resting nearby, out of the corner of his eye. “But I’d never ridden on a set before this show, and there are things you just have to learn. One is, obviously, being able to dismount from your horse while
doing dialogue. And that’s just something you pick up through drill. But then there are other things you have to know as well.”
Such as? “On a set that shoots outdoors all day, you have to know that horses don’t like umbrellas. You have to know that. It’s a little thing that becomes a big thing very fast and that will make a horse bolt. Also, you never walk a horse over an exposed cable. A shod horse can cut through a cable, electrocute itself, and bolt.
“You start to be able to read the horses a little bit. The trick of riding a horse in acting is that you have to be experienced enough, and comfortable enough, to have a part of your brain devoted to knowing what he’s thinking at all times so that you can concentrate on acting.”
Photography: Courtesy AMC
Although fiercely proud of his Tennessee roots, Mount will admit, grudgingly, he was born in the North. Specifically: Anson Adams Mount IV arrived in this world on February 25, 1973, while his parents were residing in the Chicago suburb of Prospect Heights. But, really, he moved to the Volunteer State just as soon as he could.
His father, Tennessee native Anson Adams Mount II, was sports editor — and before that, religion editor (no kidding) — for Playboy magazine, which was based in Chicago at the time. (He had three other children, Elizabeth, Anson III, and Kristin, from a previous marriage.) Anson’s mom, Nancy Smith, was a professional golfer, a native Southerner, and, truth to tell, no big fan of the Windy City.
“My mother, being a Southern woman, just got sick and tired of Chicago and the winters,” Mount recalls. “One day she was like, ‘OK, that’s it. We’re moving.’ Fortunately, around this time, there was a very new invention called the fax machine. My father got it worked out that he could retain his executive status and work mostly from home. So we headed south.”
They considered several possibilities — including Hendersonville, North Carolina, where Mount’s father had once worked for Mother Earth News — but “they just kept gravitating back toward White Bluff,” the small town in Dickson County, Tennessee, where Anson II was born. “We moved there on my third birthday,” Mount says. “And that’s where I grew up.”
While attending Dickson County High School, Mount fell in with a group of friends who were active in the drama club. One thing led to another: After making his stage debut as a guard in a school production of 12 Angry Men, he joined the forensics team, competed in dramatic interpretation, and attended the 1991 National Forensic League National Tournament during his senior year. After graduation, he set his sights on studying drama at Sewanee: The University of the South.
“Sewanee has a very small but very good theater department,” Mount says. “I don’t know if they still do this, but at the time they would send you to New York for a semester on financial aid to study at Michael Howard Studios. I got to do that, and that experience was enough to teach me I needed to go to graduate school.”
Which is why he journeyed to New York to attend Columbia University, where he earned an MFA in 1998 — and, even now, where he continues to teach students between his film and television gigs. Hardly your typical ivory tower theoretician, Mount takes a blunt-spoken, experience-informed approach to imparting acting knowledge to those willing to learn.
“I teach what I call practical application,” Mount says. “I teach them how to take what they’ve learned in class for the first two and a half years and apply that in situations they’ve never been in before. I believe that’s filling a huge gap in what has become traditional graduate school experience, where you’re taught for three years but, predominantly, by a lot of people who don’t do it professionally.”
It reminds him of something “very wonderful” veteran character actor Stephen Tobolowsky said in his podcast. “He said studying acting in school and then getting out in the real world and doing it is somewhat akin to studying meteorology, and then, when you get out, they say, ‘No. We don’t need you to predict the weather, but what we do need you to do is ride this mechanical bull.’ ”
Mount laughs, but he does not smile. “I love that,” he says, “because it’s so true. We’re not preparing our graduate students how to actually work. That’s what I’m there for.
“And now,” Mount says, gesturing to the actors working not so very far away, “I suggest we walk over to my trailer because I’m really paranoid about messing up that scene over there.”
“Oh, let’s not talk about that, please. It’s been so over-hyped.”
Mount is joking – well, OK, at least half-joking – as he rolls his eyes, shakes his head and generally indicates his reluctance to discuss something that, for better or worse, has become part of his mythos.
We’re seated in his trailer, at a table near the couch where Mac lies peacefully on his back, oblivious to the chatter. In the interest of accuracy, I’ve just asked him about the oft-told tale of how he landed one of his first major film roles, a dreamy romantic lead opposite pop star Britney Spears in the critically reviled 2002 rom-com Crossroads. Is it true that he prepared for his audition by running lines with Robert De Niro – yes, that Robert De Niro – while working opposite the Oscar-winning actor in City by the Sea?
Well, no. Not really.
“I feel sorry for [De Niro],” Mount says, “because it’s just come up in all of my press. And I mean, yes, briefly, he did run lines with me…”
And De Niro read Brittney Spears’ lines?
“Yes,” he replies, “briefly, he did. It wasn’t a big deal. He helped me run lines for what I thought was going to be on audition and turned out to be just a meeting…
“But look, seriously: The stories about how he sat me down, and we had this long conversation about life, and da, da, da, da, da? No. That didn’t happen. Basically, he said, ‘Why not?’”
In other words: Don’t be such a snob?
And rest assured, Mount has passed those words of wisdom on to his Columbia students.
“For some of my students,” he says, “there is a bit of concern sometimes over things like, ‘Will I be pigeon-holed if I do two roles in a row that are similar? Will I be pigeon-holed in comedy?’ And I say, ‘Look, man. Become really good at what you’re getting hired for now and that will open things up for you later on.’
“There’s less room for snobbery in this business at this point than there ever has been. The competition is just too great. Not just on the level of competing for the jobs but competing for the attention of an audience.”
Which brings up the burning question: Just how did Anson Mount, then best known to TV viewers as the clean-cut co-star of series such as Third Watch, Line of Fire and Conviction, land the role of Cullen Bohannon in 2010?
Well, it helped that Mount took an active part in demonstrating his range by serving as executive producer for Cook County , a gritty made-in-Texas indie drama in which he was scarily effective as a down-and-dirty crystal meth dealer who sampled far too much of his own product. It helped even more than that Cook County started generating interest on the film festival circuit around the time series co-creators Joe and Tony Gayton were seeking a lead actor for Hell on Wheels.
Another factor in Mount’s favor: He was raised a Tennessean.
“Here’s the deal,” Mount says. “These days, whenever a male role comes up, they immediately start looking at Australians. It’s like, we don’t have any men left over here.” Fortunately, the Gayton brothers “were adamant that they didn’t want to cast an Australian as Cullen Bohannon. They wanted an American, and hopefully a Southern American. [Casting directors] Amanda Mackey and Cathy Sandrich thought of me and really pushed me. They really wanted me to have the role.”
At the time, Mount was playing the lead role in a revival of Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July that premiered at The Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, N.Y., and was slated to move to the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts.
“Luckily for me,” he says, “an actor, Terry Kinney, was directing the play.” When Mount was summoned to a West Coast audition, “I pulled Terry outside and I said, ‘Here is the situation. This could change my life. If you tell me to stay, I won’t get on that plane.’ He said, ‘Anson, you have to get on that plane.’
“I owe a big part of what has become my life to him for that.”
Mount also credits another member of the Fifth of July cast, David Wilson Barnes, for helping him, albeit indirectly, to get cast as Cullen Bohannon.
“David had done a voice in the videogame Red Dead Redemption, which was very much towards the last act of the videogame. We played that bleeping game for a month just to try and get to his role so we could hear his voice in the videogame.
“Well, around this time came the audition. I have been told quite often that my character bears quite a resemblance to the leading character in that videogame.”
Smiling, Mount leans forward and, in a conspiratorial near-whisper, adds: “I think maybe it’s a coincidence. Maybe it’s not. We will never know.”
But seriously, folks: Despite his Southern roots – his great-great-great grandfather actually was a Confederate officer during the Civil War – and even after countless hours of Red Dead Redemption, Mount wasn’t entirely sure at first he was capable of playing Bohannon. But that uncertainty made him all the more eager to try.
“In terms of my previous roles,” Mount says, “there really wasn’t a lot for me to draw on. I’d never played a character like this. I’d never played a killer -- except maybe Sebastian in The Tempest. Even Bump, the character I played in Cook County -- Bump was not a killer. Bump was a coward, which is what made him dangerous.
“On the other hand, I’m really good at stealing. So I watched a lot of Westerns. And I read Stephen E. Ambrose’s book [Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863 – 1869]. I really looked at those pictures. For weeks, I looked at those pictures.”
Ultimately, Mount came to view – and continues to view – Bohannon as being, not unlike Bump in Cook County, a man deep in thrall to an addiction. “The key to Cullen,” he says, “is in the realization that he has what we would refer today as post-traumatic stress disorder. Some people who have post-traumatic stress disorder, the way that they deal with it is that they have to keep fighting.”
At first, Bohannon focused his ferocity on finding the men responsible for killing his wife and son. But at this point in Hell on Wheels, “The immediate battle in front of Cullen is building the railroad, and conquering nature.”
Does Bohannon view completing the railroad as his last best shot at redemption? Mount contemplates the question, weighs the possibilities, then replies: “I would say this. I believe Cullen would like to believe that the railroad is his shot at redemption… But I think there is a possibility that at the end of this all, he ends up on the West Coast, looking across the ocean and wondering how far it is to China.
“That would be the tragic end.”
And with that, Mount suggests we grab some lunch, and continue inside the tent set aside for dining by the cast and crew. Mac, fast asleep and, who knows, maybe dreaming of doggie treats, will remain in the trailer.
The late, great French filmmaker Francois Truffaut once noted: “Adolescence leaves pleasant memories only for adults who cannot remember.'' He might have recognized Anson Mount as a kindred spirit.
“I was a late bloomer,” Mount says near the end of our mid-afternoon meal. “A nerd. Especially in my junior year, I was picked on a lot.” He was more comfortable, and much more confident, at Sewanee. “I feel like that’s where I really got a little bit of freedom, and I was able to really focus on a major while being forced to study a core curriculum that stretched my brain.”
He considers New York his home base these days – he recently purchased an apartment in Brooklyn, and plans to eventually buy a house upstate in the Catskills – and, during downtime between seasons of Hell of Wheels, he travels the world for theater and film work. (His recent credits include a Singapore production of the steamy David Ives play Venus in Fur and the full-throttle Liam Neeson thriller Non-Stop.)
Still, Mount’s ties to White Bluff remain strong. “I guess my continuing relationship with my hometown has helped me to not take myself too seriously. One of the things I love about Southern culture is that you are highly encouraged to be self-deprecating and to not get too big for your breeches.
“Now, there’s a level of that that could actually be detrimental. I think in certain other cultures -- I think the British are guilty of this -- there is this tradition of cursing other people’s success. I think the South has a really good balance. It wants its good old boys to do well but wants them to remain who they are. I like that.”
On the other hand, Mount takes his art, if not himself, very seriously. And largely because of that, when it comes to being a true rebel, he isn’t likely to back down from a challenge. Or, for that matter, a threat.
Consider: Mount scored one of his first triumphs as a stage actor in the lead role of Joshua, a gay Christ-like figure, in the 1998 New York premiere production of Corpus Christi, playwright Terrence McNally’s controversial drama about a possible messiah who winds up crucified by homophobes in his Texas hometown. Because of its allegedly “blasphemous” religious content, the play sparked angry protests and bomb threats even before it actually opened at the Manhattan Theater Club.
As a result, security was rigorously tight during performances. Indeed, New York Times critic Ben Bradley wrote of having to pass through a metal detector while entering the theater, and seeing “a parcel-scanning X-ray machine, too, presumably on the lookout for weaponry.”
Despite these and other precautions, however, Mount never felt entirely secure on stage.
“And that was an important experience for me,” he says, “because being a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant straight guy, I hadn't had to deal with too much discrimination. Stepping into this situation opened up my eyes a little bit.
“I mean, you get a degree in acting and suddenly, people are threatening your life. That's like, ‘What the hell?’ It was so silly that none of what the group outside was protesting had anything to do with the play. It’s a very mild play, actually. But it was so serious, they brought in metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs. I moved from my old apartment, and got an unlisted phone number.”
It didn’t do much to allay Mount’s worst fears when, one day during lunch, “a security guard told us, ‘If somebody really wants to get in here with a gun, they will.’” Try as he might, he couldn’t forget those words during the next performance.
“At the end of the play,” Mount says, “I'm basically naked, standing on top of the highest point in the theater with my arms spread. I was hit with shin busters – those bright, hard lights they use so you’re illuminated on all sides. And you’re blind when that happens, because it’s a dark house. Totally blind. And I remember thinking to myself, ‘If it's going to happen...’”
Mount pauses briefly, his face drawn, as though experiencing a frisson of sense memory. Then he smiles the sort of smile that Cullen Bohannon is known to flash when he’s cheated death, or one-upped Doc Durant, once again.
“Then my realization was like, ‘You know what? This is why I’m bleeping here.’ It was one of the most resonate moments I've ever had as an actor, actually.
“And I’m very thankful I had that opportunity.”
From our August/September 2014 issue