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.”