The second season of Hell on Wheels continues its epic story of post-Civil War America, focusing on Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), a former Confederate soldier, and his dramatic journey West, as he struggles to leave his past behind. After a plot-based first season, Season 2 is focusing much more on the characters, their histories and their ambitions, where they come from and what makes them tick. The show also stars Common, Colm Meaney, Dominique McElligott and Christopher Heyerdahl.
During this recent exclusive interview with Collider, actor Anson Mount talked about how Hell on Wheels is really a show about ambition and where those ambitions come from, that his character starts in a more savage place this season, how the best part of the job is getting to be on a horse, on an almost daily basis, that Cullen Bohannon has both a hero and a villain in him, how he’s never had so much freedom, in film or television, where the relationships will be progressing this season, and what it’s been like to have such great directors on the show. He also talked about how he came to be in the ABC pilot for the mid-season drama series Red Widow, from Melissa Rosenberg (writer of The Twilight Saga franchise), about one woman’s (Radha Mitchell) dangerous journey into the world of organized crime, all in the name of keeping her family safe. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
ANSON MOUNT: Well, the thing about going into a second season of a television show is that you have to figure out how to go from a plot-based season to a character-based season. That’s the only way you’re going to be able to sustain five or six seasons worth of material. So, it’s been an interesting challenge and an enjoyable challenge to do some backstory homework on who Cullen Bohannon is and where he comes from and what makes him tick, and really figuring out what the show is about, on a deeper level than just revenge or corruption. It’s really a show about ambition and where the different characters’ ambitions come from, and how that’s bumping up against everyone else’s ambitions. That’s been what’s exciting about this season, I think.
Would you say that Cullen Bohannon is more savage this season?
MOUNT: Well, I wanted him to start in a more savage place this season because of what where Season 1 ended. You have to pay credence to that. He starts in a very different place, situationally, but I wanted to keep him emotionally in the place where we left him, at the end of Season 1. And then, it’s been a personal vendetta of mine to open up new facets of the character this season, that are perhaps softer and lighter. That’s the only way you’re going to get to know who this guy really is, beyond being a bad-ass. I’m sorry, but you can’t play bad-ass for five seasons. It doesn’t work. So, I’ve been doing research into what makes Cullen laugh, what turns Cullen on, what turns Cullen off. That’s really where a truly well-rounded character comes from. It’s the opportunity that long-form television opens up, and that’s very exciting to me.
Do you enjoy getting to play the more physical side of this character?
MOUNT: The best part of my job is getting to be on a horse, on an almost daily basis. That’s my favorite part, absolutely. I love getting into a more comfortable place with the horses, and into a place where the wranglers are starting to trust me to do a lot more of my own riding and the more action-y stuff on the horse. That’s been a really great sense of accomplishment, personally. I was one of those kids who had a plastic sheriff’s badge, a cap gun, a holster, and a white cowboy hat. I grew up playing cowboys and Indians. I was one of those kids. So, for somebody who plays make believe for a living, this is literally a dream come true.
When you play someone who is so complex and complicated that you don’t really start finding out about him personally until Season 2, what was the key for you, in finding who he was?
MOUNT: I really believe that this is a show about ambition. It became very important to me to figure out what it is about Cullen Bohannon that is ambitious. The dirty little secret of Cullen Bohannon, that he doesn’t even know, at the beginning of Season 2, is that the reason he’s hanging around the railroad is not to be a part of something greater than himself, it’s not for Lily (Dominique McElligott), it’s not even to seek revenge. It’s because he is ambitious. He wants to be greater than he has always been thought to be capable of being. I think it was his ambition that actually led him into the Civil War, to begin with. In the South, at that time, if you had money and you had slaves, you were exempt from fighting in the war. That war was fought by farmers. Cullen was a farmer, but he was a wealthy farmer. He came from money. I think he chose to go to the Civil War because he thought he was going to have a position in the Free Mississippi. That’s what led him away from protecting his wife and child, and that ambition is rearing its ugly head again.
MOUNT: I think all of us have a hero and a villain in us. We all have different facets, and there’s definitely a facet of Cullen that is heroic. His gut has partly been bred by the Old Testament. You can’t not acknowledge that. He has a sense of moral right and wrong that comes from a Christian upbringing and a sense of goodness, but he also has a killer in him. He has a very self-serving ambition in him that is perhaps what drives him the most. To draw a further parallel, do you think Walter White is heroic? But, Walter White started cooking meth to provide money for his family. That’s a heroic event. Yet, after he did that, he couldn’t stop. So, sure, he’s heroic, but he’s also a lot of things.
Is it refreshing to get to do a show like this, with a cable network that is willing to go there?
MOUNT: They’ve figured out what the networks didn’t figure out for a long time, and still are having trouble figuring out. You don’t need to like your protagonists. It’s not important to have black or white hats. It’s not important to like the person you’re watching. It’s important to understand them. Matt Weiner said it the best, in his interview with NPR. If you have a best friend who makes a horrible mistake and does a terrible thing, like cheating on his wife or falling prey to an addiction, do you then hate that friend and walk away from them and never speak to them again, or do you get more involved with that friend? I think it’s a really positive step towards storytelling, in this country, and I wish the networks could get on board with that and stop allowing people with MBAs to make creative decisions.
MOUNT: Yeah. I’ve never had so much freedom in television or in film. My opinion has also never been so highly regarded, on anything I’ve ever worked on, in any capacity. I’m just getting really, really spoiled and it scares me. I’m also getting spoiled by the format. I love the long-form format of television. I love being able to develop a character, over a long period of time. Now, I do movies and I’m like, “Seriously?! I have an hour and a half to cull together an entire character arc? That’s bullshit!” So, I’m getting spoiled in a variety of ways.
Does it change how picky you are about the other work you want to do?
MOUNT: It does, but at the same time, it’s opening other opportunities. Before this job, nobody ever came to me with an action adventure project. Nobody ever came to me to play tough guys. Now, because I’m shooting people on television, they think that I can play a tough guy. Soon, that’s going to be the only thing that they’re coming to me for, and I’m going to have to reinvent myself, a different way. But, good material is good material. And then, you also have things come along that have the potential for being good material, and you involve yourself in a way that you can help develop it into better material. You just make the best out of what you’re given sometimes, but here, there’s not a whole lot of work that needs to be done. It’s good stuff.
MOUNT: From the get-go, he and I and the writers were all on the same page about the fact that we didn’t want it to turn into another instance of, “Oh, the black guy and the white guy are going to be friends, and everybody is going to feel good about themselves,” kind of bullshit. We wanted to be realistic about the differences and the stereotypes from both sides, and the misunderstandings from both sides, and yet create a relationship that involves very a practical need on each side that forces them to deal with each other ‘cause that’s far more interesting. When you’ve got polarized magnets that are forced together in a vice, that’s a lot more interesting than just magnets. I really like where the relationship is going. The writers have said, and I think that Common agrees, that his character is in the adolescence of his development as a free man, so he’s really going through growing pains and discovering himself and discovering what power is, what popularity is, what allegiance is, and what true responsibility is. My character has led men before and understands the psychology of leadership. The writers are handling Cullen’s way of dealing with Elam’s situation so beautifully and so sparsely that I think people are really going to dig where that relationship is going this year.
MOUNT: Oh, man, wait until you see! You haven’t seen nothing yet! Chris Heyerdahl really turns it on this year, and that character goes to some really interesting places. What I really like about what they’re doing with that character this season is that, from the beginning, he has this quality of being the devil on the shoulder. He does that for several characters this season, including eventually Cullen. He’s almost like the bad side of someone’s conscious. You see him influencing people, in certain ways, because he is so emotionally intelligent. And then, he, himself, starts to burst out of that guise and become his own evolving monster. Towards the end of the season, he’s becoming just such an interesting nemesis. I love where they started him out this season, being the muckraker of Hell on Wheels. It really puts him in a place where he has to fight and claw his way back to the top.
Has it gotten any easier to work in the locations and the harsh weather?
MOUNT: It’s a blessing and a curse. The problem really is that the weather changes so fast that it’s hard to keep things consistent sometimes, but we’re blessed with a brilliant D.P. who deals with it. You start to find out that the more uncomfortable you are, weather wise on the set, the better it looks on film. It just looks great. When it’s raining or there’s mud in the streets or there’s storm clouds coming in, it just looks fucking fantastic! So, I’ve learned to be thankful for it and just get through it.
Is it easy for you to shake this character off, when you’re done shooting?
MOUNT: Look, I think you’re touching on a place that I’m very opinionated about. When it comes to our societies interpretation of what we do as actors, I think that there is this mythology that actors are these kinds of shamans that channel these different emotions and spirits that take over us, and that acting is some sort of difficult, soul-crushing thing. I think that there are a lot of actors that buy into that mythology because it makes them seem more important. The truth of the matter is that we just play make believe. That’s all we do. Anybody who says different is usually a bullshit artist, or they’re named Daniel Day-Lewis. The people who believe that their soul is being crushed by playing a particular role need to take a vacation or check into the looney bin for awhile. No, I don’t have any trouble coming out of character, and I don’t have any trouble moving onto the next thing. I love the process of acting, simply because I like to play make believe. But for me, it is purely make believe and it is a process of playing. We play with a sense of craft, but we play.
What’s it like to have such great directors on this show?
MOUNT: They’ve been great, this season, especially. Catherine Hardwicke did a bang-up job. Wait until you see her episode. It’s really good. She really set a high watermark for us. And we got David Von Ancken back for two episodes. Rod Lurie directed Episode 208. He’s an old friend of mine, and they picked him for exactly the right episode. Episode 208 is very political, and his bread and butter is political potboilers. So, the directors this year have just been absolutely awesome. Michelle MacLaren, who is a wonderful director, was our only woman last season, and Catherine was our only woman this season. I’m really digging what our female directors are doing, and I want to start making that more of a regular occurrence. I don’t know what it is. It’s a Western, so you would just assume that the directors should be white men, but the women have seemed to have really turned it up a notch, both times.
MOUNT: Jeremy Gold produced that, who also produced our show for Endemol. Hell on Wheels was the first project he produced for Endemol USA, and Red Widow was the second. He asked me to come and do a guest spot on it, and I couldn’t refuse. I said, “Let’s do it, man! Let’s make this the best damn thing that we can make!” He’s doing really well, and I’m really happy for him. I had a wonderful time working on that project, particularly with Radha Mitchell. I’d always wanted to work with her, and it was a really great experience.
Any chance you could appear again, during hiatus from Hell on Wheels?
MOUNT: Maybe. We’ll see. On the hiatus, yeah.
Hell on Wheels airs on Sunday nights on AMC.