Actors live for variety, and Anson Mount has had his share. On film, he’s played a meth addict, a playboy, a football coach and a Cameron Diaz quickie partner, to name a few. In starring and guest roles on television, he has portrayed a hypocritical pastor, a prosecutor, a ski-resort operator, an FBI agent and a doctor.
In the new AMC series Hell on Wheels, debuting 9 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 6, he steps into the boots of Cullen Bohannon, a former Confederate officer who ends up working on the railroad – the Transcontinental Railroad – as he plots revenge against the men who murdered his family.
Mount may have had more of an advantage coming into Hell on Wheels than on other projects. He doesn’t have military experience and has never carried out a vendetta, but the Dickson County native does know the Civil War.
“The interest in the Civil War where I’m from borders on the religious,” says Mount, who grew up in White Bluff. “We had a very, very, very strong education in the whole Civil War from beginning to end, especially when I was in junior high.”
Hell on Wheels picks up after the war, during Reconstruction, as the country expanded and tried to heal.
“If it hadn’t been for the Civil War, we couldn’t have built the Transcontinental Railroad,” says Mount by phone from Los Angeles. “It required Army officers who had experience in moving massive amounts of material and men across long distances, and it required a huge out-of-work workforce.”
Mount, 38, had three weeks between being cast and arriving in Calgary, Alberta, to shoot the pilot. He spent part of that time reading Stephen Ambrose’s Nothing Like It in the World, which covers the construction of the railroad.
“It was fascinating, but that doesn’t really help you build a character,” he says. “You don’t know what it’s going to be like till you get out there and you get in costume and you get on the horse and you start playing around with the other people who’ve been cast. When something is so far outside of your element, both in terms of the setting and in terms of character, you’ve just gotta use your imagination.”
Cullen is a dark fellow, and while he forms an uneasy alliance with an ex-slave (played by Common), his closest ties are with his demons.
“At that time, we didn’t have any phrase like 'post-traumatic stress disorder,' ” says Mount. “People just came back from the war changed, and they were expected to get on with their lives.”
“Dark” is a common theme in many recent Westerns such as True Grit, 3:10 to Yuma, The Proposition and TV’s Deadwood. Still, Mount says the influence that people working on Hell on Wheels cite most often is Sergio Leone.
“But it’s not,” he says of the feel of the series. “Sergio Leone is more poetic than this.”
While viewers tend to get nostalgic about Westerns, there’s a philosophical element to their frequent resurgence, says Mount, who graduated from the University of the South at Sewanee and earned an MFA in theater from Columbia University in New York.
“When we have an upsurge of interest in the Western is usually in times when we start questioning whether or not our system is working,” he says.
“When we look at the Western hero, the man – or the woman – has to look at their gut for the answer as to how to conduct themselves in the absence of law. I think there’s something in us that’s curious as to whether or not we would have the same ability.”
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