Anson Mount stars as Cullen Bohannon on the hit AMC Western television drama Hell on Wheels. The show has made an impact with its gritty, historically accurate depiction of the race to complete construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, and of the characters who won or lost along the way. Halfway through the final season, with seven more episodes set to air summer 2016, American Cowboy caught up with Mount to talk about the ride.
Congratulations on a successful run with Hell on Wheels. What can viewers expect from the final season?
It’s a little different this year in that we’re covering the stories of what’s going on with both the Union Pacific Railroad, which at this time is based in Laramie, Wyoming, and with the Central Pacific Railroad, which is based in Truckee, California.
Cullen Bohannon is now working on the Central Pacific side of the construction project tunneling through the Sierra Nevada mountains, which involves a lot of Chinese labor, so there’s this really interesting cultural clash between Western America and Eastern China. It’s a part of the story that we just had to tell.
Did you take a deep dive into Westerns while preparing for the role of Cullen or have you always been a fan of the genre?
Westerns and I go back a long way. Where I grew up (in White Bluff, Tennessee), the local UHF channel would air either a double bill of two martial arts movies or two Westerns, or a mix of both, every Sunday. Even today, one will come on TV or I’ll rent one and realize that I’d seen it years ago. There were a couple of Sergio Leone’s films that I hadn’t seen before preparing for the role, and I’m still discovering Westerns that I haven’t seen. I really enjoyed watching Monte Walsh and also The Professionals in the off-season this year. I like Lee Marvin a lot.
You spoke about missing John Wayne in your acceptance speech during the Western Heritage Awards earlier this year at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. Can you tell us more about that?
That was a really wonderful experience. I had no idea how cool that museum is. I do miss John Wayne. I also miss Lee Marvin. I miss having actors who were more like them and less like the cover model of the month, you know? It’s like we’re making movies for 12 year olds now. We’re not making them for adults anymore.
I think CG is also to blame. With the advent of good, reasonably priced computer software, we’re able to put pretty much anything on screen that we can imagine. It’s made it possible for us to look forward in our imaginations, where we used to look back toward our history for escapism and inspiration. The Western has declined because of this, but the Western will never fully die because it’s our history. It’s a piece of who we are.
Hell on Wheels is definitely not for 12 year olds.
No, it’s not [laughs]. Our fan base is predominantly people who were already Western fans, and I do think we’ve brought some people to the genre. In general, the biggest thing I hear is that people like that it’s a show that has some bite to it.
There’s been great storytelling on TV in recent years, and Hell on Wheels has certainly contributed to that.
Well, thank you. They’re calling this the Golden Age of television. We owe that, in part, to the film industry. The movie studios are so dependent on what they call tent-pole projects, which really just means something that’s big and loud and flashy. They’re like roller coasters—and more power to them, because I’ve seen a lot of really good roller coasters—but most of the storytelling has moved to television.
How does the Western setting impact the storytelling with Hell on Wheels?
Westerns have to breathe, and you have to be able to breathe within that space. There’s something in those wide, sweeping Sergio Leone landscape shots where the cowboy is just a dot on the horizon—it’s a cinematic expression that we’re playing a very small game within a very large world.
The show films primarily in Canada. Has the location affected your acting or the production?
That’s a great question. We are all days exterior here, and I don’t know of any other show that’s done that. The weather in Alberta changes very quickly and drastically. We recently had to flip the whole schedule for an episode because of some crazy weather forecast. It’s something that we’re always dealing with, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. To be working outside every day on a horse rather than in a sound studio is far preferable.
Acting horseback must bring it’s own challenges.
Growing up I was comfortable on a horse, but I was not the horseman that I am today. I have to give the wranglers on the show credit for helping me with that. You don’t just have to be a good rider, you have to be so in tune with a specific horse that you know what he’s thinking without having to think about it, because there’s no room in your brain for anything else other than the scene. There are also specific things you have to learn about riding a horse on set. Umbrellas, for instance, can really spook a horse. You also never want to take a horse over an exposed cable, because a shod horse can get electrocuted.
How’s it feel looking at the end of Hell on Wheels? What’s next?
I feel blessed that the network is giving us an opportunity to end the story rather than just canceling the show or running it into the ground. As far as what’s next, I don’t know. I’m feeling like this is second semester of senior year and my gut is telling me ‘Anson, why don’t we just enjoy this for awhile?’