Not enough can be said about the great writing staffs employed by AMC for its brilliant dramas Mad Men and Breaking Bad, so we’ll just stick with “great” and “brilliant” for now. Yet, writing isn’t the only show aspect to which the network has applied tremendous skill—AMC is also killing it when it comes to casting leading men on the channel’s original programs.
On Mad Men and Breaking Bad, Emmy regulars Jon Hamm and Bryan Cranston, respectively, have consistently out-acted all of their television peers; even on AMC’s lesser, but still highly recommendable, shows, such as The Walking Dead (capably led by Andrew Lincoln), The Killing (with Joel Kinnaman, our favorite wigger after Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul), and the cancelled Rubicon (which failed despite James Badge Dale’s fine work).
This Sunday, at 10 p.m. EST, following the ratings juggernaut The Walking Dead, AMC will premiere its latest original drama, Hell On Wheels. Set during the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, the hardcore western recounts the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, a historical point of interest used as a backdrop for a former Confederate soldier’s revenge mission to find the Union scoundrels who killed his wife; along the way, he forms an unstable alliance with a renegade slave (played by Common).
The bloodthirsty southerner is played by Anson Mount, an unknown, Tennessee-born actor tasked with carrying Hell On Wheels as its star. And, based on the four episodes that we’ve seen, he’s not about to mess up AMC’s leading man winning streak. As the show’s antihero, Cullen Bohannan, Mount blends the surly gruffness and gun-busting explosiveness of old Clint Eastwood westerns with charm and vulnerability unique to the genre. Don’t worry, though—Hell On Wheels isn’t a show about emo cowboys. Within the first hour, heads are brutally scalped and a Cheyenne Indian gets an arrow shoved into his jaw.
On the eve of the series premiere, Complex spoke with Mount about fulfilling his lifelong dream of getting paid to play “cowboys and Indians,” making “the bloodiest thing ever shot for television,” and why Common is perhaps the best rapper-turned-actor in the game.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
Scoring a leading role on a new AMC drama is quite the coup. What do you think it was about your take on the character that sold the network?
Yeah, AMC has definitely built a reputation on taking their time on deciding who they want to work with. So it was a very long process, but I was thrilled that they decided to work with me. After doing this job for 13 years, you realize how rare it is to come across good material—like, really good material. And this is really good material. I’d also been wanting to do a western for years but never had the opportunity to do that. So I immediately responded to this project, and I especially responded to the fact that the lead was a southern character who’s not stereotyped and not villainized.
I was doing a play in New York at the time, and I had to fly out to L.A. on two consecutive Mondays and convince new people each time. I think I got lucky because they wanted to cast the role as an American and, particularly, as a southern American. There’s a lot of just being in the right place at the right time, as well as being in the right place and time in my life. I couldn’t have played this role 10 years ago—I needed a little bit of life behind me.
What is it about the western genre that has made you want to work on a six-shooter project?
When I was a kid, we had five channels—we had ABC, NBC, CBS, TBS, and the local UHF channel. On Saturdays and Sundays, after cartoons were over on Saturdays and after church hours were over on Sundays, it was either a kung fu film or a Spaghetti Western. And, I don’t know, I just enjoyed them. I had the plastic sheriff’s badge and the whole nine yards. [Laughs.]
At a certain point, about two or three years ago, I realized, “Fuck, I haven’t done a western!” It’s just something I’ve always wanted to do. Whenever I see a movie as an audience member, I’m not one of those actors who sits there and says, “I could have done that,” or, “I wish I was doing that.” I don’t really do that, but with westerns, for some reason, I do. [Laughs.] I just love that you can get paid to ride a horse.
With the success of the Coen Brothers’ True Grit remake recently, it seems like westerns have more Hollywood appeal and clout than the genre has had in a long time. For a while there, it was tough to find a new western movie to watch, let alone a really good one.
Yeah, there certainly haven’t been a lot out there, from the time I started acting up until now. Nobody was doing westerns, and if you were going to do one you had to have Clint Eastwood onboard, or somebody like that. But I would see them all, even if though it was hard to catch any new ones. I loved the remake to 3:10 To Yuma, for instance. I thought that was an awesome movie, and I also love Unforgiven.
AMC started developing the script for Hell On Wheels, I think, about four years ago, so they certainly weren’t looking for what they thought was gonna pop. In terms of international sales and the business side, everybody was saying for a long time that westerns don’t do well internationally and American sports films don’t do well internationally. But I do think there’s something in the air right now—I’m not sure exactly what it is.
I think westerns are popular at times when we’re going through a sort of reevaluation process—the worries about the powers that be. There’s this idea right now that we could hit a time of lawlessness again. And if we do, can we trust our gut instinct? So we’re drawn to heroes who follow their gut instinct in the face of lawlessness, and that’s the western. It’s also, strangely enough, the martial arts film.
I was watching a video interview with Joel Stillerman, AMC’s Senior Vice President of Original Programming, and he talked about how AMC has been trying to make a western show since the network’s Broken Trail mini-series was received so well in 2006. So the powers that be at AMC must really be behind the show. Does it feel that way to you?
Yeah, they’re enormously behind it. I’ve never had so much support and trust shown to me by any other network I’ve worked with before, or studios for that matter.
AMC has such a great history of casting leading men for their shows, from Jon Hamm to Bryan Cranston, even down to Andrew Lincoln on The Walking Dead. Has that legacy of sorts played in your thoughts at all as the show’s premiere approaches?
How can it not, you know? But at the same time, I don’t sit around in my bedroom, sitting at the edge of my bed, staring at my feet and thinking about what my life will be like when I’m rich and famous—life is life. I was just at the Emmys and I managed to snag Jon Hamm for a conversation, and he gave me pep talk. He helped me get my head on straight about it a little bit, and I appreciated that.
At first glance, your character, Cullen Bohannon, does evoke that old Clint Eastwood, “Man With No Name” steeliness and wordless intimidating presence, but it doesn’t take long for him to show more charisma and warmness than the prototypical western movie badass. Specifically in the second episode’s scene where you’re pitching yourself to be elected as the new railroad foreman. He’s a subversion of that prototype.
I hope he is, because he has to be. We don’t just have two hours of screen time to fill. [Laughs.] We’ve got many, many, many hours to fill—we have a really long arc. And if there’s not more to him than just a grimacing tough guy, then we deserve to lose interest very quickly.
My goal with this character is that, on the surface, he’s a tough guy, he’s a man’s man. I don’t know, I’m just a big believer in opposites; whenever I see a character like that, my job is to find moments of weakness or moments of vulnerability, moments where he’s not strong.
The show’s focus on the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad is unique, too, because it’s something that hasn’t been covered all that much in movies or television. We’ve all read about it in school, in those history textbooks, but popular fiction hasn’t done much with it. What was it about the show’s historical angle that appealed to you?
Because it’s the end of the west. I don’t think it’s really a western, in that sense—it’s the end of the west. It’s about this eastern industrial blight moving westward, and carving its first path through God’s country in the name of “progress,” in quotes. That’s why I think this is such a fascinating framework for a western.
And AMC isn’t about to skimp on anything of that framework’s rawness, either. One thing that’s so great about AMC shows is how fearless they are with the violence and graphicness—just look at Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead. Hell On Wheels, in particular, is extremely graphic and brutal, particularly during the Indian attack at the center of the pilot episode.
Yeah, it’s crazy. [Laughs.] When they screened it for me for the first time, I turned to the producers and said, “I think that we’ve made the bloodiest thing ever shot for television.”
The shot of actress Dominique McElligott ramming the arrow through the one Indian’s throat is certainly unlike anything we’ve seen on television before.
Hell yeah, that’s not a moment people will take lightly. I think that AMC is one of the few places out there that trusts the American audience to actually be intelligent. I think that has a lot to do with it. Breaking Bad is the best show on television, so to be on the same network as those guys is a real honor in and of itself.
It’s also pretty ballsy of AMC’s executives to cast a rapper-turned-actor like Common in such a prominent role on Hell On Wheels. The two of you work very closely together on the show—how has that experience been?
Yeah, he’s really gonna pop off of this—his acting career is really gonna take off, I think. Besides being perfect for the role, he just does.... He’s wonderful. Where so many actors would get caught up in playing the toughness and the austerity of the character, the sort of ideal downtrodden yet courageous strength of the character, which is there, Common plays it with such depth and complexity. There are times where you can see in him what it must have been like as a child, for his character. It’s just an incredible performance.
Common himself has become such a great friend to me. Regardless of how the show performs, or how long the show goes, I’m gonna know this dude for the rest of my life. That’s been probably the greatest side benefit of this whole job, just getting to know Common.
To what would you credit that close friendship?
Well, we have to depend upon each other—I’m speaking as actors. I have to depend upon him to show up having done his homework and being prepared, and he has to depend on me to do the same. And to have ideas and to work with a degree of patience. When you’re working a fast-paced schedule like that of a TV show, particularly one like ours, where we’re shooting in the elements a lot, you have to depend on your fellow cast members to show up ready to be creative, work on the fly, and make changes on the fly. And he’s great at that. He’s enormously patient, he’s kind to everyone, and he’s an absolute gentleman. He’s just a good guy.
Some lifelong actors have issues with people from the music industry stepping into their arena, so to speak. Have you ever looked at the whole singer-turned-actor transition in that way?
I didn’t know that much about Common’s musical career, actually, so I did a little brushing up first. I didn’t actually get the chance to see him in anything, either. But I have a fairly open mind about all of that stuff. I think some of the best actors we’ve ever had didn’t have any formal training. I’ve seen really shitty actors with Master’s degrees and I’ve seen really brilliant actors without them. [Ed. note: Mount has a Master's degreee from Columbia University in Acting]
I think Common is truly talented; the most important quality you can have as an actor is the ability to listen, and he’s amazing at that.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)