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)