Raising Hell On Wheels
by Jay S. Jacobs
When you conjure up a mental image of the iconic American cowboy, it wouldn’t be too surprising if he looks a whole lot like Anson Mount.
This is not just because Mount has spent the last two years starring in the best western currently on TV, AMC’s Hell on Wheels, a dusty, downbeat and dramatic look at the building of the railroads in the Old West. Mount has the rugged, manly, slightly hardened look of a frontiersman, making him a natural to play the show’s flawed hero Cullen Bohannon.
Mount not only had the look for the genre, but he also had the love for it. This made the role of an imperfect former Confederate soldier who winds up being a huge part of the birth of the railroads even more of a perfect fit for Mount.
“I can honestly say it was the best pilot script I had ever read,” Mount says. “I’d been dreaming of doing a western for about two years. The thing that intrigued me is that it was a Southern protagonist who was not stereotyped in any way. That I just loved, because that is a very rare thing in the industry today.”
Mount is proud of his southern heritage. In fact, much like his character of Cullen Bohannon, Mount’s great-great grandfather was an officer in the Confederate army. Mount was brought up in an athletic household. He is the son of the well-known late sportswriter of the same name. His mother was a professional golfer. In many ways, Mount had a typical southern childhood, hanging with friends, playing games, listening to music. He also grew up watching Westerns on TV.
“When I was a kid growing up, we had five channels,” Mount explains. “We had PBS, CBS, NBC, ABC and the local UHF channel. The local UHF channel, on Sunday afternoons after church, you’d have a double header of a martial arts film and a western. So I grew up a huge fan of Sergio Leone and Budd Boetticher and all those guys. You know, [John] Wayne. I just think it’s a quintessentially American genre.”
And yet, while Mount has the look of those archetypal American heroes, he’s not sure that he really has the attitude.
“I’m kind of a nerd,” Mount laughs. “I’m getting thrown into a lot of these quintessentially male roles, which I find very flattering, but I’m still a geek at heart. I read a lot. I still have a very informal Dungeons & Dragons group. That’s something that people would be surprised of, I guess. It’s hard, because all my friends are married and have jobs, so we only manage to get together about five times a year. I also have a two camping trip a year deal with me and my best friends. It’s the way I recharge my battery and it is very necessary for me to do what I do.”
Mount found his passion for acting in the theater department of his undergraduate university, Sewanee: The University of the South. “I am continually nostalgic for that place,” Mount says. “It is a beautiful, beautiful campus on a mountain in rural Tennessee. I try to get down there as often as I can.”
Even before that, he had long been a fan of films and great acting. As much as he was inspired by the westerns he grew up watching, he also took inspiration from a huge spectrum of films. In fact, the performance that first opened his eyes to the power of acting was in a movie which could not have been more different.
“The performance that astounded me the most when I was in high school was in probably the last movie I saw with my father before he died,” Mount recalls. “My father was a huge classical music buff. He took me to see Amadeus. In that movie, F. Murray Abraham was just jaw-droppingly good. I had an opportunity to meet him at the Sutton Place Hotel in Vancouver just like a year and a half ago. He was just the nicest fellow. We had several friends in New York theater in common. It was just a really interesting full circle experience for me.”
This wide range of genres has been a constant, not just as an actor, but also as a fan.
“If Amadeus comes on, I can’t turn it off. I’m a huge Kubrick fan. Two of my best friends just came up to visit me here and [Hell on Wheels co-star and rapper] Common had never seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, so we screened that for him. I’ve seen all of Kubrick’s films multiple times.”