“Hell on Wheels” has been, to be frank, a hell of a journey. It’s been emotional at times, intense at others, and also a psychological study into how certain characters think and handle the circumstances around them. Sure, you can classify it a Western due to the setting and some of its tropes, but it’s encapsulated a whole lot more.
At the center of almost everything associated with this world is actor Anson Mount, who has played Cullen Bohannon for five seasons. He’s a complicated character, and one that we’ve seen defeat many demons (The Swede) while still battling others (the railroad). We spoke with Anson earlier this week for a lengthy interview, and what we appreciated is that it challenged at times our own way of thinking about the character as he passed along some unique insight as to Bohannon’s addictions, his story so far, and where this all could end up going.
CarterMatt – It’s been a little bit of time now since filming the series finale. What has it been like for you to decompress from the character?
Anson Mount – I think we’re definitely proud of the work in every episode. I think they’re definitely some of our strongest episodes, so from that level I’m very excited for people to see them. Normally this time of the year I would be up in Alberta in the thick of shooting it, but not my hair’s cut, by beard is shaved, I’m sitting in my apartment in Brooklyn and I’m reading scripts. I’ve moved on. It feels like thinking back to your senior year; it feels great, it’s wonderful, but it was time to graduate and move on.
You mention getting rid of the hair and the beard, and I know for some people like Ryan Hurst on ‘Sons of Anarchy’ it was this big, symbolic thing. Was it emotional for you in any way to move on?
No. (Laughs.) Sorry. I’ve shaved every year, but I kept the hair because it was hard to grow back. But I was ready to not have a contentious relationship with my bath towel anymore. It was fun having long hair for five years, I’d never really done it. I had it when I was four years [old], I was a little hippie child, but I never had the patience for it. But, you know, I was happy to be able to do other things.
How did you feel about the way the death of The Swede was handled? Did you appreciate the choice of Cullen not doing it himself, as he probably would have had this been the Cullen of the few years ago?
Yeah, I think it was a great choice on the part of the writers, and it made sense. It may have been what everyone was wanting to see, Cullen putting a bullet through The Swede’s eyes, but if he’d done that, it would have erased all of the growth [he’d had]. I really liked spinning the idea on its head and doing an entire episode about Cullen not shooting The Swede. That was just smart TV writing, and it was something that I can play, and it was with a person I could play with. It came out really out. I was really pleased with it, and it was a deserving exit for the character that Christopher Heyerdahl made.
One of the things Cullen talked about in this past episode is how he’s lost in one way or another everyone he’s ever loved, and we certainly have seen some heartbreaking moments for him over the course of the series. But [in this moment], how did you tap into this feeling, and was it a challenge in any way?
It’s a good question, but I think the answer’s going to go in a different direction than you expect.
Go for it.
I did not have trouble getting there because I was very specific about what the action of that line was, and what the action of that line was not sorrow or fear or anything like that. It was self-deception. That line is a complete lie. He hasn’t lost everybody he’s ever loved; he’s walked away from everybody he’s ever loved, and there’s deception in his heart when he says it.
That is interesting, and there is that sort of interesting plurality to this character. I think there is an idea of wanting to view him as this hero, or this sort of badass Wild West character, but he has lied and he has deceived. What has it been like for you seeing some of the fan reaction to the character, knowing that he’s had this darker side and he’s made bad choices, but then whether it is me or any other viewer watching, we don’t always recognize that?
I was once at a dinner table with an American author who denounced Cormac McCarthy because she found nothing redemptive about his work, and I thought ‘well, if I wanted redemption, I’d go to church.’ What’s the point of that? I, as an actor and a storyteller, I’m not interested in playing characters who are sympathetic. I’m interested in playing actions that are clear. I’m not interested in doing actions that could be turned heroic, because what the hell is that? That’s somebody’s judgment. I’m interested in doing actions that are clear. There’s too much of that s–t out there already. There’s too much just bad make-believe, to be quite honest. It’s due to a lot of tropes and the tendencies for networks to sometimes want to spoon-feed their audience. AMC, thankfully, doesn’t do that. I felt I had a tremendous amount of creative freedom, especially working with John Wirth and getting to do stuff like that.
I have a really hard time lying, and when I know something is true, it’s true, and when it’s not, it’s not.
What did you think about the Central Pacific, and being separated from so much of the core cast?
I think I saw it as another stage of an addict’s relapse. He’s just gone to a different dealer. He’s telling himself that he’s looking for his family, but that’s not what he’s doing. He’s addicted to this project, he’s addicted to winning. He’s ambitious, and there’s this itch he needs to scratch and he doesn’t know why it’s there. In his heart of hearts he wants to see this thing competed.
It’s interesting because I spoke with John earlier this year and he talked about the struggle that could come for these characters after the Golden Spike and how some of them may not know what’s next for them. I don’t want to come across like I want you to give something away, but with this talk of addiction, would you say there is at least reason to be fearful of Cullen’s future?
Sure. I think it’s the same fear as wondering if it is scary to take away an addict’s methadone. Who knows what’s gonna happen? It’s a historical fact that when they finish the railroad there’s this celebration, but many of these guys, three thousand people, are out of a job, and they went straight to the silver mines in Nevada. A lot of them died there. There’s a version where he just can’t quit, but there are a lot of ways to go. I’m not going to say what we chose, but when you’re on the edge of a great loss or a great transition, anything can happen.
Did you have a vision in your head for how you expected Cullen’s story to end, and was that in line with what was chosen?
I did have a pitch; actually, it’s not mine — it was executive producer Jeremy Gold’s originally (laughs). It’s not the way we chose to go, but you got to understand there were a thousand ideas on the table. It’s really hard to end a series because you don’t have any practice at it; usually, they don’t let us end them. We either drive them into the ground until they’re canceled, or they’re canceled because they are not making numbers. To be able to do a third act on a TV show was a new experience for everybody.
At a certain point, John had to choose the direction we were going, and it was an ambitious one, man, I gotta tell you! That last episode on paper was like ‘whaaaat…?’ just logistically speaking. It was a big one. I’m amazed that we pulled it off, but we had amazing producers in Alberta, Chad Oakes and Mike Frislev of Nomadic Pictures. You can say to them ‘we want to do an episode on Mars, can you do it?’ and they’ll say ‘yep’ (laughs), and they’ll figure out how to make it happen.
John’s our leader, and I think he choose a really good ending, not just for Cullen, but for the entire series. I think he really wrapped it up nicely.
I think it was a few weeks ago when you’d posted something on social media thanking everyone and talking about your time on the show, and it was pretty touching to read. Does ending this journey feel that much more satisfying knowing that you’ve underwent everything from showrunner changes to really rough weather to Alberta to changing timeslots?
Oh yeah. There’s so many parallels between the subject matter of the show and doing the actual show, producing the actual show. It was a constant subject for humor. You got this crew of people, you’re trying to do this impossible thing, you’re up against Murphy’s law every day, and you’re having to answer to superiors who usually aren’t around. You love it, you hate it, you go to bed with it, you wake up with it. It has to be an all-encompassing thing, and you have to really care about it to do it because the hours are ridiculous and the drawbacks are tremendous. I don’t see how people who have families do it sometimes. I would see that we went into this last order knowing that we were going to be nostalgic for this opportunity we’ve had. It’s like going into your senior year, knowing it’s going to be a great year, but knowing at the end of it you’ll be kind of sad. There’s this thing that happens when you complete something. There’s loss.
We don’t have a word for it in the English language, but we were ready for a sense of impending nostalgia, that thing where you know you’re going to be nostalgic, but you’re not yet. There’s a movie called ‘Monte Walsh,’ 1970 the original, that we all watched to prepare for the season. That’s what that whole movie is about. They do it extremely well. There are a few movies that do it well; it’s a tough subject. ‘Dazed and Confused’ does it really well. There’s a few. It’s a hard mood to elicit, but I think we got there.
So moving forward, is there any particular genre that you’re looking to take on next, or are you more looking from the vantage point of seeing some scripts and just going with what feels right?
Genre is really just that thing that we use to point very generally about something before we can get more specific. Genre really doesn’t mean that much to me, outside of the Western. The Western is different because it’s part of our identity, and it means something more to us. I definitely do want to do a Western again. I don’t know if that’s what’s next.
I’m reading a lot, and there are a couple of things out there that have my interest, but I haven’t really made a decision where I’m going to go. It’s been nice to have a little time off to be honest. I’m working on several different writing projects that are keeping me focused, but I don’t know. We’ll see.
I’m sure at this point in your career, it also must be nice to be able to have a little bit of creative flexibility, and to be able to make a little bit of a choice.
Well, not always. I’m now competing against movie stars. Everybody wants to do a TV show now. Kevin Spacey went and did ‘House of Cards,’ and the landscape’s completely changed since I started doing ‘Hell on Wheels.’ There’s competition on every level, my friend. Make no bones about it. There are not necessarily hordes of people throwing pilots my way. Now, I’m definitely on a different level than I once was, but there is still competition.
We want to close this interview with a massive thanks to Anson, who was very generous with his time and gave us such thought-provoking responses and perspective on Bohannon. Hopefully, this also has you more compelled to watch the final episodes of the season, which (as you likely know) air Saturday nights at 9:00 p.m. Eastern on AMC.
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