When Hell on Wheels began, former Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon was a man with a mission: to avenge the murders of his wife and son. He worked on the construction of the transcontinental railroad with revenge as his defining purpose, but things took a turn when Cullen killed the wrong man. I talked to Anson Mount about how his character moves on after his fatal mistake, and a new direction for the town of Hell on Wheels in Season 2.
Season 1 ended on a dark note with Cullen killing an innocent man. Where does he go from here?
At the end of Season 1, it turned out that Cullen Bohannon had killed the wrong man, but it almost didn’t matter. When he did it, there was not the feeling of relief that he always thought he’d feel—there was just an empty pit. And so, basically, at the end of Season 1, he gets on his horse and lets his horse lead him wherever he goes.
And a few months later, we have the beginning of Season 2, and he somehow has gotten himself embroiled with a group of former confederates who have decided to go on this almost suicidal mission of robbing the train over and over again, the idea being that they’re going to go down to Mexico and relaunch the confederacy from there. And this actually has a historical precedent, but I’d say that more than anything, it’s actually a quite delusional plan on Cullen’s part. There’s part of him that doesn’t believe this is ever going to happen. I think that he’s tied up in this because it will result in a slow suicide by train robbery.
Is Cullen completely done with his mission of vengeance, or is he just putting that on hold?
The revenge plot—the thing is, you can’t do six seasons of hunting the one-armed man. That’s just not a TV show. So eventually, you have to become interested in what it is about the character that makes him hunt for the one-armed man. He’s a man who can’t stop fighting wars, and the reasons behind that I think are going to become more clear in the second season and hopefully even more clear in the third and the fourth.
The second season is all about the question of, "What is this thing inside of me that is making me do this, and why am I here? Why do I have this driving ambition to do this impossible task?" So the revenge plot is not going to play as heavily in the second season as it did in the first, but we’ve actually been talking about how that’s going to come back around in later seasons.
Do you have to find sympathy for the character you’re playing?
Hell no. Hell no. I don’t care about sympathy. I care about playing a character who’s understandable and clear. It’s like, where would AMC be if they’d asked the same question about Walter White? When Matt Weiner was talking about Jon Hamm’s character in Mad Men, and he was asked a similar question by NPR—well, when your best friend makes a mistake and develops an addiction or gets divorced, do you turn your back and walk away from that friend, or do you become more involved in their life? And I thought that was a very intelligent answer.
Do you think viewers are more drawn to these conflicted, morally ambiguous characters?
I don’t think it has to do with morals, because morality is a shifting ground. I think that they’re interested in the fact that they can watch a human being who is well fleshed- and rounded-out. That’s one of the benefits of long-arc television drama is you have time to play a human being and not a hero or a villain, or some other archetype. And I would say that that’s the primary difference between doing television and film—and I’ve become spoiled. [laughs] But I love it. I love finding as many different facets of the character to expose.
Do you plan out your arc for the season before you start filming?
You know what, it’s impossible because we’re not in the writers’ room. Even the writers, they have ideas of where they want the season to end up, but because of what happens in the story and how characters develop throughout the season, they often come out at a very different point than where they thought they would. So we’re actually trying to figure that out as well.
Have you been surprised by where Cullen has ended up? Did you have any idea what his arc might be when you started Hell on Wheels?
You know, it’s hard to remember what I imagined. I’m so involved in it right now. I mean, I read a couple of books on the construction of the transcontinental railroad, and had a couple conversations with the writers on what they were thinking. But nobody’s really sure, so I didn’t really have a strong opinion of where it would be in the second season, but I’m happy with where we’ve gotten to.
In terms of the other characters Cullen interacts with, will they be fearful of him and keeping their distance because of what he did, or will they want to get rid of him?
I think that there’s a bit of that at the beginning of the season definitely, when he comes back to Hell on Wheels he has to find a way to regain the workers’ respect. But eventually, he becomes a leader again in Hell on Wheels because he’s capable of doing what other men are not. So despite the fact that it rubs people the wrong way, that’s what’s necessary to get the railroad built.
He becomes the head of security in Hell on Wheels, and it’s an interesting because justice—just like morals—is on a shifting ground. In Hell on Wheels, justice is necessarily not what’s right and wrong, justice is what gets the railroad built. And that’s a really great opportunity to discuss morals and ethics and have different people’s ambitions bump up against one another.
Lily and Cullen have a really interesting relationship—she was really trying to humanize him and pull him away from this mission of vengeance. Can their relationship proceed now that he’s gone to such a dark place?
Yeah, I think that it’s going to be good. You’ve got Lily now formally working for the railroad and here’s this guy, he’s been robbing it. It’s definitely something she’ll have to get past. But there’s something about those two characters—they understand each other. There’s something about Lily that calms Cullen down in a way that nobody else does. And the only other person who was able to do that was his wife, so in a very roundabout way, she does remind him of his wife.
And there comes a time in the second season—the whole second season, Cullen is being questioned as to why he’s still at the railroad, and it’s a good question. There comes a certain point at which he thinks he’s there because of someone else, and that may turn out to be the case, and it may not.
The show can be heavily physical at times. What were some of the biggest filming challenges in terms of the physicality?
Not so much this season, other than continuing to eat the right things and stay in shape. Last season, the biggest difficult challenge was the boxing match—just getting in shape for that and training on the weekends. We shot that scene for the majority of three days. I accidentally clocked Common a couple of times, jammed my toe—it was a rough one. [laughs] But no huge physical challenges this season, not to say that it’s not physical.
I think it’s a smart show that’s about something specific set in a fantastic framework—that’s AMC. It’s not conflicted characters. That’s too broad. I think that if anything, it’s about something very, very specific. Breaking Bad, it’s about ego. Our show, if we’re doing our jobs right, it’s a show about ambition. It’s set in the best framework that you can possibly imagine which is the construction of the transcontinental railroad, which was an impossible engineering feat—it was done by mostly uneducated men who had been trying to kill each other or own each other months before. You cannot find a more American story in an American framework, and an American subject, than this.
Hell on Wheels returns for Season 2 on Sunday, August 12 at 9pm on AMC.