With his grizzled charm, weary compassion, and raw vulnerability, Cullen Bohannon of AMC’s Hell on Wheels is storming his way into the ranks of great Western protagonists faster than a Native American siege on a railroad town. Thanks in no small part to the layered performance of stage and screen veteran Anson Mount, this Saturday marks the exciting two-hour return of everyone's favorite ex-Confederate plantation owner... turned gunslinger... turned train baron... and his fight for clarity in a brutal, changing world.
Far away from hungry pigs, tent whores, and mad Swedes, Mount was nice enough to spare a few minutes recently for a chat about weird fans, what's in store for Season 3, and why "doing" is better than "feeling."
Are you on set right now up in Canada, or on hiatus?
I am in my apartment doing a load of laundry so that I can go to the airport and fly to the TCAs. Yes I’m in Calgary. Yeah. We’re still shooting.
That sucks about the set flooding. Was there any kind of silver lining?
No. We got through it. We lost five days, but we were scheduled to have a hiatus anyway, and we got in there—the crew all pitched in, we got the set rebuilt. People who weren’t even necessarily carpenters we’re out there helping to get things going again. We lost five days of production and our insurance is covering it, so we’re fine.
The actual sets look like a constructed town that’s exposed to the elements. Does that open-air-ness affect the storytelling or energy of the show?
If it did we’d all be schizophrenic at this point, because the weather changes every fifteen minutes. We’re a mile up and near a mountain range, so I’m not joking—the weather will change every fifteen. So no, we don’t have time to think about that. We have a very, very competent director of photography who can help us deal with it.
Well I’m a huge fan of the show. Outside of covering it for TV.com I’m kind of a Western nut, and it’s awesome. Largely in part to your performance, but it’s a great cast, and a gritty setting, and I love the themes and everything. Why do you think this season will be the best season so far?
I think that there is—well first of all, I think we’re benefitting from the history of the last two seasons. Which were beautifully drawn by the Gaytons [creators Joe and Tony Gayton] and John Shiban. So first I have to say that. But then, we’ve got a great—an immediate reversal of power, starting at the beginning of the season where suddenly Cullen Bohannon is running things and Durant is a man who is penniless. And you get to see Durant with nothing in his pockets, use nothing but his intelligence to gain—to start pulling together power again. And it's a really a wonderfully charted course for both of them.
It’s also a season of maturation for Cullen. We’re taking our time, and yet at the same time we’re regaining the sense of this being a mobile enterprise, which it was. And so there’s going to be a lot more excitement in terms of the progress of the railroad and the competition between us—the Union Pacific, and the Central Pacific which is coming from California. We’re benefitting from the familiarity that all of us have gotten with our characters as well at this point, and we’re operating on an instinctual level like we never have before, and work is just fun. It’s just fun now. I really think the performances are just off the charts this year. I’m excited for people to see it.
I can only imagine where you’re taking it this third season. Going back to Cullen being in charge—how does he reconcile being in charge of the "beast" that took away his second chance at happiness with Lily Bell?
Well, Lily Bell was not taken away from him by the railroad. Lily Bell was taken away from him by his own negligence, his own hubris, and his own addiction. It wasn't even the Swede. Now he can easily blame the Swede and he would—I mean, he would kill the Swede. But I think there’s something in him that’s starting to recognize that it’s his ambition that is allowing everything that’s been placed on his back burners—and this is something that men do a lot, particularly successful men. Everything that’s been placed on the back burners tends to slide away at a certain point, if you’re not watching it. That’s what happened to his family when he left for the war he didn’t have to fight in, and that happened with Lily Bell. He had a choice and he knows that, he recognizes that. He had a choice to stay and protect the town and Lily, or go and protect the bridge. And he went and protected the bridge.
So is he conscious of his ambition?
This season is about consciousness.
My mandate for this season is I wanted to see a kind of maturation process of Cullen which is a much harder thing to act than... killing. And so that’s become part of the process. The thing is, for lack of a better word for it, Cullen Bohannon has post-traumatic stress disorder. And what a lot of people who have PTSD do to deal with it is, they just keep fighting. They’re addicted to fighting. They just fight, and fight, and fight and they’re comfortable within conflict. That’s where Cullen Bohannon is, and his new war is the building of the railroad. He’s learned one thing, he’s learned that that metaphor he always makes, that building this railroad is fighting a war, is not perfect. Because (laughing) we learned at the end of Season 2 he’s not exactly correct in that assumption.
Yeah it’s kind of a generalization—
What he’s been doing, he’s been pushing all of everything that needs examination in his life, he’s been pushing it into his blind spot. When that blind spot fills up, 'til you have to start looking at these things, one of two things happens: You figure out a way to deal with it, or you go down whatever the rabbit hole is for you. It’s either some kind of addiction usually, or it’s insanity. And you see him at the beginning of Season 3 unable to push things into his blind spot anymore. He is on the brink of insanity. And so season three is a process of him learning to look at some of these things. And I hope I’ve succeeded.
Do you think he’s headed toward some kind of ultimate peace?
I don’t know man, and it’s not for me to decide. It’s like you asking me, "Shat do I think should happen to me next week?" (laughing) I don’t know. It’d be a boring life if I knew that. My gut is that either Cullen Bohannon is going to gain his soul and lose the world, or vice versa. That’s what my gut’s telling me, but we haven’t even begun to discuss it.
Well he’s right up there with Don Draper and Walter White, so no offense to Cullen Bohannon but I kind of hope he loses his soul and gains the world.
As you know, our site is TV.com and like the name suggests we kind of obsess over TV shows. You’re probably aware there’s tons of sites like this—that just pick apart details. Can you go too far as an obsessive fan?
Is there going too far in fandom? Yeah, I think there is. Look, I choose to participate in social media for better or worse. Even if you want to print my Twitter handle, I wouldn’t mind (@ansonmount). It’s fine. I do that. But you know, I get people writing me sometimes demanding me to answer their problems with our scripts. I don’t really feel, first of all that that’s my department, and second of all—I mean maybe my identity to them is the show but I’m just an actor. You know? I get people asking me for jobs (laughing), which I think is ridiculous. I don’t take any of it seriously so it doesn’t bother me too much. But I am kind of flabbergasted at what I read sometimes. I got to say, as a man, just because I’m a man, and if you’re a woman—to be sent sexualized comments, to be sort of objectified sexually in a public sphere, it’s not okay just 'cause I’m a man. You know? It’s as uncool as if I were a woman.
Sure, that’s objectification of a human being.
When you’re portraying Cullen Bohannon, there’s these moments, these flashes of vulnerability. A good example would be at the very end of Season 2 when the Swede’s rope slips through Cullen’s hands and his eyes flash with panic. How do you decide the expressive threshold that exists within Bohannon? How do you choose what reactions he has internally that are going to manifest through physical action?
Whoa that’s a deep question, bro. (laughing) You know I teach acting at Columbia University, in the MFA Acting program. When my students get to me they’re in their third year, and they’re wanting so badly to succeed. They’re working so hard, and they’re often working too hard. I tell them I’m not so interested in what you’re feeling. I’m not interested in that as an actor. I’m interested in what you’re doing. What it is that you’re wanting to accomplish, and why you’re wanting to accomplish it, and then trusting that whatever emotion is appropriate will be there. Your body in some way will recall it, or feel it. I think that too many modern actors are on a mission to feel something deep. I don’t go around the world—I don’t walk out my front door everyday going, "Gosh, I hope I feel sadness today," or "I hope I feel..." you know? "I hope I feel vengeance today." (laughing) I think about what I want to accomplish that day. So that’s the first answer to your question. The other thing is that if I’m adamant about one thing with my writers it's that I tell them constantly I’m not interested in playing strong heroes. If you want that I’m not your guy. I’m not interested in strength as much as I am in weakness. Because I don’t think strength is remotely interesting. I want to play weak heroes. If that makes any sense whatsoever.
With that, I’ll let you get on with your laundry.
Absolutely, hey thanks for being a fan of the show man, it means a lot.
Oh no, I’m so psyched. I can’t wait to watch the screeners.
Oh cool man, I hope you enjoy it. I can honestly say I think that the second hour is one of the best episodes of TV we’ve ever made.
Alright man, well you have a good one.
Alright bro, you too.
Hell on Wheels' third season premieres this Saturday, August 10 at 9pm on AMC.