Anson Mount Talks Bohannon’s Journey and Hell on Wheels So Far [Exclusive]
Saturday night, Hell on Wheels wraps up its fifth season’s first batch of episodes with a quieter hour than we usually get as the discussion about the railroad boils down to a meeting in SLC between the key players for both sides, plus Brigham Young and the POTUS, Ulysses S. Grant. It’s been quite the journey to get us here, and this morning, I had the chance to chat one on one with the man at the center of the story, series star and executive producer, Anson Mount, better known in the Hell on Wheels universe as Cullen Bohannon. The cast and crew are hard at work filming the final episodes that will air next year, so we couldn’t dive too far into what’s next, but we had a long talk about the road so far.
At the heart of the show, Bohannon has been beholden to the railroad, and Mount says that dedication has never been about money for his character. It’s more about grabbing onto something to pull himself out of a personal struggle. “The thing I’ve always said about Bohannon, from a place of authority [is that] Bohannon doesn’t give a shit about money. He doesn’t care about money. And so far that claim has held true. It’s not a driving force,” he explains. “It allows him to see things differently than other people. It’s how he’s been able to negotiate his way around the enterprise. It colors where he’s going because he’s completely free of that. It doesn’t make him more noble, or better or worse. It’s just of no interest.”
“For everyone else except Bohannon, this show is about American hubris, the idea is that at some point a group of people decided to lay tracks across the entre continent. That was like Kennedy saying we’re going to put a man on the moon. This is a show about standing up, about getting back on your feet. What we have [in Bohannon] is a character trying to get through what you and I would call PTSD.”
“This is a man coming from a war who has seen so much destruction, and is continuing his destruction, when he comes across this construction project where they’re trying to build the railroad and he becomes addicted. [People with PTSD sometimes] recover by becoming addicted to an act of creation…pretty much to the distraction of all the loved ones around them. So Bohannon, unfortunately, his construction project is not a ship in a bottle, it happens to be the largest construction project of the 19th century.”
In the third season, Mount took on the additional role of producer, and he says that arose out of a growing need to have a little more control over the end product. “As I’ve gotten older, it’s made less and less sense to me to send footage off to an editor I’ve never met who may very well be younger than me,” he says. “I’ve started to be forward about wanting to be part of the process from beginning to end. That’s for my movies as well.”
“We got very lucky that John Wirth came in [for season three after] we lost all of our showrunners at the end of the second season. He’s a good leader. I learned a lot from him. He came in to steer the helm halfway through a journey. He wanted to engage me. Starting in the third season, I was involved in casting and editorial. That’s where my two talents lie. Outside of that, I’ve been watching our other producers and learning. And I’ve mostly learned that casting and editorial are where my talents have remained. I’m not suddenly going to be amazingly talented at staffing or line producing or budgeting.”
Wearing that producer hat didn’t give Mount an advance inside track from season to season on where Bohannon would head the following year, but it did allow him to participate in the discussion and help shape the direction once each season ramped up. “There’s always this moment where John and I would have a conversation. ‘We need to think about what’s at the heart of this. Where does Bohannon need to go that he’s not been?’ Trying to figure out the phases, the development of a human being is an act of hubris to a degree. You have to be very specific about where you want this person to go.”
One of his favorite casting coups is finding one of our favorites, Jonathan Scarfe, who played [the hell out of] Sidney Snow last season. He was so good in his audition tape, recorded while he was sailing the world with his family, that Mount and one of the producers were sure he was from Alabama. “We’ve been so lucky. We’ve gotten so fortunate. Because I’m producing, I’m on the e-mail chain with the auditions. I’m watching a series of auditions where I’m arbitrarily wincing at the bad Southern accents and generalizations,” he recalls. “Up pops this video [of Scarfe]. I’m willing to bet he’s from Mobile, Alabama. He’s genuine. Mark Richard, who was an executive last year says, ‘I’m not sure he’s from Mobile, I’m going to argue he’s from Montgomery.'”
“[After we cast him, I found out] he is from Toronto. He has the most incredible ear of anybody I’ve ever worked with, and an understanding that being Southern is not just a matter of changing the way you say the words. He got the Southern man down, the sense of humor and all. It was a joy to work with him. He came in and immediately became part of the family.”
I asked about another favorite arc from season four, and the scenes with Ruth in her final episode. When I chatted with Kasha Kropinksi last year, we discussed the lack of physicality between Ruth and Bohannon, and she said she wasn’t aware of it as a conscious choice. Mount reveals that it was, and it was grounded in Bohannon’s larger struggle. “Kasha is one of the loveliest human beings [and] a beautifully instinctual actress. On my part, and the part of the writers and the director, it was a conscious choice,” he admits. “We did need to talk about the fact [beforehand]. I don’t think you’d notice it was a conscious choice if we hadn’t discussed that.”
“There’s something in Bohannon that does [want to touch her]. What works is that despite that, Cullen has the maturity in that scene to say, ‘No there’s something else here–God the universe, a larger consideration.’ If there’s one success that he has in that season, it is that, in continuing to search for something that is larger and more important than anything immediate.”
While we were chatting, Mount received an e-mail from Wirth with the good news that the ratings have spiked upward for the last two episodes, and he’s not sure whether to attribute that to the just-concluded Omaze campaign for Fight DMD (Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy), or the AMC campaign around having a shorter season and fixed finale. “One thing that AMC does well is getting the word out that it’s a third act. What they’re doing very well is creating a sense of impending nostalgia–this an event. We’re choosing to end this. That’s an event. You get two premieres and two finales,” he says.
“It may also have to do with the campaign we just did [that awarded a lucky entrant with a set visit] that was insane. Last year we raised $171,000. This year we raised $181,000 and we did a local fundraiser. We did about $230,000 total, mostly just through social media. It’s amazing. The side benefit I never considered is that it kind of became a promotional device, and the fans really responded to it. AMC did a few on-air promos. I’ve just had fantastic time working with this company.”
Mount has used social media to help promote the campaign, and his Twitter and Whosay followers are also treated to regular updates, pictures, and videos of his French Bulldog, Mac, who you might recognize from his cameo last year as a pseudo mascot in the brothel. “I had been wanting a dog for years. I wasn’t comfortable enough to buy an apartment until a [about a year and a half ago], and literally the first thing I did after I moved all my stuff in, I started looking to adopt a dog,” he shares. “Because I travel, it needed to be a dog on the smaller side [but masculine]. I felt like a French bulldog was the right dog.”
“There’s a fantastic organization called the French Bulldog Rescue Network They rehome at least a couple hundred Frenchies a year. It’s the place to go for rescue Frenchies. I absolutely will not by a dog from a breeder. When you go to the website, you click on available Frenchies that’s basically a page of headshots. Because Mac’s name starts with an M, he was in the middle.”
“There were was the page of these very handsome, sturdy, pointy-eared, powerful Bulldogs. Right in the middle, there’s this slightly out of focus picture of a Bulldog clearly propped up by someone’s hand, who did not want his picture taken and his tongue is hanging out of his mouth, and I said, ‘OK, who’s that?’ And the rest is history. He loves being here. He gets so much attention on set.”
Check back tomorrow night after the finale for the rest of our interview, where we talk about The Swede, Chang, and where Bohannon is heading in the last seven episodes.
Hell on Wheels marathons episodes 1-6 of this season beginning at 9:30 am/8:30 c Saturday morning. The season finale airs at 9pm/8c on AMC.
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