On the new AMC series Hell on Wheels, Anson Mount plays his kind of guy. Not in the sense that he’s particularly fond of ex-Confederate soldiers (his character fought on the wrong side of the Civil War and is now on a quest to avenge his wife’s death), but in the sense that he’s bearded, grungy, slightly immoral, and roaming the Western frontier. We spoke with Mount about why the character appeals to him, what he’s learned about Reconstruction from doing the show, and why he was “praying” for a Western.
Your character is guy with a lot on his mind, to say the least. When you got the script, what struck you first about it?
As a Southern man, I’m always struck by a Southern role that’s not stereotyped or villainized or aggrandized. Not just that, but a period Southern character tends to be more stereotyped in Hollywood. It obviously dodged all those bullets.
Was there anything about the time period that made you take notice?
First of all, about three years ago I started praying to the universe or whatever that I wanted to do Westerns. I feel like God has paid me back in spades and is even at times laughing at me. Definitely, the time period [was interesting]. I was raised in the South here, and the interest in that [era] borders on religious. So I was raised in a thorough education in the Civil War. But what I was not educated in that well was Reconstruction. Your history class tends to focus on the Civil War, and then it was really unpleasant for a while and then we had World War I. It’s a very masculine way of looking at history. So I needed to do some brushing up when it came to Reconstruction, and I’m glad that I did. It was fascinating.
What did you find out that you didn’t know before?
I definitely did not realize that the transcontinental railroad was the engineering feat of the nineteenth century. Once I read Stephen Ambrose’s Nothing Like It in the World, I realized there really is no arguing that. Everyone said it was impossible. When Lincoln said we were going to do this, everybody laughed; it was like Kennedy saying we’re going to put a man on the moon. Then [Lincoln] died and was martyred and Congress got behind it and federal subsidies kicked in, and you had all these out-of-work soldiers that needed to do something. Slowly people started to realize it could happen, then it captured the nation’s imagination.
Why were you praying to do a Western?
Acting for me is about playing. I’m one of those actors that happens to think that acting is like playing. It’s about having fun. It’s about the process of telling a story. I grew up with a plastic Sheriff’s badge and a plastic gun, and I played cowboys and Indians from the time I was 4 or 5 years old. I don’t know. You just look around at the kind of things you want to do. At a certain point, I wanted to ride a horse again. I wanted to do something period and dirty. I’m just a big fan of Westerns. I guess it was the remake of 3:10 to Yuma I saw; as soon as I saw that, I was like, “Yeah, I want do that.”
Knowing the reputation of AMC, did you feel any additional pressure? Because it’s the network of high-quality shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad?
No, you can’t think about any of that if you’re going to do your job, no matter where you are and whatever your situation. You know, I could sit around on a horse and be scared shitless, but that’s not going to do the show any good, it’s not going to do [my character] any good, and it’s not going to do me any good. With that said, it’s weird seeing my face on billboards. But if I sit around and let that manifest itself as pressure — it’s not accurate and it’s just fear. My job is over, man. I spent the summer on a horse and had a damn good time. I’m happy to talk about it. But even after we get done talking about it, it’s got to air. And between you and me, I’m going camping. I have a two-camping-trip-a-year deal with my best friends, and we’re getting to it a little late this year. But we’re going to go out to Pennsylvania and camp for four days.
How do you want this role to define your career?
I like being able to be a man. In the last two or three decades, there’s been a feminization of the man in popular media that I’ve never really understood. I appreciate being able to play a man. I’m not just saying that in a sense that I think it’s an aggrandizement of being a man to play this character. It’s a man, with warts and all. When I say a man I mean someone who is portrayed with all their faults and not just groomed and manicured and polished and smiles all the time. A man. Believe it or not, it’s hard to find these roles these days.
When you’re talking about feminization, is it just a guy who’s well groomed and smiles all the time?
Yeah, the whole metrosexual movement. I don’t know if it comes from being in a culture that’s relatively wealthy or moderately comfortable or if it’s just aesthetics. At a certain point in my career, I looked at myself and realized, “Fuck. I’m living in L.A. and I’m dyeing my hair and I’m going to the gym every day, and without realizing it I’m trying to be the best-looking guy in the room all the time.” First of all, it has nothing to do with what I actually do. Second of all, I didn’t like that aspect of myself. So I was like, I got to get the fuck away from this and just be me, and stop dyeing my hair and stop grooming myself so much and just focus on the roles I’m interested in and not this beauty pageant that’s going on. As soon as I did that, I was happier as an actor and I was working a lot more as an actor. I had more to offer. I was in my element.