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AMC continues its anti-hero campaign Sunday with Western drama Hell on Wheels, starring Anson Mount as Cullen Bohannon, a gunslinger who, while sporting a black cowboy hat, can’t really be pigeonholed as either a villain or a hero.
In the story of a former confederate soldier out to seek vengeance against a union soldier for the death of his wife, Cullen winds up in Hell on Wheels, the construction site of the Union Pacific Railroad, thrust into a Reconstruction world of corruption and race politics where the line between right and wrong is impossible to define.
The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Mount to discuss how the ideas of heroes and villains changed after Tony Soprano, how Cullen compares Breaking Bad‘s anti-hero Walter White as well as what viewers can expect from the AMC Western.
The Hollywood Reporter: What attracted you to playing Cullen?
Anson Mount: It’s really rare that you come across a Southern character that’s not stereotyped, vilified or aggrandized. As a Southern man, that was very attractive for me. I was impressed at how all those bullets were dodged. There’s something about the internal conflicts that I thought was playable for a number of seasons. So this guy — what has become the quintessential Western figure, he’s driven by this instinct to balance the scales and he thinks it’s not a choice. The same gut instincts that continue to veer him off of that course, to seek revenge. He gets sidetracked when he’s needed, or when he feels like he needs to balance these other scales along the way. And I feel that’s a real internal struggle that could be playable for a long period of time.
THR: How long do you envision the series running?
Mount: The construction of the railroad itself took six years and that’s a standard TV contract length, so we’ll see. The first season the railroad gets to a certain point but it’s a bit less protracted than you would think.
THR: How much of Cullen’s back story is going to be revealed? What exactly happened to turn him into this renegade?
Mount: You will get different bits of back story that come in different varieties. They come in memory hits — we don’t even call them flashbacks on the show because they’re so short — like pieces of the puzzle. You get his memory hits to let you know what’s motivating him and there are times when you think, “Oh, maybe this isn’t such a bad guy,” and there are other times you think, “Maybe this guy is worse than I thought.” So it comes in the form of memory hits, and it comes in the form of information he reveals at moments when his guard is down.
THR: What will it take for him to drop his guard?
Mount: For this kind of character, it can’t happen when he’s aware of it. It has to come by surprise or come when he’s distracted by something else.
THR: In Cullen’s quest for revenge, does he know who exactly is responsible for his wife’s death or is he just fighting the union at this point?
Mount: He knows exactly who it is. He’s not fighting the war anymore, but really, he is. He has very specific targets. He’s not going to go on a killing spree; he’s not a serial killer. He’s got an agenda of killing, but killing very specific people.
THR: In the pilot, viewers learn that Cullen can kill pretty easily. Does he have morals? Is he an outlaw or is he a hero?
Mount: I don’t think American audiences are in the position of thinking about story lines in terms of hero and villain that much anymore. I think that kind of died out with the early Westerns where the good guys wore the white hats and the bad guys wore the black hats. I think AMC is a place that’s built a reputation on developing conflicted characters and American audiences have responded to that because they’re so tired of everything since Superman and Three’s Company that has laid things out so black and white. I think The Sopranos did an enormous amount for television because of Tony Soprano.
THR: Where do you see Cullen fitting into that grand scale of conflicted characters — is he up in the ranks with Tony Soprano or Walter White on Breaking Bad?
Mount: That’s not for me to say. If I do my job, I don’t care about people relating with my character, and I don’t care about people finding any redemptive qualities. I care about people understanding my character, and if I’ve done my job, then they will and hopefully it will be. And if I haven’t, then it’s time to search the want ads.
THR: How will Cullen adapt to fitting in as he begins work on the railroad at Hell on Wheels?
Mount: The people who built the railroad were former officers in both sides of the military so it was like a war at the time. It was a war against nature and a war against the Plains Indians. Cullen is like a lot of shell-shocked former soldiers who can’t stop fighting a war. He has to be given another war, and the war for him first is revenge for his family. Then another war crops up — it’s embedding himself in the railroad and fighting that war; he also gets infected by the dream that this [railroad] could be possible — that if they can do the first 40 miles, you just have to repeat that over and over again until they get to the Pacific. He gets caught up in a sense of higher purpose.
THR: How does Cullen feel about the newly emancipated African-Americans?
Mount: I don’t think he has an open mind at all. He had three slaves before the war and paid them wages. I think he’s got very ingrained attitudes about station and class and race relations, and they’re going to get challenged. [Cullen and co-star Common‘s Elam Ferguson] do end up getting past the place of animosity. Each of the characters needs something from each other in order to go forward, but it has nothing to do with respect. Not at first. Respect comes grudgingly, and it eventually does come, but not at first.
THR: Who would you say his enemies are? Will he fight corruption on the railroad or he going to become part of the problem?
Mount: That’s the question: He went against the grain originally by freeing slaves, and there comes a moment where he’s asked to fight a war against the Plains Indians. I think he is self-serving to a large degree. The same way Tony Soprano was self-serving to a large degree. But Tony, because he was a family man, he had sense of himself, a sense of hope in people that came from his love of his children that then affected his behavior. I think it’s the same way with Cullen; I think he has to be self-serving to a degree to achieve his aim, but there’s a hope that hasn’t been killed, that there is an intrinsic sense of humanity in everyone. So I don’t think the candle has been put out entirely.
THR: What’s Cullen’s attitude toward women — especially women in power?
Mount: He’s an absolute gentleman. I did study the 19th century etiquette for the role, but his opinion is also that women have absolutely no place in the West. The prostitutes are fine because they can take care of themselves, but the ladies have absolute no place in this world. And that becomes a point of great conflict between him and Lily (Dominique McElliogott). She just doesn’t belong there, and they don’t meet until well into Episode 3. And they hate each other when they first meet because that’s his opinion — that she is getting in the way of what needs to be done and she has no idea what she’s doing out there.
Hell on Wheels premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on AMC.
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