The Western is the most iconic, uniquely American genre to be churned out of Hollywood. With the debut of “Hell on Wheels,” it might also be the dirtiest.
“There’s a lot of sunburn and dirt and mud. There’s a lot of animals,” leading man Anson Mount says of the Alberta set of the new AMC drama. “And there’s a lot of fake blood.”
Oh, is there ever blood.
Recounting the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad in post-Civil War America, the “Hell on Wheels” tale is one of technological advances, greed, and the plight of Native Americans, newly emancipated African-Americans (including a character played by rapper/actor Common) and immigrants. It’s told through the story of Mount’s character, Cullen Bohannon, a Confederate soldier who heads west to seek revenge for the wartime death of his wife. Far from the romantic notion of the classic Western, this series is a vivid, brutal retelling of historical fact that doesn’t shy away from the ugly actions our nation took in the name of progress.
“The first time I saw the pilot, I turned to the producers and told them, ‘I think we have just made the bloodiest thing ever shot on television,’” Mount says. He believes the series’ attention to the authenticity of this tumultuous period — including its violence and language that is far from politically correct today — is something audiences will appreciate.
“I think people are more interested in reality than just a shiny object,” he says. “I think they are always going to respond to something that is truthful. The American audience is, by and large, a lot smarter than the Hollywood people give them credit for.”
In other words, don’t expect the good guy to ride up on a gleaming white steed with silver spurs and a million-dollar smile in this Western.
The Western is such an icon of Hollywood. Have you always wanted to be in one?
I’m one of those kids that when I was six years old, I had a plastic gun. I’ve been playing cowboys since I was a little kid, so of course I would want to do this.
Cullen isn’t the typical Western hero, though, is he?
Everything that has been concerned with the leading man role, like ever since Superman, has been about the character’s strength. I’m not interested in character’s strength. I’m interested in the weaknesses. If the character has no weaknesses, there is nothing remotely interesting to me. And one thing that I discovered about myself as an actor is that when I’m bored, I’m bad.
Do you see Cullen as a hero or villain or something in between?
I guess he is in the position to be a hero on the TV show because so much focus is put on him, but I don’t see my character purely as a hero or a villain. And like I said before, I think it’s more interesting to see these characters as people. I don’t really want to relate my character. I don’t see a reason. Why would I want him to be me? I became an actor because I want to be somebody else, so I can do some other things. I don’t want to get paid to just be me. So I don’t really want to relate. As an audience member, I don’t want to go to the cinema to see related stories. I just want to be able to understand why the character is doing certain things.
I think there is something in the conflicted hero. I think there’s a reason why the Western is becoming popular again. It’s like in times when we do not know if we can trust out leaders, we ask questions like “Do we have what it takes to trust that guy?” and “And will we have what it takes to answer these questions about what’s right and what’s wrong in the absence of the rule and the law?” And I think to be the character that represents that question is really very cool.
As much as this is an ensemble show, how does it feel to have the focus on you and your character?
From my perspective, I never had so many responsibilities as an actor. You know, I brought my camping equipment to Alberta where we were shooting, but I didn’t even get one moment to go camping. It was a lot of work.
The focus is definitely on me, to a large extent. What’s interesting is that everybody’s hopes and dreams and agendas are somehow tied to this train, this idea, this higher purpose. And this is what that brings all of them together. And at the same time, they are all from different backgrounds, different races, different nationalities.