When you conjure up a mental image of the iconic American
cowboy, it wouldn't be too surprising if he looks a whole lot like
This is not just because Mount has spent the last two years
starring in the best western currently on TV, AMC's Hell on
Wheels, a dusty, downbeat and dramatic look at the building of
the railroads in the Old West. Mount has the rugged, manly,
slightly hardened look of a frontiersman, making him a natural to
play the show's flawed hero Cullen Bohannon.
Mount not only had the look for the genre, but he also had
the love for it. This made the role of an imperfect former Confederate
soldier who winds up being a huge part of the birth of the railroads
even more of a perfect fit for Mount.
"I can honestly say it was the best pilot script I had ever
read," Mount says. "I'd been dreaming of doing a western for about
two years. The thing that intrigued me is that it was a
Southern protagonist who was not stereotyped in any way. That I
just loved, because that is a very rare thing in the industry
Mount is proud of his southern heritage. In fact, much
like his character of Cullen Bohannon, Mount's great-great
grandfather was an officer in the Confederate army. Mount was brought
up in an athletic household. He is the son of the well-known
late sportswriter of the same name. His mother was a professional
golfer. In many ways, Mount had a typical southern childhood,
hanging with friends, playing games, listening to music. He also grew up watching
Westerns on TV.
"When I was a kid growing up, we had five channels," Mount
explains. "We had PBS, CBS, NBC, ABC and the local UHF channel.
The local UHF channel, on Sunday afternoons after church, you'd have
a double header of a martial arts film and a western. So I grew up
a huge fan of Sergio Leone and
Boetticher and all those guys. You know, [John] Wayne. I just
think it's a quintessentially American genre."
And yet, while Mount has the look of those archetypal
American heroes, he's not sure that he really has the attitude.
kind of a nerd," Mount laughs. "I'm getting thrown into a lot of
these quintessentially male roles, which I find very flattering, but
I'm still a geek at heart. I read a lot. I still have a very
informal Dungeons & Dragons group. That's something that people
would be surprised of, I guess. It's hard, because all my friends
are married and have jobs, so we only manage to get together about
five times a year. I also have a two camping trip a year deal with
me and my best friends. It's the way I recharge my battery and it
is very necessary for me to do what I do."
Mount found his passion for acting in the theater
department of his undergraduate university, Sewanee: The University
of the South. "I am continually nostalgic for that place," Mount
says. "It is a beautiful, beautiful campus on a mountain in rural
Tennessee. I try to get down there as often as I can."
Even before that, he had long been a fan of films and great acting.
As much as he was inspired by the westerns he grew up
watching, he also took inspiration from a huge spectrum of films.
In fact, the performance that first opened his eyes to the power of
acting was in a movie which could not have been more different.
"The performance that astounded me the most when I was in
high school was in probably the last movie I saw with my father
before he died," Mount recalls. "My father was a huge classical
music buff. He took me to see Amadeus. In that movie, F.
Murray Abraham was just jaw-droppingly good. I had an opportunity
to meet him at the Sutton Place Hotel in Vancouver just like a year
and a half ago. He was just the nicest fellow. We had several
friends in New York theater in common. It was just a really
interesting full circle experience for me."
This wide range of genres has been a constant, not just as
an actor, but also as a fan.
"If Amadeus comes on, I can't turn it off. I'm a
huge Kubrick fan. Two of my best friends just came up to visit me
here and [Hell on Wheels co-star and rapper] Common had never
seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, so we screened that for him.
I've seen all of Kubrick's films multiple times."
When he graduated from college, Mount threw himself into a
varied career that included movies like Poolhall Junkies, Boiler
Room, City By the Sea and All the Boys Love Mandy Lane.
He also worked regularly on TV, starring in such series as
Conviction and Third Watch and guest starring on everything
from Law & Order to Sex & the City.
"For me it all comes down to the quality of the material,"
Mount has also become a respected writer, penning the plays
"Atomic City" and "Love Liza." He also has two screenplays in
development, Pure Fantasy and Hysteria.
before Hell on Wheels, Mount was probably best known for
another one of his career surprises. He played the male lead and
pop star Britney Spears' love interest in the 2002 film
"Man, I swear to God, it's going to be etched on my
tombstone: 'Worked in movie with Britney Spears,'" Mount laughs.
"Well, first of all, it was a fantastic experience working with all
of those ladies. I really like it when a film has a lot of female
voices involved. Tamra Davis was our director. Ann Carli was our
producer. I felt so safe. [And] Zoe [Saldana] and Taryn
[Manning]. Britney was just an absolute dream to work with. She
was completely prepared, completely collaborative. She was on time,
polite, responsible and mature. I loved working with her.
"I was working on a movie with Robert De Niro (City By
the Sea) at the time and somehow my name got brought up. I was
asked to have a meeting with the producer and the director. I
thought they were going to audition me. I was running lines with
Robert De Niro on set," Mount laughs again. "Then I went, and it
was just a meeting. We just talked and the next day Brit came to
visit me on set. We had a conversation and the next thing I know,
they asked me to do the job. I thought, hey, why not?"
He was not quite so laissez-faire when the
opportunity for Hell on Wheels presented itself. As a
western fan and a lover of the great outdoors, this was a
"Man, we are on 40,000 acres of usable set," Mount smiles.
"I'm on a horse that's got his own ideas about things. I'm shooting
real guns. I've got a great, great cast. It's almost like I don't
have to act. It's wonderful."
Continuing Mount's interest in diversity, Hell on Wheels
has a cast which comes from all angles. There is a beloved
Irish character actor (Colm Meaney), a rapper-turned-actor (Common),
a gorgeous leading lady (Dominique McElligott) and a cult film
favorite (Tom Noonan).
"We have a great time together," Mount says. "We often go
out together. About once a year we organize a group float down the
Bow River. I can honestly say that at this point, everybody loves
being at work. We have a really fun time together."
As Hell on Wheel's third season starts, the show
will in some ways be starting anew. Hell on Wheels, the town where
the series takes place, was burnt to the ground at the end of the
second season. Considering the huge expenditure of work and budget
to redo the Canadian sets that had been so painstakingly built over
the past few years, it showed that the series had gained the trust
of the network to follow its muse.
It also showed that the series had something else: "A
subsidized budget to cover the expense of building a new set," Mount
Mount took the opportunity to change things up in the show very
"There are a couple of things that I was very adamant about
wanting to do this season," Mount explains. "One is, from a
at the end of season two hit such rock bottom that there are only
two places to go: death – you know, the gun in the mouth – or he has
to figure out a way to crawl out of this rock bottom place and begin
to rebuild his soul. That determines a certain amount of
maturation. That's been my catch phrase for this season for
"In terms of the world, I feel that since the pilot we had
lost track of the sense of this enterprise being a mobile
production," Mount continues. "A mobile enterprise. A mobile
business. So I've been really hitting the writers and production
hard about helping to bring the urgency of the movements of this
construction project into the plot and the mise
I think that we're succeeding."
Indeed they are. However, the series is a drama and shows
the emotional arc of Cullen Bohannon. Life is shooting arrows at
him and some will hit flesh. Beyond the loss of the town, the
season two finale also included the death of Lily Bell (Dominique
McElligott), the first woman who seemed to be a potential salvation
for Cullen since his wife was murdered in the back story lead up to
the first season. So,
will Cullen Bohannon ever find love and settle down a bit?
"I would answer that in a more broad way than perhaps
you're looking for," Mount acknowledges. "I believe that at the end
of this series, I want one of two things to happen. I don't know
how, but I either want Cullen to gain the world and lose his soul or
vice versa. I don't know how to paint that. That's not my job.
I'll leave it to the writers. But in my mind, it's one of those two
And will Cullen go back to trying to find the murderer of
"Maybe," Mount allows. "Maybe. We haven't been exploring
that recently, but it's certainly a part of the history of the
character and therefore is always up for discussion."
Of course, Bohannon has no shortage of bad guys to keep up
with. The third season is previewed with an amusing scene in which
Bohannon tries to hang The Swede, the man who killed Lily Bell, from
a railroad bridge. However, the bad guy jumps off into the
river below before the noose is
Mount is a little coy as to how this plot thread will play
out, but he does laughingly acknowledge this: "Well, I'll say two
things. Number one, a network as smart as AMC is never going to
fire an actor as good as Christopher Heyerdahl. And number two,
Another man from Bohannon's past who we have to wait for is
Durant (Colm Meaney), the former boss of the railways. Durant ended the
last season in jail, with his town, his railroad and his dreams burnt to the ground.
"Colm has a fantastic arc to play this season," Mount says,
excitedly. "He has to play a man who has literally lint in his
pockets. You see him use nothing but his intelligence to
orchestrate his rise back up the ladder. It's great."
on the series has given Mount a whole new respect for the
visionaries who created the railways.
"My bible for this show is a book called Nothing Like It
In the World, by Stephen Ambrose," Mount explains. "He's the
same fellow that wrote Band of Brothers. This is pretty much
the only book [he wrote] on a non-military subject. Once you read
the book, you realize why he wrote it and it really is a military
subject. Most of the guys that built this were either former Union
soldiers or former Confederate soldiers. A lot of the people
running the show were former Union Generals. They conducted it very
much like a military operation. It was, at the time, the single
greatest engineering project in the history of mankind. When the
plans were announced, most engineers all over the world laughed. It
was like Kennedy saying in 1960 that we were going to put a man on
Of course, in the 1860s, when Hell on Wheels takes
place, just getting to New York was almost as difficult a trip as
that long-in-the-future moon shot. But, during season three,
Bohannon will visit that far-off city, which back then was much more
rural than the urban metropolis of today. Still, realizing the setting
of old New York turned out to be a little more complicated than the
show originally had hoped.
"All credit for that goes to our production designer John
Blackie," Mount says. "We were set up to use the sets on Copper
[a TV series for BBC America, which also takes place in the mid-late
1800s] for a few days, in exchange for letting them use our
railway. At the last minute, the lawyers on their side pulled the
plug on it. So we were left scrounging, trying to figure out how we
were going to do this in Calgary. We did it with some very smart
location choices and some very well done green screen. I should
also mention credit also goes to our CG house, Fuse and our graphics
supervisor, Bill Kent."
The series seems to be fleet on its feet, able to make
deals like that on the fly. For example, through a mutual love of
social media, Mount was able to convince famed country musician
Charlie Daniels to do a song for the show.
"Charlie and I follow each other on Twitter," Mount
explains. "He had mentioned that he was a fan of the show a couple
of times. So I sent him a direct message. I said: 'I'm sorry, I
have to ask. Would you be interested in writing a song for the
show?' He wrote back, 'Sure, what do you want?' So I put him in
touch with the show runner and he did it absolutely for free. All
he asked for in return is I play a round of golf with him sometime."
Mount also had the chance to get his sister a role on the
"She came up for a visit and I said: 'Hey, I'm going to
turn you into a whore,'" Mount says. "How often can you say that to
your sister and actually follow through on it? We put her in the
background in episode five and she had a really good time."
As is Mount himself. And with a respected, popular series
on AMC – the cable home for such acclaimed hits as Mad Men, The
Killing and Breaking Bad – Mount is leading the way in
yet another frontier. Where once film or network TV were the
dream destinations of actors, now it seems that the most interesting
work is coming out of cable and download.
"I think that a lot of artists are moving into television
for one reason primarily: they're paying," Mount admits. "In film,
there are really only about five big movie stars that get big pay
days. The same goes for directors and cinematographers and
editors. So you've got a lot of people that have mortgages to pay
that are looking to TV going, 'Well, hell, they're paying.' So a
lot of the talent has started to gravitate. But the talent's pay is
still the talent's pay.
"The obvious answer to why they are all going to cable is
because there is better material on cable. Now why is there better
material on cable? I can't say that I know the answer to this, but
I guess that the answer is that cable tends to be smaller operations
and therefore there are fewer fingers in the soup. Therefore the
soup is less tainted."
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