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Anson Mount, who plays Hell on Wheels leading man Cullen Bohannon, spoke with AMCtv.com about working with smart horses and remembering his Civil War veteran great-great-great grandfather.
Q: The Hell on Wheels camp is so realistic. Did it feel as hectic as it looks?
A: Oh my god, it's incredibly hectic. You're dealing with horses and tons of extras, and the weather in Alberta is crazy. They say if you don't like the weather, just wait five minutes. It'll change. There was one day when we started with blue skies and then it went overcast and then we got rain and then it hailed and then snowed and then it rained again and then it was overcast for the rest of the day.
Q: How much did you know about this chapter of American history prior to the show?
A: I grew up in the South, so a huge part of our American History education revolved around the Civil War. But the Reconstruction didn't have quite as much focus, so I needed to go back and do some of my own research. There's a great book by Stephen Ambrose called Nothing Like It In the World. It's been sort of our bible. That helped a lot.
Q: You've played a number of clean-shaven boyfriends in the past. How much of a draw was playing a gritty outlaw?
A: Yeah, that's a really good question. A couple of years ago, I got tired of playing those clean-cut characters because I'd done it. I was bored. And I just decided to start going for roles that I wanted to play, not the ones they wanted to see me in. I moved back to New York and let my hair grow out a little bit. I was pursuing my interest in acting instead of what other people wanted me to do.
Q: Did it feel risky, changing up your career like that?
A: Yeah, it was risky in a lot of ways. I had to make the decision that I'm willing to wait tables again, I'm willing to check my ego at the door so that I can get back into theater. Luckily, I didn't have to do that.
Q: Did you learn how to shoot a gun for the show?
A: I grew up hunting with shotguns and rifles, and we had a gun in every corner of the living room. I'm not a gun advocate, but that's the way I grew up. I was respectful of them and had a good parent.
Q: How is Cullen's Griswold different from the guns you grew up with?
A: It was a Griswold replica. Unless you're willing to throw down $40,000, it's one of the most difficult period guns to find, because when they were making guns during the Confederacy they didn't [use enough] steel. Most of them are rusted way. There's only about fifteen left. I only grew up with shotguns and rifles, so [the Griswold] is just a different animal. It's a lot more compact and it's designed for killing a man, not for hunting.
Q: Did you know how to ride a horse before the show?
A: I grew up in a place where a lot of my friends had horses, so I grew up riding. But I'm not an expert. The wranglers here have really taken their time to show me the finer points of riding a horse and how to handle a horse on set, which is very different from handling a horse on a ranch.
Q: How is it different?
A: You gotta learn how the horse thinks. There are two things: One, they're smarter than you think. They will learn what the word "action" means. They will learn what you want them to do after the first take, and they wanna get the job done and go home, so you got to stop using the word action and use some other kind of word. And also, you learn that there is no layer between a horse's instinct and behavior, so if a horse starts thinking, "I'm tired, I wanna go home," it exhibits it.
Q: Did any of your ancestors fight in the Civil War?
A: Yeah, I have a great-great-great-grandfather who was a Confederate cavalry colonel, and I still have his military composite photo on my wall. The chemicals in the photo tint have changed over the years to the point that he looks green. One of my family members apparently still has the piece of paper that listed every thing in his pocket when he got shot.