Anson Mount Talks Hell on Wheels, Supremacy and Liberal Arts Education

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Photo by Anne Nicolajsen

Hell on Wheels star Anson Mount and I went to the same college, The University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. I was talking about him with another alum just the other day, and he remarked that he was probably a really great guy, but he was just really difficult to like in school, just because of sheer jealousy. Too good-looking. Too talented. Too smart. I can see that. But fortunately for me, I didn’t go to Sewanee at the same time as Mount, so when we finally spoke—for over an hour—we got along great. In addition to him still being all those things he was in school, even his career is on an enviable track. He’s the star of AMC’s hit series Hell on Wheels, where in his own words, he gets “paid by Yankees to ride horses and shoot guns.” He teaches acting at Columbia University. He keeps getting cast in both big studio films (Non-Stop, Straw Dogs) and interesting indies (Visions, Supremacy). He was even rumored to be one of the final candidates to play Batman. Yes, that Batman. Mount spoke with me recently about the new season of Hell on Wheels, about his role in Deon Taylor’s provocative film, Supremacy, and about the importance of a liberal arts education.

Paste: Let’s talk first about Hell On Wheels, which I am not familiar with. I have not seen it, but I know it is a huge hit. So tell me about what we can expect from the new season.
Mount: So there’s not a lot I can say about the new season that won’t echo what you could say about any season. I hate giving rote answers like a lot of actors do, like, “This is going to be the best season yet. There’s going to be lots of surprises and twists and turns.” I think that what I can tell you is that in following the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, this is at that point in time along the development of the railroad when they came to Wyoming. And both Cheyenne and Laramie were built in preparation of the railroad coming through because the land had already been surveyed.

This is around the time people start realizing this could actually work. When they first started doing it, people were laughing at them. It was like Kennedy announcing in 1960 that he’s going to put a man on the moon. Nobody believed it. But by the time they got into Wyoming, they were like, “Hold on.” You’ve got a lot of profiteers, eventually making these little towns. First of all, there was no space in Wyoming. Second of all, there was no business in setting up a local police force. So by the time they got there, they were filled with criminals, just rife with crime. They actually had to go in and figure out how to empty those towns. And eventually it was the citizens who did it. So we’re doing a whole season in Cheyenne that’s sort of about when you wake up after a long winter and you’re in a bed of criminals. How do you unbed yourself and get working again?

Paste: You know it’s interesting that, anything that is relatively thoughtful, that takes place on the frontier on the edge of civilization and wilderness, I think encourages you to think about the whole idea of society, and what it’s for, and how it works, and why it’s important. Certainly something like Deadwood brought that up and it sounds like, based on what you’re saying, that your show kind of implicitly touches on that. Is that right?
Mount: Well of course, I mean that’s what this sudden spike in dystopian storylines is doing as well. The idea being, if all hell breaks loose, if society tanks, will my gut be enough to get through? Will I have what it takes to get through this? It’s sort of answering the same discordant reflectivity that we were able to do in earlier decades when we had a closer connection to the time when we, or a family member of ours, did know that that could happen. We’ve forgotten that that could happen, at this point. We’re dangerously pampered.

So we have to make these science fiction movies like Divergent, where even our teens are now obsessed with dystopian societies that strangely reflect current social cliques. It’s very interesting that we now consider dystopia or a lack of civil structure to be science fiction. Have we really gone that far out on a limb? And before that we had the similar thing—it was the zombie craze. It’s the same thing. It all answers the question, “Would I have what it takes?” Western movies used to do that. For young people, the western doesn’t fill that gap like it used to. It’s more of a cool genre for the sake of being cool. You have to find a way of reconnecting today’s popular culture with the western. I have no idea if we are doing that or not. We’re certainly not thinking about it on a daily basis.

Paste: I think you’re absolutely right. I think it goes deep to the heart of a lot of issues that I think are sort of in the back of everyone’s mind, and hopefully brings it a little bit more to the forefront. There’s so many things that we just subconsciously think of as just kind of the way life is, and the way the world is, and it’s absolutely not the way the world is. It’s like that great line in The Mission where he says, “Such is the world.” And the other guy says, “No, such have we made it.” But then the other thing I know you’ve got going on currently, two weeks ago I just interviewed Deon Taylor about Supremacy, which I really enjoyed and I know you’re part in that was relatively small.
Mount: Yeah, that movie was just sold like yesterday or the day before.

Paste: That is great news, and not surprising, because it’s really well put together.
Mount: Yeah, thanks, well I haven’t seen it yet. (Laughs)

Paste: Well that scene though, it’s funny, it takes a certain presence for an actor to make that scene work. To bring someone up new, not only in the third act but virtually at the end of the third act, and have them have the sort of force and presence it requires to sell that scene, I think is kind of unusual. I think you did that really well, because it didn’t seem weird at all. Tell me what you thought when you read the script; what drew you to the project?
Mount: I’m very interested in movies about people who live somewhere other than New York or Los Angeles, and that was definitely one of those movies. I like that it was this obscure little news piece that the writer found and thought, “Oh, I can make something out of that, and I can fit it into one primary location, so therefore we can do it within budget.” It was very smart, very well selected. I thought that you could very easily take the same subject and make something that is so saccharine. You could easily take something that is nine inches of icing and one inch of cake, trying to capitalize on the good feelings that all the races will get along one day. It’s also easy to take the same subject, in attempt to make nine inches of cake and one inch of icing, and make something that’s incredibly insensitive. And I thought that it was well crafted, well balanced. It didn’t pull any punches, and I thought it would make a good movie. I thought it was something that I would like to see.

Paste: It was a very tense movie; they really did that well. I thought it was really chilling, for both the main character and your character, how almost casual the horrific racism was. There were no strings playing or a dramatic tracking shot coming in at your face when you were about to say the “N” word. It was just a casual thing. That was more chilling than anything else to me.
Mount: For me, the particular character that I was playing, it’s very true form to someone who runs the Aryan Brotherhood. He says, “It’s not Armageddon, it’s a business.” These dudes are businessmen. They’re about making money, and if they have to work with people of other races to get it done, they will. They’re about one thing and one thing only, and that is making money.

Paste: That makes sense. One of the other things I love about that scene—I talk to actors relatively often about this when I find it because it’s so appealing to me—is your stillness in that scene. I love it when actors have the confidence to be completely still. And that again added to how chilling your character was. I’m sure that was a very conscious thing for him. I assume that’s like a control thing for him. Is that how you saw that?
Mount: No, as you gain more and more presence as an actor you start to realize that the best acting is no acting. It’s a really dangerous thing, and it’s not really hitting it right on the head. It’s not that you trust that you can do less, you can actually do more. What you learn is that you need to project that less. I would say that, on the whole, my work is a lot more rigorous in the sense that I’m writing a lot more on my scripts, there are a lot more thoughts going on in my head, but I’m not working the same way as I would if I were on a stage, let’s put it that way.

Paste: Yeah.
Mount: I think the key to the stillness that you were talking about was really listening to my scene partner as intently off camera as when they were on. You eventually start to realize that there is a difference between hearing and listening, and that is a realization that continues to happen throughout your entire career. There will always come a point where you are like, “Oh shit, I thought I was listening, but what I really needed to have been doing was listening listening.” And I teach now. I teach at Columbia. I teach graduate actors, and we just don’t have the language to effectively communicate the craft of acting. It just doesn’t exist, so I kind of have to make it up. The first thing we have to agree upon is the vocabulary.

Paste: We don’t have to make this into a commercial for our mutual alma mater, Sewanee, but why don’t you talk a little bit about a liberal arts background. Not a lot of professional actors have been to a liberal arts school at a high level like Sewanee. Tell me about how that prepared you.
Mount: Well, more than anything, it gave me three years at a place to fail safely. Any arts program should primarily do that. You have to have time for free experimentation to learn what doesn’t work. It gave me a couple of other tools as an actor. As an actor, those tools are predominately points of view about what acting is, or could be. I don’t know, I think that my liberal arts education probably prepared me for being an actor more than my graduate experience.

I get asked by young people all the time who want to be actors what they should do and how they should prepare. I have to talk them off the ledge of packing up the family car and moving to Los Angeles. I say, “Go to a good liberal arts college.” It forces your brain to understand things mathematically, linguistically, philosophically and artistically. You don’t get that type of growth of character at a conservatory when one semester you’re playing Hamlet, then the next semester you’re playing something else. You’re only expanding one plane of yourself. I think you actually have to be really, really, really, really smart and pretty well educated to be a good actor. You have to have the curiosity to do it yourself.

Paste:: Yeah, you know, so many parts of this moviemaking business—the acting, the directing, the writing—all of that is really the study of humanity when it comes down to it. That is something, I think, that is lacking in many straight acting programs, and it’s something that a liberal arts education gives you.
Mount: Absolutely. I happen to think that there’s a lot in general that is missing in those acting programs. One small sliver that I am trying to fill at my alma mater is … all these graduate programs have adopted this policy that, in the third year, they pay for these casting directors to come in and teach this “audition” technique class. How is it that somebody who sits at the other side of the table is going to teach you how to audition? There are some casting directors that are very talented teachers, there really are, but by and large we already know the subtext of what that class is. It’s, “We’re paying a big casting director to come and meet you.” Students are not always being taught how to effectively apply their work in an arena where they have not operated.

That’s one thing. The other is that the whole American concept of acting is completely headstrong, and it has been that way for a long time. My hat is off to Marlon Brando for at least attempting to dispel this American mythology that acting is a magic trick. It’s just gotten worse and worse and worse. I mean, if you could hear some of the questions that I get asked by some people in the press … I recently just got thrown all over the media for going off on a method acting question I got.

Paste: I saw that.
Mount: Even their representation of my answer was wrong. They said, “Anson Mount says he doesn’t use a method.” I didn’t say that. I’m just using your nomenclature about method acting and saying that, you know, we basically just don’t have the language for acting. There is no such thing as “the method.” We use that phrase to talk about a system of roleplaying that seems to stem from a method that was developed by Constantin Stanislavski. But even that definition has skewed into something else. Stanislavski never condoned living in character. Stanislavski never claimed that you could get lost in the character or become convinced that you are someone else. We have completely perverted even that perversion. There are thousands of methods, and I think the best actors are the ones who sort of feel like they have to reinvent their approach to acting with each new role. I don’t presume that I even know where to begin when I’m working on developing a character, which is why I like “oh shit” characters. I like characters that make me say, “Oh shit, how am I going to do this?”

Paste: (Laughs) That’s awesome. I won’t misrepresent you on this one. I have two great anecdotes for you about what you just talked about. One is that when I interviewed Robert Duvall—and that might be my favorite five words I’ve ever spoken—“When I interviewed Robert Duvall,” he and his director from A Night in Old Mexico were talking about setting the atmosphere, and I talked about how I feel that, as a director, the thing I do best is working with the actors. It might be the only thing I do really well. (Laughs) The things I do well are paying attention to the story and working with the actors. Duvall said, “We asked a guy from the USC film school whether they teach any courses for the directors on how to deal with the actors; they don’t. A lot of these college film schools don’t even cover that, and that’s the beginning and end of it, I think, creating the atmosphere.”
Mount: Yeah, it’s unbelievable. It’s very true.

Paste: I told him about the Duplass brothers and how they have this thing they say where they feel like most people who come out of film school spend ninety percent of their time working on the technical aspect of their movies and ten percent of the time working with the actors. When they started making films they wanted to reverse that.
Mount: Yes, exactly. But the tragedy is, when these people come out of these film programs, they have never been taught how to really begin to approach the project. I just worked with this awesome, awesome, awesome director. His name was David Straiton, and he directed episode #4.5 of season four of Hell on Wheels. I thought he was great, he was really fantastic. He put himself in the hot seat to try to better understand what the actor’s process was.

Paste: That’s fantastic.
Mount: Yeah, and it’s also been interesting being a more or less “trained actor” who shoots in a place where people are still trying to get an art scene under them. I guess that’s a sort of politically correct way of saying it. There’s not the biggest theater scene, so the casting of day players is really fucking hard. We fly in people for three line roles all the time.

Paste: Wow.
Mount: Part of it is just not having people who have really ever been in front of a camera, and the other problem is, because of that, most people try to win an Academy Award with their audition. They are asking for a bowl of soup, and they are trying to win the Academy Award. It’s difficult to do a show where there is not a huge theater base; it’s very hard.