During a break in production on AMC’s Saturday Western drama “Hell on Wheels,” star Anson Mount has left behind the plains of Calgary, Alberta, where rain and massive flooding caused the entire show to be shut down a week before its scheduled hiatus in June.
On this July day, Mount spends his time off helping a friend build a cabin in the woods in the southern Catskills of upstate New York.
“We’re soaking wet here,” he tells Zap2it. “We’re drilling holes in very wet wood, securing these deck braces, so it’s not too bad. Where it needs to be dry is inside, and we’ve already got the roof on.”
“Hell on Wheels” premiered its third season on Aug. 10, when it moved to its new Saturday time slot, which, as pointed out by Joel Stillerman, AMC’s head of original programming, “has been the home of our Westerns very successfully for many years.”
Cullen is a veteran of the Civil War, and for the show’s first two seasons, he’s been in conflict with almost everyone he meets, especially biracial former slave Elam Ferguson (Common). Despite this, the two have forged a love/hate bond.
Things turned especially bad at the end of last season for Cullen, as, amid fire and carnage all around, his tentative relationship with widow Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott) ended when the mysterious Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl) strangled her.
But as fans have seen, Cullen is not quite done yet.
“After the apocalypse of last season,” says Mount, “Cullen is faced with a situation where he could either put his gun in his mouth or allow himself to die … or not. When you’re drowning, for instance, your decision-making process doesn’t come into play anymore. It’s your body, your instinct. If you have the instinct to live, your body will fight for it.
“He finds himself fighting to live. His mode of survival shifts from seeking revenge to building this railroad — but they’re both the same thing. They’re just different ways of keeping the truths about himself in his blind spot, so he can focus on something else.”
To this end, Cullen has cleaned himself up and stepped into the power structure of Union Pacific, the company building the half of the Transcontinental Railroad heading west.
“You do see an attempt,” says Mount, “even a need for him to, for lack of a better word, mature this season, so he can run things. The degree to which he is or is not capable of doing that, that’s where a lot of the drama hangs this year.”
As to what he thinks of Cullen as a man, Mount says, “Well, I think you said the word. He’s a man. Men tend to get by, by spending a lot of time in their mental cave and knuckling down and focusing on the work. That can be a healthy process, and that can be an unhealthy process.
“The stuff that’s in Cullen’s blind spot is building up to such a degree that it’s starting to spill out of that blind spot, and he’ll start to look at it.”
To a degree, Cullen’s struggle also reflects a very modern problem – that of the combat soldier returning home and trying to find his way in the world beyond the battlefield.
Says Mount, “Cullen definitely suffers from what is today recognized as post-traumatic stress disorder. Soldiers who have PTSD, some of them, their way of dealing with it is to continue to fight. The railroad is just Cullen’s way of continuing to fight.
“What led up to the apocalypse last season was his insistence that building a railroad is a kind of war that is being waged. As it turns out, it’s wrong. A war is no way to run a business. It’s no way to live a life.
“So he’s figured that out, and now he’s trying to figure out a different way of doing things, and that’s just the emotional thread. Whether or not he’s able to do that, that’s where the drama lies.”
While Mount doesn’t have — or want to have — any inside knowledge of Cullen’s ultimate fate, he does have some thoughts on the matter.
“Personally,” he says, “I think the series is probably going to end one of two ways: He’s either going to gain the world and lose his soul, or vice versa.
“If you asked me the same question about my brother, I would say I’d hope my brother wins his soul and loses the world, because I’ll always be there with him. But you can’t be there for a character after you finish playing him.
“I don’t know, but as I say, I stay out of that. It’s not my business.”