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Anson Mount brings southern roots to AMC's western drama 'Hell on Wheels'

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TORONTO - With his weathered good looks and genuine southern drawl, Anson Mount appears as though he was born to star in a gritty western.

But the Tennessee-raised actor says that before he was cast in AMC's railroad drama "Hell on Wheels," he suffered rejections from a number of television shows and films set in the American past.

"I got lucky," Mount, 41, said in a phone interview with The Canadian Press.

"I routinely did not get hired in period pieces because casting directors always told me I was too contemporary, whatever that means. I'm not sure how someone can look too contemporary. They still had two nostrils in the 19th century, I think."

As Cullen Bohannon, a former Confederate soldier who sets out to avenge his wife's death at the hands of Union officers, Mount brings his bona fide southern roots to the role. He hails from White Bluff, Tenn., and his great-great-great-grandfather was a Confederate colonel in the American Civil War.

Mount said he'd always been interested in western and action roles but found that casting directors were consistently looking outside the United States.

"These days, if you've got a role that involves any amount of testosterone whatsoever, they immediately start looking at Australians," he said.

Examples of rugged actors from Down Under who have snapped up prime action roles include Chris Hemsworth in "Thor" and Sam Worthington in "Avatar" and "Terminator Salvation." In SundanceTV's "Rectify," Australia-raised Aden Young plays a southern man released from death row.

But the creators of "Hell on Wheels," brothers Tony and Joe Gayton, were determined to find an American to play Bohannon, Mount said. The show sets its story arc in 1865 within the westward construction of the Union Pacific Railroad, spanning Nebraska and future Wyoming territory.

"They wanted not just an American but they wanted ideally to find a southern American who had a genuine accent. I was available at the right time and the casting directors, Amanda Mackey (Johnson) and Cathy Sandrich really got behind me, and I got the role," he said.

There are certain attitudes, postures, colloquialisms and a self-deprecating sense of humour that come with being a southern man, Mount said.

"Hell, there's a damn way you spit," he said. "I could demonstrate it for you or I could coach somebody to try to do it but it's just in the DNA. I couldn't do it without having grown up in the south."

The show isn't filmed in the American southwest, however — it's shot in Calgary, with scenic valleys and evergreen trees offering a stunning backdrop to the bloody storyline. "Hell on Wheels" also boasts many Canadians on its cast and crew, including producer Chad Oakes.

"We love working in Calgary. The crew here is phenomenal. They care about every single detail every single day and you can see it in the frame," said Mount. "There are very few places that you can shoot a western set in the Great Plains on a television budget these days. There actually may not be another one at this point."

The fourth season of "Hell on Wheels" is currently airing Saturdays on AMC. In the recent season premiere, Cullen's new wife Naomi gave birth in a chaotic scene that included his mother-in-law singing and a bishop speaking in tongues.

Asked how the birth of his baby affects Bohannon throughout the season, Mount questioned whether the outlaw hero was ready to raise a child.

"It's a bit like a heroin addict saying, 'You know what, I'm going to have a family now.' It's like, 'Whoa, hold on, that's the cart before the horse right there.' It's one of those situations where your conscience wants you to do one thing and your gut wants you to do another. And by trying to do the right thing according to your conscience, you're making the situation worse."

But Bohannon is blinded by his own ambition, which is the central theme of the show, Mount said.

"The biggest weakness of every character in this television show is one thing: ambition. That's what the show's about," he said. "It's an exercise in man's hubris to think that he can lay a track from coast to coast. It's man's hubris to think he can go up against God's creation and win... A lot of times we get bitten in the ass trying to do it. But I think for the most part we come out on top."

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