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FIRESIDE CHAT: Anson Mount (AMC's Hell on Wheels) on "Cook County" – The Longer It Sim

With films, like life’s incidents, sometimes you meander through them and quickly forget. At other times, they sneak upon you and rivet your mind so you’re left with images and thoughts that just won’t leave. After the screening of Cook County at the 13th Annual Gen Arts Film Festival back in April 2008, which was featured back-to-back with Jeff Vespa’s short, Nosebleed, I felt as if some meth-head had bashed my head in while I wasn’t paying attention, leaving me with a bloody, broken nose and a concussion.

David Pomes & Anson Mount

Exaggerations aside, Cook County was one of those films that made you feel like things were no longer “alright” as you left the theater. Set in East Texas, it portrays rural life in the US where crystal meth serves not only as a means of escape from destitution, but also economic currency within its community and its use, a symbolic familial right of passage. “Grimy” as some critics have described it, the film, after several years, never completely washed away from memory.

Cook County Trailer

This December 16th, Cook County was re-released in New York City, and coincidentally, I met up again with Writer/Director/Producer David Pomes and leading Actor/Producer, Anson Mount, who now stars as Cullen Bohannon on AMC's Hell on Wheels for their post-screening Q&A at Cinema Village. On second viewing, with the “surprises” out of the way, the story simmered and crystalized with its all around extraordinary performances particularly of its leads Anson Mount as Bump, Xander Berkeley as his big brother Sonny, and Ryan Donowho as Sonny’s son, Abe. Forming a broken patriarchal triangle, with Sonny returning from prison to his addicted elderly father and borderline sane brother, the remnants of the family struggle to survive from the sentence of addiction and hopelessness. With meager means, Sonny faces a deadline to try to execute an escape “plan” from the despair for his son and niece. The story weaves through his struggles as well as his son’s – both innately yearning for the same thing. The film paces between the family’s harsh plight to Abe’s occasional fantasies and nightmares as a young man confined to his Uncle's brutality and to a life in Cook County - marking the skillful editing by Branan Edgens.

Following the Q&A in NYC, I was able to catch up Anson Mount to invite him to The Fireside Chat:

The Fireside Chat with Actor/Producer Anson Mount

Q: During your Q&A at the screening of Cook County at Cinema Village in NYC, you talked about how Bump was such a departure from your previous roles, which were mainly “white collar” characters. Indeed, Bump is quite a departure from… let’s say many of the “usual” characters in movies these days. How long did it take you to figure out “who” Bump was? Was there a moment when the character “clicked” into place for you?

Anson Mount: Yes. When I started preparing, it was purely a physical experience. I wanted to find 5 or 6 different moments, culled from documentaries, in which I could reproduce the state of being high on meth. From there, I worked them into situations that a friend of mine would throw at me, situations I couldn't expect. Eventually, once the physicalization became something I wasn't thinking about, I realized that I was essentially channeling someone who I had grown up with, someone who didn't necessarily have experience with meth but who had an uncanny ability to lie to himself and others about the importance of his life and where he was going. I ended up, more or less, channeling this person.

Q: You undertook some physical theater training for the role. Why did you feel that this was so critical in relation to Bump?

Anson Mount: I needed a way of being able to step into the role at a moment's notice. I was producing the film as well, a job that requires you to be mentally present and capable of dealing with a lot of different things that aren't in Bump's world. I had to be able to do those things when the camera wasn't rolling. Having a physical structure that I could leap into once the cameras rolled was essential.

Q: In your interview with Kee Chang for Anthem (, you described your attraction to roles “that scares me to the point where I’m not sure that I’m going to be able to pull it off. That’s the perfect movie.” Bump was pretty all-around scary, with the aid of crystal meth. What do you find “scary” in characters?

Anson Mount: I'm not sure. Primarily, I would say that what scares me most about Bump is not his strengths (his physical prowess or his willingness to carry around a shotgun and intimidate people); it's his weaknesses. Towards the end of the movie, there is a moment when he has an opportunity to get some money from someone he could easily just mug. But he isn't capable of doing that. He has to bargain in a way that forces himself to justify his actions. This is weakness, pure and simple. I'm of the mind that, by the time we get there, his weaknesses are established to the point that no one questions this. But maybe I'm wrong.

The same I would say for most characters: what's most interesting is not the strength, but the weakness. But what I find scary as an actor is different. If there's a quality or a journey that I've never tackled, then naturally I'm scared as an artist.

Q: For an actor, it’s understandable why one would be hesitant to work with a first time director. Yet you took the risk, then jumped in further, by producing and helping to shape the story. What attracted you to the story? How did the story evolve through your collaboration?

Anson Mount: The story was incredibly well developed (even though I felt there were some structural tweaks that needed to happen) and the world felt incredibly genuine. I was simply flattered and amazed that David thought of me for the role of "Bump" and I just couldn't let the opportunity go. I had been looking for a role like that for some time and suddenly it was as if someone had read my mind. I'm from a very rural part of the south and the desperation, yearnings and humanity that David found in these people struck me, not just as genuine, but as heart-felt and mature. My principle problem with most of the film industry is that films tend to be made by people who fly between LA and New York. Rarely do they look down. I'm always intrigued by movies that take place in the smaller parts of the US and which treat the people who live there as more than just stereotypes.

Q: Independent filmmaking’s tough. As one indie producer put it, it’s sort of like being a hunter out in the wild who has to feed the whole clan… “You eat what you kill” (see our interview Cinema Purgatorio's Ray Privett Chats about Eating What You Kill & Daylight the Latest Thriller by David Barker) With your leading role now on AMC’s Hell on Wheels, I could imagine that there are a greater variety of opportunities. What attracts you to “hungry” directors, as you mentioned in the post-show Q&A at Cinema Village?

Anson Mount: I'm interested in taking a larger part in the development of the whole work. More and more, I'm becoming less secure in watching my footage be packed up and sent off to an editor who I've never even met. I'm not saying that I want to have final cut approval on my films, but I do believe that I am a mature enough actor at this point that I can have a part in the development of the material and editing without risk of aggrandizing my own performance and/or freaking out at seeing myself on screen. For me, film making is a very objective process in which the director has to select the right orchestration of imagery and sound in order to deliver an experience capable of taking a wide swath of people on a journey. Sometimes it's hard for someone to see the forest for the woods around them. I think David, Branan (our editor), and I worked well together through this process. I want to continue in this direction.

Q: So, you started out as a painter, and evolved into an actor, producer, and now writer (please excuse me if the order is incorrect). You’ve won a prize for your one act play, “Love Liza?” and I hear you’re translating it into a short. Have you been writing for a long time? What is the connecting link for you? Do you find that the stories you want to write about are similar to the scripts with characters “who scare” you?

Anson Mount: I rarely write roles for myself, primarily because every actor out there has a fucking screenplay or a play that they've written for themselves and the material usually sucks because of that fact. Also, I rarely write with specific people in mind, although this isn't always the case. For me, writing is an exercise in combining ideas into a cohesive and journey-based whole. It's literally a collection of thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of choices that all have to be made in a way that supports the central thesis. I like the puzzle part of it; a bit like making a jig-saw puzzle that you, yourself have to put back together. Also, learning to take notes from the people who's opinions you trust is a learning process; learning to let go of the hand-hold you have on your original inspirations; learning to trust that something will not be lost but only be made more complex and interesting.

Yes, Love Liza? has gotten some attention and so I'm making it into a short. I have very little interest in directing, but I will direct this one simply because the structure of the humor is so specific and it still flows very much like a play. Therefore, the performances are the greatest part of the piece. So it's going to be a bit like directing theater, which is something that I DO want to do more of in the future.

I'm lucky in that I'm supported by some very close friends who are also incredibly intelligent, talented and who possess opinions I trust implicitly. We're all starting to become more prolific in our output of material and the possibilities are exciting me more and more every day. It's a great time to be alive and to be living in New York.

With that, I recommend all to check out Cook County which is screening across the country. And if you've seen it before, watch it again, because sometimes the longer it simmers (in your mind) the better. It may shake you up out of your comfort zone, but that's the point, right?

-- Jeanine Jeo-Hi Kim (published originally on The Metropolitan Arts League blog 12/20/11)

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