Anson Mount’s riveting portrayal of Bump, a drug-addled loose canon in Cook County—the Audience Award winner at SXSW in 2008—is daring to say the least. Having shed a bunch of weight to step into the shoes of a raging meth addict—warding off temptations of the Dairy Queen he drove past every day during production was but one kind of accomplishment—it’s his sheer fearlessness as an actor that doesn’t go unnoticed. Previously known for playing Britney Spears’ love interest in Crossroads, he’s now turning heads as the lead on AMC’s Hell on Wheels and continues to keep the passion alive with impeccably strong work in smaller indie features.
David Pomes’ Cook County tells the story of three generations of meth addicts living in the piney woods of East Texas. Living in a small town and surrounded by drug abusers, Abe (Ryan Dobowho) wrestles with the menacing possibility that he might turn out like his abusive uncle, Bump (Anson). When Sonny (Xander Berkeley) gets out of prison and comes home seeking redemption from Abe, they’re both forced to navigate the treacherous waters created by Bump, who will do just about anything to maintain his self-destructive lifestyle fueled by drug use.
Cook County is now playing in select theaters.
Several years have passed since you wrapped on Cook County. Is it weird to be doing press for it now?
Well, we’ve been living with it all this time and we never gave up on it. It’s been very much in the back of my mind this whole time. It’s a little bit like being pregnant for three years. It’s not weird to still be talking about it at all.
You also have a producing credit on this film. How did you and David [Pomes] first meet?
David had seen another movie that I did and for some reason thought I would be the right person to play Bump. He contacted my management and the person who read the script told me that they didn’t know what kind of setup David had or if he’s even ready to do a movie, but that I should read the script. I read it and I was blown away. We started talking and right off the bat, I told him he had to triple the money. I told him he needed a production team and that he couldn’t do his own set dressing. I basically told him he needed to do this and that, and within two weeks, he had everything together. After that, we set a start date and did some rewrites. I was in Paris at the time, so we did the rewrites over the web.
So there was a definite hesitation on your part in working with a first time director.
Yes. Particularly a first time director who’s allied with people who themselves don’t have that much experience. I’m not talking about the creative team, but there really wasn’t a true producer in place. So when I came on board, I wasn’t just getting a producer credit, I was actually producing. That was a interesting exercise. I’m glad I did it though. It was a great learning experience.
How difficult is it to take on a starring role and produce at the same time? It seems like a lot of work.
Oh my god. Independent film is like Murphy’s Law in action. If you’re not ready to fly with it and have the presence of mind to shift from the producing role to your acting role, you will go crazy.
I’m guessing even more so for an intense role such as this one.
It was a very hectic schedule and I was in the majority of scenes. I was also maintaining a 20-pound weight loss. It was hard as hell.
What were some of your thoughts and/or concerns in regard to your character when you first read the script?
There weren’t really thoughts, honestly. Bump sort of leapt off the page. Not to say that I could’ve just stood up in a hotel room and played him the moment I read the script, but it was such a dynamic and real character. Growing up in the rural south, I had known people like this who had uncanny abilities to lie to themselves. I just thought it was a great hard-nosed look at drug abuse that wasn’t being “MTV-ised” like a lot of other movies have done. A lot of movies have turned meth use into this cotton candy joke. This movie doesn’t do that.
What kind of research did you do to play this part?
It was important for me to figure out how Bump moved. I just got into the studio for a few days with a friend of mine who has the same background—he also has physical theater training—and we just sort of discovered Bump’s body and his way of doing things. We figured out Bump’s way of carrying a gun and dealing with specific situations like how his body reacted and moved. From there, it just grew into this thing where it was structured enough that I could go from producing to acting where I’m immediately in Bump’s shoes.
When you take on a role as intense and involved as this one, do you find it difficult shedding the character once it’s over?
With this one, it was difficult to get back into the habit of eating properly, but there’s no mental anguish that goes along with acting. Any actor who tells you otherwise is full of shit or they need therapy. [laughs] It’s pure play and all about telling a story. It wasn’t difficult on any emotional level.
A lot of actors do tell me that when they play a character, a part of that role stays with them forever.
That’s complete bullshit. There’s a side to all of us that we bring to bare to play certain roles, but I don’t think actors lose themselves completely in this shamanistic or existential crisis. I think that’s complete utter bullshit. They need to get into some fucking therapy. And the set is no place for that.
What made you want to get into acting in the first place?
I was a painter in high school and enjoyed having something that allowed me to focus on the work right in front of me and shut out the rest of the world. I got involved with theater by chance because my friends were all doing it and I wanted to hang out with my friends more. It just so happened that my high school had this amazing married couple—really committed teachers—and they were encouraging me to pursue acting. So I majored in theater in college and got accepted into graduate school for acting at Columbia. I got an agent while I was there. I never decided that this was something that I wanted to do. It just sort of happened.
When you choose a role, do you sort of step back and visualize where that might fit into your career as a whole or do you see things more on a project-to-project basis?
It depends on what you want and what you need at the moment. The Anson that did Crossroads had different priorities than the Anson who did Cook County. I think the amazing thing about being an actor is that the scope of your career is really the scope of your life. I hope that when I’m 80, I’ll be interested in vastly different things than I’m interested in right now. I don’t necessarily have a definitive vision of the kind of oeuvre I want to have at the end of my life. For instance, right now, I’m very interested in Pentecostal Appalachian preachers. I want to find a project that allows me to explore that a little bit. I know a lot of actors who have this idea of, ‘I’m going to be Daniel Day Lewis’ or ‘I have to have a career where all of my choices are respected,’ but sometimes, you have to pay the fucking rent. [laughs]
What’s the perfect movie in your mind?
Right now, the perfect movie is where I have tremendous control as both a producer and an actor. A movie that contains a role 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.
Do you think you’d ever want to cross over into directing?
Oh god, no. Why would anyone want to direct a movie? I don’t understand it. When you direct movies, there’s so much other shit that you have to worry about besides the acting. It’s such a masochistic job! I don’t want to direct. I’m probably going to end up directing a short in the next few months because I wrote it and I don’t know anyone who completely gets the flavor of what I want, but in terms of directing a feature, there are too many other things I want to do with my life than do that. I write and I want to just keep doing that.
What about producing?
Producing, yes. It’s a different animal. I like working with young, hungry filmmakers who have a vision. I’m becoming less and less fond of seeing my footage mailed to an editor who I’ve never fucking met before. They’re going to take over the rhythm of my performance? I don’t like that. [laughs] I don’t want to take over an editing room, but I do like to have a voice in the editing room. I think I’m mature enough at this point in my career to not freak out and use the editing room to aggrandize my own performance. I just want to take part in creating a story from beginning to end.
You have more experience in the film industry than David, a first time filmmaker. How did that influence the collaborative process between you as an actor and David as a director on the set of Cook County?
It was a real learning process for both of us. You’re not just dealing with the dynamic between David and I, you’re having to deal with the dynamic between myself, David, other actors and the creatives. I’ll admit that there were times when it was extraordinarily difficult. There were times when I thought the film was going to shut down completely. There were some personality conflicts between some people. I think David went through an important period where he was learning how important it is to stack the deck for himself before he started shooting. I don’t think the deck had been stacked high enough in terms of safekeeping the set and crew. I think both David and I learned a lot about how to be effective leaders, not to say that we always were. [laughs] It was a steep learning curve for both of us.
Since you were so involved in the production from start to finish, what were some of the things that surprised you when you saw the finished product up on the screen for the first time?
I don’t want to divulge too much to the people who haven’t seen the movie, but the moment towards the end where my character gets what’s coming to him, the entire audience erupted in applause at our first screening at SXSW. To me, that was the greatest compliment I ever received as an actor. And that has happened consistently in almost every screening since.
What did you want to accomplish as an actor when you first started out and how have your goals changed over the years?
I just wanted to get my feet wet in as many different puddles as possible when I started out because I didn’t know anything. I wanted to do film and TV. I just wanted to experience it all and get a sense of where I functioned well. And I did that. In the past 13 years, I think I pretty much solidified my belief that the place where I like to be most is on an independent film set. Studio films move so slowly and kill creativity. I think they’re too producer-heavy. Quite often, these days, studio films are too CGI-heavy. There’s something about a film set that makes sense to me. I communicate well and enjoy it. I’m still learning. I like the intensity of it, especially when I’m on location. I’m now enjoying having a little bit of a leadership input and how things are accomplished. With that said, I love working on Hells on Wheels. I’m given a tremendous amount of respect in terms of my opinion on things, which speaks to the collaborative nature of the executive producers and for AMC. And I still do theater once a year. I’ve learned that I can’t do what I do without having really good material. Right now, I’m in a position where I want to have creative influence because I don’t want to hold my tongue. [laughs] I don’t want to hold my tongue at all.
What sort of advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers working with a shoestring budget and limited resources?
Take care of your crew. Make sure that every member of your crew is aware of your appreciation every day. Get a bucket of beer for them at the end of a Friday shoot. You can’t do what you do without securing the people that are willing to follow you into the gates of hell. And keep it about the story—the script is king. I would say that the entire process should be fun. If it’s not fun, you’re doing something wrong. It shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg. There’s no formula. If you have to reinvent a way of doing it, then reinvent a way of doing it. You can go to Best Buy and get a top of the line DV camera for 500 bucks. Just do it! [laughs]
What can you reveal about the short film that you wrote?
It started out as a one act play, but when it won a prize, I thought it might make for a good short film. I won’t say exactly what it’s about, but it deals with the bureaucracy and normalcy of marriage that gay couples have suddenly found themselves thrust into. That this civil right was fought for so long and, suddenly, the rewards aren’t there… I think it’s going to be a two day shoot. Our editor from Cook County is going to shoot and edit it.
Your top search on Google is “Anson Mount gay”. Do you have an explanation for this?
I saw that too! I haven’t even looked at it though. What does it say?
I haven’t gone exploring.
I don’t know what it is. It must be a rumor going around.
Do you maybe have a big following in the gay community?
Maybe it’s the short play I wrote because it got into a couple of workshops around the country. They definitely know who I am through that. I have a lot of gay friends, so I really don’t think too far into things like that.
What are you working on right now? Are you shooting more episodes of Hell on Wheels or are you on hiatus?
We finished shooting at the end of August and if we start up on the second season, it will pick up again in May.
Are you reading some good screenplays?
I don’t know if I should mention anything that I’m not officially attached to, but there’s some interesting material. Right now, it’s a matter of timing. No one knows if we’re going back to Hell on Wheels and if we do go back, it could take me out of availabilities for certain things. There’s something that I’m supposed to do in February, but I can’t really talk about it. It’s another role involving a drug addict. It seems like I might be getting stereotyped. [laughs] Characters with substance abuse problems!
That seems common for actors. They see you excel in a certain kind of role and want to keep you in that box.
At least they’re not trying to make me play the good looking guy in the office anymore or the young heartthrob. I’m so sick of that shit. I’d much rather play conflicted characters.