NEW YORK (AP) — When first sighted, Cullen Bohannon is in Washington, D.C. He is a man of few words and piercing, haunted eyes. A Confederate soldier in the just-concluded Civil War, he now has unfinished business of his own: avenging the death of his wife.
"Did the war take her?" someone asks Bohannon, to which he tersely acknowledges, "Sump-em li-kat."
So he heads west to work on the transcontinental railroad and settle some scores at the Union Pacific construction camp.
That, in a nutshell, describes "Hell on Wheels," an epic new AMC drama taking its title from the term for the movable community that will accompany the drudgerous laying of track through fierce frontier. It is here in this transient world of harsh nature, brute ambition and clashing personalities that much of the action will take place in the series, which premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. EST.
It stars Colm Meaney, Dominique McElligott, Ben Esler, Philip Burke, Eddie Spears and rapper-actor Common, as well as Anson Mount in a role that maybe, just maybe, will launch him into stardom.
Or maybe not. Either way, the 38-year-old Mount professes not to care.
Raised in a small town in Tennessee, he says he grabbed the role of Bohannon because "it's hard to find Southern characters that are not stereotyped or vilified or aggrandized. And this managed to escape all those traps.
"As a Southerner," he adds, "you grow up with at least an inkling of what it's like to come from a conquered culture, and that's an important part of this character."
Besides, he liked Bohannon's taciturn style.
"I'm an enemy of exposition," says Mount in his honeyed Southern twang. "I feel there's no need to overstate." He likes his characters' behaviors to speak for them, and when he, as Bohannon, was presented with minimal dialogue in each new "Hell on Wheels" script, "I asked for even less," he reports with a smile.
In the past, Mount starred in the NBC lawyer drama "Conviction" and as an undercover FBI agent in the acclaimed but short-lived ABC series "Line of Fire."
His films include "City by the Sea," ''In Her Shoes" (opposite Cameron Diaz) and the upcoming "Straw Dogs," as well as the 2002 romantic road picture "Crossroads," where he co-starred with Britney Spears and was hailed by one teen fanzine as a "knockout newcomer" and "a fresh-to-Hollywood Tennessee boy."
For whatever reason, Mount did not emerge from "Crossroads" as the Next Big Thing. Nor, he insists, did he expect to.
"At the time I just saw it as a great work opportunity, and a chance to make some money that I could use to go on vacation," he says. "It was everybody else who put me in this sort of good-looking, next-big-leading man category.
"But I spent YEARS listening to people say to me, 'Are you ready? Get ready! Your life is about to change!' Oh, really?" he scoffs. "I've had a taste of my visibility going upwards and new work opportunities presenting themselves. But life doesn't change. I learned a long time ago that I'm here because of the work, and if I keep my head down and focus on my work, I'm a happy man. And if I don't, I'll be sorely disappointed regardless of the level of success."
In 1998, Mount received the Drama League Award for starring in the off-Broadway production of Terrence McNally's controversial play about a gay Jesus, "Corpus Christi," which caught him and the rest of his company between protests by religious groups and First Amendment advocates.
Having joined a reporter for a recent lunch at a mid-Manhattan Chinese restaurant, he recalls that right across 56th Street is the rear door to the theater he and his cast mates would use during the stormy run of "Corpus Christi," as they tried to come and go unobserved by demonstrators at the theater's entrance around the corner.
"I don't think I've eaten here since then," he muses.
On this day he is still sporting the salt-and-pepper beard of Cullen Bohannon, whose shaggy hair is pulled back in a tight bun on the back of Mount's head. He explains that a few pickup shots remain before filming for "Hell on Wheels" wraps.
But the main production for the 10 episodes stretched from May through August in Alberta, British Columbia, whose rugged outback represented 19th-century American prairie and mountains.
"It was rough, man," says Mount, describing a breakneck shooting schedule with most days spent outdoors in weather always in flux: "We had one day where, before lunch, it went from overcast to rain to sleet, and then it started to hail, to snow, to rain, to hail again. Then after lunch, the sun came out." He laughs. "YOU try to make continuity on a day like that!
"In a situation like that, you either freak out, or you decide that you're going to dance with it," he says. "It forces you into a creative corner, and there's something about that I really kind of like."
Count that stance among Mount's core professional values, which he's reaffirmed in recent years.
"I've got a better sense now of what it is I want to get from acting. Part of that was moving back to New York from L.A. a couple of years ago." New York is where he got a master's degree from Columbia University, then lived and worked for a spell. "I've been ecstatically happy back here."
Since returning, he produced and starred in the indie feature "Cook County." He has also written plays and landed more theater work.
And now, with "Hell on Wheels," he is braced for speculation from some quarters about whether this worthy drama could make him a star.
Mount says he has been visited by such thoughts, even worries, of late — though they're not worries that he won't get a big career boost from "Hell on Wheels," but, rather, that he will.
Running into Jon Hamm at a social function, he voiced his fears to the breakout star of AMC's "Mad Men," who shared a mantra adopted a few years earlier to face down his own self-doubts: "Why NOT me?"
"Hamm puts his finger on my chest and says, 'Why NOT you?' And I was like, 'Whoa! Jon Hamm just gave ME a mantra,'" Mount recalls. "I do believe I've got to put myself in a place where I'm ready for my life to change, but for the right reasons and in the right way. 'Why NOT me?' — that's what I've been saying to myself."
EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier