Phil Burke, who plays Mickey McGinnes, on AMC’s Hell on Wheels talks about how confident he is in Mickey going legit and his favorite scene from the series so far.
Q: Where did you originally think Mickey McGinnes would end up when you first read about him in the scripts?
A: I think, initially, most people thought my character would die, get murdered or get horribly run over on the train tracks in a drunken stupor. For an actor, it’s always great to have variety, and to be able to play different arcs, experience different environments, situations, circumstances and the like. What’s been so great about Mickey is that we’ve had all of the above. As far as the final seven episodes are concerned, it’s going to be a hell of a lot more adventure to deal with.
Q: He’s had several businesses since we first met him – the Magic Lantern tent, the casino, the whore house and he even served as honorary Mayor of Cheyenne…
A: Hey, he was no honorary Mayor! I won that election in a fair and square and cheating manner! [Laughs] Put that on record.
Q: What would your profession be had you lived during the 1800s?
A: I’d probably be a grunt on the railroad. I’ve been introduced to all of these other lines of work [through Mickey], so running a saloon and a whorehouse seems pretty appetizing and there’s a lot of money involved. That would probably be pretty exciting. Besides all the death and the killing, I think Mickey does well professionally. I wouldn’t be too upset if I followed his professional trajectory.
Q: In Episode 9, Mickey shares his choice to turn away from a life of corruption and towards something more legit. What did you think about that?
A: I thought it would be interesting for him to try and go straight. Knowing the temperature of this show and the kinds of circular patterns that arise, I knew it would be a very short-lived dream. It’s all about survival and moving forward, and I knew that if Mickey was going straight, somehow it wouldn’t be 100 percent. More than likely that 100 percent would dwindle to about 2 percent which would then get to 0 percent and bring us back to closing that circle.
Q: And Durant even warns Mickey that going into business with him means being “a man unafraid of back alleys.”
A: It’s kind of a “pie in the sky” type of deal. There are just so many dark elements to the West. That struggle makes it interesting and really true to life… Although Hell on Wheels is a fictional tale, it’s probably not that far off from what’s actually going on out there. If you want to survive, you’re going to have to deal with those back alleys and those unsavory characters. It’s kill or be killed and it’s dog eat dog.
Q: How would you describe your character’s evolution?
A: Miraculous. Most certainly, miraculous. It was a great ride and it was one of those glorious occurrences that was unprecedented. Mickey is a survivor. I think that’s the difference between Mickey and Sean [McGinnes]. Sean always tried to control the situation and be a mastermind. It didn’t work out for him and he wasn’t able to adapt to his surroundings. There’s a time and a place to pounce, and I think Mickey realized that sooner than Sean. There’s a certain innate survivalist kill within Mickey and I think it was great that the writers recognized what I was trying to bring to it. I was lucky enough that we got to continuously see a full scope of Mickey’s emotions and his struggles throughout this story. That’s really the meat and potatoes.
Q: What was your favorite scene or moment on the show? Were there any that didn’t make it to the screen?
A: Oh, hell yeah! The biggest one that I wish made it was this huge scene where I ride in and save Sean’s life at the end of Season 2. I ride in on a horse and save him while the whole town is on fire, and I shoot this Indian who’s about to scalp him. It was a great action shot and I thought I would be able to tell my dad, “I’m a real cowboy now!” It ended up on the cutting room floor, which was a shame. There’s a picture of it somewhere on the Internet, but it did indeed occur! As far as my favorite scenes, anything where we’re shooting guns or physical fighting – not to sound like that macho guy – but whenever we have the a shootout, it usually ends up that the whole cast is on set. Those are a lot of fun, and you get to hang out with your buddies. I’ll miss being there with everybody on set.
Q: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from Hell on Wheels?
A: I never went to university. I went to an acting school. So, this was really my university and my temple of schooling. Whenever I wasn’t in front of the camera, I was lucky enough to be allowed by the rest of the crew to work behind director of photography Marvin Rush and learn different cameras. Neil LaBute allowed me to shadow him when he was directing his episodes. I learned about lights, I worked with the props department, I did locations… It was amazing… I spent six years up there in Calgary and got to meet so many wonderful people. It was really tough to finally go.
Read an interview with Christopher Heyerdahl, who plays the Swede.
The final episodes of Hell on Wheels air Saturdays at 9/8c on AMC. To stay up-to-date with all the latest Hell on Wheels news, sign up for the weekly Hell on Wheels Telegraph.