Christopher Heyerdahl wasn’t in the premiere of AMC’s “Hell on Wheels,” but his initial appearance in this Sunday’s (November 13) episode provides the period Western with a much-needed jolt of menace and danger.
Heyerdahl’s The Swede arrives in Hell on Wheels as the head of security to Colm Meaney’s Doc Durant and instantly turns his attentions (with good reason) to Cullen Bohannan (Anson Mount), who he sees as fly in the ointment of the Union Pacific’s forward progress. The Swede (who isn’t actually Swedish) is scary, tortured by his Civil War experiences and also oddly hilarious, the latest in a long line of scene-stealing supporting turns for Canadian actor.
From “Smallville” to “Supernatural” to “Stargate: Atlantis” to “Caprica” to “Human Target,” Heyerdahl has been one of the staple guest stars in Vancouver’s acting ensemble. For many viewers, he’s best known for his regular roles as John Druitt and Bigfood on Syfy’s “Sanctuary” and for an even larger audience, he’s familiar as ancient vampire Marcus in the “Twilight” films.
In our wide-ranging interview, Heyerdahl discusses his inspirations for The Swede, his Vancouver ubiquity and working on the upcoming “Breaking Dawn” with Bill Condor.
Click through for the full interview.
HitFix: I interviewed Joe and Tony Gayton and we were talking about the villains in this story, whether Doc Durant is an antagonist or a villain, whether The Swede is an antagonist or a villain. How do you look at him?
Christopher Heyerdahl: Given the choice of those two words, “antagonist,” I would say. Because you’re giving two examples of people who are in a place of authority. Doc Durant, he’s the boss. He’s the president. He’s the one laying down the rules. He’s paying the bills. Everyone’s gotta do what he says, or you take the track in the opposite direction. The Swede, his job is to play the part of the enforcer. Without him, the railroad is not going to be built. Without him, there’s chaos, because someone has to keep these thieves and brigands and murderers and dipsomaniacs in line or hell will break loose.
HitFix: OK, I clearly gave you the wrong two words here. [He laughs loudly.] If I take “villain” and “antagonist” off the table, tell me about The Swede, then. Is he actually the hero of this story?
Christopher Heyerdahl: Well, the story is about him. It’s just for some reason they keep cutting to other people. I don’t really understand why. For me, he’s a dream character, that I would have the opportunity to play a character who represents a huge part of my heritage in the form of someone who is complex and conflicted and joyful and terrifying and someone you cannot put a finger on… So is he a villain? Is he an antagonist? Is he a hero? Yes. He’s all of those things. They’ve drawn out a very three-dimensional human being and so he’s unpredictable.
HitFix: You talked about how he taps into your heritage. You’re half-Norwegian, right?
Christopher Heyerdahl: Which half I’m not sure, but yes. Depends on the day.
HitFix: So tell me what you were able to draw from your own family, your own heritage and your own background to understand this guy.
Christopher Heyerdahl: Well, in any period drama, you have to go back into that time. You can’t fall into the trap of being a modern man. That’s something you are, so you try not to draw on that. In many ways, Norway still has the same population that it had 100 years ago. There has been very little population growth, because they can’t have population growth. There’s not the space. So Norway’s been very protected and because of that, the perspective of Norwegians has been, for many years, very insular. Because of that, you’re wanting to try to bring that rather insular kind of perspective back 150 years to a man who has decided to leave his country — a country where wherever you were born, that’s where you’ll stay and whatever place in society you are, you will not be able to get out of that, which pretty much holds true even to this day — he chooses to emigrate to this wild frontier and falls into war, is captured and has this life-changing experience in Andersonville. It’s something that is going to influence him and he makes choices now on how and what the world is, what the human animal is and how do you keep order in a lawless, moral-less world. And this is what he brings to Hell on Wheels, because in many ways, Hell on Wheels is this… It’s called Hell on Wheels and it’s like a vestibule of Hell, where there is a society of murderers and drunks and thieves and he’s been chosen by Durant as someone who knows how to deal with that kind of chaotic existence, which is what he learned in Andersonville. So he uses those skills in this new place and he rules with Thor’s hammer, with the strength and power of a God’s tool. He rules hard and he rules fast and makes strong, solid decisions based on his faith and his understanding of the human animal and how to deal with it.
HitFix: So much of what’s happening in Hell on Wheels is so dark and morally bankrupt. Is The Swede above that, do you think?
Christopher Heyerdahl: He’s not above it, by any stretch, but he doesn’t make any of his decisions lightly. He’s a very devout man and he believes in a higher power, believes in the power of faith. He’s a Lutheran, so his whole belief system isn’t based on divine actions or some kind of a do-gooder mentality in order to gain that reverence and access to Heaven. It’s all through faith. So the actions of the man on Earth is not what is going to take him to the next plane of existence, so he’s not held back by “Oh, I should hang this man…” He sees the wrong that Bohannon has done. He sees it in his eyes. He sees it in his soul. He sees the eyes of a murderer. And he’s the one who has to lay down the rule of law and makes no bones about carrying out these acts.
HitFix: We’re making him sound extremely serious, but there’s also a good amount of humor to The Swede. How much of that is on the page and how much is just your enjoyment of playing this guy?
Christopher Heyerdahl: I’m honestly not sure where that starts. It’s a chicken and egg type of thing. When I look at a page of great writing, which is what the Gaytons and their team have come up with, it jumps off the page. The character just jumps off the page. So is the humor coming from my perspective? I suppose, but it’s how I’m reacting to the written word and the situation that the writing team has put the character in. So I’m honestly not sure, but I certainly take great pleasure in the skin of The Swede at seeing and observing life and the irony of these very bizarre situations that he’s put himself into. He definitely takes great pride in doing a job well and living life creatively. So if that’s perhaps at the expense of teaching someone a lesson, then why not take some pleasure in that?
HitFix: This is a character who can go almost as big as you’d want him to go. Were there moments you’d have to reel yourself in?
Christopher Heyerdahl: Well, it’s not really my job to reel myself in. That’s the director’s job. So at times was I reeled in by Mr. [David] Von Ancken or any of the other directors? Yeah. Sure. That’s part of the job of being directed by someone who has a good eye, because the director is the observer. It’s not really my job to think of the product or the story as a whole. It’s my job to tell the story of The Swede and it’s the director’s job to shape the whole piece and make sure that each one of us, each scene, is falling into the right level and tone of telling the story of each little mini-film that we do each week. It’s my job to come up with everything I can and then it’s up to the director and the editor to decide what stays and what colors are more interesting to play.
HitFix: Is it liberating for you as an actor knowing that you have a character who has this many colors and can be this bold or broad?
Christopher Heyerdahl: Absolutely. 100 percent. There are very few opportunities to play such a colorful, musical, boundless character like The Swede. He’s so well written, like all of our characters are so well written, and to be able to speak the words and play these notes with my fellow players, it doesn’t get much better. It will be different, but it doesn’t get much better than this. It’s pure joy to play this character. I don’t know else to express it.
HitFix: Speaking of getting to speak these words, tell me about finding The Swede’s voice.
Christopher Heyerdahl: Well, my father I’m sure would not recognize the voice, but I’ve been greatly influenced by my father, as I think most men have been as male influences in their lives, if they’re lucky enough to grow up with a father. My father is bigger than life in many ways, so I draw from him. It’s an amalgam of my father, of my uncles, of other Norwegians who I’ve met over the last half-century and it’s a salute to them and their views of the world and how to deal with the world as a man — their successes and their failures. So that’s the voice that came out. It’s a tone and a musicality that I’ve heard my whole life.
HitFix: And you’re no stranger to doing accent work. Is that something you’ve always been a natural at?
Christopher Heyerdahl: I’ve always enjoyed it. I’ve taken pleasure in playing with sound and rhythm and sometimes maybe I’ve enjoyed it more than other people have in hearing it, but I’ve certainly always loved it. When I was a little kid, I played with voices. Now I’m just an older kid playing with voices and perhaps now trying to bring it to a level that more people would want to listen to and recognize. I suppose the idea in doing any kind of so-called accent, is that you’re bringing recognition so that people go “I know that guy. I’ve met him. I know that sound.” Or somebody from Norway or somebody who’s been to Norway or someone who has grown up with Norwegians of any age, hopefully will recognize not only the sound of the voice, but also recognize the temperament, recognize how this man sees humor in situations that we wouldn’t normally attribute to humor. The interesting quality of the Norwegian is their fascinating and perhaps, and I don’t want to misuse the word, unique viewpoint of the world. So all that is in the voice and in the timbre of the soul, the sound of the soul of this man. It’s a little celebration of the Norwegian male.
HitFix: Does that put more pressure on you to make sure you get it right?
Christopher Heyerdahl: It’s actually liberating, because it’s a part of me. I don’t feel any more pressure. It’s a responsibility, as opposed to a pressure. It’s the responsibility of representing part of my heritage and doing it in a way that’s truthful. It’s maybe not always likable, but hopefully it’s always respecting and respected and respectable to my heritage, to part of my history, that part of my DNA. It’s liberating. I love it. I look forward to every moment that I think about The Swede, every moment that I have the great pleasure of playing The Swede. He’s a complex and phenomenal creation and I thank the Gaytons every moment of every day.
HitFix: “Hell on Wheels” is also a show that’s very invested in period details, from the production design to the costumes…
Christopher Heyerdahl: [Costume designer] Wendy Partridge is a genius.
HitFix: Was there a particular piece of The Swede’s ensemble that really helped him click for you?
Christopher Heyerdahl: From head-to-toe, there were all sorts of clicks, but from minute one, Wendy was the first person I actually had communication with, aside from my audition. Once I was hired for the job, Wendy was the first person I spoke with and she was talking about the research she had done into the period and how she was imagining the makeup and the shape of The Swede and all of these ideas came together in this amazing tunic that he wears. It’s an amalgam of European military costumes. Like the high collar: We talked a lot about the stiffness and the devout quality of The Swede and to keep that collar high and on the inside there’s an asymmetrical shirt and on that shirt the collar is very tight and one of the questions was “Oh, do you want us to loosen off the collar?” and I said, “Absolutely not.” It’s that almost torturous, choking reminder of staying tight. The Swede is a very tight man, very tightly wound, and needs to pay a certain amount of penance and be true to his faith and remind himself that he is a sinner and remind himself that he needs to be as devout as possible in order to do the things that he has to do, in order to lay down the law that he has to lay down. And this is just talking about a jacket, talking about a tunic, but all of it is so strong in the costume that she made. It supports everything about the character. The tunic is huge. The hair is another huge part of the character, the perfect placement of his hair. The cleanliness of his costume in a place where it is impossible to stay clean is huge. His attention to order in his own home, the aesthetic, the simple and bare aesthetic of his surroundings, everything serves to support the mindset of the man. That all started, as I say, with that first meeting with Wendy.
HitFix: You mentioned Wendy’s research. How much research did you do into Andersonville and the period and what this man would have experienced?
Christopher Heyerdahl: I did as much research as I could from minute one, as soon as I read the first draft of the pieces I was going to audition with. The first thing I did was research the period and found out about Andersonville. I had no idea about Andersonville and had no idea that there were actually so many Norwegian soldiers there. There was a troop of Norwegian soldiers and I didn’t even know they existed, didn’t know there were so many Norwegian immigrants fighting in the Civil War. The Swede wasn’t a part of that troop, but he was certainly in Andersonville at the same time, there under different circumstances, but none-the-less, he was a survivor in that little piece of mucky, s***y hell, that mire that was Andersonville. He survived and just because of that, it says something about the strength of his character and his choice to survive and the actions, questionable or otherwise. The bottom line was that he had to survive and he chose to survive. Most people didn’t, whether they were the guards or the prisoners, not may survived that horrible place. So that was something that was new to me. My father didn’t know anything about that and none of my Norwegian family knew anything about Andersonville and the Norwegians who were there. That was a great learning experience for me and for part of my heritage. It’s always amazing doing research in these opportunities, because you learn things that I might never have looked into, might never have found out about.
HitFix: Shifting gears. Over the years, you’ve done work on practically every TV show that has filmed in Vancouver or thereabouts. Are there are any shows you *haven’t* been on that shoot or have shot there that you wish you could drop by just to check it off on the ol’ checklist?
Christopher Heyerdahl: “Fringe.” I would have loved to have been on “Da Vinci’s Inquest.” I would have loved to have been on “Intelligence.” Certainly “The Killing” would have been great to be a part of. There are lots and lots of shows that have come through Vancouver that I haven’t been involved in, but at the same time, as you say, I’ve had the great fortune to be involved in a fair few. You can’t be in everything.
HitFix: And have the “Twilight” movies changed the way and frequency with which people recognize you?
Christopher Heyerdahl: I’ve actually never been recognized for the character in “Twilight.” I guess that it might be the white sparkly makeup and the long hair and the slippers and all the rest, but I’ve never been recognized for that.
HitFix: From what I understand, that may be for the best.
Christopher Heyerdahl: I don’t know. It’s definitely made me very popular with my friends’ tweenage kids. I’m a party favorite.
HitFix: One of my colleagues just saw the new film the other day and had many positive things to say about it.
Christopher Heyerdahl: Oh? Right one! Well, [Bill] Condon, he’s a great filmmaker and a great writer and he has a wonderful understanding of story, so that doesn’t surprise me. I think that each one has done its best, each director had done their best to raise the bar and I think that as we get closer to the culmination of the stories, they’ve also go more money to put into it and the production values are getting higher and higher and the playgrounds are getting bigger and there are better toys. I haven’t seen it yet. I won’t see it until the 14th when we go down for the premiere. I’m looking forward to it.
HitFix: You praised Bill Condon. Did his participation feel different from your end of things? I know his resume, but did the production on your scenes feel different?
Christopher Heyerdahl: Each director you work with is going to bring something different to the table and I’ve got nothing but positive things to say about everyone I’ve worked with on that production. But Bill’s just a joy to be around. He’s got a great sense of fun and a great sense of work ethic and detail and a great sense of story. What he brings is a playground that I’m fully desirous to play in. I look forward to seeing him again and working with him again if I ever get the chance. He’s a hell of a lot of fun. We had good time. It became silly. One of the things that we’ve prided ourselves on is perhaps bringing a little bit more camp to the vamp.
HitFix: I definitely think people have felt that the Volturi scenes have had a different sensibility.
Christopher Heyerdahl: Well, we’re the old school. When you’ve been around for 10,000 years. Life is good. You’ve got to have a little bit of fun, otherwise life gets boring. A couple of grand down, you’ve gotta bring some ironic pleasure to life. Even old broken-hearted Marcus has gotta have a little bit of fun sometimes.
Christopher Heyerdahl makes his first appearance on Sunday (November 13) night’s “Hell on Wheels.” “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1” hits theaters on November 18.