Christopher Heyerdahl loves to play.
This love was on display in the sci-fi series Sanctuary, where the Vancouver actor portrayed both a guilt-ridden Jack the Ripper and a domesticated Bigfoot with equal parts glee and gravity.
It was clear in True Blood (he recurred as a bigwig vampire), as well as in Supernatural, in The Twilight Saga films, and really, in nearly every one of his 80+ roles.
The six-foot-four, stage-trained thespian admittedly – and visibly – enjoys sinking his teeth into ultra-complicated characters. Nowhere is this more apparent than on AMC’s gritty Hell on Wheels, which kicked off its fourth season on Aug. 2.
The critically acclaimed Western stars Anson Mount as Cullen Bohannon, a Confederate soldier turned railroad engineer who battles corruption and baddies while laying tracks across America.
As the Norwegian-born Thor Gundersen – otherwise known as The Swede, a railroad security official turned poisonous thorn in Bohannon’s ass – Heyerdahl hits all of the character’s discordant notes: sadism; empathy; intelligence; cunning; rage.
Couple that bouquet of delicious attributes with the fact that Heyerdahl’s the son of Norwegian immigrants and studied the language in Oslo, and Gundersen fits Heyerdahl like a glove – so much so that it’s hard to believe the part wasn’t originally written with him in mind.
Heyerdahl’s Hell on Wheels journey began on a Sunday night in 2011, when he received a phone call from an actor friend in Toronto.
“He said, ‘I’m preparing for an audition tomorrow and this character is one of the best things I’ve seen in a long time and I’m loving doing it, but every time I say the words, I think of you,’” he says on the phone from Calgary. “It’s one of the most generous things that a fellow actor, let alone a friend, has done.”
Heyerdahl wrangled an audition, read the material, and agreed with his friend. “It just resonated for me.” The producers liked his interpretation, and “away we went.”
Fast forward a few seasons, and the character that was supposed to exit after a handful of episodes is now an audience favourite – despite having committed one of the most heinous crimes in the history of the show (no spoilers here; see the episode “Blood Moon Rising” on Netflix if you want to know more).
“I like to think of him as, not necessarily Satan, but a fallen angel, someone in a human shell that is capable of great empathy and extreme cruelty,” says Heyerdahl. “They wrote him in such a beautiful way because, like most of the characters on the show, they wrote him remarkably flawed.”
Hell on Wheels shoots on location in Alberta, a fact that presents its own beautiful set of remarkable challenges. “The cliché around here is, ‘If you don’t like the weather in Alberta, wait five minutes,’” laughs Heyerdahl, who lives in Vancouver’s West End when not filming the show. “You can’t control it. You have to embrace it. Hell on Wheels without lots of mud and moisture wouldn’t live up to its name.”
Filming an action-heavy series in the elements can take a toll on an actor’s limbs and spirit, but Heyerdahl describes the long days and resulting aches as “invigorating.”
“You’re exhausted at the end of the day, but it’s the kind of exhaustion that puts a smile on your face and you sleep well at night,” says Heyerdahl. “At least, I do.”
On Hell on Wheels, Heyerdahl gets to play with equally engaged actors, including Colm Meaney, Common, and Phil Burke. “The goal is always to get, at the beginning of the scene to the end of the scene, the look in that person’s eyes that you’re playing with is different. If it hasn’t changed, then there’s no point in doing what you just did. The fun is playing with the other person. You can’t do it on your own.”
Hell on Wheels airs Saturdays at 9pm on AMC.
On The Swede’s journey in season four: “The first two episodes have The Swede and Bohannon in a very new relationship. We finished off at the end of season three with a question: can a man change? And if two men are connected in many ways at the hip, can one change without the other? And both men battle with that question in the first two episodes and the end of the second episode, it comes to quite a climax.”
On the challenges of filming on location: “For us, it’s quite easy. As actors, we’re truly pampered. It’s the crew who has the hardest time because the grips have to lug everything around. The rest of the crew has to deal with the rain, the wind, and the mud. They have the hardest time. We’re just put into 4 x 4s and if our costume gets wet, they’ll give us another pair of boots or another dress to wear. For us, it’s like being kids playing in mud and it’s great fun. For the crew, it’s much more of a challenge. For them, it’s work. For them, they earn their pay cheques.”
On what he’s learned about history thanks to Hell on Wheels: “This was the thing that amazed me: they were throwing down tracks so fast that, from the Federal perspective they said, ‘look, we don’t care if you can’t come back on the track, as long as you get there, then it can be fixed, just get there, and the first person that gets there gets control over the track that they lay.’ And that of course meant money, that of course meant corruption, that of course meant death and meant Hell on Wheels.”
On working with sci-fi icon Amanda Tapping on Sanctuary: “The great thing about Amanda Tapping was that, without fail, when somebody came on, whether they came on for one scene or one episode or they were recurring, she would make sure from minute one that they were made to feel welcome, they were made to feel a part of it, that their ideas were welcome, so that when the time came to shoot it, they knew where they stood.”
On his love for the West End: “It’s a neighbourhood that’s been around for a long time, and it’s not Strathcona, it doesn’t have that kind of age, but there are still remnants of that same time period. It’s an immigrant neighbourhood. That’s the great thing about King George is that it’s an extremely varied group of young people going to school there, and I think more so than anywhere else in Vancouver, the faces that you see are a spectrum from anywhere, and it’s not overpowered by any one group, and that I think is what is interesting about the West End, is that we are all represented. As a first generation immigrant boy, I like that.”