The long road to Chelah Horsdal

Hell on Wheels actress reflects on her career, her famous dad, and saying goodbye to Maggie.

Chelah Horsdal didn’t truly embrace acting until she was 29, but the decade between her graduation from Lord Byng Secondary and the launch of her acting career was hardly ill-spent.

Before she was one of Vancouver’s busiest film and television actresses, Horsdal was a model, a waitress on a Caribbean island, a restaurant manager in Whistler, an event planner, a publicist, and a voice-over talent agent (among other things).

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“I went and did everything else for 10 years,” laughs Horsdal, 42, in an interview at a Kitsilano café, mere blocks from her childhood home. “There were a bunch of false starts before I came out as an actor.”

She’d gotten a taste of acting in high school (playing a high-class call girl on The Hat Squad), but it wasn’t until she was in her late 20s, at a critical juncture in her voice agent career, that she realized that acting – and not anything else she’d attempted – was her bona-fide calling.

But despite all of the self-deprecating talk of false starts, Horsdal doesn’t regret the decade she spent doing “everything else.”

“I feel like I had a tremendous advantage in that I had lived my life fully for over 10 years out in the world, not trying to be anything or trying to achieve anything, so it gave me more gravitas and more understanding of humanity and learning about people without it being a narcissistic ten years,” says Horsdal.

Since immersing herself in the acting sphere, Horsdal has made her mark in an array of indie and studio screen projects, including Arrow, Supernatural, Battlestar Galactica, The Killing, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and Blackstone.

She delivered Leo Award-nominated turns in Arctic Air, When Calls the Heart, and 2010’s The Hostage, and is nominated for a Best Actress UBCP/ACTRA Award for her work as Maggie Palmer on AMC’s Hell on Wheels.

The nomination comes a couple of months after Horsdal officially wrapped on Hell on Wheels; the critically acclaimed series will conclude its five-season run in 2016.

Hell on Wheels explores the corruption, violence, and intrigue that swirled around the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad in the wake of the American Civil War.

“[Maggie] made me a lot more comfortable in my skin,” says Horsdal of her character, a no-nonsense cattle rancher. “I will miss her fighting spirit. I will miss her clothes.”

As Maggie, Horsdal shared the bulk of her scenes with legendary Irish actor Colm Meaney (The Commitments; Star Trek: Deep Space Nine).

“I learned a tremendous amount from Colm: how to own things, and how to have the courage to ask for what you want,” says Horsdal.

“He goes about it in the most direct way possible. God, I love him so much. He curses like no one else, and he’s always this far away from a wink and a smile.”

AMC has yet to announce an airdate for the final seven episodes of Hell on Wheels, but Horsdal has already moved on: to The X-Files, Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, The Man in the High Castle, and Patterson’s Wager.

The latter – a wry and quirky independent feature film – will screen this December as part of the 2015 Whistler Film Festival.

Patterson’s Wager teams Horsdal up with Corner Gas’ Fred Ewanuik, whose character discovers in the first moments of the film that he can see two minutes into the future.

Horsdal’s character – Audrey, the love interest – is forced to make sense of this superpower, through the lens of her own paranormal baggage.

“I think it’s a sweet movie. I love that it’s a movie that’s appropriate for anyone to see,” says Horsdal, who was cast after director O. Corbin Saleken saw her in a PSA about tax incentives she’d self-produced during the Save BC Film campaign.

“I thought it was sweet. I just keep saying the word sweet, which sounds patronizing to the film, but it really is an easy movie to watch.”

There’s another film in Horsdal’s future that probably won’t ring quite as sweet or easy: a documentary about her father, Canadian folk music legend Valdy.

“My dad was named to the Order of Canada three years ago, and I recognized the fact that here he had this prolific career as a Canadian storyteller, philanthropist, and activist, and his story had never really been cohesively told integrating the personal and the professional,” says Horsdal.

The film is still in its earliest stages of development, but has already experienced a significant shift in direction, says Horsdal.

“I started with the clear intention of wanting it to be a piece about his career, and the arc of his career, but as we have begun to get into it, people who I trust keep coming back to me and saying, ‘no, it’s kind of the father-daughter, that’s the story that’s begging to be told,’” says Horsdal.

“One of the primary reasons that it took me so long to admit that I was an actor was because my father is a professional artist, and I was like, ‘nope, I don’t want that life.’ Now I recognize that that was just me trying to protect myself.”

• The UBCP/ACTRA Awards will be handed out in a gala ceremony at the Vancouver Playhouse on Nov. 7. Follow @sabrinarmf for tweets from the red carpet and ceremony.



On modeling in her teens: “I think it was ego-driven, and it was something that me and all my friends were interested in, as most teenage girls are at 14 and 15 years old, and we were all just giving it a go, and there were all of these Woodward’s catalogues that were being shot in town. I was five-foot-nine from the time that I was 11 years old, so I always had people telling me, ‘You should be a model,’ and of course, I told myself, in my mind, ‘I’m an ugly duckling with red hair and freckles, I’m not a model.’ I had this notion of the Stephanie Seymours of the world, that that’s the archetype of beauty, and I’m obviously not that. I was a terrible model, because I always refused to be super skinny, which was one of the absurd requirements of that industry – was, I would argue still is, unfortunately, and it’s permeated and it’s now in our industry, but that’s another story.”


On what she learned about acting while working in a talent agency: “I learned very clearly both what I wanted to be and didn’t want to be as an actor by working there for a year, and by observing actors in their natural habitat, stripped back. When someone shows up at an agency, you’re going to see their best and worst self, and I found that I observed a great deal of ego, on the negative side, and I also observed a lot of artistry, and it was very informative for me to quietly watch and absorb. I didn’t know I wanted to be an actor at the time. I still had that dream, but it wasn’t practical for me, but boy oh boy, did I learn a lot about how to be in the world and how to deal with people and how to get your needs met without diminishing others just by observing others in that office.”


On success now versus when first starting out in the industry: “I remember when I booked my very first guest star. It was on Andromeda. I was so excited, I could hardly even cope with it. I remember the phone call from Natasha [Trisko, of Trisko Talent], and both of us jumping and screaming and being so happy. Cut to, Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce last week. When I got that phone call, it was as it has become, ‘Let me look at my calendar, okay, what day, great, got it, okay.’ So my idea of success, that would have been ten years ago, this is it, I’ve booked a guest star, this is success. Now, that’s just a part of my career. I think success now is space in my life for the rest of my life to happen while my career continues. That feels like success. Financial security feels like success. Being able to say no to things feels like success, because you have to earn that. I think it’s important for people to begin to figure out what projects they do, and more importantly, don’t want to work on, but you also have to earn the right to be able to say no to things.”


On speaking her mind: “It’s become more and more important to me, and more and more important to all of us to impress upon women how powerful it can be when they all support each other, and when we all collectively move away from the hyper over sexualization and the victimhood and all of the big huge issues that we are all tackling in this industry, from pay inequity to sexual harassment – the more of us that are talking about it, and the more of us that are sharing our experiences from the beginning, the better it’s going to be in the long run, and the better it’s going to change. I try and spread that. I prosthelytize a little bit about this stuff whenever I can with young actresses.”


On what advice she would give herself if she could go back to the beginning of her career: “You’re enough. I still find myself looking for approval at certain points, and I don’t know that that ever goes away when you’re an artist performing for other people in order to tell someone else’s story to other people; somewhere along the way, you want the approval of people, and I’m comfortable now with the fact that I’m enough to be able to tell those stories.”

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