In an exclusive interview for AMCtv.com, Christopher Heyerdahl, the actor who plays The Swede on AMC’s Hell on Wheels, reveals the art of handcuffing and the pleasurable discomforts of his wardrobe.
Q: How have you have been describing your character, The Swede, to other people?
A: Here’s what I’ve come up with, because I’ve tried to do this a number of times: The Swede is a Norwegian survivor of the Andersonville Prison Camp who has the weighty responsibility of “keeper of order” amongst the group of harlots, murderers and dipsomaniacs that is Hell on Wheels.
Q: The Swede speaks with a very distinct accent. How did you develop that?
A: Well, I have a Norwegian father who emigrated to America in the 1950s, and he still speaks with varying degrees of an accent. Over my lifetime my ear has been well-tuned to that accent. Any first generation kid has that wonderful gift from their parents.
Q: It’s pretty hilarious that your character is called The Swede, despite being from Norway.
A: It actually happens all the time! Whenever I travel anywhere, I’m constantly asked if I’m Swedish. It’s the burden of most Norwegians. The Swedes have just got a better publicity agent, I think.
Q: What did you draw on besides your father’s accent to create The Swede?
A: He’s an amalgamation of all sorts of people I’ve met throughout my lifetime. Norway was occupied by the Germans in the Second World War, and I’ve met a lot of people who had to live through that occupation in varying degrees. In order to keep their theoretical sanity, they often have dealt with it by trying to control everything and everyone else around them.
Q: Your costume looks a little tight around the neck. Was it choking you at all?
A: It’s definitely very well-fitted! That was created for me. Wendy [Partridge], our costume designer, cut that in 72 hours. We wanted to really keep The Swede really controlled, almost as if he were holding himself together. She asked me if I wanted her to make it looser and I said absolutely not. It’s just a wonderful feeling for this type of man who holds on so tightly to his ideals. It only makes sense that it is incarnated in his dress his well.
Q: Tell me a little bit about the prison car you throw Cullen into and the handcuffs you use on him.
A: It’s certainly my first time handcuffing somebody with handcuffs from the 19th century! They’re not quick release and they’re certainly not a quick lock device — nothing like we have today. I think I was pretty good at it, I don’t think Anson [Mount] had too many cuts and bruises by the time we finished. The car itself was a pig car; we had all kinds of remnants of the livestock who had been spending time in there before; feces and horrible things. It’s a good thing Anson is such a method actor, because he got right into it.
Q: Do you remember the first time you walked on the Hell on Wheels set?
A: We were driven down this gravel road through this beautiful piece of property and we came around a corner and before us is the railroad tracks, this phenomenal wood-burning engine, and you can see The Swede’s caboose and Durant’s gorgeous train car. We all felt it on the very first read. We all felt that we had something special.