Hell on Wheels Q&A – Christopher Heyerdahl (The Swede)
Q: Has your approach to portraying the Swede changed at all since you first started playing him?
A: Whenever I approach a character, I take what's on the page and I compile a list. What do I know about the character? What is said about him? What is the truth? What is questionable? The interesting thing about the relationship between [Cullen] Bohannon and Thor Gunderson is that they say many things about each other which may or not be true. So, I try to go through the script myself and not take what someone says about that character. I have four seasons of information about my character, but also about the characters with whom he interacts. My perspective of the Swede has changed, as I think the Swede himself has changed.
Q: In your Season 1 Q&A, you described the Swede as "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." How would you describe him now?
A: He's a very interesting creature, and has a very personal, yet distant, relationship with God. His actions always attempt to close that distance. Every step he takes, every move he makes... wait a minute, I'm going into a song... I'll be watching you! [Laughs] Everything he does, from his perspective, is in honor of his desperate need to please God. An impatient God who wouldn’t mind wiping out humanity: That's the God that Thor Gunderson understands, so it allows him to be this honorable Old Testament creature. Some may question the morality, but every character on this show has been created so beautifully flawed. The Swede is the absolute antithesis to our hero. He's a formidable and dangerous adversary.
Q: So is he still a keeper of order at the Mormon fort?
A: I think he appreciates order and having a handle on human nature. Without order, human beings do not behave very well. If you create too much order, you have rebellion. I think he is doing a better job this time around, even though his adversary ends up winning the battle — not the war, but the battle.
Q: Is he still the same ol' Swede, or has he truly changed? Did you think he believes his own lie?
A: The interesting question that the writing team, I think, is exploring is: Can a man change? What does he need to do? That question relates to both our hero and antagonist. Both were in a position where that question was posed. Both men, for their own reasons, need to change and have been on a quest. In order to be [Bishop] Dutson, the Swede has to have everyone believe -- and he loves a challenge.
Q: In Episode 402, Cullen tricks the Swede into publicly confessing that he killed Bishop Dutson. Were you surprised at how it played out?
A: Here's the interesting thing: What he does is, he actually publicly tricks everyone watching. When Cullen realizes that the Swede believes he is Bishop Dutson and is doing the work of God, that's when the plan eventually comes to fruition. When he's cleansing Cullen's soul, he is in a deep state of vulnerability. It's fascinating when you watch the scene, because you watch Cullen look at the community to check, "Are they with me?" The seeds of doubt have already been planted months ago, but it germinates now. There is actually no confession, although the audience believes there is. Very clever man. When the cast and crew watched Bohannon go through those gates, everyone erupted in applause because they were so "with" our hero. It was amazing to see Mark Richard's script work so beautifully.
Q: How are you liking the Swede's new look?
A: Figuring out how to make the transformation was something that we brought up quite a bit. Images of strong biblical figures like Moses came to mind, as well as Brigham Young, a powerful man. My hair is airbrushed every day, and my beard is painted to make it fully gray. We completely reinvented a new man, and I love the look.
Q: Does playing such a menacing role get harder or easier over time?
A: There's an inherent challenge, because the Swede is no longer there. At points, he is dragged out from the depths by Bohannon as he fishes for the Swede to come back. The rest of the time, I look for a way to express that my character holds himself and speaks in a very different way. Everything about him is fresh and new.
Q: You've played several menacing characters during your career. How does the Swede rank on that list?
A: Well, I don't look at characters as being menacing or evil. I do everything I can to find the man who had things happen to him that have shaped who he is now. I love this character, and I'm totally committed. You know what? I'm in a fully committed relationship with Thor Gunderson, let's say that!