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Q&A – Christopher Heyerdahl (The Swede)

Christopher Heyerdahl, who plays The Swede on AMC’s Hell on Wheels, talks about his character’s new look and surviving a jump off a bridge.

Q: At the end of last season, we saw The Swede jump off a bridge. Did you assume that was the end for your character?

A: No, definitely not. The Swede — Thor Gunderson — was bellyflop champion in Norway back in 1855 and 1856, so I knew he could take that shallow dive and come out smiling.

Q: [Laughs] Is that the backstory you invented for The Swede this year?

A: Invented!? That’s a historical fact. I had to go into the Norwegian archive to find that. It was very difficult research. Hard to figure out. [EDITOR’S NOTE: He’s joking]

Q: What were you told about The Swede’s return?

A: It was all very hush hush. They didn’t want to tell me anything. I think it’s a good way of going about it… I have no idea what [showrunner] John Wirth and the rest of the team have in mind for the character. It’s like a gift every couple of weeks when I get the script in my inbox.

Q: The Swede murdered Lily Bell last season. Were you surprised at the strength of the reaction to that?

A: No, I wasn’t surprised at all. Lily Bell was a wonderful character and Dominique [McElligott] played that character with strength and heart and vulnerability. She brought something that was completely out of place in that really dangerous world… It was a great character, so I had no doubt that there was going to be backlash.

Q: What do you think of The Swede’s new look?

A: I think it’s great… He needs to completely change the way the way the world sees him but also how he sees himself… [The look] was actually something I brought to the table and did my best to sell to the other creatives. There’s something quite shocking about it, the image is quite biblical. And you know there’s something that happens to people who go through great stress or have some sort of shocking event in their life, they tend to lose all the pigment in their hair.

Q: The Swede is a bit of a chameleon. Is that something you share with him?

A: I must. It’s me playing him. [Laughs] The Swede is a survivor. And the fact that he survived the act of killing someone so close to Cullen Bohannon… There’s no way that those two people can meet up as the two people they were on the bridge. So, transformation, rebirth, is necessary.

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Q: What’s the key to making The Swede so subtly sinister?

A: I don’t look at the character as sinister… When you’re telling a story, there has to be a good guy and there has to be a bad guy. That’s the way we’ve been taught about storytelling… My job is just to create a three-dimensional, living, breathing human being, so when I get my script, I’m not thinking, “Oh, here’s a moment where I can be villainous,” because the audience is already doing that for me.

Q: You’ve talked about trying to see the humanity in all of your characters. What can you say on that front about The Swede?

A: I like to look at the Swede as a fallen angel… I feel like every action he does on this Earth is to test the faith of everyone he encounters. And I think that every one of us needs someone like that in our lives.

Q: So far, your scenes take place away from Hell on Wheels. Where have you been filming in relationship to the rest of the set?

A: I’ve hardly seen the rest of the cast, but the set in all honesty is in the same area… Pretty much everything aside from a few exceptions are shot within two miles of Hell on Wheels.

Q: Is it hard not seeing the rest of the cast?

A: I cry myself to sleep sometimes. And I’m not totally joking. It’s a wonderful group of people, and I look forward to every opportunity I can get to spend time with them… And I certainly look forward to working with Anson every chance I get. A day without Anson is a day without sunshine.

Q: This season The Swede reveals he’s a bit of a handyman. Are you good at fixing things yourself?

A: [Laughs] I don’t know if you’re familiar with The Red Green Show. It’s about a Canadian hero and handyman… His saying is, “If you can’t be handsome, you gotta be handy.” I’m pretty handy. I just think if put into the situation, I can bang a few nails, I can chop down a tree. I spent a number of years in the Boy Scouts and they taught me a thing or two. I have a few badges on my shirt.

Q: You’ve kept keepsakes from other shows you’ve worked on. What have you gotten from Hell on Wheels?

A: Right now I take home this bloody beard every day to the chagrin of my wife. I have a wonderful gift that Tayden Marks [who plays Ezra Dutson] gave to me… Tayden had a picture taken of the two of us, and he framed it, and signed it and wrote a small inscription, personalizing it to me. So I have that picture with me in Calgary.

Click here to read an interview with Anson Mount, who plays Cullen Bohannon on AMC’s Hell on Wheels.

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