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Q&A – Chelah Horsdal (Maggie Palmer)

Chelah Horsdal, who plays Maggie Palmer on AMC’s Hell on Wheels, talks about the evolution of her character and her love-hate relationship with corsets.

Q: You were on AMC’s The Killing. Did that role lead to this one?

A: For The Killing, it was a very small role in the second season doing a Diane Sawyer-type character, interviewing Mayor Richmond after he had been shot. It didn’t come up that I had done The Killing when I was in contention for Maggie Palmer, although I had been trying to get onto Hell on Wheels since the first season because I’m just such a big fan.

When I did the initial audition, it was for one scene in one episode. Ultimately, John Wirth [Showrunner/Executive Producer] and Mark Richard [Senior Writer/Co-Executive Producer] decided to develop the character a bit more. So, when I went into it, I had no idea what was going to happen with Maggie Palmer or if she was even going to come back. I was really excited when they told me.

Q: You’re a prolific actor. How do you fit in the time to shoot a recurring role on a television show like this?

A: For a show like Hell on Wheels, I just like it so much that I was willing to sacrifice other shows to keep myself available for it. I put some things aside and said no to gigs that would have conflicted. It was all a surprise as things unfolded throughout the summer.

Q: You’ve tweeted about wearing corsets on set. Did you ever get used to dressing in period attire?

A: It was the first time I’d worn a corset for a show, and I can’t say that I’m thrilled that the current series I’m working on also has corsets. However, Carol Case, who is the costume designer for Hell on Wheels, is such an unbelievably gifted artist that I would put on anything that she told me to. Maggie’s costumes are built from the ground up and they really serve the era. Because of the corsets and the way they fit, it forces a different kind of beat in the way that one carries themselves.

Q: Maggie’s quite the sharpshooter. Had you handled a gun much before Hell on Wheels

A: I had used a gun before, however I had never used something like the Winchester ’66 that I used in Hell on Wheels.  I went with the prop master right next to where the Mormon fort was built so we could fire some guns. We worked on a shooting style for her and how she would cock the rifle so shells weren’t going down her dress; people used to get burned at the time. In-between shots, they let me carry the gun around to get comfortable and make it look like it was something she had held all the time, which was very bad-ass.

VIDEO: Inside Episode 309 Hell on Wheels: Fathers and Sins

Q: Maggie’s a strong woman. What were you told about her backstory?

A: I based a lot of her on my mom. I was raised by an extraordinary, powerful woman. About 7 months ago, I decided that I didn’t want to feed into playing characters that were telling men’s stories only. I was tired of playing women that were there at the mercy of men. I wanted to play characters that were powerful in their own right. I liked the fact that, at any point, Maggie could have dropped things, taken off on her own and she’d still be fine. I don’t worry about her.

Q: Are you much like Maggie in real life?

A: I think there’s a lot of me in Maggie. That’s the nature of the beast in the way that I approach acting. I try to find the similarities first and the things that I can’t reconcile with myself, I use my imagination.  She was very intuitive for me. I don’t apologize, in my own life, for being a woman who’s fully capable of taking care of herself and the people around her — but I’m a lot more sensitive than Maggie is. [Laughs]

Q: If you owned your own hotel, what would it be like?

A: I think it would be an awful lot like the Palmer Hotel. I was astonished when I walked onto that set. It’s absolutely beautiful. Every little detail is so impeccably put together. It’s a practical set — you can walk through doors and go upstairs — which makes my job as an actor so much easier. You’re not worried about walls falling over, which is not as uncommon as you might think! At one point, we were joking that we would love to just stay at that hotel. I was strangely proud, of which I have no right to be, because I did not build it and I do not own it. However, it was “my” hotel. [Laughs]

Q: You filmed a pilot, Rita, with Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn. Did you spend any time together?

A: It was one of the best pilots I’ve read. Anna was perfect for the role and really good. We had one day together. I wish that we had more time together!

Click here to read an interview with John Wirth, the showrunner and executive producer for AMC’s Hell on Wheels.

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