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Hell on Wheels Q&A – Chelah Horsdal (Maggie Palmer)

Chelah Horsdal, who plays Maggie Palmer on AMC’s Hell on Wheels, talks about how her character has influenced her life and what she would name her own hotel.

Q: You’ve previously acted in various genres, from horror to sci-fi to comedy. What’s unique about being in a Western, and what’s been unique about being on Hell on Wheels, in particular?

A: What’s not unique about Hell on Wheels? One of the things that drew me to this project, beyond just the awesome material and being a fan, was the character and the strength of Maggie Palmer. I feel like the great thing about this show is that every character — despite the fact that they may have challenges and insecurities — is very strong. I think that comes from the need to survive during that era, and I think that’s almost genre-specific to the Western. Every character is so driven towards their own goals, and it makes it interesting to play with.

Q: Maggie is a no-nonsense business woman. Has she taught you anything about your own self?

A: I started playing Maggie just before I turned 40. It’s hard to say if she’s influenced the woman that I continue to become, or vice versa, if the woman I continue to become influences Maggie. I definitely feel much more connected to a woman like her in how I’m grounded. She’s so strong and seemingly unafraid of most things, and I believe that to be how I live my life.

Q: Talk a little bit about the scene in Episode 411, “Bleeding Kansas,” in which Maggie helps Cullen amputate Sidney’s leg. Was it challenging to film such a graphic scene?
A: The special effects team killed it on that episode! That’s a terrible pun, but you have no idea the way that the leg looked when we were holding down our Sidney Snow. The prosthetic leg was on Jonathan Scarfe, so when Anson [Mount] pulled out the saw and started cutting through, it was like he was cutting through a birthday cake. There was almost no acting required at that point. Just looking at it going through — it looked so incredible. Jonathan worked his tail off, and he sold all of it so effectively. The poor guy was covered in fake blood all day long with flies landing on him. He was a hero from start to finish. That whole scene was so incredible to shoot, and I think it looked as close to the real thing as it possibly could have. It was just insane.

Q: Do you think you could have stomached the medical practices back in those days?

A: I have learned one thing about myself: In moments of chaos, I get very calm. It still would have been gross and archaic, but I think I probably could have handled it.

Q: You’ve tweeted some photos of yourself on location on a horse. Do you have a lot of riding experience? How much opportunity do you have to ride while you’re shooting the show?

A: I grew up with horses in Vancouver. Most kids go off to summer camp, and mine was always horse camp. I love horses. From the time I started on the show, I was actively begging to be written in on a horse. I have this ritual whenever I get a new script — I’m not allowed to read it until I get on the treadmill. So, I got on the treadmill, and when I read Episode 409, there was a beautiful scene between Cullen and Maggie and it says “Maggie mounts a horse.” I was so excited! Although, getting on a horse in the middle of a scene is hard to make look graceful.

Q: You also tweeted that 1868 hairstyles can be described as “1 of every 10 hairs being tugged in opposite directions at all times.” Has you scalp gotten any more used to it after two seasons?

A: I think you just deal with it. I’ve been wearing extra hair for almost two years now. You do get used to it. If the hair starts to fall at all, it does start to pull. It’s not particularly comfortable, but neither are the corsets and the other stuff.

Q: What’s more uncomfortable: the hairdos or the corsets?

A: The corsets, for sure.

Q: What do you think your profession might have been if you’d lived in the 1860s?

A: It’s so hard to say, because the restrictions that women lived under at that time were so incredibly different than today. There would have been limitations. I love Louise Ellison and the woman that she is, she was a ground-breaker in so many ways. Journalism is appealing because there is so much freedom to it. I think law would have been fun because so much was changing. I don’t think I would have been a homesteader or family-oriented.

Q: If you owned your own hotel like Maggie does, what would you name it?

A: Oh, man! The name of something is so very important. It would probably have something to do with my dog. He’s the center of my universe. Maybe something like The Dog House.

Read an interview with Jennifer Ferrin, who plays Louise Ellison >>

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