Christopher Heyerdahl

Christopher Heyerdahl stars as a Norwegian nicknamed The Swede in "Hell on Wheels." (AMC)

Christopher Heyerdahl’s name is synonymous with such characters as John Druitt and Bigfoot of “Sanctuary,” Todd the Wraith of “Stargate Atlantis” and the vampire Marcus in the “Twilight” films.

Add to that list The Swede, his menacing character in AMC’s post-Civil War Western, “Hell on Wheels.”

“Isn’t he amazing? What a great character, huh,” Heyerdahl said during a recent interview, giving credit to pretty much everyone on the production but himself.

Yet Heyerdahl turns in the unforgettable, Emmy-worthy performance as The Swede, who is actually a Norwegian survivor of the Confederate prison at Andersonville. As head of security for railroad boss Doc Durant (Colm Meaney), The Swede (real name Tor Gundersen) suspects that Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) of murder.

Heyerdahl, who had just finished about six hours of “Sanctuary” ADR for Biggie, called from Vancouver for a wide-ranging chat about how he tapped his Norwegian heritage to play The Swede, what's coming for Biggie on “Sanctuary” and about the upcoming “Twilight: Breaking Dawn.”

Great talking to you again. And congrats, you are so great in “Hell on Wheels.” I’ve been looking around at the reviews and you’re getting all kinds of props.  
Oh really. Thanks a lot.

It’s not just me; everybody’s agreeing with me.  
And why would they not agree with you? What silly people to not agree with you.  

Right? I was excited to see you. And also Ian Tracey.  
I know, isn’t that great?  

It’s a “Sanctuary” reunion.  
Yeah well, I’ll tell you, because I’ve seen his work for so many years, and been an admirer of his, you know, him as a craftsman, he’s such a great actor.  And so to have the opportunity to work with him and get to know him a little bit on “Sanctuary” and there we are, flopping around on horses in the beautiful countryside of the foothills of Alberta. It was pretty sweet.  

And your characters are so bad.  
We’re quite the team.  

Tell me about Tor.
Tor Gundersen, not Gunderson. Gunderson would be Swedish. Gundersen; he’s Norwegian.  

And you’re half Norwegian and half Scotch?  
Yeah, yeah, yeah. My father emigrated from Norway back in the ‘50s. So he’s a Norwegian lad and I still have all sorts of wonderful family in Norway.

Did you hit them up for accent help?  
I went to university in Oslo and learned the language. So I have a rusty, rusty Norwegian that I get to exercise on a regular basis with my dear father. Most of our conversations are in Norwegian. And then when I speak with my family in Norway, it’s almost always in Norwegian as well, so.

So you just had to apply that as if you were Norwegian speaking English.  
Yeah, I listened to the creative pronunciations of English words that I’ve listened to my entire life by my father and his friends. My father’s a major—he likes to socialize and likes to share the great things that this world has to offer with friends and family. So there were lots of Norwegians and Scots around the house.

So between those two I was exposed to the creative use of the English language from the Scots tongue as well as the Norwegian tongue.  

With each show, especially with a period drama, it’s the trying to get back to a certain mindset and Norway has been protected from the outside world because, really, who would want to go into the frozen wasteland. I say that in sort of sidebar, but for them—for people in our hemisphere, hell is a hot place. But for the Northern Europeans, hell has frozen over. It is a cold, bitterly cold place.

Anyway. The Norwegian man is very distinct and to try and bring that into this character—it’s not a modern mindset. Norway is a place that has been, for many years, isolated. Maybe over the last couple of decades, immigration has come in and there are less than just white faces in the Land of the Midnight Sun. And so it’s interesting—the point of view of this one man in this foreign world. To try and bring that sort of beautiful faraway place into this world of “Hell on Wheels” was really a wonderful exercise, and to try and bring a little bit of my heritage to this show that’s true to that.  

How much did you have to think about it being 1865?
With anything that’s done in this time period, obviously, we’re going to bring some kind of modernisms to bear because that’s what we have to draw upon. But it’s trying not to fall into that trap of being modern. With a lot of the issues in the show, our modern sensibilities are deeply affronted by a lot of the character’s actions. And yet, at that time in many ways, the show is actually quite forward because, you just have to put yourself in the mindset of the period. You can’t look at it from somebody in the 21st century; it doesn’t work like that.  

Right.  
So yeah, it is an exercise in not falling into the trap of being an advanced modern man.  

And did you do a lot of studying up on the period and the Civil War? I love the scene in Episode 2 or 3 where you talk about the immoral mathematics at Andersonville.  
Andersonville. I had no idea about the Norwegians in Andersonville. In our story their supply train is captured and this one Norwegian is put into Andersonville, but there was actually a whole troop of Norwegian soldiers as well who were in Andersonville. And there was quite a large Norwegian population there, which is something I’d never heard of. My father didn’t realize the amount of Norwegians that were involved in the Civil War and that were held captive in that horrible swamp of a place.  

So that was eye-opening to myself and to my extended family. So that kind of education was great. Yeah, I did lots of research on that because it was something that I was completely ignorant of because it’s not something that’s really taught in school, certainly no schools that I’ve ever been to.

If you think about it, it’s not that long ago, the Civil War. Strangely, it’s still very fresh in so many minds. At the beginning of the year I was down in the South and the Civil War, it’s almost like it happened yesterday in many ways.

And yet for me, it seems such a long time ago, a foreign experience. So to try and bring the reality of that very fresh—I mean, this is just a year away from the end of the Civil War, it’s incredibly fresh. The wounds haven’t even healed or even close to healed. And I don’t even know if they’re healed necessarily today. But at that time these are still open wounds. Everything that everyone in this story has gone through—this is a horrible period in American history. And this story in many ways is part of the healing process, the rebuilding of the American dream.  

And then, of course, he’s out hanging somebody else.  
Well, you know, somebody has to lay down the rule of the law, right? It’s funny, because—I don’t know. When somebody says, “Oh, you’re playing the villain.” Oh, I’m playing the what? The villain? No, he’s not a villain. You know, you always want to blame the guy who has to be papa.  

He’s just doing his job, right?  
Well, I don’t even know if it’s so much doing a job as much as it’s always circumstantial, right? Everyone has to survive in this town. It’s not called Hell on Wheels for just a fun little name. It’s filled with murderers and thieves and someone who would steal the last penny out of their mother’s purse. These people are there, not just because they’re out of work, but because they’re all running away from something. Every single person there is running away from something or perhaps they’ve convinced themselves they’re running to something.  

And they’re not law-abiding citizens. It’s not like the nice, friendly little town in the West where people are setting up a nice little shops and taking their kids to school. No, this is a very violent place. What’s the saying? “One less every day.”  

People are dying or being killed through one action or another in this town. And he’s the guy who has to try and keep body and soul, law and order together in a lawless place. Do that by being understanding and cuddly? No, you got to lay down the law.

He doesn’t need to extort money from everyone though.
He’s the tax collector. You pay taxes. Do you not pay taxes? For your apartment, do you not pay tax to the person who runs the town?  

I wish I didn’t have to.  
Exactly. So, it’s just the beginning of modern government, modern municipal government.  

I see your point. I think everybody’s going to kind of forget that even though Bohannon didn’t actually kill the guy that The Swede accuses him of killing, he’s killed plenty of other men in cold blood.
Yeah, but just before the guy gets his own throat cut, what’s Bohannon doing? He’s holding in his hand a knife. And he was going to kill him.

Right, exactly.  
So the great thing is, we always want to root for the hero or the anti-hero, or however you want to pigeonhole Bohannon. But the character of The Swede sees in the eyes because The Swede has done his fair share of killing in order to survive in Andersonville. He knows what that is. He sees into the eyes of Bohannon, and he sees a murderer. He knows that he was or has in some way had something to do with the death of Johnson. He can see it; he can smell it. Everything in him tells him that that’s the case. And he’s right. He’s absolutely right. He’s not going to hang an innocent man.  

So it’s not as black and white as saying, “Oh, here’s the hero and here’s the villain.” It’s the great thing about this show is that there really are no heroes; there are no villains. Everyone is just doing his best to survive in this, in hell.  

So how did you come about the role?  
I don’t know—providence? The Gayton brothers wrote an incredible role. I don’t know how they came up with this character.

But it’s an amazing story of generosity. You think actors are usually out for themselves and they never want to tell anybody about a wonderful opportunity that comes up. But one of my best buddies is a Shaman and a Yogi and an actor and just an amazing human being. … He was so excited about this character that he called me up and he says, “I’m getting ready to do this audition tomorrow, but every time I read it, I just think of you. So are you going to audition for this character?” And I hadn’t heard about it.  

And the next day, I had a call from my agent saying, “We’ve got an audition for you. The character’s called The Swede, it’s in a new Western for AMC, and you’re going to put yourself on tape tomorrow.”  

And I started reading the sides, and I’m looking at it and going, “Oh yeah, he calls himself ‘The Swede.’”  And I’m going, “Oh gosh, man, if I could convince them that he’s actually Norwegian.” And then I read the next line and it says, “But I’m actually Norwegian.” [Laughs.]

The voice of the character was there; the words were so great. When you read something like this, and it just resonates. It’s such a great character. I’m speechless at how brilliant this character was when I looked at it on the page.  

How he was communicating with [Bohannon in "Immoral Mathematics"] and the secrets that he was sharing with this man who is going to die. He’s telling him things that he wouldn’t tell someone. There’s a vulnerability in these scenes that you’re talking about in the pig car. There’s a vulnerability between these two men that he wouldn't normally share with somebody. There are truths being told, secrets being told. And that resonated so much.

Anyway, so I did the audition, was brought in for a call back and I did it in front of David Von Ancken, Jeremy Gold was there. Who else was in the room? Anyway, the guys were there and I did it for them and I think I heard the next day that they wanted to move ahead and away we go. The rest is joyful history.  

When you read it, did you just feel like, “I could kiss that guy who told me about this?”
Oh, I have. [Laughs.] I have since kissed him many times. I just actually saw him and his wife when I was in Toronto just a couple of days ago and it’s just funny how it starts off with that and you end up, you know, saying, “Yeah, I was just at the premiere for ‘Hell on Wheels,’ and you’ll be able to see it in a couple of weeks.”

So it clicked with you immediately?  
Immediately. … It resonated with me right off the top. And it’s a very happy story.  

What do you think The Swede does for fun?  
The Swede does for fun? He practices faith. He’s a very devout, very devout man. I think that him practicing his faith in God is a huge part of his fun. As a strong Lutheran, one of the great joys in life would be practicing his faith.  

I think at the same time, surviving is something that he does that, I don’t know if it would be fun so much. Fun, that’s a tough word. I don’t think that he would ever think that he was having fun, in all honesty. But pleasure, I would say, he gets a lot of pleasure in surviving and the creativity of surviving.  

There are some wonderful moments of pleasure for The Swede. Usually in his ironic way he takes great pleasure, I don’t know, in observing life and observing the existence of interacting with all these damned characters that he sees around him. There’s this, I don’t know, battle of his own guilt and his own penance and how best to exist by the rules of immoral mathematics.

I don’t know. It’s a tough one. That’s a tough one to answer. I could say he has some fun perhaps, I don’t know, he has fun in eating a biscuit. Because the biscuit, well, Number 1, it’s going to make his bowels not react in a bad way. [Laughs.] That poor man’s lower intestine after living through Andersonville, it’s not like they had the antibiotics to take at the time.

Yeah, so I think he finds pleasure in the small things.  

Do you think he takes joy in being the enforcer too?  
I don’t know if he does. I think it’s not so much the joy of hanging people; it’s the pleasure in creating order, the pleasure in showing limits to the populace. I think one of the most difficult things that the human animal has to deal with is making choices and making the right choices. And when those people who have the power to use or abuse—and I think The Swede falls into both of those categories as anyone does who’s in a position of power—is that his job is to show people the limits of their actions. And if somebody is not there to show the limits then there’s anarchy and there is chaos.  

So imagine Hell on Wheels without The Swede. Nothing would get done. The railroad would not be built. He’s an essential part of the workings of that society. And does he fall, does he make mistakes? Absolutely. Does he make the wrong choices sometimes? Absolutely.

But he is an essential part of the workings of that society just as the law enforcers of our time who are perpetually being blamed and praised and challenged and reviewed and investigated because of their failings and also their great successes. But it’s not an easy thing to be the lawmaker or the law enforcer.  

Then he feels he’s doing right, right?
Well, he is.  

He’s doing a just and noble job.  
Absolutely. And he is. … He fails sometimes, absolutely. But he is, for lack of a better [term], he is the Sheriff of the town. He just hasn’t been given the stamp of approval by the federal government. He’s been given the stamp of approval by Durant.

How was the experience filming in the mud all the time?  
Again, the reality of the situation is that they were in nature. They couldn’t hide from nature. And nor could we.

I would say probably the grips had a harder time than we did because they were the ones having to lug everything around. We had the great joy of PA’s running around with umbrellas and coddling us. … So we were in a great position, but when we’re actually in the muck and doing the work, it’s a great help because it’s real. You can’t hide from the weather in southern Alberta. In the foothills, it just comes, and it comes with a vengeance. You can’t hide. The wind comes up and was blowing everything over. The hail storms coming down the size of baseballs. You can’t hide from that anywhere.  

So the reality of that just helps the moment of the scene and because this is what those people had to deal with on a regular basis.  

That’s just a lot different than on “Sanctuary” where you’re just pretending something’s there, isn’t it?  
Isn’t it just. [Laughs.] Yeah, yeah. The northern winds, when they blow, you can’t just flick the switch and say, “Can we turn off that fan please because there’s some sand getting in my eyes.” It doesn’t work that way.  

No green screens in the wilderness.  
No. No. No, the only green screen in the wilderness is when you need 100 miles of track.  

Right. I hear you had to go back and forth shooting both shows at the same time.  
Yeah. It was great. [Producer] George Horie and the gang at “Sanctuary” were very, very good to me and allowed me to do “Hell on Wheels.” Without their support, without George and [“HOW” producer] Chad Oakes getting together and saying that this impossible schedule could be worked out, we wouldn’t be having this conversation about this subject.  

Right.  
I would arrive to work at “Sanctuary” at four in the morning, shoot all day, Gordy MacDonald, our first AD, would make sure that I was in the chair and out the door at 8 [p.m.]. The car would pick me up and drive me to the airport. I’d get on the 10:30 flight, arrive Calgary at 12:30, 1 in the morning. Get into the hotel; get picked up at 6 the next morning. Drive to set and either stay for a day or two and then jump on a plane, fly back the next night, get up at 4 in the morning, back on “Sanctuary.” And that was basically what it was like for five months. And it was fantastic. I was in heaven.  

Really?  
Yeah. I’m working on two shows with people I already loved in one show and people I grew to love in the new show and with producers who were all supportive of the stories, of everyone working there. Writers were writing these amazing situations on both shows.

I just finished doing ADR for three episodes with Biggie and looking at all the wonderful transformative tales that were going on there and then going into a serious period drama and galloping along on horses and dealing with hail storms and rebel soldiers and Indian attacks. I mean, who could ask for anything more?  

That’s great. I’m happy for you. But didn’t that sort of scramble your brain going back and forth like that?  
No. It’s funny, one morning walking with my overnight bag through the Calgary airport I just started to giggle. That was me doing the one-hour drive from the suburbs, from my bedroom community, to go to work. But I’m flying.

"Hell on Wheels" was worth it. The amount of testosterone on that set is lunatic, and yet we all got along; there were not conflicts. You know, [there was] the usual stuff. But … it was a frickin’ love fest. It’s just a good group of people. They have done an amazing job of casting this show because everyone exists so well together. It’s a great group. It’s wonderful. It’s hard to put into words.  

Common told me that the area outside of Calgary was gorgeous, that he had never seen anything like it.  
It’s stunning. We’re on the Tsuu T’ina res. And we’re in a beautiful valley, sort of a dent in the landscape. And there are 1,500 wild horses running around in this area. And we’re just in a dip and 360 degrees, we cannot see a single telephone pole. We cannot see suburban sprawl. We cannot city. We cannot see anything that reminds us that we are in the 21st century.  

And you go to the top of a hill, and you’ve got, oh my gosh, look, at that, a row of houses, and they all look the same. Right there. And yet, you get below that and we are in the mid-19th century. It’s phenomenal. It was a beautiful, beautiful spot.

Had you ridden horses before?  
I grew up riding horses as a city slicker. I love that stuff. … I kind of was thrown into the saddle [for this]. I’d worked with the wranglers about five, six years ago on “Into the West.” And there, it was actually with Ryan Reynolds and Piper Ferguson, and we were basically sitting on horses for, I don’t know, 10 hours a day on that show. And we’d set up a shot and we’d say to the guys, “OK, you can go like for 45 minutes, we’re going to take off on the horses.” And we’d just take off, had walkies, and then we’d just come back and shoot the scene and ride off on the horses again. It was pretty great.  

So that was six years ago. It was tough getting back on the horse, I must say. My arse and my legs are definitely feeling it. And I was walking like a cowboy there, maybe not riding like a cowboy—but certainly walking like a cowboy.  

I've stood back-to-back with you. I bet you sit pretty tall on a horse.
Well, I had this beautiful, beautiful horse. And the name of the horse was Tall Man. And it is the tallest horse that they had. A stunner, just gorgeous. And this horse would get up to a canter as quickly as it could, just beautiful.  

They really wanted to make you look intimidating, didn’t they?
Well, Wendy Partridge did a great job with creating that costume, because from minute one, as soon as she started describing what she had in mind when we were talking on the telephone before I got up there, it laid down the character so perfectly. Her vision really solidified The Swede, absolutely. So I think that Wendy has had a major part in creating The Swede. The Gaytons and Wendy Partridge have made an amazing character.  

And you. The last time we talked, I asked you who you like more between Bigfoot and Druitt? I’m going to expand that to The Swede. And do you have a favorite of the three?  
I can’t choose a favorite. It’s like, I don’t know, choosing a favorite of three people whom you love. As I said, I just finished doing ADR on Biggie, and he’s beautiful. I love Biggie, and I love the way he breathes and thinks and reacts. They’re all wonderful characters. And I take great joy in playing them all and having them surprise me and I’m a lucky man and the great thing is I don’t need to choose.  

What’s coming up for Biggie?  
What can I say? What’s coming up for Biggie is probably the biggest challenge of his hundred-year existence and the biggest challenge of his relationship with Magnus in the Sanctuary.

Does that come into play later with the rebuilding of the Hollow Earth homeland?  
No, well that’s part of it, but no. That’s definitely an influence because that whole story line is part of it; it’s partially related to that. 
 
Are we going to hear you sing too?
No, unfortunately. I was written into that episode and then they realized, oh no, no, no. We’ve already given him that time off to do “Hell on Wheels,” so you’ll see Rob Lawrenson, Declan, come in and take over for Biggie. So Rob’s in the musical. Yeah.  

And you’re and you got “Twilight” coming up, too.  
Yeah, the big we’ve got the big premiere on the 14th.  

Anything you want to say about that real quick? About Marcus?   
Well, being a part of something like that is such a great thing to witness. Marcus sits back and observes and is not terribly active in society anymore, but he certainly observes and feels and ponders and yearns and reminisces. In a way, that’s very much my experience as well in this whole thing because I am in it and yet I’m not a part of the madness like a lot of the young people in this show. I get to witness this kind of event that doesn’t come along very often.  

And that’s a wonderful and amazing thing to be a part of. So, you know, part of that will come to a culmination on Monday the 14th, when we walk down the red carpet and share it with a select few, and then on the 18th, when it comes out. It’s a great experience to be a part of because, let’s face it, you can do all sorts of wonderful films or have any kind of wonderful experience, but you know, how many times is it going to be relished by so many people?  

Not very often. So it’s quite an experience.  

Well, I think The Swede’s going to be a fan favorite, too.  
Ah, well, that’s certainly a favorite of mine. He’s a wonderful character. 

PHOTOS: INSIDE "SANCTUARY"
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