In the Western drama Hell on Wheels the one person you don't want to upset is The Swede, the imposing Scandinavian who keeps the ragtag pioneer settlement in some sort of order through liberal use of violence.
Christopher Heyerdahl plays this suspected former cannibal and brutal disciplinarian, and he spoke to us about using his Norwegian roots for the role, what drives The Swede to his extreme actions, and mud wrestling.
What we need to clear up really early is that you play a character called The Swede, but he’s Norwegian. What's going on there?
I think the Swedes just have better publicists. When I read the first line I thought, before I even had the job, ‘I wonder if I can convince the guys to make him Norwegian?’. Of course, the next line reveals that he is Norwegian.
I have no idea how these Floridian Gayton boys (Tony and Joe, the show's creators) knew that the shadow of these bloody Swedes have been following the Norwegians for so long. It’s a wonderful piece of writing which sets up the humour and humanity of that character right from the top, which is a great feat.
What were your first impressions of the The Swede, because he’s a bit of a beast. It's implied he resorted to cannibalism in a prisoner of war camp…
Well, he’s a survivor. He survived Andersonville, the most notorious prisoner of war camp during the Civil War; it was a place awfully difficult to crawl out of, let alone walk. This guy has a very strong will to survive and has an innate understanding of human nature that allowed him to survive something like that. It’s definitely changed him, and I’m not sure if it’s made him a better or a worse man.
I’ve had so many conversations where I stand up for The Swede and say he’s the least corrupt person in the whole community. He’s the most straightforward. Everyone else has a game going, whereas he’s trying to keep the catch on the chaos and anarchy that can erupt in a community like that.
But, by the end of season two, you might have a hard time supporting that theory. He transforms himself into Loki and becomes the purveyor of great chaos, and enjoys watching people scrambling around dealing with it.
He might be straightforward, but by working as the muscle of railroad magnate Thomas Durant to keep Hell on Wheels peaceful he shows that straightforward doesn't necessarily mean he's fair…
The people who are in that town are running from something. For some reason they’ve had to leave their home and they had to disappear into this cesspool. These are not the kind of people that you allow to do whatever they feel like, because there’s not a single person there with a moral compass.
You cannot be cuddly and take people on their word in a community like that, so how do you keep civilisation in an uncivilised world? The Swede understands very well how to deal with those kinds of inhabitants and keep as civilised a community as possible.
And it's not as a happy-go-lucky sort of fellow…
I think he finds it very difficult to see the light and I don’t think he wakes up of a morning without perhaps a scream from the nightmares he survives every night. He doesn’t see the world as a happy place. I mean, how many Norwegian comedies have you seen?
The only difference between their comedies and tragedies is the body count, isn’t it?
(laughs) The Norwegians are notoriously dark in their humour and, while they know how to have a good time, there’s got to be something in having so little light throughout the winter months.
My father’s from Norway and it’s great to be able to bring my understanding and observations of the male side of my family, some truth to the way they look at the world, and some humour, too.
Have any of your family commented upon your interpretation of this Norwegian?
They’re quite proud of it, actually. I think that because you see someone doing their best to reflect a little bit of history, even though The Swede isn’t a character they might be terribly proud of. The way that he’s portrayed as a conflicted human being is something I hope they appreciate. They certainly say they do…
How did you find working on the set? Did you immerse yourself in it by not washing, shaving, and perhaps only eating Confederate or Union soldiers?
I licked a few Confederate soldiers…
Was that part of the script or did you just do it for the experience?
No, that was late at night after a few too many pints.
The good thing about having such a wonderful crew is that you get to go home and wash the grime off at the end of the day. Eight hours later you’re back on set and they’re making you look as dirty as possible.
David Von Ancken (one of the directors and producers) is all about more dirt. A lot of times it wasn’t an issue because there was so much rain, hail, and snow, the mud just naturally occurred.
Was that the dirtiest you’ve been since you were a kid and mucking around, climbing trees?
You haven’t read my bio, I guess. I used to be a semi-professional mud wrestler.
We’ll be honest – we weren’t aware of that aspect of your career.
(laughs) I’m so disappointed you haven’t done your research. (laughs)
Does anyone really want to admit to being a professional mud wrestler?
We don’t know what the money’s like. The mud’s obviously good, but what about the money?
I guess it would be more of a question of equal-opportunity mud wrestling. Anyway, we digress… (laughs)
If we must leave mud wrestling behind. Do we see any redemption for The Swede by the end of the series, or is it left ambiguous?
By the end of the season, he has… Gosh, it’s difficult…
Are you involved with the filming of the third series? Would it give it away if you said, ‘Yes’?
The theory is that I will be part of the third series. Theoretically The Swede will be back. I haven’t told other people that. You’ve got that first.
This guy has a very strong will to survive
You have to hand it to the Americans – they didn't have problems like leaves on the line on their railroads in the mid-nineteenth century. Mainly because they didn't have railroads.
That was until Thomas 'Doc' Durant embarked upon the construction of a line to connect the American coasts. Hell On Wheels tells Doc's story. In our exclusive clip, Colm Meaney talks about playing a historical figure for whom the word 'scoundrel' could have been invented.
And you can click on the other video icon (left) to hear more about Hell On Wheels from Colm.
If Rome wasn't built in a day, then laying down a railroad that crossed the USA must have taken at least a week.
Colm Meaney, who plays the scheming rail magnate Thomas 'Doc' Durant, talks about how living on the frontier in the mid-nineteenth century was so unpleasant, even recreating it for film was a grubby experience.
There's also one story that suggests if you'd invented the child seat for wagons, you might have prevented some horrendous accidents.