Christopher Heyerdahl: ‘Hell On Wheels’ and Acting in Two TV Shows at the Same Time

Christopher Heyerdahl talks acting in two shows at the same time: "I don’t like to split my focus on set but in that case, I had to"

Christopher Heyerdahl had a great 2011.

He started it filming the last of the Twilight movies where he plays the vampire Marcus, one of the leaders of the Volturi coven. He then went off film season 2 of the SyFy hit series, Sanctuary, where he starred as 2 characters (one has since been killed off). If that wasn’t enough, during filming, he got word that he booked yet another part as ‘The Swede’ in AMC’s Hell on Wheels.

Thanks to some creative scheduling, he would film Sanctuary in Vancouver, leave set and rush to the airport. At 6am the next day, he’d be sitting in hair and make-up in Calgary ready to film Hell on Wheels.

Just the normal life of a busy actor.

And, it was just announced that Heyerdahl would join the cast of True Blood for it’s upcoming season. Looks like Christopher’s 2012 might be as hectic as his last.

I talked to Christopher about Hell on Wheels and how he got the part, working two jobs at once and more!

You had a great 2011 with Hell on Wheels, Sanctuary and Twilight. Has that been the best year career-wise, so far?

Christopher Heyerdahl: Well, yeah.  I guess it has been the best year so far in as much as I’m alive and well, and I’m working.  What other actor doesn’t want’ that?  It has been pretty intense.

I mean, I started off the year doing Twilight. I got to go to New Orleans. It was a great way to start the year and then Sanctuary got renewed which is always a tenuous thing with a show that’s privately funded and within maybe two months into doing Sanctuary, I got The Swede on Hell on Wheels.

Chad Oakes and George Horie, Chad is with Hell and George is with Sanctuary.  The two of them got together and said, “We can make this work” because it was a crazy scheduling, scheduling that I think any producer just wouldn’t normally not want to invite into their daily routine because I was getting on a plane pretty much every night after work, flying off to Calgary or vice versa, coming back to Vancouver in order to do each show.  It was crazy for them and that was a blast for me.

When you were working on Sanctuary or before it was picked up, had you already auditioned for Hell on Wheels?  How did that come about?

Christopher Heyerdahl: No, I had a buddy of mine called me up on a Sunday night and when I say a buddy of mine, I really mean it – a buddy who’s an actor. He was getting ready for an audition on a Monday and he said, “I love this character that I’m auditioning for but each time I read it and each time I go through it, I just keep thinking of you. Are you auditioning for this character?” Monday comes and I’m asked to come in as well and so anyway, we were both going on for the same role. There is a buddy, a true buddy.


Christopher Heyerdahl: You know, most actors, the last thing they are going to do is call up a friend who possibly got a better shot at getting the job than they do and anyway, that’s how it started.  I just went in and threw my hat into the ring and did an on tape audition.  It resonated with them and went in for a call back and bish bash bosh.  The rest is, you know, the H word.

I hope you bought that guy a nice steak dinner.

Christopher Heyerdahl: Oh, believe me, like I said, he is a good friend and so yeah, we definitely celebrated.  Yeah, it was pretty amazing.

We were already shooting Sanctuary and this came along.  The character that I, because I played two characters on Sanctuary and for the most part, one of my characters had been killed off at the end of the previous session and so it opened up the schedule.  There was a window of possibility there which allowed me to go into the room and say, “Okay, it’s possible to work this thing out.” And the producers were kind enough on Sanctuary to say “Yeah, were not gonna block this opportunity.”

As far as any role could be tailor-made, The Swede is about as close as it gets for me and my background.

Yeah, I was reading that, amazingly close.

Christopher Heyerdahl: Phenomenal. It’s one of those roles you can only hope for in a career. It’s something that you have so much to draw upon in as much as my father’s from Norway, I’ve lived in Norway before.  I’ve had a number of visits off and on since then and before. I grew up with my father bringing over all sorts of Norskies over and Swedes to have a good time at our house and party until the wee hours of the night.  So I grew up with that, a lot of Norwegian men acting like Norwegian men.

They have a very interesting perspective of the world, quite different from anything that we’re used to in North America.  It was fun to be able to draw on that and hopefully, they will look at it and maybe see a little bit of themselves. Maybe not the psychopathic or sociopathic elements of the character but, you know, just the way he looks at the world and hopefully I’ll bring a little bit of a flavour of that.

When you first got the sides for the role, how much preparation did you put in?

Christopher Heyerdahl: Well, I’ve got several 40 odd years of hanging out with Norwegians.  What the Gaytons had brought to the table was pretty amazing.  The first taped auditioned that I did without anyone being around, just myself and Jennifer at Kirk Talent here in Vancouver, where I was at the time.  She read with me and there was some wonderful, I mean, the scenes are just so juicy.  There was so much there. Then when I went in for the call back, the Gaytons has done some rewrites so there was more information to draw upon.  And then again when we were shooting, they did more rewrites so there’s a small tome of information about The Swede  that is there.  It was there at the beginning for me to look at and think about and do a research on.  But, you know, it all happened within a period of a week really. From first taking a look at the sides that I was given to being offered to the job.

How much does wardrobe help you with the character? You go to the set in your jeans and t-shirt, and you come out of your trailer in your 1800s clothing?

Christopher Heyerdahl: It’s enormous. Getting into the, if you want to call it the skin of the character, the outer layer.  We all sit there and every day, most of us think about how we’re going to portray ourselves that day.  As guys, we may not necessarily think about what’s underneath those clothes but certainly what we’re putting on ourselves, you know, what jacket we’re going to wear. And for The Swede, he is no different and certainly, someone who is trying to make a very strong impression every day.  I mean this was a costume that came, it influenced so much of what The Swede does, you know, the fact that he’s got that high stiff collar and even underneath his tunic, he’s got a high shirt collar.  It keeps that very straight, stiff back. He is not a slouching man.  There is nothing slouched in him at all.  That costume is just a gift.

christopher-heyerdahl-swede2I read that you would shoot Sanctuary during the day, get on a plane, fly a couple of hours, and then you’re on the set of Hell on Wheels early that next morning.  

Christopher Heyerdahl: Yeah, we would. Gordon MacDonald, he was usually the one who had to deal with getting me off set of Sanctuary and they would have to get me… because of the prosthetics in the character that I was doing.  The one surviving character in Sanctuary was in prosthetics and so you have to have an hour to get yourself out of that stuff. They would have to have me off set by 7, out of makeup by 8, in a car by 8:30, off to the airport and through security and on a plane. I’d get to Calgary by because of the slight time difference; I’d get to Calgary sometimes, 12:30, one o’clock in the morning, and then be on set for a 6:30 call.  That happened frequently.

But you know the drill, when you’re doing something you love, it’s great.  I remember one night getting off a plane and just this stupid grin started to grow on my face as I was walking through. I realized that I was commuting to work on a multimillion dollar transport vehicle. It’s a pretty nice situation to be in at without a doubt.

At what point are you learning your lines, like on the flight?

Christopher Heyerdahl: On the flight, on set, well you know the drill. What’s the saying, “We don’t get paid to work, we get paid to wait.”  There’s a lot time on the set and usually, I don’t like to split my focus on set but in that case, I had to.

It was actually pretty silly to see me. I can only imagine from my fellows, they had a good laugh watching me mumbling in a Norwegian accent, going over my lines for Hell on Wheels while I’m dressed up as a Sasquatch. There’s got to be something a bit odd about that.  You’re not going to see that every day.

You also shoot in some pretty hairy conditions. Mud, awful weather, it looks cold as hell out there.

Christopher Heyerdahl: Did you say hairy conditions after I said Sasquatch?

Yes, I did.

Christopher Heyerdahl: That’s a good segue. [laughs]

Does that contribute to I guess to your characterization as well?

Christopher Heyerdahl: It affects everybody.  It certainly affects the crew because they’ve got to lug the equipment around through the mud and rain, and sleet and snow, and everything in between, windstorms. So certainly, you didn’t have to act all that stuff.  It was muddy, cold, and uncomfortable.  We were all in period gear.  Our boots were wet and there’s only so much you can do to try and dry out a pair of leather-soled boots.  Once they’re wet, they are wet.

So, all of that influence, it was a great help for us and it certainly was an amazing help for Marvin Rush, our DP, in order to create and capture that, I mean those skies, some of the shots that he was able to get are amazing. So you had tons of gifts like that from a visual point of view as well as the fact that we didn’t have to go very far to realize what these people had to deal with at that time.

Each character you play is pretty much distinctly different…. except for you height.

Christopher Heyerdahl: [laughs] You know, sometimes I do walk on my knees and I just put my shoes just on my knees and shuffle along. I can play a short person and I have no problem with that.  I can do that.

How did you get your start?  Did you have any training?

Christopher Heyerdahl: I went to theatre school and for a number of years at Studio 58, it’s a school here in Vancouver.  I went for a number of years to Banff Centre and I did my time at Stratford in Ontario.  It was really one of the best Shakespeare or classical theatre production houses in North America and they have really the best voice and movement and text, etc., access to amazing teachers and coaches there. So through the years, we never really stopped learning our craft so altogether that is almost 10 years of training there.

Do you still get nervous when you audition or when you do a scene?

Christopher Heyerdahl: Yes.  It’s certainly on the first day.  The first day is one of those, you know, I don’t sleep the night before. It’s like going to first day of school, I always liken it to.  It’s quite terrifying. I find once I get to know the people who are there on set or in the cast of the play, it always becomes more comfortable and you just get on with the work but absolutely, it’s always a terrifying prospect.

What’s your advice to actors?

Christopher Heyerdahl: Well, I believe heavily in learning the craft and I’m someone who obviously decided to go to school to focus my, certainly for the majority, as I say, the beginning of the first 12 years of my career, it was focused only on theatre. And for me the majority of the people whom I’ve worked with who have that as a base, they have more of a general understanding of what story is, of what everyone does in order to create either a play or eventually a film or whatever the medium is.  I find the actor more well-rounded.

So I would suggest to every actor to go to school and learn the craft. Learn the history and exercise the instrument. Take voice classes, work on the body. Every aspect of this instrument that we have and learn your limitations then push those limitations.  Get yourself into a situation where you have the opportunity to surprise yourself.  Go beyond what you’ve ever thought.  Get out of your comfort zone, I suppose, is the best thing for any actor.

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