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'Sanctuary' star Christopher Heyerdahl ignites 'Hell on Wheels'

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  • Christopher Heyerdahl stars as a Norwegian nicknamed The Swede in "Hell on Wheels."
Christopher Heyerdahl stars as a Norwegian nicknamed The Swede in "Hell… (AMC )
November 13, 2011|By Curt Wagner | RedEye

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.  

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