Hell on Wheels wraps up season three tonight and one our favorite new characters has been Margaret “Maggie” Palmer, the Cheyenne land owner and cattle baroness who’s gone toe-to-toe with Durant over building a new mecca for the railroad. The lovely and talented Chelah Horsdal brought Maggie to life this season, and she’s a familiar face from many of the series and TV movies shot in Canada (among them, Supernatural (twice) and Motive, and Hallmark Channel’s Three Weeks, Three Kids, and Lifetime’s Lying to be Perfect–which are both permanent fixtures on my DVR).
She graciously took time from her new project, Hallmark Channel’s upcoming series, When Calls the Heart, to answer a few questions by e-mail about working on Hell on Wheels. Since she was at risk of “losing an appendage or my first born” if she broke her confidentiality clause, she couldn’t give us any sneak peeks at the finale, but she did share some gems about shooting season three.
Horsdal came to the role through the usual process, auditioning in Vancouver for the casting director, Jackie Lind. “Female roles on the show have been few and far between…and because the writing is so great, myself and my contemporaries all jump at the opportunity whenever one comes up,” she says. “My understanding is that Maggie Palmer was initially only supposed to appear in one scene of episode two. Fortunately for me, John Wirth and Mark Richard decided to expand the character.”
I asked if Maggie was based on a real character and Mark Richard told her she was loosely based on a woman called Cattle Kate. “She was a forward-thinking woman of her time in the 1850/60s. I tried to track down a copy of a book about her, to no avail,” she says. “I think any sass that made it onto screen is a direct result of the writing. She was so dynamic and smart on the page that the sass really just came naturally.”
As a fan of the show, Horsdal says she’s loved anything with The Swede since day one. When it comes to a scene involving Maggie, she’s partial to episode three this season. “I love the moment…when Maggie witnesses Cullen dropping a dead body at Durant’s table and decides he’s someone she wants to do business with. Then for her to flip from using her feminine wiles to negotiating like a pro was super fun to play with,” she says. “I found that decision and her tactics quite telling about the character. Also, plotting the town of Cheyenne with Colm was great fun. There’s another one coming up [tonight] where you see her charms at work.”
If the show is renewed, Horsdal would love to come back. “Oh lordy…I’d be so grateful, as both a fan of the show and an actor, to see season four come to be. Honestly, I so trust John and Mark to tell grand stories that I will do whatever they tell me to do…that is, assuming I make it through [the season finale],” she teases. “I’d love to see more of what the reality of Maggie’s life is…I’d be so curious to know her feelings on the end of slavery. And to know where she sits with regards to the advancement of women, the extremes of which are demonstrated by Louise Ellison and Eva.” Also next season, she’d like to find herself on a horse–Maggie never rides in season three. “Every day I’d show up at work and start the day by announcing to the producers (and whomever would listen) ‘You know I ride horses, hey?'” she says. “It became a bit of a running joke.”
In the episode “Sins and Fathers,” Maggie gets to hold her own with a big damn gun (a Winchester for all you Supernatural fans out there) and she says that was a fun perk. “I went to a gun shop in Calgary to learn the mechanics of the rifle. Then, the day before filming began, our Prop Master, Justin, took me off to the Mormon Fort set on a day they weren’t filming there,” she says. “We really just played for an hour or so and developed a shooting style for Maggie. Then on the days of filming the shootout, they graciously let me carry the gun around on my hip all day, just to become as comfortable as possible holding it. By the time we shot the scenes, I felt a certain level of ease with ‘My Yellowboy.'” While the gun was a blast, the corsets and petticoats that were required to create Maggie’s look were not. “Let’s all just agree that EVERYTHING is harder in a corset,” she says.
Behind the scenes, Horsdal found kindred spirits among the ladies on the show. “The cast on this show are just delicious. In singling out a few, I’m happy to say that Jennifer Ferrin and Robin McLeavy are precious beings in my heart,” she says. “They’re both stuck with me and my friendship for life…I just love those women. And Common is one of the kindest, most beautiful souls you’ll ever encounter.”
Horsdal got to keep one souvenir this season. “I learned from the camera department on this show that there is a balancing tool called a Fish Fart. I would giggle like a school girl whenever they called [out] ‘bring in the fish fart,'” she says. “So amused was I that they gave me the fish fart upon wrapping season three. This still pleases me tremendously….though I’ve taken to checking everything in my house for balance now.”
In the upcoming When Calls the Heart, set in a 1910 mining town, Horsdal plays Catherine ‘Cat’ Montgomery. She says the new project is lovely, and her character is “a strong and funny and compassionate and flawed…mother to three children [who’s] recently widowed, along with most of her town, in a mining disaster.” “Michael Landon Jr. is directing the first chunk of episodes and he has compiled an amazing group of actors,” she says. “We’re having a tremendous time. Although I’ll admit to a moment of silence when I realized that women still wore corsets in 1910…dammit.”
Before that hits Hallmark Channel this January, Horsdal will appear in an upcoming episode of Arrow and the new sitcom, Package Deal. She’s completed work on an independent feature called Patterson’s Wager, which she hopes will hit the the festival circuit next year. “And, of course, let’s all keep our fingers crossed for a fourth season of HOW,” she adds.
You know we will!
Hell on Wheels marathons all day today on AMC starting at NOON/11c and the season finale airs at 9/8c.
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