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Phil Burke Talks Hell on Wheels [Exclusive] 

Photo Credit:James Minchin III/AMC
Photo Credit: James Minchin III/AMC

[Warning: General spoilers for season 4.]

The surviving McGinnes brother looks to take a dark turn this season on Hell on Wheels. We got on the phone to ask Phil Burke, who plays Mickey, what was up, and although he was fairly tight-lipped, we did pry a few things out of him.

Burke says that this new side of Mickey is all part of his persona–we’re just now getting through all the layers.”There’s a lot of different sides of Mickey that are yet to be discovered and the writers have done a great job balancing what and when and where [those will be revealed], he says. “He’s a survivor and he’s looking to keep it going. I think the more uncertainty we can have about these characters the better off we are.”

While he couldn’t give us specifics, he said it’s worth the wait. “I do encourage more people to follow along and see what happens because it looks like it’s going to be quite good. There are going to be a lot more sides to Mickey–some are good, some are not so good,” he teases. “He’s very allegorical to Hell on Wheels and the nature of the show because he’s proven himself a survivor and capable of doing whatever it takes. And some people are going to perish for him to achieve his goals.”

We asked whether Mickey will align with Durant or new face Campbell (Jake Weber), and he declined to answer, but he did throw us a tiny bone, ” There’s a third option. I’ll let you fill in the blanks.”

Burke came to Hell on Wheels after he was approached by the casting director on the basis of previous Irish roles. “I was the last one to be cast,” he shares. “I sent myself on tape. I actually thought I did horrible, [but] I was told I was a front runner. I put myself on tape again, and two days later I was flying into Calgary for the cast script read and dinner.”

Photo Credit: Michelle Faye/AMC
Photo Credit: Michelle Faye/AMC

As for whether Mickey was open-ended from the get-go, Burke says every script is a mysterious gift. “They really don’t tell us much at all,” he says.”You kind of hope [you’re going to make it]. Ben [Esler] and I knew that usually, dramatically, when you pit brothers against each other, it’s storytelling Cane and Abel. We weren’t sure when or how long it was going to last. By the end of season two, beginning of season three, we saw the writing on the wall. We didn’t know which one was [going to go]. They do give us clues here and there and bits and pieces and it’s up to the writers and producers. And I’m happy to [still] be here.”

One of Burke’s favorite moments working on the show didn’t make the final cut of “Blood Moon Rising,” the second season finale. “I rode in on a horse ad saved my brother when he was about to get scalped. It was this big Western moment,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘I can’t wait for my dad to see it,’ [but it didn’t air]. I got to do it, so there was that. There are pictures online.”

Photo Credit: Chris Large/AMC
Photo Credit: Chris Large/AMC

Burke says the HoW team are tight offscreen and being remotely located in Calgary helps with that. “The area is a definitely a character. [Production designer] John Blackie is a genius; [Cinematographer] Marvin Rush…the way they capture moments is fantastic,” he says. “We’re up here 5-6 months a year. It’s a great town. We have a lot of fun.” As we spoke, he was scouting supplies for a river rafting trip several of the group were taking.

The breakout of the show into different locations last season and this season has affected the offscreen relationships, because the smaller groupings of cast and crew are working in different areas. “I haven’t seen Chris [Heyerdahl] for two years on set, so he’s almost in a different show altogether,” he says. “Anson [Mount] is in and out. [I never see the guys] on the railroad heading into the mountains. When we get together for beers, it’s, ‘What did you do today?’ It keeps it interesting for the audience. We’re not locked into a studio and the same set.”

Over the last hiatus, Burke filmed a role in Dirty Weekend, a film by Neil LaBute , who’s directed episodes of HoW. “We filmed it in Albuquerque last fall. Matthew Broderick and Alice Eve are two co-workers who get stranded in a layover, so they have to spend hours…and a night together…and hilarity ensues,” he says. “I’m a cab driver who drives them around and they can’t shake me. I pop up in the most ridiculous situations.” Burke says the film will likely do the festival circuit this fall and then roll out into theaters afterward.

Right now, he’s still in production on the fourth season. Hell on Wheels premieres Saturday night at 9/8c on AMC. Click here for our chat with Jennifer Ferrin.

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