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Kasha Kropinski Talks Hell on Wheels “Thirteen Steps” [Exclusive] 

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

We chatted with Kasha Kropinski back when “Return to Hell” aired, and after the events of “Thirteen Steps,” we got back on the phone with her to chat about saying goodbye to Ruth.

She got the heads up midway through shooting season four that Ruth was being written out, and this would be her last season on the show. “I didn’t know she was going to hang. I wasn’t in three episodes in the middle of the season, and when I got back to Calgary, [they told me] it was going to be my last season,” she says. “I didn’t know whether Ruth was going to die or she was going stay behind in Cheyenne. So many possibilities went through my head.”

She came back on set right before episode eight began production, and the team had assembled in Calgary for the premiere party, so she asked showrunner John Wirth what exactly was planned. “I didn’t know when my last episode would be. I went up to John, and asked what was going to happen. At that point, I didn’t [even] know the church was going to burn down. So I asked him, ‘Do I die, or am I left behind?” she recalls.

“He said, ‘You die…and she’s going to hang.’ I asked why and he wouldn’t tell me because we hadn’t seen episode ten’s script yet. He said, ‘in episode ten, something crazy happens, episode 11 gets even crazier, and episode 12 is completely insane,’ and that was the end of the conversation. That was all the information I was given. So I had to piece together clues.”

She later learned that she’d have a three-episode arc that concluded with her exit, and had about a week to prepare for episode 12. “When I first read the script for 12, I was incredibly emotional,” she says. “And the waterworks started in the scene with candles and continued to the end.”

Kropinksi credits writer Tom Brady and director Roxann Dawson with giving her a great safety net. “He was so attentive and so generous and it was important to him that I was comfortable and that the [hanging] scene felt right to me. He dealt with it in a very tender and respectful way, which I appreciated. He was so supportive and collaborative,” she says. “Roxann was such a comforting presence. I felt very supported and that I was in good hands, and that they would do justice to this episode.”

When they got to filming, they shot out of order, as shows often do. They began with a scene that ended up being cut for time. “Eva comes to Ruth to give her something to eat and they have a little discussion and Ruth reveals that her brothers taught her how to shoot a gun,” she says. “It was a really lovely, beautiful scene. It was so lovely to work with Robin again. It was a very tender, gentle moment.”

The hanging took all day to shoot—but thankfully, the weather was cooperative. “It was temperate and I kept saying ‘it’s a fine day for a hanging,'” she laughs. “We shot so much coverage over my shoulder. The sun went down and we finally had to stop. My closeups are dark because the sun was going. We filmed the vigil after that. That was so moving. I’d been crying all day for the hanging, so I had to steel myself [by then].”

As luck had it, the last scene shot was the first scene of the episode, when Ruth pronounces her own guilt to the packed “court.” “That was lovely because everybody was there,” she says. “Every character was present. That was a lovely farewell. Originally the last scene was the scene when Campbell arrives at the jail. I thought that would have been anticlimactic.”

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

The blocking of the jail scenes were a mix of direction and writing. “Having the jail door open was in the script. I think it was definitely scripted that there was a progression in physical proximity, but nothing specific. Lying head to head was Roxann, and them never looking at each other,” she explains. “I think it’s so much more heartbreaking that they don’t look at each other. I didn’t notice that watching the episode.”

“For me, it was about the fact that Ruth doesn’t move. She can escape, but she doesn’t. Even when Campbell arrives, she doesn’t cross the threshold of the jail cell. She stays put. [She and Cullen] are like a moth to a flame. They draw closer and closer and closer and then they’re separated. I wanted Ruth and Cullen to be eating bread in that long conversation when they were laughing together. They thought it would be too much food, after Eva brought her stew, but then the Eva scene was cut.”

Campbell’s decision to have Ruth arrested set her fate in motion, and that hadn’t occurred to Kropinski in the moment. I asked what she thought Ruth would have become if that hadn’t happened. “I don’t think she feels guilty. That’s the crux. She does not feel guilt, therefore she doesn’t feel she’s sinned. She doesn’t agree that this killing was a sin,” she points out. “If she had lived, my natural assumption is that she would atone, but then I think she wouldn’t, because she feels no remorse. She didn’t have anything to live for anymore. I can’t imagine what she would have done with herself or her life.”

“When Cullen tells her he’s booked her a ticket to New York…her response to his demand is not gratitude, her response is that she doesn’t want to be a fugitive, so I wonder if she hadn’t been arrested, would she have agreed to that. I think she only feels guilty that she didn’t protect Ezra. I don’t know if she could reconcile that. She might cease to function, or live a miserable life or become a nun. I like the idea that if she had lived, she might have disintegrated into darkness and become a really embittered, Bill Sikes type of character.”

Kropinksi couldn’t share the details of Ruth’s hanging before the episode aired. “I wasn’t really allowed to tell anybody. My family didn’t know. My mom knew,” she says. “One of my very good friends called me [afterward] sobbing asking me why I had to die.”

In the aftermath, she’s also heard from fans on social media. “I have received so many lovely messages on Twitter and Facebook. I find Twitter overwhelming because it’s so overly saturated. I’m the world’s worst procrastinator, and [the Tweets stack up]. I still need to thank everybody. I can’t handle it,” she says. “It’s been so incredibly reassuring and heartwarming to read how people have been affected. I had no idea so many people liked her. I know she was polarizing initially and didn’t have very many fans. Now she does, and I’m so grateful. The response has been so incredibly special and it’s made me cry, yet again. I’m an emotional wreck.”

After she wrapped, she had to quickly fly back up to Calgary to do a pickup shot for episode 11, and now she’s back home in L.A., and eager to get back to work. “I have to wait for pilot season. I want to get back to work. It’s horrible to be unemployed as actor because it’s especially terrifying,” she shares. “I want to get going on the next thing. I’m holding thumbs and crossing fingers that I get a job in the new year.”

So are we!

The Hell on Wheels season finale airs tonight at 9/8c on AMC. Season five will return next year. You can read our first interview with Kasha Kropinski here, and our recap of “Thirteen Steps” here.

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