Chelah Horsdal Talks Hell on Wheels, The Man in the High Castle, and You Me Her [Exclusive]
[Warning: To be read after you’ve watched tonight’s Hell on Wheels episode, “Gambit.”]
Hell on Wheels is wrapping up with a series of firsts and lasts. This season, we saw Maggie accept Durant, warts and all, and warn him against any more schemes. Well, being Durant, he couldn’t resist, even for the woman he seemingly loved, and tonight, his biggest scheme of all–faking his kidnapping–got her killed when she sold her hotel to pay his ransom and Dandy Johnny Shea shot her off her horse. Mickey finally hit the bottom of his own spiral and shot his cousin, while Durant saw everything fall away from him.
Earlier this week, I had the chance to talk with Chelah Horsdal, who’s played Maggie since the third season. We chatted about Maggie’s final arc and her roles on two other distinctly different shows–Direct TV’s You Me Her and Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, plus the indie film Candiland, which is making the rounds on the festival circuit.
Maggie grew from the occasional one-off to recurring to her major arc this season, and Horsdal says she wasn’t always sure week to week when she’d get to play her. “From one episode to the next, I actually had no idea whether I would still be in the show. It was a real pleasant surprise to get an e-mail and see that Maggie was in the cast order for the script,” she shares. “It’s expensive for them to guarantee everyone for each episode. Financially it makes sense to not have everyone on deals. It means I had no idea from one week to the next whether I would be in Vancouver or Calgary. I never felt like spent more than 48 hours on the ground.”
That said, she did have the heads up from John Wirth that Maggie would die in the finale batch of episodes. “John had told me that they were going to use me for the season, quite significantly for a few episodes. He told me that Maggie would meet her end,” she recalls. “It’s very important to John to ensure that actors are well aware of that stuff long before it happens. He would call and check in and remind me. That was incredibly generous because all of us have been on shows where someone on the crew walks up and [spoils it].”
Horsdal says it was initially hard for her to reconcile that Maggie would genuinely believe Durant’s kidnapping to be true. “I struggled with that a lot, mostly because I think the relationship we had set up was very much that they understood each other, and that she would understand that more often than not he’s not be believed,” she explains. “The episode that Jami O’Brien wrote, where you see a romantic element develop…at first I had resisted that because I felt as though we had spent all this time building this relationship to not fall into the stereotype of it being a sexual attraction.”
“What it ended up doing for me was serving why Maggie would overcome her logic and why she would make a decision to trust him based on her heart and not her head. They justified each other. The romance between them justified why she was willing to believe and risk everything for him and the risking everything for him justified the romance.”
“I loved the way that she went, that it was true to the genre. It was not her as a victim. She went out fighting, which was really important to me. And she went out kind of heroic, and that’s not something we often get with female characters in any genre, much less a Western. She went out fighting for what she believed in.”
Horsdal did get to keep two Maggie mementos. “I tend not be terribly sentimental, but so much of Maggie came from Carol Case‘s vision of her costume,” she points out. “She gave me the nightie that she wore with Durant, and one of her lace dickies that I wear over a dresses in real life. It’s lovely to have these little touchstones.”
Working opposite Colm Meaney for so much of her run was a treat for Horsdal, and “Gambit” was fun because it exposed Maggie to several other characters played by actors who are part of her offscreen family. “Having Colm Meaney as your partner in scenes…I can’t believe how much I learned just being in the room, and how challenged I was in good ways, bad ways, all ways,” she says. “He was so inspiring and challenging.”
“[In ‘Gambit’], I love the scene with [Campbell, Webber, and Louise]. And another one with Mickey and Eva. It was such a highlight because I got to play with all of my friends. I think you got to see so much more of Maggie’s emotional landscape and her vulnerability mixed with her strength and you see her reasons for doing things. I think this was a hell of a one to go out on. It was easily my favorite of all of them, and the gun fight in Season 3.”
Horsdal is at work now on the second season of The Man in the High Castle and is thrilled to get an arc that has her slated to appear in all ten episodes. “It’s another ensemble show, so I’m surrounded by this theater company of actors. We have such an incredible time together,” she says. “This is an embarrassment of riches to go from Hell on Wheels to The Man in the High Castle, both of which share really strong art departments, incredible scripts, and directors you dream of working with, and words that are so easy to say because they are so well written…I don’t have enough words to express my gratitude. It’s been really killer.”
Earlier this spring, the show was in the news for the departure of showrunner Frank Spotnitz. Horsdal says they’re back on track. “Everyone’s done it with love, and it’s been a very positive experience and the scripts are fantastic. All of us are really excited,” she says.
“Mostly it’s interesting to inhabit this world that doesn’t actually exist. Hell on Wheels is based in history. With The Man in the High Castle being an alternate reality….it reflects a 1962 that seems vaguely familiar because there are elements of what existed but all of a sudden you’re confronted with something that didn’t exist in 1962 because the Germans weren’t stopped in their advancement of technology, so you’ve got jets that take you from New York to LA in half an hour, and these crazy awesome bullet trains that are like something from the future now, much less 1962.
“We’re inhabiting this world that’s a little bit science fictiony but is also based in a human experience of living under Fascist rule in 1962 in North America. It’s wonderful fantasy for the actor. I’m in love with every bit of it. It was a quite a small role in the first season, and this season she’s back with two incredible storylines and it’s been expanded to 10. Between Rufus Sewell and I we’ve got some heavy lifting, which is so much fun. When you get the script and you start salivating at what you get to do…[it’s fantastic].”
You Me Her, which will return for at least two more seasons, was shot after Hell on Wheels last fall. “We block shot 10 episodes. Nisha Ganatra was our director for all of them, She said, ‘We’re making an independent film that’s disguised as a comedic series.’ Although the tone is funny, it’s also deep and emotional and connected, although not as much for my character because I’m playing a villain, which was fun,” she says. “It didn’t feel like comedy on the day [we shot]. Priscilla [Faia] is one of my dearest friends and getting to go to work every day together was magic.”
If you’ve followed Horsdal on Twitter for a while, you might recall her work a couple of years back on an independent psychological thriller called Candyland, retitled to Candiland. The film is now finished and being shown at festivals. Horsdal was just named Best Actress May 2016 by the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival Awards. It was a grueling shoot that required Horsdal to not only plumb the emotional depths of a couple who willingly cut themselves off from everyone, but it also required her to drop a significant amount of weight very, very quickly while the shoot paused to capture the later scenes.
“The response has been very strong. People are really affected by it, which I think was the goal of the filmmakers. They’ve recut it so it’s much more a thriller than it was,” she says. “When we shot it, it was much more a sick romantic movie. It was a highly emotional experience to have to be put sunder the stress of so much extreme weight loss inÂ six weeks, much less get it on film. Hopefully, it’ll get out there. I’m still nervous to see it. It was such a dark experience.”
Horsdal says she can now put these kinds of projects down at the end of the day, thanks in large part to her yellow Lab, Gaffer, who appears frequently inÂ her Twitter. “It’s [much] easier to drop into the darkness [in a role now], because there’s no longer the fear of staying there,” she says. “It’s a little more fluid.”
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