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In this exclusive interview with AMCtv.com, Virginia Madsen, who plays Hannah Durant on AMC's Hell on Wheels, talks about being a history buff and why you should never drink water while wearing a corset.
Q: You were a fan of the Hell on Wheels before joining the cast. What did you like about it?
A: I'm a big fan of Colm Meaney, and The Swede is such an intriguing villain, such a nemesis. And Anson Mount is one of the most beautiful men I've ever seen in my life and a really good actor. I know I shouldn't objectify him because he's such a good actor, but really, ladies, really? I also really love the love story between Robin [Eva] and Common [Elam]. I'm also a Chicago girl, so I'm also a really big fan of Common's music.
Q: What attracted to you the role of Hannah Durant?
A: I'm a history buff, and so I knew who the Durants were, although there's not much about [Hannah]. I just thought, "Oh, that's going to be really interesting, especially the conflict with the fair-haired maiden of the West." I just loved the idea that I would come and stir the pot.
Q: Since less is known about the real Hannah Durant, how did you prepare for the role?
A: The only thing I could do with this character is go by the script...and research the period that a woman like that lived in, what a woman like that would be like, especially if she's powerful. Not easy to do that back then.
Q: Hannah makes herself quite at home in Hell on Wheels. Did it take long for you feel welcome on set?
A: I thought, well, if I'm going to play this woman who might be described as Hell on Wheels personified, I knew that I was going to have to really gently take my place in the cast. But it turned out to be effortless. This cast was so excited to have me there. They're all like family, and they just invited me to be a member of the family. I couldn't believe it. It was just wonderful. The whole cast went rafting with me.
Q: The cast went rafting? How did that come about?
A: I guess they do that together all the time. We all met at Phil [Burke]'s place, and the men had rented these giant blow-up rafts...and we got on the river and just floated for five hours. There were hundreds of people in the river, floating on tubes and rafts and kayaks. I've just never seen anything like that. And then we'd pull over every once in and while and lay in the sun. It was absolutely incredible.
VIDEO: Inside Episode 208, "The Lord's Day"
Q: Your hair and dress in Episode 8 are fantastic. How long did it take to get all that on?
A: They really have it down to a science. That kind of ensemble could take you three hours on another show, but I'm ready in an hour. Of course, I just feel completely different. I love wearing the corsets, even though you can't eat at all and you can't drink, because if you drink, you'll have to go to the bathroom. You can't go to a Porta Potty. I have to be driven three quarters of a mile back up to the base camp because I've got on layers and layers.
Q: Hannah says her instincts are always right. Is that true of you as well?
A: I think that one of the best things about getting older is that you get smarter. Or, at least, I choose to believe that. But I've learned to trust my instincts. I know that they are almost always right. If you don't listen to the voice within, you're going to take a misstep at the very least.
Q: Hannah is pretty hard on Lily. Do you have a vindictive streak like that?
A: I really love the fact that Lily and I look alike. She's a younger version of me. In real life, it doesn't bother me because I really like working with younger actors because we're not in competition -- we're not up for the same roles. I really like mentoring and helping because it's really hard for women in this business, especially young, beautiful women. And I like being there for them and saying, "You can do it."