Spoiler alert: The Nov. 15 episode of AMC’s Hell on Wheels, “Thirteen Steps,” found preacher Ruth (Kasha Kropinski) determined to see herself hanged for murdering Sidney Snow, the man who’d killed her son, Ezra, despite the best efforts of Cullen (Anson Mount) to get her to accept a pardon. The resulting jail conversations between the two—beautifully written, lit, staged, and acted—are some of the best scenes of the series. Kropinski spoke to EW about Ruth’s fate and relationship with Cullen, and what it’s like to film a scene standing atop a trap door.
EW: Did you find out Ruth would be killed off at the start of the season?
Kropinski: No. I had no idea that this would be happening to Ruth until about, I suppose, the last quarter of the season. That’s when I found out the news. [Laughs] Either it was a huge surprise, or I’m just incredibly naive and don’t pay attention. Ruth killing Sidney was the first action she’s ever taken in her life, or at least what we’ve seen of her on the show the past four years. So something as momentous and seismic as that had to create a bit of drama, and within that drama results her demise.
Did executive producer John Wirth explain why he wanted to take the story in this direction?
I don’t know if John said this to me in confidence, but he basically said he wasn’t sure what he would do with Ruth going forward. He said to me, “I feel like you’ll just be marginalized, and have one scene an episode, and just talk to Cullen every now and then, and that’s not going to be very interesting, or exciting, or worth your time.” And again, I don’t know if he said that to me in private or not, but I’m telling you, so whatever. [Laughs] He basically wanted Ruth to have this strong arc, and part of that was her dying. Perhaps her death will have emotional and spiritual repercussions within Cullen.
We do see him quit the railroad at the end of the episode. It’s nice to give her an exit with that meaningful an impact.
Exactly. And also, Anson said to me that Sidney Snow represented Cullen’s devil and Ruth represented Cullen’s angel sitting on each of Cullen’s shoulders. So the symbolism of that—the fact that Cullen’s evil dies and Cullen’s goodness dies—both of them cease to exist, that renders him emotionally, morally, spiritually neutral and barren. He’s left in a vacuum of not knowing which path to pursue. He needs to now determine who he is, and he doesn’t have any guidance in either direction.
Let’s talk about the jail scenes. I was obsessed with the lighting.
Watching the episode, the moonlight that they created is so exquisite. I love how it looks as if I’m in a tomb already. I look sort of ghostly and skeletal, and it’s so somber and funereal. I think the way they used the light is so beautifully thought out, how I sort of start out in darkness, and then we introduce more candlelight and warmth, and then in the morning, we wake up at dawn and we’re bathed in this golden sun: So we start out in darkness, we come into light, and then she’s walked to the gallows and she dies. I don’t know if that was intentional, but I hope it was. [Laughs] Those scenes are definitely a progression. Each of those conversations peels away a layer, and we get deeper to the emotional core and emotional truth of these two people over the course of that one night.
We’ve hardly ever seen her talk to anybody, or reveal her feelings or herself in any way. She maintains a safe distance from people. Obviously she opened her heart to Eva to save Eva from suicide, but other than that, I feel that she only ever really reveals herself when another person is in need. It necessitates her honesty of self. The night in the jail cell is the most potent example of that. I think she wants someone to know her completely before she dies, and she’s just getting every single bit of information out of the way so she can feel cleansed and unfettered by torment or doubt. I think she feels that she needs that freedom of spirit before she dies. I really liked the conversation where they pan around Anson when he’s describing the hanging that he witnessed to Ruth. He’s trying to draw her into this spiderweb to prevent her from making this choice. And obviously the candlelit vigil where Cullen brings her out to see how much people care about her: We have to be driven in a van to get to set. We drove up and all the background performers were already in place with their candles, and I just started sobbing. I was incredibly moved. That was a huge problem throughout this episode—I was crying in every single scene. [Laughs] They couldn’t use half of those takes because I was just crying my eyes out regardless of the context or the conversation or the scene. I had to keep myself together.
Both Cullen and Campbell (Jake Weber) give her so many outs. In your mind, why does she refuse to take one?
The way I see it, and this might be a lateral way of looking at it, is she doesn’t plead innocent, and she doesn’t take a pardon, and she doesn’t excuse her behavior because she did shoot and kill that man. Any other way of looking at it would be incorrect or an apology, in her opinion. That’s why she says, “Pardons are for cowards,” because she’s not going to hide behind the mask of a loophole of the law. And also, I think she considered her father, Rev. Cole, to be a coward who didn’t support his family, who never stood up for her, who never acted on any moral obligation toward her, and if she were to have pled innocent or excused her behavior in any way, then that would be dishonoring Ezra and the fact that he died because of this man, Sidney Snow. Ezra’s death causes an eclipse in Ruth’s soul. It’s inescapable, and it completely consumes her, and she’s pulled back by the undertow of the magnitude of the situation. She doesn’t save herself because she doesn’t see any reason or need to save herself. She has nothing left, and she’s honoring her child, and she killed a man who deserved to die in her opinion.
That leads to a question I think fans will have: If Cullen would have told Ruth he loved her as she loved him, would that have affected her decision to die?
That’s a discussion that Roxann Dawson, the director of the episode, and Anson and myself had. Roxann said to me, “Do you think she would call off the hanging and choose to live if Cullen had given her a different answer?” I thought about that, and ultimately I arrived at the fact that no, she wouldn’t have. Because I think we, today, are looking at this from a modern perspective, and that is if two people love each other, they can be together. But at that particular point in time, that was not feasible. If you were married to somebody, it was incredibly rare that you would leave them to be with another woman. That was not even legal, in some instances. So even if Cullen did tell Ruth that he loved her, it really wouldn’t have made a difference to her life circumstances because he was still married to Naomi, he still had a child with Naomi. Cullen wouldn’t leave his wife for her and probably couldn’t. And given that Ruth’s a woman of the cloth, she probably wouldn’t condone a man leaving his wife for her. So it would be unrealistic to think that they would end up together [Laughs] unless Ruth pulled a Sidney Snow maneuver on Naomi.
I always say that I love when the audience creates their own perceptions of what they’re watching—so I don’t want to dictate to anybody what’s right or wrong about these scenes or the characters’ motivations. I enjoy hearing different opinions. But personally, I don’t think it would have changed anything. I think it would have just made Ruth more depressed: Well, he loves me, and I still can’t be with him, so that just makes it even worse.
I loved that conversation where Ruth and Cullen lie head-to-head in the cell. There was a little pause when you delivered the line, “I should have taken you…and made you mine.” Was that intentional to add a hint of heat to that moment?
[Laughs] That scene was almost meditative in a way. The way that they film night scenes is that it’s much darker on set than it actually is on camera. The camera was on a crane hovering above my face. I was just looking up at the ceiling and staring into that blackness. You know when you stare at something too long in the dark, everything else sort of disappears and you become more and more immersed in darkness. I had taken my contact lenses out, so I couldn’t see anything. I was just staring up into the ceiling looking at the edge of the camera—they give you a little piece of white tape to look at so that you don’t accidentally look right into the lens. So I was just staring at this little piece of white tape, which is literally the only thing that I could see, and I was just saying these words and pushing myself in that emotional place, and I don’t know what came out. [Laughs] It was such a calm and peaceful and gentle scene, and I was just saying the words as I felt them. I wasn’t saying to myself, “All right, pause here.” Usually, I’m meticulous in that way; I’ll pinpoint and plot my scenes by quite a specific blueprint. But for that particular moment, I just sort of floated along the words. Like I said, it was like a lullaby or something: I just felt lulled by the atmosphere and the words. And I loved acting lying down, which I’ve never done before. [Laughs] It’s very relaxing.
Also oddly comforting was the reassuring hangman, who kept reminding Ruth, “I’ll be there.”
[Laughs] When we were filming that scene where hangman George measures Ruth’s neck with the little boy, George Jr., I could not stop laughing because I was so tickled by the absurdity and the gruesome, morbid, and disturbing aspects of these two hangman. The little boy—he’s the most exquisite creature you’ve ever seen. That face, I was completely besotted with him. But he was so serious, and when he says that line, [in his accent] “Daddy ain’t hung nobody who have come back to have it done over,” I could not stop laughing. His little face saying those words, holding that rope—and the rope was bigger than him and he kept dropping it. Roxann said, “Kasha, you have a very sick sense of humor,” but it had been a very long day. It’s supposed to be morning, but that was the last scene of that day. But like you said, hangman George was just so bizarrely comforting and perversely reassuring. His performance is so intriguing. And that actor himself was so comforting and supportive as he was leading me to the gallows—the way he handled me was so gentle, and I felt so safe with him, ironically, just me as a person. So that translated to how Ruth regards him as well.
You mention the little boy (played by Dylan Schombing). I thought it was so interesting that right before you start up the steps, he smiles at you.
It was important to me that Ruth looked at the little boy before she died, and Dylan chose to smile at me, which was just perfect. I wanted us to clock that moment, because what struck me is that Ruth is dying for her child, and now this child has come to participate in her killing. That parallel between these two little boys was fascinating to me. The reassurance—or rather attempted reassurance—from this little boy, it doesn’t placate her. She’s disturbed by it. She looks at him and thinks, “This is your life. And this will probably be for the rest of your life—you will kill people for a living.” It’s this strange moment where she looks at him and she sees Ezra in him, but she also sees death in him.
How did you prepare for the actual hanging scene?
I listen to music all the time on set. I always have my earphones in. So I was walking around listening to my music, and I saw Dylan wave to me and beckon me to come over to him, and so I took out my earphones, and I said, “What is it?” And he said, “Are you trying to find your mood?” [Laughs] And I said, “Yes, I am.” And he said, “Well, you’re doing a really good job.” So again, in his real-life form, he was offering the same kind of reassurance that hangman George Jr. was giving me.
What song were you listening to?
That’s a big secret. It was classical. I heard a piece on the radio, and it just instantly made me burst into tears. So I thought, I can’t listen to this. I can only listen to this at very specific moments. And then the hanging day came, and I thought, all right, I have to bust out this tune. I just listened to that over and over and over again, to the point where I had my earphones in and I didn’t know that they were rolling. The camera was waiting outside the door of the jail—it’s as I’m being led out—and I was sitting there listening to my music, and I think nobody wanted to disturb me. [Laughs] They were worried about disrupting my process. I was sitting there with my eyes closed listening, and then I opened my eyes and I saw everyone was waiting. So I had to just yank them out and get on with the take.
Atop the gallows, you showed the perfect amount of fear for someone trying to maintain their dignity. And then when Ruth sees Cullen in the crowd, there’s that smile and peace before the hood is pulled down. That could have been the end of the scene, but then we hear hyperventilating as Ruth waits for the trap door to give way. I liked how they played with that scene: It was calming then disturbing, calming then disturbing. It felt very real.
In the episode, we see that she’s looking for Cullen—she wants him to be there, and then he ultimately does arrive. [Laughs] But I said that I thought that the hood should come over Ruth’s head and she doesn’t see Cullen—that it’s only after the hood’s been placed over her that Cullen arrives, so she never actually gets to see him or say goodbye to him in any way. I wanted it to be that brutal and harsh and devastating, but everyone told me that that was a bit too cruel, that they couldn’t do that. But I would have loved it. I think it would just make it so much more shattering if she never actually gets to see him one last time. But as you said, there’s a sense of calm and peace that she has when she sees Cullen. As he said, “I’ll always show up, Ruth.” And he does. She acknowledges that he told her the truth. That’s another thing that this episode is about for me, truth and honesty.
The hyperventilating I had to do afterwards on the soundstage. Obviously that’s not me under the hood, that’s the camera. But because I was standing on an actual trap door, I still felt that I actually might die because I didn’t have a harness. At the beginning of the day, when the coverage was all over my shoulder, I was completely terrified and nauseated, and I wanted to get out of there as soon as possible. I went underneath the gallows, and the wooden blocks supporting the trap door were about 3 inches wide. One of my friends said, “You should have had three burly men standing under the gallows keeping you supported,” but I’m here now, so apparently it was nothing to worry about. We did so many takes—we did it at least 100 times—that when we came to my coverage, I was not even thinking about it. But to go through the whole process was disturbing. Everything was completely realistic. That noose weighed a ton. Being bound. One by one, she’s being deprived of each of her senses. Feeling that was the scariest thing. You feel like you can’t function, that you don’t have any control of your body anymore. So that’s what causes the panic. And then the calm of seeing Cullen. And then the panic again.
Do you have another project lined up that we should mention?
It’s a very quiet time in the industry for actors until pilot season starts. So hopefully I book another job. I’d like to work again, so here’s hoping that happens.
Well again, if you have to leave a show, this is the kind of episode you want to go out with.
This is the only way that Ruth would really have an opportunity to have a story revolve around her, so you’re absolutely right, it’s the best way to leave a show—to have the whole episode be on your terms. And especially in Ruth’s case, her death is on her terms.