In honor of the 10th anniversary of Hell on Wheels, we catch up with Robin McLeavy, the actress who played Eva Oakes for five seasons.
Read senior writer Joe Leydon’s conversation from Los Angeles with Hell on Wheels star Robin McLeavy.
Cowboys & Indians: We’ve been celebrating the 10th anniversary of the premiere of Hell on Wheels. And Anson Mount pointed out that, like quite a few actors who played major roles throughout the series, you originally were hired for just a few episodes but became a regular because you made such an impact. In your case, you were introduced as Eva Oakes, a white woman who had been marked with a distinctive facial tattoo while held captive by Mohave.
Robin McLeavy: Yeah, sure. It does work like that. In my case, I had an immediate bond with Jami O’Brien, who was the only female writer on the show at that time in Season 1. And she had previously written a play about Olive Oatman, the real person Eva is based on. And so, she had this deep love of this character already. And because I had tested for Lily, they kept me in mind. And Jami kind of had Eva in her back pocket, and was like, “Ooh, what am I going to do with this historical figure, this woman that I know so much about?”
C&I: And when she connected the dots…?
Robin: Well, because my background was in theater, I had so much respect for Jami’s research that she’d done into Eva, and all the background work she’d done. So, when I received that script, I was just like, “Oh my God, this is a dream character.” So yeah, it was love at first sight for me. I think that having that connection with a writer on a show is such a rare gift. And yeah, we were lucky enough to continue that. And then all the other writers fell in love with the character, and ... the rest is history.
C&I: Eva made such an amazing journey during the five seasons of Hell on Wheels. You started out as the partner of Elam Ferguson, the freed slave played by Common, and eventually became a ruthless businesswoman overseeing a bordello.
Robin: It was epic, wasn’t it?
C&I: And she really had a great exit.
Robin: Some would say the best exit of all the characters. Actually, I got a lot of pushback from the Anson Mount fans, saying that his character, Cullen Bohannon, should have had the riding off into the sunset scene. So, I thought it was a pretty cool, radical choice for the writing team to say, “No, she was going to have the liberated, quintessential cowgirl exit, riding the horse off into the sunset.” That was a dream come true, too.
C&I: Looking back, what do you think was the toughest episode for you to film?
Robin: One of the toughest was the one where Elam kicked Eva out. That scene left Common and I just shaking afterwards. We did that sequence in the tent where he shoved her against the door and yelled at her for giving away their baby Rose — that was a really tough day. And that was the last meaningful interaction that those two characters had together. And it was kind of heartbreaking, because we had such fun feelings for each other, for all of Season 1. Yeah, it was a really sad way for those two to go out.
C&I: And later in the series, when Cullen had to kill Elam to put him out of his misery — well, let’s just say that for a long time after that, many of us were waiting for Eva to take revenge.
Robin: [Laughs.] Hell, yeah. I wanted to. And I was surprised there was a bit of a resolution between the two of them in that season finale, or a couple of episodes leading up to that. They made peace in a way. But yeah, Season 4 was really hard to get through. I had a gun at that point, and I wanted to use it.
C&I:Well, you did in one memorable episode. While dealing with an unruly employee.
Robin: Yeah. I love that episode. That was great.
C&I: Human resources problems can be quite tricky.
Robin: Exactly. You gotta keep them in line before they get you. Yeah. It’s all a matter of the quick and the dead.
C&I: Finally, are there people who meet you now and express surprise that you don’t have the tattoo anymore?
Robin: I think there were a couple of people who legitimately thought I was hired because I had the right tattoo. But no, when most fans of the show meet me in person, they don’t believe me at first, because they say that I’m too sweet or too nice to have played Eva. Because I don’t come across like her.
C&I: Well, that’s kind of a good thing in a way.
Robin: Yeah. But, boy, it’s so much fun playing a character with that much sass and resilience. It’s fun playing a tough woman.
Hell On Wheels’ complete series is available to stream on multiple platforms including AMC+.
From the November/December 2021 issue.
Photography: (Cover image) courtesy AMC; (Illustration) Jonathan Fehr