The History original drama series Vikings follows the adventures of Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel), an actual historical figure who was the greatest hero of his age. Telling the gripping sagas of Ragnar’s band of Viking brothers and his family, he rose to become a fearless warrior and King of the Viking tribes, and legend has it that he was a direct descendent of Odin, the god of war and warriors.
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor Clive Standen (who plays Ragnar’s jealous brother, Rollo, a fearsome warrior with a wild, impulsive streak) talked about how he came to be a part of the show, that he originally auditioned for the role of Ragnar, what it’s been like to work with show creator Michael Hirst (The Tudors), how he views Rollo as a man, and that his background in stunt work and sword fighting really helped him with this role. He also talked about what it was like to be a part of the Doctor Who legacy (he was on during David Tennant’s time as the Doctor), what gets him excited about a project, and that he’d love to do an Errol Flynn biopic. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
Collider: How did you come to be a part of the show?
CLIVE STANDEN: I just wasn’t going to give them any other option, but to cast me. I made myself very vocal. I was working on Camelot with one of the producers, Morgan O’Sullivan, and I was lucky enough to know that he’d worked with Michael [Hirst] before, on The Tudors. I knew that this was Michael’s pet project and that he’d been working on it for a very long time and was pitching it to different channels. When I heard that History became part of it and they were collaborating, it just became the perfect project. History has got this amazing back catalogue of documentaries and has this core audience of people that want to learn about history and have that in their entertainment as well. So, to have a scripted show, which is epic in scale and visceral and gritty and just massive, but to base it in historical accuracy as much as a TV show can, because obviously some things aren’t written down and you have to bend it and adapt to the screen for entertainment value, it’s the closest thing you can have. And they’ve been great collaborators with Michael Hirst’s vision, which some networks might not necessarily be because they have a core audience and they have certain boxes to tick.
History has taken a massive gamble on letting Michael create. He has this Vikings bible, which is how he sees the show over a greater distance than [Season] 1. It’s for five or six [seasons]. We’re only just hitting the iceberg of what is in his head. There are masses of characters that he has written down in these sagas, and they all interlink. My character, Rollo, and Ragnar (Travis Fimmel) are based on real people and real characters in sagas. Rollo was the great great great great great grandfather of William the Conqueror. He became a massive figure in Scandinavian culture, just a Ragnar was the very first Viking. He went west and got into massive fights and battles. Michael really went all out with researching this and piecing together what isn’t written down, with his own Michael Hirst finesse. He is a genius. What you get with Michael Hirst, when you work with him, is that you don’t just get a writer. You get a historian, as well. It’s quite amazing, being in his company and reading his scripts. When you move on to the next block and the next scripts come through, it’s just phenomenal. You really respect what he writes, and he really challenges you, as an actor, to go out and do just as much research. You feel a responsibility for getting it right. You want to pay homage and respect to a massive culture of people. A lot of people have a little bit of Viking blood in them.
What made you want to be a part of this show?
STANDEN: It’s something that’s never been told before. It’s the kind of show where everybody thinks that they know about Vikings. I grew up in Britain and my parents would always take me out to every possible castle and monastery to immerse me in as much culture and history as possible. And I used to play with my older brother, all the time, and we’d play knights and Vikings. I thought I knew a lot about Vikings, but when I started talking to Michael [Hirst] and Justin [Pollard] about our story, and did my own research, it made me realize that I actually knew very little about Vikings. Everything that’s been written down about them, and everything that’s been portrayed on TV and in film, has been very two-dimensional. They’re the hired help that turn up to help the villain of the film defeat the hero, and they’re horrible, greasy monsters, but that’s really not the case. Michael has done the complete opposite. He’s taken Scandinavian sagas and all of the historical research he’s done from Scandinavia and tried to build it from the inside out to show these people for what they really were. They did do questionable things. They did pillage and plunder and colonize countries, but it’s about seeing why they did it, from the people that they were, the Gods that they believe in, the society that they lived in, and the religions that they believed in and upheld. And women were just as involved in going and exploring and fighting as they were with childcare. That’s something that we’ve been struggling with for the last hundred years, but the Vikings seemed to have it all figured out.
Is a show like this really an actor’s dream role?
STANDEN: It really is. I’ve done a few period dramas, but this is the one that every actor wanted to be a part of. Everything I’ve done before has come to this moment. It’s been the one show that has just been phenomenal to experience. Even if I wasn’t in it, I couldn’t wait to watch it. The scripts that Michael Hirst spent so long developing made it his baby. He went to Scandinavia to research it, inside out.
Was it always Rollo that you were drawn to, as a character?
STANDEN: When I read the script, I really wanted to play Rollo. To be completely honest with you, when I started the discussions with casting and producers, they wanted me to read for Ragnar. So, I went on this big whirlwind tour of testing and meeting people for Ragnar, which was finally given to Travis. And they definitely made the right decision because he’s phenomenal in the role. But, they came back and offered me Rollo, which was the part I’d wanted from the very beginning. So, I landed on my feet, as well.
How do you view Rollo?
STANDEN: What’s so great about this series is that it may be told in this time long forgotten, and it’s on a massive scale, but it’s no different than kitchen sink drama and the characters are a lot like humans today. We’re all multi-faceted and we all make the wrong decisions, now and again, and we sometimes regret those decisions, instantly. Rollo is no different. He’s not a villain, but he’s not the hero. He does live a lot of his life in the grey. He’s a hedonist and a bit of a sociopath. I’ve learned to love him, as I have to. Every actor playing a character has to find a way to love their character. The one thing about Rollo is that you can never really trust him, but you never really want to get on the wrong side of him either. You’re quite lucky to have him on your side, fighting in your corner. I think he just wants to be acknowledged. His brother is usurping him with fame, fortune and success, and his brother has a family and children and a loving wife, and Rollo has none of those things. But, they both need each other to succeed and Rollo can’t seem to understand that.
At the very beginning of filming, when we were all working with Johan Renck, the first director who created a lot of Vikings’ vision and the way it’s filmed, and he gave me a nice Swedish proverb. It’s a very long poem that has a section that roughly translates to, “Everybody wants to be loved. But, if they can’t be loved, then they want to be admired. But, if they can’t be admired, then they’ll be feared. But, if they can’t be feared, they’re willing to be hated.” To get some acknowledgment, sometimes you can get it the nice way and have people lauding you because you’re a good mayor, a good teacher or a good human being. Sometimes you can get as much fame or respect for being hated and feared. Rollo is just a multi-faceted character. You can never really know what’s going on behind a sociopath. From my point of view, Rollo is capable of greatness, but he’s standing in his brother’s shadow. Does that make him bad? Does that make him worthy? We’ll see. We’ll see where Michael takes him.
STANDEN: I’ve been sword fighting since I was 14, and horse riding. It all adds to making for the total acting experience. There’s always something that you can add to it. Once you’ve got the choreography out of the way, you can just focus on the acting of it. A fight scene, if done well, shouldn’t just be moves. It’s not dancing. It should still tell the story. You should find a way of playing your character through that fight. What are his fears? What are his insecurities? What are his hopes? What is he trying to accomplish through that? It’s a lot easier to play those beats when you’re not worrying about which hand is holding the sword and the shield, and all that stuff.
Having said that, something I wasn’t prepared for on Vikings is that there’s a lot of boat work. We had to do quite a lot of what people like to call boot camp. Michael, Morgan and History were very adamant that they wanted the actors to be able to do everything and to be able to sail a longboat. We have three longboats. One of them is a completely sea worthy longboat that can sail in the ocean and in lakes, and we have one that’s on a gimble with a big hydraulic device that can simulate storms and has wave machines that can fire water into the boat. But, we had to go out there with marines who taught us how to row, how to man the rigging and taught us how to sail. We put a lot of hours in. Some people got very seasick and it was grueling. By the end of that boot camp, what we had accomplished was 20 actors rowing a boat on their own with just one man hiding there, so that no one went overboard. We were sailing that boat, and it was such a massive accomplishment. I remember the day we started sailing. It was during the rehearsal and I climbed the ropes to the top of the mast and was looking out over the amazing vistas in Ireland, and it felt incredible. It was a dream job.
STANDEN: Doctor Who is really close to my heart, and I felt like I was a part of it at the best time, with Russell T. Davies having come back to relaunch it. They were very good to me. I think I worked with the best Doctor, David Tennant, who I think is an incredible actor. I’m a bit of a geek at heart, and I love sci-fi and fantasy. Doctor Who was something I grew up with, so it was a rite of passage, in a way. I’ve got children and it’s still this one thing that I feel incredibly proud about, when my children are in the playground with their friends and they know about Doctor Who. It’s a great feeling. I can sit down with them and watch the new Doctor with my kids.
When you’re trying to find your next project, is there something specific that you look for, or is it an instinctual reaction for you?
STANDEN: For me, it’s about a fire in the belly. It’s about a character that has a passion for something. It’s about something I can get my teeth into and immerse myself in. With period dramas, it’s very easy to get excited because I love to do them. I’m a history nut and I love to immerse myself in the research. But at the end of the day, it is really about a character where you can find the flipside of the coin. It’s about having a character who, on the surface, may appear to be something, but when you flip that coin over, you can find those layers. That’s what I think I’ve got with Rollo. And it’s about the good writing. You can only really find those layers in a character with the writing. That’s what I look for, really. It doesn’t matter if he’s a lawyer, a cop or a geography teacher. If there’s a story in there, where the character has a passion and a fire in his belly and story to tell, then it’s enough for an actor to get excited about.
Is there a dream role that you’d love to do, if given the opportunity?
STANDEN: My two idols are Elvis Presley and Errol Flynn. I don’t think I’m really cut out to play Elvis Presley. I can sing some of his lower songs, but I can think of better actors to play Elvis Presley. But, a bit of a dream of mine is to be in an Errol Flynn biopic. I would love to do a biopic, and if I was to choose one, I would love it to be my hero. I’d love to play Errol Flynn, before I get too old. They are doing a film, but it’s about the later years of Errol, and I think Kevin Kline is playing him. But, I would love to do a proper biopic, from youth to the day he died. That would be a fantastic story, and a story that still hasn’t been told.
Vikings airs on Sunday nights on History.