A little after the Vikings panel Saturday morning at WonderCon last weekend, I had the opportunity to join a roundtable discussion with actor George Blagden, who plays Athelstan, the captured English monk who is brought to live as a slave by the Vikings who raid is monastery. Blagden talked a lot about his relationship with Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel), the Viking who captured him, and about his new place in the Viking culture. Hit the jump for what he had to say. Vikings airs on the History Channel Sundays at 10pm.
Q: Let me start by asking, your character’s kind of our window into these two worlds, but you’re a foreign character as well. There’s a lot that we kind of have to get around, but it’s hard to get inside you.
GEROGE BLAGDEN: It’s true. Well, speaking to Michael [Hirst] when we first arrived on set, Athelstan is the closest character in the show to a modern-day Western audience. Yes, he speaks ancient Anglo-Saxon, which we don’t nowadays, and he wears a big brown sack as a monk’s habit, there’s lots of differences, but I think of all the characters he really is the audience’s eyes into this world. And it’s great because for an actor doing this show, because a lot of the stuff the audience will learn about the Vikings, I’m learning for the first time as well, as the actor and the character. It’s great when you have an opportunity to play something like that.
But at one point he decides that even if he could go back, he doesn’t want to go back, that this is his home now. Can you talk about that?
BLAGDEN: As in, Scandinavia is his home now, with the Vikings? Yeah, I mean, the audience probably hasn’t seen that far yet, with the episode—
I’m going to write ahead.
BLAGDEN: Great, okay, fine. You’re right, we start to go into that area of, am I still his slave or am now I part of his family? As Athelstan, with Ragnar’s family and the dynamics between him and the children, and even him and Ragnar and Lagertha, it becomes a lot more friendly and a lot more like he’s here to stay, you know? Which is, it’s a really nice development for Athelstan as a character.
In Episode 4, there was a great sort of scene with you alone, where you were questioning your fate, is there going to be any more who am I? I know there’s who am I in regards to the Viking, but in regards to who I was before.
BLAGDEN: Of course. He’s in this completely alien world, which most of the aspects of their society are completely the opposite of what he’s used to, from his religion, his culture. So every day, Athelstan is questioning his faith, who he is, whether he can survive here, and how on Earth he can fit in. It’ll just be more and more and more, as the show goes on, of questioning who he is. For an actor it’s amazing, when you get to play a character who’s that complex and interesting to meet.
And he will share his faith with them, as they share their faith with him?
BLAGDEN: Yes. Yes. [laughs] Yes. He will, and as you’ll see as the show develops, you’ll see why Ragnar saved him. Because he realizes there’s a lot that he can learn from Athelstan, as well as there being a lot from Ragnar that Athelstan can learn. And I think that’s what’s great about their relationship, is that they really are in it for each other, and they really can get a lot from each other.
Is there a danger of your character “going native”? Or is that the wrong way to say it.
BLAGDEN: Well, okay, picture Earth is invaded by aliens, and they take you up to Planet Zorg or whatever, and you’re the only human on this planet. And they say, eat, live, live our way of life, but they dress in pink bunny outfits or something, as aliens. You kinda think, well, I look like a bit of weirdo walking around this Planet Zorg in my human clothes, I’m going to have to wear a pink bunny outfit if I’m going to fit in. And also, more of a sensible analogy than that one, you see in Episode 4 that Athelstan walks into Cattaga and he sees his brothers the monks hung up, and I think he realizes, if I keep wearing this brown monk habit and I have my shaved circle on the top of my head and I walk around in society, I may end up like them. Maybe I should try to hide or fit in, turn invisible, if I want to survive. So my point is, how can you not really, when you’re thrown in that, when you’re the only person in a society that, how can you not change for survival?
Travis was telling us about Episode 7, there’s a big journey back, with a battle and stuff. Is it possible that they would take Athelstan back to his country and he could be part of that, or he could think about escaping?
BLAGDEN: I think the great thing about our show is that so much happens in each episode and the story really does progress, but what I love about Athelstan is that his transformation that you’ll see hopefully is so slow and so difficult for him to leave his village behind. Episode 7 is way too early for him to think about wielding swords and shields, oh, I’m a Viking now, I’m going to come and raid the people where I come from. He’s very much still conflicted throughout the series, so I can’t answer that.
So probably still the babysitter.
BLAGDEN: Probably still the babysitter, yes.
How much of your real life counterpart, like the history of his character and then, where do you feel like the most liberty’s been taken to create your identity?
BLAGDEN: Well, Michael [Hirst] has actually based Athelstan on a real life monk. In historical records that they were peering through, it was recorded that three monks were taken back to Scandinavia from the first Viking raid on Lindesfarne, and the other two died and one survived, and one of them became part of the Viking culture. He’s got this whole story of this monk and what happens to him, I can’t ruin anything, but he’s completely based on this historical figure. About taking liberties, we are in the business of entertaining, so we don’t want to make Vikings a documentary. We want there to be lots of fun and really appealing characters, and if we were just representing stock historical figures accurately, you’d see them picking their nose or going to the bathroom or doing daily things. We want to see the fight, we want to see them be in bed with gorgeous women, we want to see them be our heroes. You really have to find that balance between entertaining and respecting history, which Michael [Hirst] does brilliantly.
Now that you’re done with Season One, is there anything you’d go back and tell yourself on Day One of filming?
BLAGDEN: There’s hundreds of things. This is my first television show, so there are so many things that I learned in the six months in Ireland. [Travis Fimmel throws a placard at George from another table] That being one of them. Always expect the unexpected. Ah, cheers. [the placard is put away] I’m sorry, it’s getting really rowdy in here. I’m sorry. This is tame compared to what it’s like on set. You know how there’s a rope around my neck for a good couple of episodes? They used to tie me to things without me knowing, so like we’d be in between takes, and he’d tie me to a pillar and walk off, and everyone else would know, and then I’d set off on my take and be strangled. He’s great, he’s a prankster, he’s great. What was the question again?
BLAGDEN: I’d just come straight off Les Miserables, the movie in London, which was a big budget movie, and movies have a lot more time to be able to play with than television, I think, in the filming of things, television has to be extremely organized. So I went from filming a seven-minute sequence that took us three and a half weeks to filming an hour episode in two weeks on Vikings. So that kind of difference for an actor is really interesting. Yeah, just learning about yourself as well, I’m literally just starting out in my career, and to be able to learn about what it is that you do as an actor on camera and learning about acting for camera is really quite exciting to engage with and deal with. So that’s all new.
You have something coming up next?
BLAGDEN: Yeah, I would love to be back in Ireland this summer. I don’t know if I’m going to be, but I’d love to be doing a second season of Vikings, we don’t know yet. But please, wherever Dirk is, get it out, Dirk! He’s the EBP of History. Fingers crossed. Tell everyone to watch it.
Vikings airs on the History Channel Sundays at 10pm.