Clive Standen talks Vikings: “It’s tough, it’s brutal, sometimes downright miserable”
Actor Clive Standen plays Rollo in History’s hugely successful series Vikings. He was previously best known as Sir Gawain in the series Camelot opposite Joseph Fiennes and Eva Green and for his role of Archer in the BBC’s Robin Hood.
As Season Two of Vikings invades History on Tuesdays at 10pm we sat down with Clive to talk about his return as the fearsome Rollo and were surprised to discover just how knowledgeable the actor is about the history of the Vikings.
What’s it like being on a show on HISTORY?
I personally love it. In America, History channel is very different. It’s got a bigger set up now and the UK version is slowly catching up. What was great about History when they started to make scripted drama is they really trusted us. It’s the same team that made The Tudors, Michael Hirst is the writer and very first director of Vikings, Johan Renk is a Viking and he wanted to make it right. He wanted to make sure that we’re doing something from the inside out and actually portraying this culture of people fairly and for the first time on screen. History took some massive risks, he’s an outrageous and fantastic director and he’s had the biggest impact on me out of all of the directors that have worked on Vikings. But thanks to History we’re able to make the show that we wanted to make, there’s a lot of channels out there that wouldn’t have given us the freedom we have. Even their suits don’t wear suits at the History channel and you can always tell when you’re going to get the outsiders that come in their suits. We film on the top of mountains and you see these guys turning up in suits, trampling through cow shit and History turn up and they’ve got their baseball caps on and they’re ready to go!
They’re a great channel to work for and I’m having the time of my life making a show that feels as historically accurate as a TV show can be. We take some artistic license, the main being Ragnar and Rollo were never brothers in history, they lived about a hundred years apart.
But Rollo’s journey through history is epic as is Ragnar’s. Ragnar is like a mystical character and a lot of people do believe that there are a lot of different Vikings that have been misconstrued over the years as Ragnar. He’s almost akin to King Arthur that we have in our legends. But Rollo very much did live through history and is the great, great Grandfather of William the Conqueror. Many of us have Viking blood, the Queen of England is related to Rollo.
You’re clearly knowledgeable about the history side of the show. Presumably you’ve done a lot of research to play Rollo and spoken to Michael about him…
He’s really good at explaining it in almost layman’s terms. I used to get intimidated when going into meetings with him because he’s so intelligent and he always asks you about what you’ve researched and you don’t want to trip up. But he’s just so good at explaining it without you ever feeling like you’re clogged down and the character comes first. I got into acting to almost draw attention away from myself rather towards myself, to kind of create a character and that’s what I do with the research. I can go to the British Library in Kings Cross and just lose myself and immerse myself in that world. I’m constantly still doing it, I just want to take it all in.
Ragnar and Rollo’s relationship is really central to the show. When Season Two starts the pair are really at odds with each other. Take us through Rollo’s journey, he changes enormously in this season.
At the end of Season One he’s kind of left with making it clear that he’s going to betray his brother to be King for a day. That’s pretty much what Jarl Borg offers him, he offers everything he wanted. He didn’t trade it in with Earl Haraldson, because it wasn’t enough and he wanted to stay loyal to his brother. People have to remember that Rollo did hold out, he got his face cut to pieces to defend his brother, he stood up for him and lied in court to protect his brother because he genuinely thought that they would be equal. There’s that one line in the end of Season One where he goes: “How will we ever be equal now brother?” that was the turning point because he realises that it’s never going to be the same now he’s the Earl. He trades it all in with Jarl Borg so in Season Two we pick him up on the battle field very quickly, it’s in the first minute of the episode, straight into the battle, two brothers facing down each other.
The one thing about Rollo is he’s the first to admit that he was born to raid and fight and whatever Ragnar thinks about him he knows that he doesn’t want to be facing down against his own brother because he is the stronger brother. Ragnar and Rollo to me are like if Ragnar is a tornado – he is very mercurial and there’s that glint in his and his smile, he’s like whirling dervish – the Rollo is like a volcano, he’s more grounded, he’s strong but when you mess with him, when he erupts, he devastates everything and that’s what happens very early on in the first episode until you realise that when Rollo erupts the devastation affects nearly every major character in the show and some of them don’t come out of it alive.
In Season One he had very strong feelings for Ragnar’s wife Lagertha and that seems to have changed in Season Two and he’s with Siggy…
That’s what I love about it. I try to make him as human as possible. I just think that every time he gets knocked down, every time he makes a grandiose mistake, he always tries to learn from it and he’s trying to find his way through the world, just as we all are. He has crossroads, he makes choices and he sometimes makes the wrong one but do you just go through life going: “Well I’m a fuck up so I’ll just be a fuck up,” or do you constantly try and better yourself? That’s what I think he’s about.
With Siggy he buys into a relationship which is almost a marriage of convenience. She’s the woman that’s had everything and lost it all and wants it back , and he’s the guy that’s always dreamed about having it and never had it but doesn’t know really how to achieve it on his own. So it’s a marriage of convenience that they go into but then I think he starts to fall for her and she’s the one person that’s ever kind of watched his back. He’s always felt that he’s been second best to Ragnar and she’s the only one that’s actually seen something in him. As far as she’s concerned I think it really is just a marriage of convenience which is heartbreaking to watch him. I think Lagertha is the love of his life and people that have watched maybe more than Season Two and are up to date with Season Three might have more of an understanding of where that storyline’s come from and Ragnar has pretty much usurped him all through his life and he’s been living in his shadow.
When Michael and I first sat down and talked about Rollo he kind of said when you’ve got two brothers and one of them is meant to be the hero of the show you’ve got to make it very clear from the outset that you’re gonna hate this guy [Rollo]. But in Season Two what’s interesting is that we want to encourage the audience to almost love to hate him and in Season Three which is on TV in America right now, you’re almost beside yourself going: “I just can’t help but feel a bit sorry for him now and I kind of misjudged him.” And hopefully when we go back to do Season Four – which has been picked up – then the transition will more or less be complete and the egotistical brother who’s conquering and forgotten his own family and where he came from is gonna probably be more dislikable than his brother who we all wrote off.
With this being a show about Vikings the look of the actors is important, so we have lots of beards and long hair and everyone looks like they’re in a Norwegian death metal band. How does it feel to look like that when you’re not filming?
I’m doing a movie now so I’ve had to cut my hair but up until now I’ve had three years of having the long hair and my beard gets longer every time.
Was that really your hair?
The first year was real and then the second year it was hair extensions, I’ve had a bit of help. It’s weird you’re playing a marauding Viking and getting told by the make-up department that you’re not allowed to brush through the hair as you can pull your extensions out and you have to be really careful and put a shower cap on, it’s ridiculous [laughs]. It’s great, like I said it’s part of being able to transform yourself so I love the fact that you can put those big fur cloaks on, and you’ve got your beard and your long hair and scars. It feels like escapism.
The battle scenes must feel like big boys playing…
We are. Vikings is exactly what it says on the tin, it’s tough, it’s brutal, sometimes downright miserable. But we all know what we got ourselves in for. I fight with my top off half the time because he’s a berserker and the word berserk comes from bare skin. The Vikings believed the day of their death and the length of their life was fated when they were born so there’s no need for armour because they wanted to prove to Odin that they’re worthy of the table of Valhalla. It means that I get smacked around by metal spears and real swords. When all the stunt men are running at me at 100 miles an hour and they’ve got pads hidden underneath their clothes. It’s like facing down the Irish rugby team or something and not having anything to protect you! I’ve got scars from being stabbed and bruises and things at the end of the day but you just get up and go: “This is just fun”, it’s like being back on the playground again.
You film in Ireland and Game of Thrones films in Northern Ireland. Have you ever run into each other?
I’m working with a couple of Game of Thrones actors now on a movie I’m doing and I’ve got some other friends in it so we should get a hurling match or something together.
I’d like to see Rollo wander past in the background on Game of Thrones and maybe wink at the camera…[Laughs] I always wonder why they don’t cut their budgets and share props: “We’ve got some fur rugs we can give to you…” just borrow and steal from each other!
What’s great about Vikings is we don’t step on their turf so to speak. They’re a fantastical show from one writer’s imagination and we’re a historical drama which is based on history that many historians have added to the story lines of Vikings, and yet they both seem kind of similar because of the Viking Gods that these Norsemen believed in. They believed in three worlds; Asgard where the Gods lived, Midgard where the humans lived and then Utgard where you’d find frost giants and dwarves and all things strange. And Yggdrasil that held them all together and the bifrost which was a rainbow that was the bridge from where the Gods would come down to Midgard…it does seem like a fantasy show. We haven’t got dragons or anything, this is what people believed in. It’s no different than a Christian believing that on Easter Sunday Jesus Christ arose and came back. To anyone that has had some kind of vision of Jesus Christ, that’s real to them and seeing Odin on the battlefield with ravens scattering around dead bodies, to just have that vision is very real to them, it’s not fantasy it’s real. I don’t think this culture of people has ever really been explored before.
Ragnar’s sons went on to great things so can you see Vikings continuing on and exploring their stories?
The thing about Ragnar is that he got intimidated by his own sons. He got told by the seer that his sons would go on to be more famous than him and that was probably, maybe part of his downfall, that he gets worried that his sons would usurp him. Being a Viking is all about being famous and not fame that we know in our day and age, it’s not Kim Kardashian and Kanye West trying to steal headlines, it was about doing something amazing with your life. Because you knew that the Gods had control of the day of your death but you had control of your time until that day came about, so you had to go out there and do something with it. Ragnar has this thirst for knowledge, he wants to explore new territories, he wants to give his people a better life and a better climate to make crops. Some Vikings want to go out in style and they want to prove to Odin that they died well in battle, there’s no time for cowardice and fear in Viking society, it’s about going out and grabbing the world by the balls and doing something and stamping your name on it.
There’s an assumption that women were treated poorly but the women in the show are portrayed as strong with valuable opinions. It’s great to see such strong women in a TV show like this.
What you’ve just said is frustrating as I do so many interviews and they say: “There’s so many strong female characters” and I think that’s unfair, they’re just women. Because Michael Hirst is brilliant at writing women, the problem lies with all the other TV shows out there who write women to be this type of person that just is abused and lynched around by men. How many cop shows do we watch where it’s just a lot of men in a room talking about how the woman was mutilated and murdered by another man…how many stunt women must have to go out there and do all the dangerous stunts that all the men do in their bra and panties? Because that’s all the lead characters of these kinds of things do. Vikings is just portraying women. They’re equal women that are strong. I have a wife, I have a mum, I have a daughter and I look at them and I see the women that Michael writes.
What’s it like working with Jessalyn Gilsig (Siggy) and Katheryn Winnick (Lagertha)?
They’re fantastic. The characters are strong in their own way. Lagertha is fierce and ferocious in battle, she’s a shield maiden and it’s great to want to be a shield maiden and stand there in battle but Siggy is mentally strong. She knows exactly what she’s doing, she’s manipulating all the men and she’s got it all worked out. Then you’ve got Auslag (Alyssa Sutherland) who’s a mother, she stays at home with five kids and deals with a cheating husband..oops that might be a spoiler for Season Two! In all aspects Michael has shown different characteristics and I think they all burn brightly on screen.
Traditionally people’s perceptions of Vikings are of vicious invaders and marauders. Do you like turning that perception on its head a bit and portraying them as more human?
Yeah. The Vikings were very much illiterate we’ve had to piece together so much of what we know about them from their art and runic stones and the saga’s that still exist in Scandinavia. Over here in Britain and Ireland and some of Europe, a lot of it was a form of Christian propaganda at the time, they wanted to make them out as villains because this paganism was a threat to Christianity. Obviously the invaded monks were the only ones that were literate in writing down all this stuff so it’s a very one-sided argument. We’re not trying to say that they didn’t do these things, but it’s about putting them at the centre of the story and seeing it from their point of view and having them as the heroes of that particular journey and adventure. It’s nice to explore it from a different perspective.
Many people don’t realise that the Vikings discovered America long before Columbus…
There are so many different parts of the world that have had an influence by the Vikings. They were the di Vinci’s of the day, they were the only people that had that technology with their boats and the navigation. Coming from the land of the midnight sun they’d figured out how to circumnavigate the globe using a sun shadow board and a sun stone and that’s why the world never saw them coming.
How have Scandinavians reacted to the show?
It’s done really well over there. What’s brilliant is these characters are real historical figures. They’re really excited to have the guys they learned about in school portrayed on screen. There’s statues of Rollo in Normandy and Rouen. I’m going to Paris and I’m going to try and get over there. What’s weird is I’ve been to France so many times but I usually went on school trips when I was a kid and went to Normandy, Rouen and Dieppe all the time and I remember actually seeing the statue of Rollo when I was about 11 or 12. I sketched it!