Cloaks and daggers
Flayed, an axe to the head, an arrow through the heart — whether in bloody battle or during an act of betrayal — death is dealt out in true Nordic warrior style on the hit drama series Vikings.
THE WEST AUSTRALIAN – For Aussie Alyssa Sutherland (The Devil Wears Prada, Arbitrage), who stars as Viking queen Aslaug, the characters’ lives always hang in the balance.
“There’s a certain producer that kind of comes up and gives you a tap on the shoulder and we’re all very aware of who it is,” she explains over the phone from Sydney, where she is mixing work and pleasure before returning to the set of Vikings in Ireland to finish filming the fourth season.
“Having spoken to some of the actors who have been killed off, you get a little bit of notice, like a few weeks, and it sort of is what it is. We all know that nothing is ever guaranteed — we could be the next one.”
But whether her tenure on the show is long or short, Sutherland jumped at the chance to work with screenwriter and producer Michael Hirst (Elizabeth, The Tudors).
“To have the opportunity to work with Michael Hirst was a no-brainer, there’s no way to say no to that … I didn’t know a whole lot about it when it was offered to me because she (Aslaug) came in right at the end of season one. So it was a very quick introduction and the character was much more fleshed out in season two.”
Aslaug is just one of many strong female roles on the series and Sutherland thinks now is a great time to be a woman working in TV.
“It’s not just Vikings, there are wonderful shows on TV now for women if you look at Orange is the New Black and Viola Davis in How to Get Away with Murder . . . we’re not just a wife, we’re not just the sidekick to what a male is . . . it’s just such an exciting time to be an actress because things are really opening up,” she explains.
Sutherland believes the strength of the female characters broadens the show’s appeal but at its roots Vikings is a family saga. As the wife of Ragnar Lothbrok (fellow Aussie Travis Fimmel) and mother to his sons, Sutherland’s character finds herself at the heart of the family and part of an array of complex relationships.
“Ragnar has a lot of children at this point and I think people watch primarily because of that — we want to be able to relate to the people we are watching and we do that by creating those relationships and giving them vulnerability,” she says.
And there’s been no shortage of personal dramas over the three seasons. Aslaug started out as the “other woman” and over time both she and Ragnar have strayed from each other. But Sutherland says part of that is just a sign of the times where people had “very different sensibilities” — their moral code was not the same as in modern times.
“I liked that we got to see Aslaug being a little bit vulnerable with someone and she hasn’t had the love from her husband,” she says.
“I think it’s a very human thing for her to want that from somebody and to like attention from another man because she’s never had it from her husband and that made her very human to me. To feel like a woman again after so long.”
Unfaithful couples, warring brothers and deceitful friends, Vikings draws in the viewers whether you like the characters or hate them and Sutherland says this is also a sign of evolving television. “Not just in Vikings but in a broader sense, I think now we’re understanding we don’t have to watch someone we like all the time to stay interested,” she says.
“I think Breaking Bad is the classic example and it really opened up TV. I think we’re going through a golden era in a sense that that discovery is kind of cool, we still want to watch people but not necessarily like them at times.
“We still want to know what happens to them and that’s really fun as an actor or an actress because I think in the past you always wanted to be the hero — you always had to do everything right.”
As well as trying to make the relationships real for the time period and intriguing for the viewer, Sutherland believes the filming conditions add to the authenticity of Vikings.
“Sometimes you’re freezing and you’re wet and you’re outside and kind of going ‘Oh God’ but it adds to it, I think. And we shoot through anything. When you see that rain pouring down on us it’s really pouring down on us,” she explains.
“It’s very rare they say ‘No, we can’t film today because of the weather’. I think that’s happened maybe twice in the entire history of the series . . . and as I said it can be cold but it’s one of the great things about the show — it’s realistic because that’s what the Vikings would have done.”