Whether by alchemy or design, a TV show worth its salt should deliver at least one breakout character. In History Channel’s Vikings, it’s the indomitable Floki played by Swedish-born Gustaf Skarsgard, 34, brother to Alexander, son to Stellan. Outsider, confidant, Shakespearean court jester, dark soul and pagan fundamentalist, Floki is the epitome of the paradoxical eccentric threatening to steal every scene he’s in.
“Johan Renck who directed the pilot, really encouraged me to dare to go for it,” says Skarsgard. “Even on the audition I went for it halfway but he really encouraged me to take it even further with the quirkiness of his voice and physicality. And then, with a long-running show like this, it’s kind of like a crossbreeding situation between the actor and the writer. [Creator Michael Hirst] had written the first couple of episodes and then when he saw what I put into the character, that inspired Michael to take the character in a certain direction.”
Mercurial, unhinged, quirky, mud and blood-soaked, are key to Floki, the master Viking shipbuilder and loyal right hand man to Earl Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel); from his spiky, balding crown, dark guy-liner reminiscent of clown tears, signature quizzical cadence and high-pitched chuckle, to his impish swagger.
“I wanted him to be crooked somehow,” says Skarsgard. “I just imagined this guy, he’d been walking around his whole life with an axe in his hand building boats. How would that form your body?”
Skarsgard’s creative input also made it on to the battlefield. He insisted to the Vikings creative team that an eccentric shipbuilder would not carry a shield.
“To me, Floki is an outsider. He’s a loner; he’s this weird genie living in the forest at the beginning of the show. He wouldn’t have had the normal shield wall [training] as the other boys because he was too weird!” he laughs. “Sometimes they keep on insisting on trying to give me a shield though. They have a Floki shield, especially painted for me. I’m like ‘Dude, we’ve been doing this for three years! Have you ever seen me with a shield?’ He’s more of an axe man, axe and knife. He does get a sword, though, in season two.”
Like the most captivating and, frankly, best characters of television’s modern age, Floki is something of an enigma, his presence steeped in dangerous unpredictability.
“That’s what’s so exciting about him because if he was only the jester or only the comic relief, that would have been flat and boring,” says Skarsgard. “You never know what way he’s gonna go so that actually allows me in any scene we’re doing to be so free to do whatever. Sometimes if I feel I’ve been too crazy or over the top, I get tired of myself as an actor. Then I know I can just sit and sulk in a corner.”
In season two, shifting allegiances are a constant for many characters. Ragnar, his sprawling family, his stronghold on Kattegat and plundered gains in Britain – all are in grave danger of being toppled. In a definite nod to an inspiration for Floki, the mischief-maker Loki of Norse mythology, Floki’s loyalty to Ragnar, unthinkably, bends towards treason. Skarsgard is quick to defend his character’s loyalty.
“He’s crazy and volatile but I don’t think he would compromise on that loyalty for personal gain,” he says. “But having said that, what he is probably more loyal towards than to Ragnar is his gods, the religion. He is kind of the fundamentalist of them all, the pagan fundamentalist.”
Asked if he borrows from himself to play Floki, Skarsgard reveals he can relate to “the switch between hubris and self-loathing. But Floki’s bipolar and I’m not. Floki really amps himself up; he’s either chosen by the gods, almost even divine in his self-perception and then the next moment he’s worthless, he’s awful”.
The only real glimmer of Floki in the otherwise mellow demeanour of Skarsgard is his cheeky inflection when quizzed on what’s in store for Floki in the forthcoming third season.
“A little tease? The main conflict for Floki in season three is that he’s torn between his loyalty towards the gods and to Ragnar,” he says.
And, though the axe that hovers over the cast is not as well-worn as that of The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones, the Vikings ensemble are well aware that Valhalla may call on delivery of the next script.
“No one’s safe in the eighth century!” says Skarsgard. “We have this joke, the producer Keith [Thompson], we call him the Angel of Death because he will walk up to someone and he will say ‘Do you have a minute?’ He takes them aside and says ‘So, we’ve finally come to this point. It’s time for you to move on’.”
Source: The Age