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Vikings’ Clive Standen: ‘You will not expect some of the plot developments’

And fighting shirtless has its consequences

by Beki Lane | Thursday, Feb. 19 2015

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In anticipation of tonight’s Vikings’ premiere on HIstory, Beki Lane spoke with Clive Standen, who plays Rollo on the show.

Here’s what to expect this season, plus some in-depth discussion about the fight sequences on the show, and the strong women from the world of Vikings.

Beki Lane for Rotten Tomatoes: I have a basic question to get us started: Season two was one hell of a season — it’s like the journey of a lifetime over one season. How was it, getting those scripts, and seeing everything they had planned for Rollo?

Clive Standen: Oh, I just got to the point where I thought [writer] Michael Hirst hated my guts because every time I got a script, I was just like, ‘Really?!?‘… I’d always be the actor — especially at the beginning of season two, with all the battling — when everyone else would be ready to go home at the end of the day’s filming, and I would be covered in blood. Top to toe in blood and mud and scars — and half of them were probably real cuts and bruises, because I was one of the few characters who was fighting with no top on. So all the other stuntmen have got pads hidden underneath their costumes, and I’ve got nothing to protect me. I’m running into real metal spears and solid shields. So I’d be there for another 45 minutes just trying to wash all the blood out of my hair. And then you’d get through all that, and then they’d say, “All the new scripts are out!” and you pick up the new scripts and go, ‘REALLY??? More of the same? Now he’s a drunken alcoholic, and it’s four years later, and now he’s found in the snow, and they’re shoving a bucket of ice water in my face! Really?’ And it just kept going and I was like, ‘Michael, you hate me.’

RT: And by the end of the season you’re being trampled by horses…

CS: Yes! And I really did have to lie there on the ground and hear those thundering hooves coming towards me, going, ‘This is the last of me. This is the last moment of life on this planet’… with the thunder of hooves getting closer and closer. But to answer your question, that is the best thing as well, isn’t it? That’s all you ever want as an actor — you just want something to get your teeth into. You don’t want to be sitting around, just doing some vanilla scenes where you’re just the guy that is just reciting plot points. You want to be the guy who’s thrown into the mix and goes through the wringer — and that’s exactly what Michael did with me. So, as much as I joke that he hated me, he was actually rewarding me tremendously by giving me those kind of storylines.


RT: So, you and I have one tiny thing in common; and that’s that, once upon a time many years ago, I studied stage combat with your Assistant Stunt Choreographer, Richard Ryan.

CS: Richard Ryan! Oh, he’s one of the best! He’s incredible.

RT: Yes! So, when I’m watching the show, what I’m waiting for is the fights. That’s one of my favorite parts of the show. So are the fights something you look forward to, or you dread? I’ve only ever studied fighting, so I want to know what it’s like to actually do it.

CS: The honest answer is that, sometimes, I don’t look forward to the fights unless I can see a through storyline through them. It annoys me otherwise, just as sex in TV shows annoys me, if there’s nothing new you can show or reinforce about your character, or whoever the character is in the scene, then it’s just sound and fury, signifying nothing. So you’ve always got to find a way in, and that’s just what Michael’s so good about. It’s something the public doesn’t get to see when they watch the show, but Michael actually writes stage directions in the battles to such a great description that you can actually see the battle in your mind’s eye before you’ve even worked with the stuntmen on choreographing it.

Michael is brilliant at actually describing the tactics of the Vikings — what they’re trying to achieve, what is going through each character’s head — so that’s what inspires you, when you actually read what Michael’s written, and you go, ‘Yeah, I can see this. This is what I’ve been waiting for. We play that one moment, and that makes this battle all worthwhile.’

We’ve gotten into a culture or almost a rut where battle scenes have kind of hit a plateau in the way that they’re filmed. With some of these big budget films like Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, they have the budget and scope to do these amazing battle scenes. But the lower budget films and TV shows, they try and replicate that, and the only way they can is by having just big, shaky cameras, and lots of body parts moving in front of the camera. You don’t really get to see anything. When you’re to do a TV show where there’s going to be a battle about every other episode, or some kind of fight or skirmish, you’ve got to bring the audience into the action. You’ve got to put them behind the shield wall, with the Vikings; you’ve got to see the fear and the whites of their eyes. You’ve got to really feel like you’re in there with them.

What we try to do is rehearse all the moves, and practice, and practice, and practice, until it’s in our muscle memory, so it’s just physically ingrained in you. And we do that for safety; because you need to do that. But then, when we get on the battlefield, and something that you might have learned in the warmth of the stunt/rehearsal room, you’re now in Ireland where it hasn’t stopped raining for three weeks, and you’re up to your knees in mud, and people are firing blood cannons in your face, so that blinds you half the time, if you get a big, cannon of blood fired at your face, and you’re suddenly going, ‘Where’s the sword coming from?’ and the mud thrown up, things go wrong. But what’s so great about it is that it’s like organized chaos. It can be savage at times, like I said, when you’re the guy who has got no pads or anything. But often, the bits where you slip over, and the choreography you learned on your feet is suddenly turned into rolling around on the floor, trying to defend yourself for dear life — and that’s the cut that makes the show. Because, somehow, it just brings the audience in. These characters aren’t superheroes; these are real men, who live in a world where it’s kill or be killed, and they haven’t got time to do double-back-flip, running, jumping, spinning, Kung-Fu moves like you see Legolas do because Legolas works in the realms of J.R. R. Tolkien, whereas Rollo needs to get the guy in front of him out of his way as quick as possible so he can move on to the next one. It’s all as simple as that.

You’ve got to feel like any of these characters could die at any time. You can’t go into it going, ‘Oh well, that’s Ragnar, and Arne, and Floki — they’re the heroes! Of course they’re going to come out of this alive.’ Because they don’t; and Michael makes sure they don’t.

RT: I continuously am worried about your character, and everybody else…

CS: [Laughs] I’m like a cat with nine lives, I suppose, aren’t I? I’ve come back. But what I love about it is that, every time Rollo makes a mistake, every time Rollo goes through the wringer, so to speak, he learns. And he almost changes, and that’s great for me as an actor; that I can suddenly develop him. It’s almost like Rollo, nearly every episode, he’s at a crossroads… and a lot of the time, he takes the wrong road! But he always learns, and he’s gone too far down that road to go back, and that’s what I think people can relate to.

I’m not asking people to fall in love with Rollo. I think in season one, I was almost encouraging people to hate him, to write him off. In season two, I wanted people to just love to hate him. And in season three, I’ve almost gotten to the point where I think Rollo’s forgotten who he is. He’s trying to people-please, he’s trying to say the right things, and he’s trying to do all these things because he wants to be a better person. I hope that people will be hard-pressed not to find themselves warming to him, because they’ll start to feel sorry for him, at least.

RT: What do you like about Rollo as a person? Are there any other qualities about him that you admire?

CS: Yes, I love the fact that he never backs down. If he believes in something, he will stand there and defend it, even if he’s wrong. Sometimes he can be pig-headed, but sometimes you need someone like that on your side. I love the fact that he’s a character that Ragnar knows would physically beat him. So, as much as Ragnar doesn’t trust his own brother, he’s too afraid to have Rollo on the other side.

In episode one of season two, we see that just by Jarl Borg having Rollo on his team, in his army, can be the decisive difference in a battle. And Ragnar knows that. I love that quality about him, that usually shows he’s got the hero brother, who’s perfect, and then the evil, villain brother — that these two characters are two different sides of the same coin. I always think that Ragnar is like a tornado; he’s so quick, and deceiving, and mercurial. You never can quite tell what he’s going to do. But he’s kind of light, and Rollo is sort of grounded. He’s like the volcano; when he erupts, he decimates everything. And Ragnar doesn’t want to start messing around with that volcano too much.

RT: And he’s not just muscle, he can negotiate. He’s got a brain in there too, which makes him even more intimidating.

CS: Yeah. The one thing that I love about Rollo is that he is just human. He’s fallible, and I look at him, and as much as he’s so far removed from Clive Standen the person, I can still relate to him so easily, on obviously such a smaller scale. But when he makes these decisions, I can say, ‘I’ve been there. I’ve done that.’ I really do genuinely feel for him, and I don’t think I’m playing a villainous character, but a flawed hero.

RT:I agree. One last question: Is there anything I absolutely need to know going into season three?

CS: I think going into season three, you just absolutely can’t second guess Michael Hirst’s scripts. You’ve just got to go with the flow, because you will not expect some of the plot developments to happen. Some of the characters will completely surprise you; some of the characters will really let you down. It’s one of those seasons where, just as you think you’re getting to know people, they change, and it can be something as simple as power, something as simple as greed, something as simple as sex can change someone’s whole personality. And just as you go, ‘Oh yeah, I love Floki, he’s great. He’s the funny one,’ then you go, ‘Whoa, I didn’t see that coming!’ Or, ‘Rollo’s the big, scary berserker… Oh, look… now he’s crying.’ That kind of thing.

Michael has really, really pushed this. And for the right reasons, because now you’ve got these really dimensional characters that have got so many layers. And that’s what you need. You can’t just see these Vikings as marauding barbarians; they’re living, breathing human beings who are fallible, and make wrong decisions, and they love their families, and they love their children. And I think Michael is such a great writer.

Lately, lots of people have been asking us about the strong women in the show, and it’s great that we’ve got these strong women. I’ve started to think about that, and go, ‘Well, no, we’re not really…’ The problem lies with all the other shows that just don’t write women. We’ve not got strong women in our show; we’ve just got women. Michael Hirst can write for women, and I look at my wife, and my daughter, and my mum, and I see Lagertha, and I see Aslaug. And I just go, ‘These are women.’ It’s not about creating these strong women, it’s just the other shows aren’t writing these three dimensional women characters.

Source: Rotten Tomatoes

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