Vikings Star Travis Fimmel Knows a Thing or Two About Swinging a Sword
ESQUIRE – The Australian actor easily balances the CGI-heavy Warcraft and indie comedy Maggie’s Plan.
The Travis Fimmel moment is upon us. After a brief career as an underwear model (“I only did that one modeling gig. I was 21 or something the last time I did that”), the Australian-born actor has been steadily working since he starred in in a 2003 reboot of Tarzan for The WB. A number of indies and TV shows followed before he found a signature role as Ragnar Lothbrok on the History Channel’s Vikings. He’s still swinging a sword, leading armies, and generally kicking ass in his first leading role in a big old Hollywood summer extravaganza, but the context is a bit different (and much more computer animated) in Warcraft, the Duncan Jones-directed adaptation of the massively popular knights-versus-orcs fantasy game series Worlds of Warcraft.
Should you find yourself interested in spending time with Mr. Fimmel’s hirsute mug but need less swordplay in your life, be advised that he is also a charming romantic foil to Gretta Gerwig in Rebecca Miller’s new indie Maggie’s Plan. As you’d suspect to look at it him for even a second, Fimmel is a self-avowed outdoorsy type, and he even has a horse just outside of Los Angeles. Esquire caught him on the phone just as he was about to fly out L.A. and talked to him about pickles and knowing where to look when you’re fighting an orc.
I know you’re from Australia, but where do you live these days?
It depends on where the work is. I don’t get home as much as I wanna. The last four years, I’ve been in Ireland most of the time.
That’s where you shoot Vikings, right?
Yeah. I love it, mate. Great people, great crew. It’s a beautiful country. It rains a lot, unfortunately, but other than the rain, it’s beautiful.
So with Warcraft, you have your first lead role in a summer blockbuster. How are you feeling? Are you nervous at all?
Probably nervous. But it’s a real ensemble cast. I suppose you know, but I’m just glad to be working as an actor. There’re some great actors in it. Paula Patton is amazing in the film, and Ben Foster. Toby Kebbell is brilliant. Duncan is a great director. Whatever you do, you hope it’s going to end up good, and [you have to] see what happens.
Were you a fan of Duncan Jones before you signed on?
Yeah, I watched his films when I signed on. He’s a great director, and especially for a film like this, you have to have someone who is prepared. There is a lot of CGI, and a lot of motion capture stuff, so you have to have a director that is really prepared for the job. The film is in his head, and it’s hard to envision it as an actor, because you don’t have a clue what it’s going to look like.
Yeah, it’s a bit awkward. You’re talking to no one. But a lot of time with motion capture, you have an actor in front of you, which is great. They’re in their pajamas or whatever the suit is, and you can look in their eyes. You’re sort of blown away when you see what you were doing on set, and you see the film in the end and what they can do with the CGI and motion capture. They do a tremendous, tremendous job. Normally when you shoot a film, you’re sort of doing a finished product—other than the editing and [putting] some music over it. This is a big process after shooting. They spent two years on the computer, refining the film.
Those orcs are all two to three times the size of a normal person. Did you have to remember to look at them and not in their eyes?
Oh, I messed up all the time, mate. You put a sword in my hand, and I just start swinging. And they can put the monsters in afterward. Working on the film is just bigger. Even the costumes: You’re wearing huge costumes that are just very awkward, and the swords are much bigger than a normal sword. Even the horses—they use draft horses instead of normal horses, just because of the size of them. It was an amazing thing to work on something on such a grand scale. But it wasn’t all CGI; we worked on some amazing sets. We shot in Vancouver on these sets where there were big forests in the middle of a shed.
This film is more character-based than I think people will suspect. What do you think is Anduin Lothar’s motivation?
Well, I feel like my character is a bit of a maverick. He says what he means, and he does what he says he’s going to do. He’s very loyal to his people and protective, and he would do anything for his family and friends. Because it’s a very fantastical world, as an actor I just went in that direction. I love my son, and I want to take care of my friends and try not to mess up. I love my character. He’s flawed. He’s not the perfect dad, and I’m not the perfect person. It is not just about the look of it. We made sure there are good stories in there—there are love stories and a betrayal.
Were you a fan of the games before you signed on?
No, I never played the game. I’ve seen people play the games. I had a go after we finished filming. I suck at it.
Were you nervous about signing on for a project with such a devoted fan base? If you don’t get the film right, they’ll let you know.
Yeah, I suppose you get nervous, but you can’t do anything about it. You could sort of say the movie is a prequel to the game—it’s before the first ages of the game. Even for the World of Warcraft fans, it’s something new for them.
Before you took these roles, did you already know how to use a sword?
No, no, no. I got trained on Vikings for it. There were great trainers on Warcraft as well.
What was that training like? How long did it take for you to feel comfortable doing it on camera?
I’m still hopeless, mate. I have great stunt teams on both.
Is it one of those things where every single beat, every swing is choreographed down to the second?
How long does it take to get it nailed down?
How long does it take? I still don’t have it nailed down, mate. I’ve got the worst memory in history, so for me to remember the choreographed moves takes a bit.
So you have Vikings and Warcraft, but at the same time you’re in Maggie’s Plan. How did you go from being in those films to being in indie romantic comedy?
I don’t know, mate. I got the script, and they were dumb enough to put me in it. I like Rebecca Miller and her writing. She’s a tremendous writer and director. It was a fun cast and a fun little film to do between Vikings seasons.
You’re pretty funny in it, especially the scene where you offer to inseminate Gretta Gerwig. Did you have a lot of experience doing low-key comedy, or was this new for you?
I think there should be comedy in everything; it doesn’t matter what you’re doing. But I look for whatever. I’m an actor—I need a job.
It’s funny, in both Vikings and Warcraft, you’re this burly warrior dude with a beard, and here you still have the beard in a totally different context. It doesn’t take much to take you from bearded Viking warrior to bearded hipster dude making artisanal pickles.
Yeah, yeah. The look is pretty similar, I guess. I dunno, a lot of people have beards now; it’s ridiculous. There’s a lot of beards in New York now. It’s very “hip,” or whatever you’d say.
Do you rock a beard when you’re not working?
Oh, it depends on how lazy I am. I’ve got a bit of a one, now.