Vikings Season 3 Interview: Clive Standen

Clive Standen, the actor behind Vikings' Rollo, talks to us about Norse mythology, fight scenes, and historical accuracy in drama...

The History Channel’s hit show Vikings, finishing up its third season and already looking to its fourth, tells the story of the first contact between the Northmen and the Christians of Western Europe. The series focuses heavily on King Ragnar Lothbrok, his (ex-)wife Lagertha, and brother and sometimes rival Rollo as they fight their way to power and across western Europe. Clive Standen, who portrays Rollo, talks with Den of Geek about Norse mythology, the pointlessness of sex and violence on-screen, and sibling rivalry on an epic scale.

I wanted to thank you for taking the time to talk to us. And congrats for what is shaping up to be a really great season.

Thank you, yeah. It’s taken everything out of us, filming this season. The show’s become a juggernaught now and everyone has to be ready for whatever Michael [Hirst] writes. There isn’t any kind of respite at all. We just got done filming season three, and at times, it felt like some of these aches and bruises and pains weren’t ever going heal. We definitely went through the ringer, but hopefully it is going to pay off. It looks like it is going to come off that way based on the ratings that are coming in and what people are saying on social media. It seems like they are enjoying it as much as we enjoyed making it. It’s just fantastic.

Well, from I’ve seen thus far, I’d have to agree. It is fantastic. There has been a lot of talk about the series showing us ninth century Paris through the eyes of the Vikings, but what else is happening this season?

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Well, it’s more about what a King does with power, really. There are still feuds going on in Wessex and the storylines you start to see play out in Mercia with Ragnar and Princess Kwenthrith. He’s not done there and won’t settle until he gets the Viking settlement he’s agreed with with Ecbert. Ragnar starts thinking: where else in the world is there knowledge to be found and land to be gained? We have to wonder about the wanderer from season 1 who talks to Ragnar and Rollo about going west and discovering a land called England; he also mentioned this land called Paris. Ragnar being Ragnar is intrigued and can’t just let it lie so when the summer raids come, he decides they are going to hit Paris but he needs support so he starts making alliances with various Jarls in the area. This creates an amalgamation, a huge Viking army to go and sail down the River Seine and sack Paris.

Paris is unlike anything we imagine it to be, compared to Paris as it is now. It was in the middle of the river, an impenetrable fortress, and nobody could break through the walls to get to the city. So when the Vikings see it for the first time, they are completely shocked and awed by the sight. Paris is connected to Europe and all the shipping routes, all the way to Constantinople, so there is a large ethnic difference to the city and lots of different influences coming from parts of Europe they’ve never had contact with. It’s very rich and diverse in a lot of different ways as opposed to the Saxons that the Vikings have already encountered.

King Charles is a very different kind of ruler compared to Ecbert and Ragnar Lothbrok. So all of these things are completely foreign to the Vikings and the viewers. That’s not the only thing, because with all of these differences and influences, the city has some weapons and things like anti-siege devices that the Vikings will never have seen before, and they won’t see coming. Paris is far more prepared for an attack than the Saxons ever were.

So one of the major conflicts that has been set up this last season is the difference in beliefs between the Christian Saxons and the Norse Vikings and both Ragnar and a King Ecbert have shown themselves to be flexible in their beliefs in that they both seem to put political considerations ahead of the religious ones. But then we have people like Floki and Aethelstan who seem to be more true believers. Where does Rollo fall on that spectrum?

Well, Rollo has always put his life in the gods’ hands, and it enables him to be quite hedonistic and to almost abuse that trust. He believes the day of his death and length of his life has been predestined by the gods, so he doesn’t question it that often. He believes whatever happens to him, the gods are at hand and in control.

But because of the history between him and his brother, and the build-up from the beginning of the season two to where we are now… when Ragnar takes his brother back, they try to build bridges, repair that fractured relationship. But Rollo has started to forget who he was. He doesn’t want to anger his brother; he doesn’t want to go back there. He realizes now that Ragnar was never really an obstacle to his ambitions, but (the experience) has made him more of a shell of his former self. Every time Ragnar asks his advice or says something that his brother doesn’t necessarily agree with, Rollo sits on the fence, second-guessing what his reply or reaction should be or what his thoughts should be.

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So when you have a character as forthright as Floki in one ear and Ragnar in the other, Rollo feels like stuck in the middle. He wants to please his brother and prove that Ragnar’s trust is warranted. But he’s also got Floki who is the stalwart pagan believer–which is probably where Rollo’s mind lies—but he doesn’t want to get back into these massive political arguments, falling out with his brother again. So we can expect with the second half of the season that Rollo does kind of lose his way a little bit. And you know, with anyone who is not true to themselves at the end of the day they can end up down a rabbit-hole of confusion, and it just gets worse from there.

Rollo is no different. He almost gets to the place of wanting to end his life because he just doesn’t understand why he keeps getting it wrong every time. He may learn from mistakes and he picks himself up each time but somehow he still manages to have people blame him and make him feel like he is not worthy. Eventually he goes to the seer and what this seer says to Rollo in that room kind of changes his outlook on life and gives him a completely different view on things to come and how to achieve his ambitions.  

Also as Ragnar gets carried away with his political ambitions with Ecbert and Charles in France then you have Bjorn who feels a little bit left behind. He’s been lacking a father figure; in the past, he spent four years away from his father with his mother Lagertha. And Rollo always been fond of his nephew, and I think he kind of steps as a father figure and tries to shape this boy into this man that he eventually becomes in history. But what I didn’t see coming in the scripts, and actually the viewers will be surprised about, I think, is that Bjorn maybe has a few things to teach Rollo.

Going back a little bit in the Rollo/Ragnar relationship, do you feel like Rollo’s motivation was a desire to beat his brother, to be better than his brother? Or has he more been motivated by envy? Is there something in Ragnar that he wishes he was or something that Ragnar has that he wants?

I think Rollo feels like Ragnar has always been chosen over him; when it comes to his father and his mother, he always feels like the brother that was the second-best. When it comes to Lagertha, he’s second-best, his name and reputation in society, he is second to his brother. And a Viking name is everything to them in that society and culture. You know, the day of their death is fated but what they do until that day and what they do with their life until that day comes, they are in control of, so it’s about building a name up for yourself to be remembered.

So when he starts to see his brother eclipse him in that respect and move up in Viking society first as Jarl and onto King, Rollo feels like this is just the same thing that has happened throughout childhood and the whole time he has been on this earth with Ragnar: he’s always been second best and Ragnar has always been chosen over him.  It just kind of eats away at him, this desire he has to prove that he is equal to or greater than his brother. It’s kind of taken over his soul and turned him into a bit of a monster on the inside.

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You have described one of the things you love about acting is getting as far away from yourself as you can, and I know you are a very physical guy; you’ve done a lot of fight scenes. Vikings has been a great balance of fight scenes with those about the more personal aspect of this culture, about family and relationships, which shows a side of the Viking culture that we don’t really think about. Which type of scene do you really enjoy doing more?

Well, you know it is about total immersion really, so the battles becomes part and parcel with their society and belief system. But I don’t actually really look forward to battles–same with sex scenes, they’re the same to me. Fighting and sex on screen is pointless, and it’s all kind of sound and fury signifying nothing unless you can show something fresh about the character or drive the story on in some way. Otherwise, it just becomes a moment where the audience will go and turn the kettle on make a cup of tea. You’ve got to bring the audience into the battle and make them feel they’re in the shield-wall with the Vikings. The same with sex scenes: you’ve got to show them the story playing underneath it or an aspect of a character that has not been seen before that can be shown in that sexual way. So I don’t look forward to either of those things unless I feel like I can do something with them.

But what is great about making Vikings, maybe because it was so inherent in their belief and their culture–the violence—is that Michael is very good at writing stage directions that describe what story is happening, what is going through each character’s head, and it is very easy to become quite excited about that. And once you have that kernel or seed of an idea that you can play something as the throughline of the scene or the battle, then it does become rather exciting.

But to answer your question, it’s secondary to the acting. I just really love to act, just talk, and I love it when it is more about wordplay and the battle of wits and that comes down to scripts. So we are lucky to have someone like Michael writing these battles and scenes in the great hall. But my favourite scenes are the ones I get to do with Travis [Fimmel] that come down to the bare bones of the brothers’ relationship, because it’s just something you can relate to and something you can really ask the deep and the dark questions of yourself and then show it to the audience, warts and all.

You mentioned both sex and violence in that last answer, so let’s talk about that. We’ve seen the more open sexuality of the Vikings, but Rollo seems to take Siggy’s admission she has been using sex to improve their positions rather hard which is surprising considering that she has never hidden the fact that she uses sex to help gain position and power. Why did this affect Rollo so much? Shouldn’t he have seen this coming?

Why does anyone enter into a failed relationship? [laughs] If it all works out great, that’s fine. But we all do it, you know; we all spend time with people in our lives, and then have to go “is this really the same person that I met?” Rollo is no different. He goes into almost a marriage of convenience. They both know what they’re getting into: she is someone who had everything, lost it, and wants it back; he is someone who has aspired to have everything, never had it, and has no idea how to achieve it on his own. So they almost make a pact to try to help each other out for their mutual benefit.

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But as time goes by, Rollo starts to blur the line and starts to fall for her more, he starts to think maybe there is more to it than just an agreement. There are some deep feelings from Rollo, and in his eyes, she seems to be the only one who has his back. And he makes these monumental faults when it comes to his brother on the battlefield, four years goes by, and he’s an alcoholic in Kattegat, a shadow of his former self, and she’s still the only one there.  The scene where she pours ice over him, and brings him in to sit by the fire: she is his only constant. And as much as he lusts after Lagertha–and there is a past there–Siggy is the only one that has never let them down, which is what his brother used to be like. I think he gets confused and those lines get crossed; I think that’s why he feels hurt and betrayed by her. But if you ask Siggy, she would probably say “I never really wanted more. What did he expect?” But that’s what we all do: we all fall under jealousy and lust and all those other emotions, and I think Rollo is no different.

You have talked into the past about the depths of Hirst’s scripts and how much you look forward to them not just in terms of character but the history and the anthropology that is brought to them. And I imagine that you have done more than just a little bit of research into the Vikings on your own. What is it about the culture that you find most fascinating both from what you have learned from him and on your own?

The thing that I find the most fascinating is how otherworldly their culture seems; it verges on the fantastical. To put yourself in someone else’s life and see life through someone else’s eyes. That particular era in history, the gods they believed in, believing in three different worlds Utgard, Asgard, and Midgard. Having a world where there’s frost giants and dwarves and elves. Where there’s the Jörmungandr who wraps himself around the world, and somehow it was all connected by Yggdrasil, the life tree, and on top of Yggdrasil, there is an eagle that when it flaps its wings it causes the winds to blow. To look into nature and see every little aspect that’s in front of you and translate that into the gods looking back at you, someone trying to tell you something—I find that fascinating.

There is just so much. The tattoos on Rollo’s arms are of Skoll and Hati, who are two wolves—Fenrir’s sons. Fenrir was the giant wolf, in Ragnarok, supposedly swallowed Odin and the sun and caused the end of all things, Ragnarok being the Viking Armageddon. Skoll and Hati chased the sun and the moon around the world, which is why the day turned to night and the night into day is because they were constantly being hounded by two ravenous wolves. I think it is amazing, and it is so easy to lose yourself in that world when you start to research. That’s what I love as an actor is that total immersion where you can really get lost in living that life and I can really feel like I am living in different life and can find a reason and a truth in everything. That’s probably what fascinates me most is this otherworldly landscape they lived in.

And plus the Scandinavia that they lived in at that time was pretty fantastical as well. Look at Iceland with the volcanic climate there and the harsh cold and having a midnight sun. For months of the year, it’s just mega-dark and then just pitch black all the time, and it’s just so the polar opposite, just the juxtaposition to how I live my life now, that it’s a great kind of the story to get your teeth into.

The Vikings were very oral culture so much of the history of them was written by a lot of the cultures that they came into contact with and, in many cases, conquered, and was written long after that contact. So since they didn’t really document their society in the way we normally expect, any show or any kind of narrative that portrays them has to fill in some pretty big gaps, and I was just wondering if you give me some insight into how that happens on this series. Is that something that Hirst talks to you guys about, how he chooses to flesh the history out and how aware are you of when something is more strictly historical versus when he’s using narrative license?

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Sometimes you get the best stories from the sagas. This is a time when there was no TV, and entertainment was based around stories and some of the sagas are larger-than-life. But you can base a story on a saga which gives you something that was written about the time or if not, very close to the time.

But the thing is that Michael–and we are all the same page with this—just as the Vikings didn’t really write much down, as you said, and the history was written by the invaded, there are a lot of historians that have got different agendas as well. Just looking at Rollo: there are four or five different people writing on Rollo. Dudo of St Quentin was one of the biggest writers of the history of Rollo. He was writing 400 years after the events; he was also writing for the (then) Duke of Normandy who he was trying to write a lineage for and protect that lineage and somehow conveniently talks—or glides over– certain aspects of Viking society. Dudo has an agenda to try to make Rollo an impressive historical figure.

So sometimes what we can take from history is we can take the actual events and the things that make this figure famous in history and the things they actually accomplished but the real person, for an actor and a script writer, you’ve got to dissect that and flesh it out. So you have to take some sort of artistic license in the character. But you know it is fascinating to think that we know where someone ended up and the big plot points of how they got there from the history books, but as an actor and writer–it’s very hard to explain—you have the A and the Z but you have to fill in the B and C and D, everything in between. It’s up to the actor to fill in the middle and to make it a full story where you can actually take everybody’s different accounts and try to build on that.

I don’t know if I making any sense at this point. I’m just trying to make the point that you can’t just read Wikipedia, read a little bit about Rollo, and then go “That’s not the Rollo history because I read it on Wikipedia. There’s a greater thing happening when you start to get all of the stories and documentation together and then you yourself have to pick apart what was the propaganda what someone’s agenda and look more deeply is. Which is what we should do on social media as well when people start reading people’s posts and likes and you assume something is true because someone has posted it without thinking what someone’s agenda was in posting it. It’s no different when you start researching history.

It makes perfect sense to me just because I am a medieval/Renaissance specialist and very specifically the history and literature, and how literature, how narrative, creates history. And you are right: we tend to think of history as a bunch of dry facts: this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened. And that’s not at all the way it is. It’s very driven by political agendas and religious agendas and all sorts of things, so no, I think that’s a great answer [laughs].

No, it’s far more interesting. People think, Rollo, the Duke of Normandy, he was a great man. Well, maybe he did end up as a great man, but it’s not a very interesting story just to say Mr. Perfect went through life being Mr. Perfect and ended that way. Sometimes things happen to us in our life: we come to a crossroads and we take the wrong road, and we end up having to apologize for that for the rest of lives. Or we learn from that mistake, and we get back up and we eventually become a great person, or sometimes a great villain or wherever life takes you. So it’s very easy to get sort of “backseat” about a story and say “That’s not how it happened!” And maybe that is true and that isn’t the way it happened.

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But it’s far more interesting as a drama to have someone struggle and have obstacles in the way, which I think is what Michael is very good at doing. And you have to take some artistic license if you want to tell the story on an epic scale. For example, Rollo and Ragnar weren’t brothers but do you really want to watch one series that focuses on Ragnar Lothbrok and then have the next series go 100 years in the future and then you suddenly meet this character called Rollo? In order to tell two big epic stories at the same time, what better device than to make them brothers so they are both living in the same time frame? So you have to truncate history in certain places. And some minor characters in history that have fascinating stories but aren’t necessarily fascinating characters when portrayed on screen, you can kind of amalgamate three or four (of those) characters into one great character and then you’ve got a story.

So there’s got to be some sort of artistic license. I think that’s the only way you can get through the whole Viking era and try to include everything. Otherwise, you’re not really going to have any attachment to any of your main characters and no one will watch it anyway because no one will actually feel like they are living and breathing people.

Clive Standen, thank you very much!