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British born Leo Suter portrays Harald Sigurdsson in Vikings: Valhalla. Sigurdsson, nicknamed Harald Hardrada, lived a bit later than the other characters on this show. He was a renowned warrior in his youth who fought across Europe for different kings and emperors. He then became king of Norway. He is best known in English history as the last great Viking to lead an invasion of England. But he wasn’t successful—he was killed in the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066, fighting against the Anglo-Saxon King Harold Godwinson.
Suter, meanwhile, is keeping himself plenty busy. While not striking anyone else with an ax (at least not yet), with season one of Vikings: Valhalla under his belt, he’ll next been seen in the Netflix limited World War II series The Liberator, which begins streaming on November 11. After that, comes the feature film Gateway 6, starring Olga Kurylenko. His previous roles include the British television productions of Sandlton, Clique, Beecham House, and Victoria.
Den of Geek: So what was it about Vikings: Valhalla that made you want to be a part of it?
Leo Suter: When the audition came through, I saw that Jeb Stuart [Vikings: Valhalla showrunner] was attached and, immediately, that was pretty exciting. I did a couple of auditions on tape in London and then got an invitation to come out to Ireland and screentest, where I met all of the team behind it.
I was so excited to play Harald but also a little daunted once I was sent the script because this guy was such a hero. He was such a leader and he was going to have to glue together this horde of Vikings who were baying at each other. And he was going to have to be a legend. That was a little bit scary… because he was going to have to be a politician, he was going to have to be a ferocious warrior, and he was going to have to have a charisma about him. Because I was going to be doing things that I’ve not done before, as an actor, that’s very appealing.
What’s so fascinating about the show is that even though it’s historical, it goes back so far and is so epic that it somehow reminds you of something like Lord of the Rings.
It’s got that epic scope, yes. And this was Tolkien’s period of history. He was an old historian and Middle Earth is Miklagard. There’s loads of Norse mythology in his works and Norse words that entered the Lord of the Rings as well. The other bit to touch on with that sort of Lord of the Rings parallel is the spirituality and the magic. There’s a bit of that in the Viking world as well, with paganism and that style of religion. It’s a good parallel to make.
What went into your physical preparation for the show?
To get ready for it physically was just some self-discipline and structure of working out, being sensible, watching what you eat, and lifting heavy things more often than you might otherwise want to. All of that became really useful when we arrived and we got thrown into fight rehearsals and stunt choreography. You get very close with the stunt team because you spend a lot of time working with them, and just through doing those rehearsals, you get fit and strong.
And if you aren’t in the right shape, the stunt guys, I love them to bits, but they don’t suffer fools lightly. I think they’d have let me know [if I wasn’t doing it right] and they didn’t have to, which is good. I got into boxing and Muay Thai, sort of as an extracurricular activity, because all of those skills, and the footwork in particular, are going to be very useful when you are choreographing a fight scene.
It seems like the stunts want as often as possible to have the actual actors in those sequences rather than cutting to stuntmen or using CG.
It’s also kind of out of necessity, because in a Viking battle, when a Viking actually kills a Saxon, it’s face to face, a foot apart and it’s so personal. It’s so close that there’s not really an option to do it any other way. The drama and the excitement is right there in the front lines, so I think I always understood that I was going to have to launch myself fully into it.
Would you say that Harald changes a lot during these first eight episodes?
When we find him, he’s seeking revenge. There’s a rage within him that comes out on the battlefield. Through the course of the series, he’s going to learn from the elders and those around him that pure rage isn’t enough to rule a kingdom. His main goal is to be king of Norway. To actually become a king and work your way to the top… you need some political knowhow. Professionally, he’s going to find out what it takes to really become a leader. Personally… he’s going to realize that no one can live without other people’s destinies, and other people’s hearts and desires intertwining with theirs. When that happens, it gets complicated, so you have to make tough decisions and compromise.
For yourself, are you hopeful for anything this series might bring to you or your career?
I think it’s important to start off by saying that I’m not interested in what it will do for me. What I really hope will happen is that people learn about Harald Hardrada and become infused by this amazing character in history who we are still telling stories about a thousand years down the line. If people come away from this and there are fans of Harald Hardrada, that makes me happy. I think that one of the cool things about the Vikings is that these sagas were passed on orally and then they got written down 200 years later in Iceland. We’re continuing that story. If this helps that story continue, there’s something quite cool in being part of a legacy.
For the viewers, what do you feel is the power of the show?
I think of what Vikings did previously in those battles with that kind of ruthless, no-holds-barred style of action. You’re totally going to get that along with epic battles and incredible stunt choreography. You’re going to feel like you’re back a thousand years ago right in the fight, which is maybe an unpleasant place to be. Better to be on a sofa, really!
The other thing this show does really well is that it’s kind of an origin for famous Vikings. It’s an origin story for Leif Erikkson. It’s an origin story for Harald Sigurdsson, later known as Harald Hardrada. It’s an origin story for Freydis Eriksdotter. So I think it’s going to bring to life these names that people might have heard of, but now they get a chance to really see what might have happened.
Vikings: Valhalla arrives on Netflix on Feb. 25.