History’s ‘Vikings’ Interview: Clive Standen Talks Rollo, Complex Morality and Future Characters
In case you missed the epic premiere this past Sunday, History's first scripted series 'Vikings' attained some sizable ratings for itself in beginning the tale of Norse hero Ragnar Lothbrok. The largely introductory pilot mostly served to establish the world, while this Sunday's "Wrath of the Northmen" will really pillage viewers' attention as the complex, interwoven tale heads overseas for some true 'Vikings' action. We had a chance to speak to series star Clive Standen (Rollo) on the morally grey (more often red) series, covering both its roots in history and future on History, so get the inside scoop on 'Vikings' inside!
Actor Clive Standen is no stranger to history, having previously undertaken roles in such period fare as Starz's 'Camelot' and BBC TV series 'Robin Hood,' but his role as Viking leader Ragnar Lothbrok's brother Rollo (a historical figure in his own right) has become his favorite to date. The series itself continues its nine-episode first season on History this Sunday with "Wrath of the Northmen," as the titular Vikings sail overseas toward an encounter that changes their history forever, but how does the series mesh with historical fact?
We had a chance to sit down with Standen to discuss the character of Rollo in past, present and future, particularly how 'Vikings' presents a vision true to real life, even if viewers mistake it for a fantasy series in the vain of 'Game of Thrones.'
The History Channel hasn't been associated with scripted programming for very long. Is 'Vikings' something people can watch to actually learn from, or does it fall more on the drama side?
I think History is the perfect channel to have this on. When History came aboard, it became the dream project for me, because they spent a long time cultivating an audience that are interested in historical fact. They’ve become masters of that style of documentary, and 'Hatfields and McCoys' proved that they can do this. With 'Vikings,' what it enables us to do is to give a massive, grand story on an epic, visceral scale, but also root it in historical accuracy as much as it can be for a TV show.
There are some studios that are worried about ticking boxes for their audiences, and more about pumping more action into it, pumping more sex into it, and whatever kind of blood and gore, and History doesn’t need to do that. They’ve got a core audience that are wanting this, but they also can expand, and create on a massive scale a story which has never been told before.
What does 'Vikings' change about the popular image in history?
Everyone thinks they know about Vikings, I thought I knew about Vikings from a very early age. When I started working with [showrunner] Michael Hirst and doing my own research, you realize that we knew very little because every time a story about Vikings has been told, they’ve been the bad guys. They’ve been the guys who turned up as hired help, mercenaries who were just nutcases, dirty evil scum who’d just rape and pillage. Even in scriptures written by Christian monks, they’re Norse “devil-men” who came from the sea with horns, and Victorians created this big image of the Viking horn helmet, and none of it's true. You can understand why it was written down like that, because it was written by the people who were raided.
They’re traders, they’re market traders and colonists, and they lived in a very, very miserable, harsh climate. And it’s the first time I think it’s been told from that perspective of having them as the heroes. They did do these questionable things, they did rape, they did pillage, they did go and colonize countries, but we’ve never really seen why before, from their point of view. There's no better channel to have it on than History, because there is going to be respect there for getting it right. You have to take a bit of an artistic license because some things aren’t written down, and it's TV, but we use some of these characters based on real Scandinavian figures in the fiction, and the fact.
The show presents a very complex morality, and this Sunday's episode "Wrath of the Northmen" in particular sees the Vikings involved in some very brutal slaughters, so where does the heart of the series lie?
The heart of the show is that it’s a family saga, these characters are multifaceted characters like every human being is. We all make questionable decisions, where you sometimes simultaneously regret them. We don’t always do the right thing, we live in the grey most of our lives and these characters are no different than that. They're forced to make big decisions, and it's no different than a kitchen sink drama, but the kind of emotions and themes that are there are told on a very epic scale in a world that’s long forgotten. A world where religion was different, and society was different, and their belief system was different, but at the end of the day the characters are still no different than living, breathing characters we know in our lives and that we see in other TV shows set in the modern day.
Tell us about Rollo, and how he fits into the show's narrative.
Rollo does some very questionable things. Is he a bad guy? I don't know. Does he want to be admired? Does he want to be loved? Does he live in his brother's shadow? Is he capable of greater things than Ragnar? Is Ragnar even the hero of the piece? What's great about this show is that no character is ever safe because it’s a society where Vikings are a simple people, and it was sometimes kill or be killed. So you never really know which character is gonna get killed off, or who’s gonna survive by the end of the series. It's very similar to 'The Walking Dead' I imagine, where the actors in that show never know who’s gonna get the chop.
Rollo himself was an actual historical figure not known to be associated with Ragnar Lothbrok, so does 'Vikings' attempt to bend history for dramatic purposes?
No, not at all, no, but we’ve got a timescale to tell the show on, so we've tried to find the most influential characters of that time and the ones that we think we can do justice to, and try to build a story in the same time frame. Otherwise, you would have a show where you constantly having to age up characters every episode to get through all the years that the Vikings were on this Earth. But Rollo and Ragnar were two very stalwart characters in the sagas and in the history books, so it's great to have two characters like that in the series, and amalgamate them that way as brothers. It is a very complex relationship, but I like to think they can’t live without each other.
You can never really quite trust Rollo, but you never really want him fighting in the opposite corner, and I think Ragnar knows that. And I think Rollo would be slightly lost without Ragnar's calming touch. He's a bit of a sociopath, you never really know quite what’s going on in Rollo’s mind, but I think his brother Ragnar is very good at tempering him. Whether they stay together or if they need each other that much as the series progresses is yet to be seen, but they are brothers, and sometimes you hate them, sometimes you love them.
Since the series plays with time frames, and has a lot of ground to cover as far as Viking history, what can you tell us about the plan for the series going forward? The ratings for the premiere were definitely a good omen of additional seasons.
I think we’ve only just hit the tip of the iceberg with what Michael Hirst has in his head. Travis [Fimmel], myself and some of the actors have been lucky enough to see Michael’s "bible," his vision over many series, and characters he would like to involve in the series. The stories you’re seeing in series one really are the tip of the iceberg, there’s such characters as "Ivar the Boneless" (historically Ragnar's son), and later on as time goes on we get "Alfred the Great" who ends up defeating the Vikings in England. They also colonize Iceland, they go across the Atlantic, and you’ve got Leif Erickson, and we go down into Russia and France, and there’s so many stories. It may seem like we’re kind of pushing through, but it’s such a massive story to tell.
Tell us about the deep Norse mythology of the series, and how it keeps from veering into fantasy territory.
People are going to be shocked. I think people who don’t know very much about Vikings are going to think this is a fantasy show, because the gods that these Norsemen believed in, Odin, Thor and Frey, the worlds Asgard, Midgard, Fenrir the wolf, Jörmungandr the serpent. It's old-worldly, and it's amazing that they believed these gods didn’t live in the sky like a lot of the gods we believe in, rather they were living breathing men that once walked the Earth and every Viking thought that there were those descended from each. Ragnar for instance believes he's a descendant of Odin.
But their philosophies and their outlook on life can be interpreted many different ways, and there's a very big, poignant moment in one of the episodes where I say to Ragnar, "you have your Odin, and I have mine," because they both believe in the same god but they interpret the god's beliefs in a very different way. I think that’s going to be very interesting for people to start learning about, if they don’t know already about some of the different gods and the different worlds these Norsemen believed in. People are going to think it’s a fantasy show, but they really did do this stuff.
What can you tell us about some highlights of the first season?
There's a very big sequence on the beach in episode 4, which was good fun to film. There's a big battle, and it was very different than a lot of the stuff we’d done before. It’s a very special episode, its very action packed. The first episode is very much about getting to know the characters. It’s slow, and then the second episode we go across the sea and there’s a storm sequence, and I think midway through the season we hit this kind of pace that you don’t blink or you’ll miss something. I think episode 7, for me, is one of the major climaxes of the show. It’s a great episode, most of that involved a lot of night shoots, and there’s a lot of good scenes in that.
Are you attracted to more historical roles, given your career to date?
I'm attracted to characters with fire in their belly, characters that have a passion, and a world that’s multifaceted. ['Vikings'] I'm most proud of, the one I’d be excited to watch even if I wasn’t in it. I've wanted to work with Michael Hirst for a very long time. I'm a bit of a history nut myself, and when you work with Michael Hirst, it's like working with a historian and a script writer at the same time. Without every period job I've done before this, I wouldn’t be able to play Rollo and I wouldn’t be able to do justice to this script without those experiences. I feel very privileged
In addition to casting veteran actor Gabriel Byrne in the role of the villainous Earl Haraldson, ‘Vikings’ features Travis Fimmel in the central role of Ragnar Lothbrok, along with Jessalyn Gilsig (‘Glee‘) as Siggy, the wife of Earl Haraldson, Gustaf Skarsgard as Ragnar’s eccentric ship-building friend Floki, and Katheryn Winnick as Ragnar’s shield-maiden wife Lagertha.
'Vikings' premieres its second episode "Wrath of the Northmen" this Sunday on the History channel, immediately following new episodes of fellow ratings smash 'The Bible.' Check out a preview of "Wrath of the Northmen" below, and tune in to see Clive Standen as Rollo in upcoming episodes of History's 'Vikings!'