Clive Standen, who plays Rollo in Vikings, tells Screenjabber's Paul Anderson about the physicality of the role and his martial arts background.
The first season is focused on introducing the characters and the world to the audience. At the end of the first and on into the second season you don’t have to play it safe, and you are able to play around with things a little more. Is there a feeling of liberation when making that transition from the first to the second season?
I loved putting those little beats in the first season that didn’t necessarily travel anywhere. Rather you were planting seeds for the future, and [showrunner] Michael Hirst is very good at doing things like that. You read something in a script and you think how on earth does this effect Rollo or why on earth am I saying this? Then you start to get the scripts for season two, and you realise that’s something that was probably setup eight episodes ago, and which is now at the forefront of the storyline.
When you build the character up that’s the way that I feel you can really explode, and that energy seems to be scattered across so many different paths and crossroads that can be taken. I think that life in general is about the choices we make, and that’s no different when you are acting and you are making those choices.
There is a lot of love between the two brothers – between yourself and Ragnar. What went wrong, and how can we expect to this play out in season two?
At the end of season one Rollo in his eyes has the chance of a lifetime – to be the general of his own army. That’s what Jarl Borg ultimately offers him – the chance to be king for a day on his own terms, and so he trades in everything. It's one of those cases that you don’t know how much you love something until it's gone.
He realises that the one the person who has always been there for him is Ragnar, but it doesn’t strike him until he’s face to face with his brother on the battlefield. Ragnar’s sword is down, and Rollo’s spear is almost against his neck, and he has every opportunity to kill him and to have everything he wants. But he can’t go through with it because in that moment he realises that all through his life all he’s ever had his brother. Anyone with siblings will know that one minute you love them and the next you hate them. But they are blood, and you can’t choose them, but you also can’t live without them. That’s the problem that Rollo encounters on the battlefield – he can’t go through with what he thought he’d always wanted.
In episode two you quickly realise that its four years in the future, and he’s a shadow of his former self. He’s an alcoholic and he’s all washed up, and the relationship between the brothers will never be the same again. So he spends the majority of the first few episodes trying to gain enough courage to go and speak to his brother, to regain that trust, and it all comes to a head.
Rollo’s kind of like a phoenix rising from the flames so to speak in season two, and in episode three Ragnar punishes him just like you would punish a child. What do you do when you want to punish a child? You take away what they love most. I always thought that by stopping Rollo from raiding and going West with him again is almost like chopping the plug off the PlayStation [laughs].
When he’s left behind, and Jarl Borg attacks Kattegat, he’s in charge of Ragnar’s children along with Aslaug and Siggy. There isn’t a great army left because Ragnar has taken the best men with him, bar the women, children and old men. I’ve always seen that scene where the old man comes up to him and says, “Your main aim is now to look after the children of Ragnar” almost as if Thor is looking back at him. It is a massive turning point for him, and he’s at a crossroads. Everything about Rollo is looking after yourself, living on the margins, being a hedonist, and proving to the Gods that if you fight well then you are worthy of your place in Valhalla. This old man is encouraging Rollo to go against everything that he has believed in - to run away to fight another day in order to protect his brother's children, and the future kings of Kattegat. When he goes through those months in the farmstead looking after Siggy, Aslaug and the children, it’s the first time Rollo has had to worry about anyone other than himself before, and I think it is then that he starts to realise what it is to be a leader of men - to lead by example. It’s not just about going out there with all axes blazing and decimating the battlefield. There are a lot more qualities that a leader needs, and he starts to learn that, which culminates in the scene where Ragnar comes back and he finds out Jarl Borg has taken everything. Ragnar says something along the lines of, “I want to rip out Jarl Borg’s throat with my bare hands.” Rollo is the one in a role reversal of the brothers who says, “You and what army?” He is almost the mature brother saying we can’t do this. He tempers his brother, and I think that’s when they start to trust each other, and find themselves once again in each other’s good graces.
The problem with Rollo is that while he may be back on side with his brother, he realises that his ambitions mean that he doesn’t have to trample all over his brother, because Ragnar isn’t involved in his ambitions. But they are still ambitions and they are not going to go away. So he still struggles with the inner turmoil of where he is going to go and what his fate holds in store for him? He has this great line where he says, “I was in your shadow, and when I stepped out of it there was no light.”
He's a great character to play, and we can tell that you’ve got your teeth into the part!
I feel that if we were to talk about the 21st century and people who self-harm, who may scar their wrists or cut themselves on their body with a sharp implement, it’s a way of almost taking away from the emotional pain – wanting to feel the physical pain. I feel a lot of the fighting in that first episode when Rollo goes into battle bare chested and beserking - the word of which comes from bare skin - is because he believes the day of his death and his fate was decided by the Gods when he was born. When he touches the knife he doesn’t seem to feel the pain, and so it’s a displacement for him – a way of almost avoiding the emotional pain that he’s feeling inside.
Would you describe the journey of the characters in Vikings as a long journey?
Yeah, most of the main characters in the show are historical figures and any spoilers you want are all in the history books. The story of Rollo is only just beginning in season three, which we are filming right now, and so there is a long character arc. It’s a great character arc to play, and you don’t get to do that in film at all. So it’s great to be able to play in something that runs for 50 or maybe 60 hours of television - to play a character over that time.
To quickly pick up on an earlier point with regard to the relationship of the brothers, why does storytelling continue to mine family relationships and dramas for the basis of narratives?
I think for as long as humans have been on this Earth there are few characteristics that have changed and are at the route of everything. Usually it’s to do with family, sex, power and pride. All those things are always at the forefront of anything regardless of whether you’re playing a geography teacher in a 21st century drama or if you’re playing a Viking in the 9thcentury. Everyone can always relate to a family drama because everyone has some kind of connection, and what’s great in general about a drama series is that you’re a fly on the wall, and if we get it right you get to see things that you can relate to.
Have you discovered any new sides to your personality through playing Rollo?
Obviously Rollo does some very questionable things in season one, and so I found it very hard to relate to him. But you have to love your character, and as the series goes on there are aspects of him that I find myself having more and more in common with or I was at least able to attach things to his circumstances. The thing is we are all human and we all make mistakes, and what I love about Rollo is he’s not black and white. He lives in the grey, and that enables me as an actor to make bold choices, and to really take him in different directions.
There are many things that I can relate to in my own personal life which [laughs] I won’t share with you! Hopefully if we are doing our job well they should be within all the characters where you can see little bits and pieces, because as an actor you only need a little nugget to get into the character, and then the rest of it is make believe.
Why does Rollo stay with Siggy?
It’s a marriage of convenience in a way, and there is a parallel with Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. He knows what he wants and he has no idea how to achieve it. She's been there and done that, and she wants it back. So she’s using him to get what she wants – to get the power back – and Rollo hasn’t got anyone fighting his corner.
I always say that the thing about Rollo is that you can never really trust him, but you definitely don’t want him in the other corner. But I think he just feels like a bit of a lone wolf. He doesn’t really have anyone guiding him whilst Ragnar has a family network around him – he has everything that Rollo doesn’t have. Siggy is the first person to show any interest in Rollo, and so he clings to her. The problem is that there isn’t any real love there, and so it gets tempestuous, fiery and as the series goes on it's a hard thing to get your head around anyone who says they are sleeping with the king and his son, and they are doing it for you. It’s a very hard thing to get over and that relationship is therefore waning.
How did you found the physicality of the role, and did your back ground in martial arts help at all?
I did a lot of sword fighting and stunt work when I was younger. When I was 14 years old and when most kids were getting part time jobs in shoe shops, I started working with a stunt team doing The Tales of Robin Hood. It was pretty much around the same that Robin Hood Prince of Thieves came out. So I learnt to joust and abseil out of trees and fire bows and arrows. We used to scream at all these Canadian tourists, "The Sheriff’s men are coming; the Sheriff's men are coming." We’d all run off into the woods and then they’d all congregate around the Major Oak where we’d all be skirmishing and jousting.
This was way before I got into acting, and then Muay Thai kind of took over my life for a little while. You do stage combat at drama school, and somehow on the last couple of jobs along with Vikings it’s been at the forefront. So it has all kind of come full circle, and I’ve been able to use all those skills with this character.
But with the physicality, I always think it’s the quiet guy in the room that’s the scariest, and that’s how I try to play Rollo. I’m a big guy and I can’t change my physicality that much, but it’s more about when you are big, you don’t play big. You don’t go I’M A VIKING! because that’s the guy that gets his head chopped off. With Rollo he is a bit of a sociopath and there is something quite dead behind the eyes when he is fighting, which is even more scary. With Ragnar that little smarmy smile has the same effect.
When you knew you were going to be a part of this project certain expectations must have come to mind. How has the experience compared to the expectations?
I did a series called Camelot that lasted a season, for which I thought Michael Hirst was going to be the main show runner, and for whatever reason he wasn’t there when I got there. I was really excited to work with Michael because of his work on Elizabeth and The Tudors, but it didn’t happen. Then when I found out he was doing Vikings I became excited and so I chased this part, and I fought tooth and nail to be in it.
I’ve always been mad about period dramas because I love to immerse to myself in history, and I feel that through the research I learn something. This period drama for me breaks the mould a little bit, because I think there’s definitely a formula for certain network period dramas such as Downton Abbey or Pride and Prejudice for example, which go for a certain demographic. With Vikings it's an historical based drama that will attract the historical based demographic who are interested in it. But because of the amount of action, adventure and intrigue with the gods, the pagans and the belief system that has never been done before, along with the battle scenes and such in each episode, I think it has captured the imagination of a younger demographic as well. There is almost something there for everyone.
I feel like I’ve got everything I ever wanted in a drama series, and I don’t feel like I’m too high brow, and I don’t feel like I’m something like Xena: Warrior Princess. We've just the right mix for the show, and that’s what’s so great. There is never an episode that is the same – now I’m learning Old Norse. But we try our best to make it as historically accurate as a drama series can be.
Are you repackaging the vikings for people?
It’s just that they have never been portrayed on screen in an honest light before. Although it’s changing now, everything I was taught at school was about the horned helmet, which comes from Wagner’s operas and the idea of these raiding marauding psychopaths from the sea that came and murdered all of the Christian monks. In a way most of it is the Christian Monks’ propaganda because they were the only people that were writing stuff down. So it’s nice to be able to go back and look at it from the inside out, and to put that on screen to realise that they were market traders, colonists and families, and that there was a heart there and a reason as to why they went West. They were almost the Da Vinci’s of their day with some of the technology they invented. The way they built boats, the sun stone that we see in season one, and how they circumnavigated the globe.
Do you feel that Vikings is playing a part in rewriting history?
I hope so yeah. If we do our job well and we make it to five or six plus seasons, it will be great if this ends up on a syllabus somewhere. I’ve got three kids now that are aged 11, eight and four. Hopefully when the four year old or maybe even the eight year old are studying history, they might watch this series called Vikings which is a good starting point, and they'll say, ‘My dad’s in that!’
• Vikings Season 2 is out now on Blu-ray and DVD from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment