KK: Hi George, how are you doing today?
GB: I’m good thank you, you?
Very well too, we’re very excited about Vikings season 2, which finally finds a home on UK television on the HISTORY channel. What’s in store for Athelstan this season?
For Athelstan, we have something interesting to start season 2 – we have a four year time jump at the end of episode 1. So these four years allow everybody to see the characters change a lot, and Athelstan is certainly a character who changes quite a lot at the start of season 2. He was fifteen in season 1, and seeing how much he’s gone through already, and knowing what kind of position he’s in, at the start of season 2 he kind of feels betrayed by Ragnar Lothbrok, and is desperately trying to work out how he can fit in in this community. With the four year time jump we see a man in episode 2 of season 2 who is really very relaxed and seemingly more at home in this very strange world. In season 2 he is very Viking, and it results in going on a raid back to England, west with Ragnar and his crew, and people will see how that affects him throughout the course of season 2.
Athelstan’s journey has been actually the most fascinating of all – as the audience we’re probably in his shoes more so than any of the Viking characters.
Micheal (Hearst) and I discovered that in season 1, Athelstan was a character who was very useful in terms of a plot device, in being able to be the audience’s eyes, and being able to illustrate to the audience new elements about Viking culture and Viking society that they may not have known about before. And then within that, there’s also the very internal conflict of how to deal with his sort of split religion, which he ends up dealing with in season 2. I mean, I’m biased so of course I’m going to say he’s the most interesting character… but yeah he’s been an amazing character to play, throughout the show, now just having finished season 3 as well.
Athelstan’s relationship with Ragnar is probably one of the most interesting aspects of the show. How does this relationship change in season 2? Ragnar is a very complicated man…
Yeah, Ragnar is very complicated, but so is Athelstan – the most interesting characters on TV are the complicated ones, with a huge internal struggle. Ragnar, throughout season 2, starts to create a lot of rifts in his relationships with other characters. His own family, his friends who become his enemies… Athelstan is the one character on the show who Ragnar has as a constant, really, and definitely is the one character who Ragnar feels he can trust, moving through season 2. Noticing what happens to both of those characters really does affect each of them throughout the course of season 2. They’re very much linked.
You mentioned Athelstan goes on a raid in season 2 – what was that like to film?
It was incredible. It was very embarrassing, I screamed quite a bit. There’s a battle sequence that Athelstan is a part of in episode 2, and it’s the first time we’ve seen Athelstan in that kind of environment, and I remember we did the first take in this beautiful forest, this sort of ambush battle. There’s no pretending in Vikings, when you’re doing battles they give you an axe and a shield, they give you a couple of weeks of fight training and then they say “Okay, go!” And there were all these stuntmen in Ireland who just hurled themselves at you, and Athelstan was part of the shield wall in this battle for the first time, and let me tell you, your first shield wall experience is one you’ll never forget. They shouted “CUT!” at the end of this battle – a hundred people, all screaming and fighting with axes, “aaargh” – they shouted “CUT!” and everyone just goes completely silent. And you could just hear throughout the forest this giddy high-pitched laugh, and everyone’s like “what the– who the hell is that?” Look around and I’m on my back, on the floor, like, head nearly in the river, just laughing from excitement. Not really Athelstan’s experience, I’m sure he was pretty terrified.
I’m sure, but it does sound like fun. Now, Athelstan has a habit of getting himself into some pretty grim situations, what can we expect for Athelstan as a whole this season?
In season 2, Athelstan gets into some situations which are fairly extreme. He sometimes chooses to be in them, sometimes he doesn’t. Either way, they are hugely traumatic, life-changing experiences which as an actor I have great difficulty relating to, just because I’ve never been anywhere near that kind of situation before. So that was really interesting, because when the writer hands you a script three weeks before you’re supposed to shoot a scene which is intensely emotional and physically taxing, you think “uh, well–” and you sort of panic, you have no idea how you’re gonna achieve it or demonstrate and perform this, and tell this story. It’s what’s so great about our job and it’s what’s so great about Michael [Hirst]’s writing, he’s constantly challenging you as actors and he’s constantly pushing the boundaries of what these characters can do within this framework of this world, and it’s such an amazing rollercoaster – that whole process of trying to make Athelstan as believable as possible.
It’s a fun ride for the viewers as well, like you said it’s a rollercoaster and that’s what makes it really addictive.
Yeah – I was saying to someone earlier that Vikings is a show that I would watch and I would come back to every week, because it’s designed in that way, the way Michael’s created it, the way the producers have formed the show makes you want to watch because it’s got that kind of level of excitement and originality. It’s exciting to be a part of.
Now about your other projects, have you got any other projects in the works at the moment?
I just finished filming another period drama called Versailles, where they crazily asked me to play the role of Louis the XIV. So I spent the last 6 months in Paris.
Did you get to speak any French at all?
A lot off set, yeah. I do speak a bit of French, I lived in France for ten years, my family did, so it’s been very useful being able to practice that again. It’s filmed in English, it’s a show for Canal Plus and it’s their first attempt to market something international to the world, so it’s been really exciting. It’s very similar to Vikings, in terms of the kind of product that they’re producing. It’s amazing to be part of this scene in television at the moment, very very high end and high calibre art.
The pictures of Versailles look really cool – your hair seems to be getting longer with every project you’ve been in, why do you think that is?
Yeah, that’s true! I didn’t do it on my own, my hair doesn’t magically grow in a week… Uh, I don’t know, I think everyone’s sort of, throughout the Vikings process, “being on a TV show for 3 years, do people stop you and recognise you?” and I’m like “no, of course they don’t!” I don’t usually walk around with a shaved circle on the top of my head, or with massive long Viking dreadlock-type hair down to my shoulder. I’ve never, until now on Vikings, I’ve never played a version of Athelstan that looks anything like me, and it seems like, with roles going past Vikings as well, I’m not playing anyone who looks like me either. Which, you know, is why I do it anyway.
It’s probably not a bad deal, yeah. Last but not least, any plans for the West End stage at all?
I’d love to. It’s what I trained in. I spent three years training in London at a theatre school, and I would love to be on stage. I would love for someone to think it would be a good idea. I was saying to someone earlier – it’s silly in this industry to think that you have a huge amount of choice when your’e starting out as an actor. I’m not Johnny Depp or Tom Cruise or someone who gets to choose their projects. When you’re starting out in this industry you’re auditioning for lots and lots of things – plays, musicals, films, television shows – and sometimes you get offered a part, in whatever medium that is, and you hope that the parts that you’re offered, when you’re starting out, are parts that you’re creatively interested in and that you want to be a part of artistically. Hopefully as I move forward and carry on doing this crazy crazy job, I’ll get more and more opportunities.
Hope so too. Well, thank you for joining us today, George.
You’re welcome, thank you for chatting!
Read my interview with Vikings’ Clive Standen here.