Actors who play tough guys have been known to mistake fantasy for reality, with hilarious results. Clive Standen is not one such confused thespian. If, for some reason, the 32-year-old Englishman says he's going to lump and/or carve you up, accept this as fact and flee. (Not that the accomplished swordsman and Muay Thai fighter is a public menace. He's a husband and father and seems like a scholarly, altogether nice guy.)
Standen's physical abilities, which include growing a mean beard, and his gravitas born of classical training contribute greatly to his excellent portrayal of Rollo, the jealous older brother of chieftain Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel), on the action-packed period drama Vikings. His character is based on the real-life Norseman Rollo, who's famous for raiding France and later ruling Normandy, but on the show he has yet to reach such heights. A fierce warrior, his misdirected displays of ambition (going into battle against his flesh and blood) illustrate his inability to be a true leader.
In anticipation of the six-episode second season, which premieres tonight at 10 p.m. ET/9 p.m. CT on the History Channel, Complex spoke to Standen about sibling rivalry, the beatings he takes to get fight scenes right, and why period dramas like Downton Abbey are lazy.
How closely does Rollo's season two arc resemble the life of the historical Rollo?
A lot of what we know from the history books about Rollo is what he went on to achieve in his later years over in Normandy, when he reached the shores of France. But there is the start of the berserker; the word comes from bear skin and some people have interpreted that meaning warriors wearing skins of bears, and the other people interpreted it as being bare skinned. And we used that with Rollo going to battle with absolutely no armor on him whatsoever because he believes wholeheartedly that is the day of his death and the length of his life was fated by the gods long before he was born, so there is no need to wear armor and he can go into battle and fight ferociously for his place in Valhalla. And if he is meant to die he is meant to die, which makes him quite formidable on the battlefield.
The berserkers became a great tale in history, almost like the Navy SEAL force of the Vikings, where they would go into battle completely after taking some magic mushrooms. So we see the beginning of Rollo starting with the berserkers. But a lot of it will be a season three thing potentially, where we still start to go to France and then start to see Rollo’s journey arching out. I don’t know if that is historically accurate in terms of what happens but in order to keep the story going you have to amalgamate stories together and condense history down otherwise you would be spanning 100 years of history and never getting to know any of the characters because they would be dying of old age every episode.
How do you understand the conflict between Rollo and his brother Ragnar?
The question was never how much Rollo loved his brother; I think he always loved his brother. It was about how much he hated himself. And there was this growing ambition inside him that almost engulfed him to the point where he believed that he didn’t deserve to be in his brother’s shadow. The Viking’s name in society is a massive thing. How far you go within your society and your clan is how far your name travels through the land. When they were starting to get all that success in season one and they were going west, Rollo felt like he was doing quite a lot for his brother and getting nothing in return.
After the battle in episode one [of season two], he is very clear that he can’t betray his brother and he loves his brother too much, but the ambition is still there, so he is torn between that. The truth is Rollo has absolutely nothing without Ragnar. So it is about working with him, but you can never really trust Rollo. You never know what is going on behind the eyes. And you do not necessarily want to fight against him, that’s for sure, but you can’t quite tell if he is on your side.
How does the belief in fate play into their conflict?
Ragnar asks questions. He doesn’t like the idea of him not being in control of his own fate and his ego starts to engulf him a little bit more in season two and he starts to think that he is in control of his own destiny, so that is the difference between the two brothers. What [wholehearted belief in fate] enables the character Rollo to do is be more of a hedonist. It's like gambling and putting your chips all in at the table because it is out of your control; if you are going to die you are going to die. It makes you a bit more spontaneous and hedonistic. You go in all guns blazing—or swinging, I should say.
As an actor, you have to empathize with your character. Do you see Rollo as a good man?
I don’t see Rollo as a villain at all. I can see some great traits in him, and I think he is very ugly and confused and he is very empty inside with certain things and definitely hasn’t been loved by anybody before. But every human being has the ability to do almost anything in the right or wrong circumstances. A lot of emotions come down to love and family and children and things, and even though Vikings is set on this big visceral and unworldly setting, it is just a family drama about a man trying to do the best for his children and his wife in a harsh climate where you can’t grow crops and there is not enough land and it is too cold to survive and you have no option but to look elsewhere to colonize. I think anyone in the right or the wrong circumstances would relate to either Rollo or Ragnar if it meant feeding your family or protecting your loved ones.
Most of those guys that we were fighting against were stunt guys and they had pads sitting under their costumes. I was bare-chested and covered in bruises from smashing into people with shields.
Have you ever experienced their sort of sibling rivalry?
All the time. I have two brothers and we talk about that [dynamic] quite a lot. Everybody goes through the flows of sibling rivalry. Your brother is there for you no matter what but sometimes you have to put up with so much bullshit that goes with it. There is the cliché saying that you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family. You are kind of stuck with your brothers but they are stuck with you, too, and the bond you have is a blood bond.
Are your brothers older or younger?
I have a younger brother and a older brother. The oldest brother is four years older than me and my youngest four years younger than me. I do like the dynamic that Rollo is the older brother. It is hard to see your younger brother becoming more successful and getting more reward for it. And it is more of a cliché in drama to have it the other way around the spoiled younger brother who gets jealous of the older brother but the other way around is quite an interesting dynamic between Ragnar and Rollo.
It’s a little like Fredo Corleone in The Godfather except that Rollo is not a meek screwup, he’s actually a capable person, so it makes even more sense that he’d be jealous and have ambitions to make his name ring out.
In season two, Rollo is learning. He has always been a formidable fighter. He has always been able to look out for himself, and he lives on the margins and is very spontaneous and hedonistic and he worries about himself. But he wants to be a leader of men, and those are not great traits if you want to be a leader. It is about humility and looking after the people living in your village, protecting them.
You were already an accomplished swordsman when you joined the cast of Vikings, right?
Yes, I have been sword fighting since I was 13. When I started going to drama school to do all the exams I did my advanced gold certificate in stage and screen combat and I got a distinction. I had a sword fighting coach in drama school and he used to be an Olympic fencer, and he was an historian as well, so he was a stickler for getting it right with history. In medieval times a lot of swordsmen fought with their right hands because it was considered superstitious or unlucky to fight with your left, and so everything was designed for the right-handed man. I’m left handed, so I had to relearn everything with my right hand. It left me ambidextrous and now I can sword fight with my right and my left hand.
What did you have to learn about combat for the show?
I had done loads of sword fighting, archery, and spear work, but with Vikings we are trying to do something a little different. Our stunt team works tirelessly with us to try and make it more real. It is so easy, especially with sword fighting, to make it like a dance; there are lots of spins and rolls on the floor and it all gets a little too clean cut. You feel like these characters are suddenly superheroes, they’re going into battle just swatting the enemies like flies, and they are never going to die. I get quite bored with that, especially the shaky camera work and you just see the body parts. You don’t connect with the character in the fight.
We work with the stunt team to create the fight and we spend a lot of time learning the choreography, but then we try to forget that. After you have done it so many times it is there in your muscle memory. You try to play the scene so if you are fighting one person in front of you and the other guy is coming up to you with an axe, at the last minute you have to turn around [to see him] and swing and block it. You have to see that spontaneity and you have to see the fear in the eyes and bring the audience behind the shield in the battle with you.
There is nothing wrong with learning something in the rehearsal studio while you’re on your feet but it just so happens that the land that you are filming the battle scene on is waterlogged and you are up to your shins in mud and you are suddenly on your knees pulling the guy to the ground by his hair, and then it seems very organic. It adds something to the drama. Looking back on some of the stuff that we achieved on season two it really does look surreal and real and messy, and that is how it should be. In those days, it was kill or be killed and a lot of those battles ended quickly, just people hacking and slashing just to get through to the next guy. There is not going to be many kung-fu kicks and spins and stuff. They weren’t trained by the shadow league ninjas. They were just brutal Vikings.
So being a Muay Thai fighter wasn't a big help?
The Muay Thai comes in handy because I pick up [choreography] a lot quicker and you get smashed around quite a lot. In the first episode, most of those guys that we were fighting against were stunt guys and they had pads sitting under their costumes. I was bare-chested and covered in bruises from smashing into people with shields. In Muay Thai, we would roll milk bottles up and down our shins to kill the nerve endings in our shins because there would be a lot of shin-on-shin during fights and you don’t tend to feel it when you are fighting. Adrenaline gets you through it and it’s the day after that you realize there are bruises on your shins and you can’t walk. On Vikings, it was usually at the end of the day when we’d go down the street for a pint of Guinness and compare war wounds, boasting about it. It is no different than guys playing football and talking about scoring goals and free kicks.
In the heat of the battle in episode one, Rollo does a crazy jump over everybody into the fray. How that was executed?
I was actually recovering from a twisted ankle during that scene. We had to leap off of people’s shields, so we had people on the set with shields and we would run up and bounce off the shields and leap over. I said I had a twisted ankle, so they put crash pads down on the other side but I got them to take them away because when you have a bad ankle you don’t want to land on uneven ground. So I ended up having to leap up and down about six times, compressing my ankle. And what you don’t see, because it is edited very differently to how we shot it, is that I had to go straight into a fight with about seven guys. It wasn’t just about the stunt, it was landing and then taking them all out like a steamroller.
TV networks are quite lazy. They make Pride and Prejudice and Downton Abbey the formula for a period drama. I love Downton Abbey but Vikings breaks the mold. It appeals to the people who want to watch a period drama but it also has all this action and adventure and fantastical gods. That’s why the show caught the imaginations of a larger demographic.
Between Vikings and your previous show Robin Hood and Camelot, you seem to have an affinity for period dramas. What draws you to them?
I have always been mad about history. And at first, when you come out of drama school, you have to take the jobs that people want to take you seriously for. You can’t go up for everything you want to be. It just so happens that the first jobs I had out of drama school were period dramas. The reason why I chased down Vikings is because the two that I did before this, Robin Hood and Camelot, were almost a rehearsal for this. This is the one that I wanted, this is the one that has the historical fact, the action, the intrigue, and Michael Hirst writing it. He is not just an amazing author he is a historian, so it is really well written and really deep-rooted in historical accuracy, as much as it can be for a TV drama.
TV networks are quite lazy. They make Pride and Prejudice and Downton Abbey the formula for a period drama—and they are great dramas, don’t get me wrong. I love Downton Abbey but Vikings breaks the mold. It appeals to the people who want to watch a period drama but it also has all this action and adventure and fantastical gods. It almost feels like a fantasy show, like Game of Thrones. But Game of Thrones is just the imagination of one novelist; it is not rooted in history whatsoever. The Vikings were full of action and adventure and intrigue, they were almost the Da Vinci’s of their day with the technology that they had at their disposal, and I think that’s why the show caught the imaginations of a larger demographic.
In doing research for the Vikings, what most surprised you about them as a people?
What surprised me mostly is that we don’t actually know much about them. I thought I knew loads about Vikings; my parents used to take me all around the UK to ruins of castles and monasteries, and when I was a kid I used to resent it at times.
After doing all the research I’ve done now I am just fascinated every time I find out something new. It has been a very one-sided tale because the Vikings didn’t write much down and all we really have is Christian monks’ religious propaganda, which has made them out to be these fiery demons who came from the sea and wanted to rape and pillage everything, and that is not the case at all. I am still doing research now and I love to immerse myself and know everything because I am always ahead of the game in case I have to do something in the script.
One thing I find fascinating is that the Vikings believed that the god Loki would come back with an army on a boat completely made of fingernails, so the Vikings never used to throw their fingernails away. If they bit their fingernails, they would put them into a locket; they wouldn’t flick them on the floor because they felt like they add to Loki’s boat and his bringing back his army. It is little things like that, that they really did believe in, that I find fascinating. It is so unworldly.
Interview by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)