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.