It’s almost the end of our second and final day on the set of Vikings in County Wicklow, a short distance from Dublin, and we’ve finally tracked down the enigmatic lead actor who seems to have been kept busy ever since we arrived. He’s in-between scenes and in full Viking garb – his wild beard and magnificent dreadlocked hair have him looking every inch the intimidating part – and we retreat to a quiet corner of the set to begin our interview. After a polite introduction we take a seat opposite Fimmel and begin to relax. Only, this HeyUGuys writer relaxes a little too much, leaning back too far on the flimsy canvas chair, ripping the fabric, ending up sprawled across the floor and looking up at the clearly amused Viking Chieftain. Then comes the cheeky comment from Fimmel, and in all fairness, after a moment as embarrassing as that in front of none other than Ragnar Lothbrok, a f*cking idiot is exactly how we feel.
Fimmel’s undoubtedly the main attraction in Vikings – a show that gives you exactly what the title promises, and it gives you that in spades. We’re on the set as season two goes in front of cameras, but we’re here to talk about the first season, which is coming out on DVD. There’s a confidence in the air that comes from knowing the first season was a success, but at the centre of everything Fimmel, who in his off-time lives on a remote farm with his family in his native Australia, remains utterly self-effacing.
In so many ways the Aussie actor’s an unlikely star. His career began over a decade ago as an underwear model for Calvin Klein, before making the move into acting with the lead role in TV’s Tarzan. The show was critically mauled, with Fimmel’s performance justifiably drawing particular criticism, and it was cancelled after just eight episodes. His next big acting opportunity came on The Beast opposite Patrick Swayze in 2009, in which he showed great signs of progress, but the show was sadly cut short after the tragic death of Swayze. So when Fimmel was cast on Vikings – a show on a cable network (History) making their first forays into original drama – the news made few waves.
But it only takes one episode of Vikings to see what an electrifying presence Fimmel is as Ragnar Lothbrok, a real character who the Viking sagas tell us was one of their first great chieftains. His quiet, almost restrained performance is refreshingly different from our traditional image of a Viking, and that’s wholly appropriate for a show that’s doing something new by telling the story from the Viking perspective. There’s a warmth that comes through what’s often a very gentle performance, but there’s also a madness in Ragnar’s piercing blue eyes that betray a more violent, brutal side to the warrior. Just as we begin to ask Fimmel why he took this different approach to the character he’s pulled back onto set to film another scene. “Sorry man,” he says as he’s pulled away, and with another grin adds, “Yeah, I don’t know how I got this f*cking job man.”
Earlier we were asking the same question to Michael Hirst (Elizabeth, The Tudors), the creator, showrunner and sole writer on the show, and he told us how the show almost went ahead without Travis. “We had someone [cast as Ragnar] who was good. He wasn’t quite what I thought, but he was okay,” Hirst told us. “I wanted someone who was very thoughtful, someone who’s not just loud and out there and wants to kill everyone. We were offered a lot of very pretty English actors and then we started going for beefy guys. So we were a bit stuck, but we found someone.”
But after reviewing the tapes with his wife, Hirst became convinced he’d made the wrong decision and pulled the plug. With deadlines looming, a new Ragnar had to be found quickly. “Three days later Travis’ self-made tape landed in the studio,” says Hirst. “He’d done the test in his kitchen in this farmhouse in Australia. He didn’t bother trying to disguise his Australian accent. He didn’t dress up like a Viking like lots of people had done. He just did the scene and he did it rather quietly, with pauses, and we said, maybe, maybe we’ve found him. What he’s brought to the show is a real depth and a real sort of complexity that you don’t know often what he’s thinking or what he’s going to do.”
After watching Fimmel film take after take of a bizarre scene alongside John Kavanagh’s The Seer, in which we see Ragnar caress and lick a snake, he returns to finish our interview. From what we’ve seen, Fimmel’s predictably good in the scene, but he’s mic’d up and we can hear him berating himself between takes. When we get a chance to ask him our earlier question again, that self-deprecating streak returns, which is a little jarring coupled with his typical Aussie humour. “They were real late in the audition process, so I put myself on tape and sent it over and, yeah I guess it wasn’t… I don’t know, I was just trying to be different I guess. I was very lucky I got the job. They must have been pretty desperate.”
While that’s clearly not the case, there’s no denying that Fimmel was an unconventional choice. It’s not immediately clear from seeing him made up as Ragnar, but just a quick glance at his early modelling work and you realise that he’s in fact a very pretty man. In another role those piercing, intimidating blue eyes could just as easily be dreamy blue eyes, and a lot of credit must go to the costume and hair and make-up departments on the show, whose work is transformative. When Fimmel first arrived on set, there were still some who, however briefly, also had their doubts. “Travis got off the plane, he was a bit jet-lagged and you could see he was worse for wear,” says stunt coordinator Frank Henson. “We were thinking, ‘oh, this is going to be fun.’”
He’s unsure if he should tell the rest of this story, but when I remind him that on one of the DVD extras he mentions how training Travis looked like it was going to be very hard work he bursts out laughing. “Did I say that? F*ck, I’m surprised I’m here.” But again, Fimmel exceeded expectations. “I think he’d done more gun battles and things like that rather than sword and shield. But by the end of the session we thought, ‘ooh, he’s alright, he’s good.’ And since that he picks up everything we give to him. Show him a couple of times and he’s got it.”
A little over six months since the show first aired in the US on History, no one’s underestimating Fimmel any more. The ratings for the show were beyond the channel’s wildest dreams, and its performance was just as pleasing for LoveFilm who bought the rights to stream the show exclusively in the UK. Fresh off of a string of great reviews – a far cry from his experience on Tarzan a decade earlier – Fimmel has subsequently landed a plum role in Duncan Jones’ fantasy epic Warcraft, which he’ll hope will announce him to a big screen audience in the same way Vikings has on TV. But although Vikings looks set for a bright future, Fimmel might already have to start thinking about more big screen roles and life after the show.
“We will lose Ragnar at some stage,” says Michael Hirst, who’s absolutely committed to as much historical authenticity as possible based on what we know from the Viking sagas. “To be truthful, I don’t know exactly when that is. Next season we will have the attack on Paris, so that’s a huge build for us. And in the second season Ragnar has four more sons, so we have to watch them grow up a little bit. We can move forward in time at certain points, but I want the audience to be as embedded with the boys as they are with Ragnar. In my mind it’s the saga of Ragnar, so it’s a family saga.”
It’s a bold move for a show to be willing to kill off its lead character and best character in one fell swoop, but Hirst will presumably take comfort from shows like Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire on HBO which have navigated similar issues with great success. But is Fimmel fully aware of his character’s limited shelf life? “Yeah, I’m getting killed as some stage,” he says, very matter of fact. Does he know the circumstances of Ragnar’s demise? “Well whatever’s true to history, I guess.” So he’s not foreshadowing it in any way? “No, not yet. You read every script as if you’re waiting for somebody to die. Could be you.”
It’s an incredibly laid back approach, but Fimmel seems to take everything in his stride. Even after the humiliating chair incident, speaking to him was a fantastic experience; Travis Fimmel’s a very easy guy to like, and he seems to be really enjoying his Vikings experience compared to his past TV work. “It’s well different. Just the crews and the people. No egos. Michael Hirst is just a brilliant collaborator, he doesn’t have any ego. Every department helps the others out. It’s a real team effort here. Some of the other stuff I’ve done is people worried about their own job and ratting everybody out, you know.”
In fact, you get the impression Fimmel wouldn’t mind becoming a Viking, full stop. “I’d love to live in this period. I’d love no phones, and you’ve got to survive. And no MTV and all that stuff.”
Vikings Season 1 is out today on Blu-ray and DVD.