Alexander Skarsgård Wants to Teach You All About The Vikings
Alexander Skarsgård is worried he’s already said too much. “I feel the less people know when they go in to see the movie, the better,” the actor tells TIME about his latest film The NorthmanThe brutal Viking epic “The Vikings” is out on April 22. Yet his passion for the project, which he spent years trying to make with Danish film producer Lars Knudsen before teaming up with director Robert Eggers, has made him quite chatty—even if he wishes otherwise. “I don’t want people to hear my voice in their head while they’re watching [The Northman] going, These are the best ways to read this.,” he said. “I want them to get lost in the world and take from it what they will.”
The Northman is the kind of film that’s easy to get lost in. Skarsgård plays Amleth, a Viking prince-turned-warrior who sets out on a bloody and mystical journey to avenge his father, King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke), save his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), and kill his traitorous uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang). The Northman which has been called the “most accurate Viking movie ever made,” mixes Viking Age history with mythology. (It’s based on the early 13th-century tale written by Danish historian Saxo, which inspired William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.The film is full of emotion and immersion. Skarsgård learned this first-hand following the film’s world premiere in his birthplace of Stockholm, Sweden, when those in attendance shared their takes on the movie’s final shot with him. “Some people saw it as a happy ending, some people were sad, some people felt that it was a life wasted. Others felt that Amleth had accomplished something monumental,” he said. “That really inspired me.”
For those that don’t mind knowing a little more about The Northman Skarsgård spoke to TIME about becoming a bear-wolf man, being starstruck by Björk, and his favorite Viking fun fact.
Robert Eggers was the director of research. Much has been made about him. The Northman As accurate as was possible. How did you prepare?
Robert is not the only one who had a favorite Viking Bible. Neil Price also was a consultant to the movie. He wrote his book. Children of Ash and Elm: The History of the Vikings, it’s a really great read about the culture and also how the Vikings lived, their relationships to the spiritual world, and their gods. The fascinating facts about fylgjaThe female spirits that govern all Vikings’ fates and the Nords are the three powerful female entities in Norse mythology. This is what gives Amleth agency and is integral to the story. For anyone who’s interested I highly recommend Neil’s book. It’s a really great read and really accessible. It’s basically if the Bible had been written by someone on mushrooms.
It was so vital to you. The Northman Was so deeply rooted in Viking history?
I’m all for taking creative freedoms and liberties, but we tried to avoid that in The Northman so that it will feel as if you’re being transported back in time. The audience will be able to see Amleth’s world and appreciate its complexity. It was important to give a true representation. [of the Viking Age]We will delve deeper into the mythology. We wanted to stay away from clichés when it comes to the Vikings and actually get to know the real characters behind those clichés. We wanted to show a lot of fantastical elements that might seem crazy to us in 2022, but to Amleth, living a thousand years ago, it’s completely normal. He expects the Valkyrie to pick him up when he’s dead and he’s not surprised when he has to duel a 7-foot-tall skeleton giant. All that supernatural stuff is based on tales he’s been told since he was very young so it’s as real as the ground he’s standing on.
Some joke that you can learn from your experiences The Northman might give Leonardo DiCaprio’s experience on the 2015 film The RevenantA run for its money. As far as I know you didn’t Sleep in bear carcassesBut what was the most difficult part of this film?
Rob [Eggers]It’s all about authenticity, so fight scenes were shot at remote locations in Northern Ireland and Iceland. This was both a blessing as well as a curse. It’s logistically kind of a nightmare shooting on a mountaintop, with the rain and the wind and the cold. There are no roads, so you can’t get equipment up there, but that makes it even more of an immersive experience for us actors in front of the camera. You don’t have to pretend that it’s cold or wet, everything is real and it’s not a set built on a soundstage. You’re actually out in the elements. It was the best thing for me. While it was difficult physically and mentally, I liked that method of working.
Which scene was most difficult to shoot?
It was difficult because the scene on the volcano at the end was technically complex and also emotional. So to try to instill that at 5 o’clock in the morning when you’re freezing cold out and you’re naked, covered in blood and mud, and trying to remember the choreography of a long sword fight, all the while remembering where your character’s at and what’s happening in the story was quite tough.
Amleth walks like a beast. What is the secret to Amleth’s animallike walking style? Is it possible to transform your body into this animal-like character’s psyche?
I tried to revert back to something more primal, but it’s all in his warrior name: Bjorn Ulfur, which means bear-wolf. There’s this scene, the shamanic ritual that he goes through before the raid in which he sheds his humanity and becomes his spirit animal, the hybrid of a wolf and a bear. I felt that it was imperative to try to embody that and feel that in Amleth’s physique, which would be a bit more bear-like in his posture and the way he moves. It is evident in his eyes. The little boy who was abandoned within him after he has completed the ritual is gone. He’s a predator.
It was a pleasure to work alongside you BjörkThis film marked her return after 20 years of acting. Was it a great experience to work with her?
It’s absolutely amazing. Björk hasn’t done a movie since Dancer in the DarkIt was an incredible privilege to be able to spend that time with her. Her unique personality is evident and it was a night to remember. [we shot the scene]The experience was amazing. Obviously when you shoot with Björk it’s going to be a massive full moon that night. This beautiful moon is a memory I will never forget. Björk’s wearing this incredible crown and I was pinching myself that I had the privilege of being there for that. Because I was so excited and awestruck to be there, it was hard for me to stay in character. I felt almost as if I were part of the audience. It was like watching her perform, and eating popcorn.
The Northman You can also re-team with your Big Little Lies co-star Nicole Kidman. What would you say about that type of relationship? Why do you love to work with her again?
It’s about trust. Big Little LiesIt was an amazing experience partly due to the brutality and darkness of their relationship. In order to get through that we had to hold each other’s hands and completely trust each other. Nicole and I had a strong bond on the set. When you do that, you can never lose that connection with your actor. It’s always there. When Nicole and I were reunited, our first scene was a five–page dialogue scene in which my character confronts her. Because we are so familiar with each other, it was easy for us to get on the same page. We just dove in and she’s so phenomenal in this movie. It’s amazing.
Is there a Viking fun fact you’d like to leave readers with?
There are so many, I don’t know where to begin, but there’s one little anecdote that I thought was quite interesting. The Valkyries are the women warriors who ride through Valhalla at night to retrieve the fallen warriors. The horses become sweaty from their constant riding, collecting the fallen warriors. So when you wake up in the morning and step out into the grass and you feel the morning dew, that’s actually the sweat from the Valkyries horses. Ever since I read that, everytime I’m in the countryside and I step out early in the morning into the grass and I feel that dew, I think of the Valkyries and their horses.
Here are more must-read stories from TIME