Alexander Ludwig knew he'd have to bring the muscle playing a young warrior in History's "Vikings," but he didn't expect to use them when the cameras stopped rolling.
Ludwig joined the cast in Season 2 as Bjorn Ironside, the now teenage son of Ragnar Lothbrok, the show's main character played by Travis Fimmel. In the history-based series airing at 9 p.m. Thursdays, Ragnar is a visionary Viking leader who leads his people to faraway lands, but grows to view his sons as rivals.
That father-son rivalry, Ludwig said, turned playful off camera between the actors.
"Just before a take we'd start wrestling and see who could take the other," he said of Fimmel, whom he called "a dingo." "At the start he was able to take me. I think by the end of the shoot we were pretty even."
Ludwig got close with many cast members on the shoot in Ireland. But it wasn't all fun and games, he said. As an actor who never thought he'd do TV, he considers "Vikings" to be one of the smartest career choices he's made to date. The 21-year-old has starred in "The Hunger Games" and the recent "Lone Survivor," among other films.
Ludwig said he's "grown so much as an actor" by getting to play a character over several episodes. His character sees tremendous growth this season as well. As Season 2 began, Bjorn moved away with his mother, Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick), who left Ragnar after marital indiscretions. By the second episode, four years have passed and when they meet again later in the season, the reunion won't be all roses. Bjorn's strength and eventual fighting prowess will inspire jealousy in his father.
"Ragnar was really the first pioneer of exploring other lands, but then Bjorn Ironside really took it to another level," Ludwig said. "The story's just begun, because what Ragnar's son did was incredible."
In coming episodes, viewers will get to see Ludwig in action as Bjorn learns to fight from his dad and his warrior uncle, Rollo (Clive Standen), as well as battle rival clans. (See the exclusive Episode 5 clip above.) Ludwig enjoyed training for the fight scenes, but said it was different from the fighting he's done in other productions.
"It's very much a schoolyard brawl. You can practice as much as you want but as soon as the director says 'action,' you're fighting 30 other guys," he said. "It's a shit show and you're just trying not to get hit."
Ludwig talked more about "Vikings," onset antics with other cast members and what "The Hunger Games" has done for him.
Let's talk about this new role of yours. How has it been playing older Bjorn?
It was amazing. The season premiere did exceptionally well for us. We were really happy about that. It looks like we'll probably do it again and it's been a great role for me. Just as an actor, I never thought I would ever do a TV show. Movies have always been where my heart is, but the truth is there's been such exceptional content on television.
It was the best choice I've ever made in my career because I still have grown so much as an actor being able to tell a story over time. It's been great and "Vikings" is such an intelligent show. We have a great writer and show runner in Michael Hirst. He did "The Tudors." He's a spectacular writer and it's a very character-driven show, which is what really attracted me to it in the first place.
Talking about doing a role over time and getting to live with this character: He's going to change a lot, isn't he?
Absolutely. I think the fans and the audience can really expect a lot to come of this character. ... When they first offered me the role I spoke with Michael and our historian. It's very interesting if you look at what this family did. Arguably the son of Ragnar Lothbrok—all his sons—went on to do even greater things than he did. ... And I hope that we'll be able to show that in the near future. It looks like we are going to so I'm very excited about that.
Is there a possibility that as the show goes on maybe Ragnar, Travis's character, is sort of less in the picture and it becomes more about the sons?
I never want really want to speak on behalf of any of the writers or anything, but I will say if you look at the history, the show is about Vikings and right now you're really getting the great story of Ragnar. I love Travis so much and I love what he's done with the character. I've learned so much from him. But I think you can definitely expect the show to really—it can twist on you any way. I talked to Michael, there are no limits to what he's planning on doing and nobody is safe. And all he's really trying to do is tell the story of how the Vikings lived. So as of right now it's really about Ragnar and his family. I think a lot is going to change in the next couple of seasons.
The real Bjorn Ironside traveled all the way into North Africa or some distant land?
Yeah, he colonized so many countries and he sacked what he thought was Rome at one point. It's an amazing story what he went out to do and we'll see how far into that we get. But he does end up sailing to a part that he assumed to be the Roman Empire. It turned out it wasn't. It was a different city.
Basically they wouldn't let him through the walls ... And he pretended he was dead and they let him in, kind of a Trojan horse kind of story. ... [His men] complained [that] his last wish as a dying man was to be buried on Christian ground. So they let him in and then he kind of just took over the city.
And didn't he become king of Sweden?
Yeah. And he became king of Sweden. Exactly. You've done your research.
I was kind of a nerd about the Vikings when I was growing up.
Me too. I'm such a history buff. I've got to say the one thing also that's great about the show that I love and I learned so much about is a lot of people don't know very much about the Vikings. There's very little to go off of and this is where I think the show's doing so well right now—people are really seeing it from another perspective.
Do you find that's a little freeing for the role?
Absolutely. I mean taking over a territory that's already been established has its challenges and I do want to keep certain qualities that were established in the first episode or the first season. But yeah, I mean four years have gone by since you last saw Bjorn and he's seen a lot changes. I mean I'm not the same man I was a year ago. A lot can change in four years and I really can do whatever I want with it. In terms of the show I say 80 percent of the show or 75 percent of it is factual and then the rest is fiction and in that there are characters that are added to help as foils and show the characters and really help to progress the show.
I've written about this before but I think that Travis and Gustaf [Skarsgard] especially have given this very sort of odd, off-kilter sort of approach to their characters which I love. I feel like it makes them seem more foreign and sets apart "Vikings" from anyone else on TV.
Oh absolutely. I absolutely love what they've done and they took a big risk. Nobody knew that people would basically sympathize with these characters and attach themselves to these characters. But they took a big risk with us, especially Gustaf, with what he did with his character. I think that just speaks to what an incredible actor he is, because he took a risk and it worked and I think that's where true genius in the acting world comes from—really not being afraid to show a weird quality and to emphasize it.
So had you seen it before you got cast?
Basically I got a call from the heads of History going, "They want you to come in for a meeting." So I went in and met with them and absolutely loved them. I met with Travis and Katheryn, who plays Lagertha ... and we had an amazing conversation. And we talked about where Bjorn's character's going to go and what I could expect.
I'd seen publicity for the show everywhere but I hadn't been able to watch it because I was so busy. But I immediately went back and watched it, fell in love with the show and I called one of my buddies and he was like, "Yeah, what have you been up to? Like what are you doing?" And I said, "Well I'm actually going out for this show called 'Vikings.'" And they freaked out. And apparently I was the only person who hadn't seen the show out of all my friends. It's like their favorite show. So that was really cool and that was a big turning point for me knowing that it's a show that people my age and older and younger can all relate to and all love.
I had interviewed Travis over the phone but when I met him at Comic-Con he said, "Wow, you're a tall fuck." I noticed you are taller than he is. Did you get that kind of response?
[Laughs.] Oh, absolutely. I got that all the time. And it's funny because we give each other shit about that all the time.
INTERVIEW: Travis Fimmel feels at home with 'Vikings' ax in hand.
I saw a little clip in which Rollo (Clive Standen) is training you to fight?
Yeah, Rollo really comes on to be quite a mentor to me, which I love. Bjorn really finds some unexpected mentors along the way in Season 2. I think you can expect a great relationship between Bjorn and Floki as well, and a long-lasting one at that.
Every time Floki would come around, the younger Bjorn was kind of excited to see him. So that makes sense.
Exactly, and I would say Floki is very much an extremist when it comes to religion and the gods and what the Vikings believe in. ... The myth and legend about Bjorn Ironside—you'll find him growing into this in Season 2—is that everyone thought he was protected by the gods because he was such an incredible fighter and he was never touched when he was fighting. So obviously Floki being the extremist he is believes that wholeheartedly and he wants to basically be there for Bjorn at all times. But there are some twists and turns that happen in Season 2 and I don't want to give away too much.
Speaking of fights, did you enjoy the training?
Absolutely. I love that stuff. I've had lots of fight training during other films I've done, but what I love about this is it's very raw and they don't try to glamorize the fighting. ... I will say that it was an incredible opportunity. One thing I love about "Vikings" is that the violence and everything is exciting, but it's just a byproduct of how they lived. Their true story comes through the characters.
George Blagden said the first fight that he got to do this season he giggled wildly after the director yelled, cut." Did you experience that same kind of thing?
Oh my gosh, yeah. It is such an adrenaline rush. It's everybody's dream. Everyone wants to be a Viking—at least every guy does—it's just like the manliest thing you can do and you just go into this battle and you're really just swinging away as hard as you can. It's real. It's not like fake. You're really hitting. You hit the hell out of people and it's amazing.
Is it tiring, though, to do that kind of physical stuff and still be able to bring those character moments out, not to mention remember your lines?
Absolutely. It's exhausting, but I think it's our job to really incorporate it into our scenes because that is how they would be. It's a workout on its own, so it is so tiring. But it actually helps because you can really use that in the scene. So it almost helps when you're doing your lines and stuff because the fatigue is how they would feel.
Did you have a favorite weapon?
Yeah, probably my ax. I love working with my ax and it's so fun.
Everybody seems to say the ax.
I only got to work with a sword one time in the show and that was really fun, too. But the ax is so cool because you can throw it and you can do whatever you want with it.
When Ragnar and Bjorn meet again in the fourth episode, Bjorn seems to have forgiven Ragnar for all of his indiscretions and everything that happened in the past. Is that going to be the case? Ragnar earlier said something about fathers not having to worry about being jealous of their daughters, which kind of was a little foreshadowing maybe.
Absolutely that is foreshadowing. And I wouldn't say Bjorn forgave him. I would say that he has accepted the fact that this is just a reality. He's matured so he understands that what his father did—though it was a mistake and it ruined his family—he's not going to let that affect their relationship. At the end of the day, he misses his father and he does love his father.
But when you first see Bjorn, and I played it very deadpan because I wanted the audience to interpret it how they will because he is so conflicted and there are so many emotions going on inside. He's angry. He's excited. He's so relieved to finally have a father figure that he loves in his life again. So there's a lot of stuff that Bjorn has to deal with and a lot of emotions. But he's definitely matured a lot since you last saw him and he's accepted the fact that this is life now and it's time for him to find his way in the Viking community.
I think you nailed that. Being someone who was without a father for awhile when I was young, it moved me.
Thank you so much. That means the world to me.
INTERACTIVE: Where's does 'Vikings' land on TV timeline?
Is he more a warrior or more, I don't know, a thoughtful explorer?
I would say Bjorn is more of a warrior, but he is very much a visionary and very much an explorer as well. He's got the philosophy of a warrior and he's got the soul of a warrior. But he shares his father's vision for a greater future and for exploring the unknown.
Did you know about the Ironside legend before talking to Michael?
I knew a little bit because I did my research, so I was interested to see if that's where he was going to go. And it sounds like it's exactly where he's going to go.
The behind-the-scenes videos look like you guys had a lot of fun. I saw one where Katheryn was walking on top of a bunch of you guys. Did you have a lot of those moments?
Yeah. We took a nice little photo of that. I remember it. It's hilarious, because Katheryn's playing my mother and she is only 36 and I'm 21. It makes sense because back in the day they did have kids very, very young. But I would always give her shit for it every day. Like I'd come to set and I'd be like, "Hey, sexy mama." She'd say, "Alexander—stop." But yeah, we got along really well and it was definitely one of the best experiences of my life and I really look forward to hopefully going back.
You better be careful with her; she's a Tae Kwando champ or something, isn't she?
Oh yeah. You don't mess with Katheryn. She's a black belt.
INTERVIEW: Katheryn Winnick brings fighting spirit to 'Vikings.'
What can we expect from Bjorn this season?
In the second season from when you see older Bjorn to the end, you can expect to see Bjorn finding his place in Viking society as a man and begin to lay down the foundation upon which he builds the Ironside legend.
All right, now about you: I hear you're a freestyle skier? Did you watch a lot of the Olympics?
Not nearly as much as I would have liked. I was so busy promoting "Vikings" I didn't have any time. but I watched as much as I could. I watched Shaun White's performance and I watched as much freestyle as I possibly could.
After you filmed were you happy to get back to Vancouver? Did you miss it?
I really miss Vancouver. I love the people there and it's my home and it's always nice to go back home. I got to do some great skiing. I had some of the best skiing in my life when I went back about three weeks ago. I went back to Vancouver for the weekend and that was great. And I miss my family, so it's good seeing them.
You live in L.A. full time. Are you still at USC?
I actually recently took a leave of absence. That was always my plan to move out to Los Angeles and go to college. And if things were going well then I would take a leave of absence. School was not going anywhere. However, I do want to get my degree and if it takes me 10 years to get my degree then I'm doing something right.
'LONE SURVIVOR:' Alexander Ludwig tells how Mark Wahlberg hazed him.
"The Hunger Games" was kind of your big first exposure. What did you learn from that experience?
That got me on the map and I will always be in debt to Lionsgate and "The Hunger Games" for really putting me on the map. I think that I wouldn't be where I am if that didn't happen. It was an amazing experience in its own right and I experienced just a sense of celebrity that I had never experienced before. That was mind-blowing. I never got into the industry for that. I love telling good stories and that's it. But that in its own way was a learning experience and a different world. It led me to deal with that. Everything that "The Hunger Games" had taught me I've taken on to every film I've gone to thus far, and hopefully I can continue doing that.
I saw this Seventeen magazine Q&A with you and I don't know if it was from around that time or maybe earlier. But it was 17 questions with Alexander.
Oh my God. Oh my gosh. I don't even know if I've seen that.
The first one: How old were you when you had your first kiss?
Did I say preschool?
You did. Preschool.
Yeah! That's when I had my first kiss! I'll never forget it.
The reason I bring it up is in a recent TV interview you said you didn't want to be a heartthrob. I saw the 17 questions right after watching that interview and thought, "Well, those are heart-throbby, crazy questions."
[Laughs.] They are so crazy. And it's definitely one of those teeny-bopper kind of question things. But you go with it and it was fun to do. You can't really fight it. You've got to go along with that kind of stuff. At the end of the day, as long as the publicity is there to get your movie seen by more people, you've got to do whatever you can.
Thanks for your time. Maybe I'll see you at Comic-Con this summer.
I hope so. That'd be really great. We finally get to meet face-to-face, you tall fuck.
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