By Curt Wagner, @ShowPatrol
1:58 PM CDT, April 5, 2013
Before History Channel's "Vikings" premiered in early March, leading man Travis Fimmel may have been best known for his modeling days--and Calvin Klein underwear ads.
Many Chicagoans probably remember the blue-eyed Aussie for starring with Patrick Swayze in A&E's Chicago-set and filmed "The Beast" in 2009. Before that, he appeared in the short-lived WB series "Tarzan" in 2003, and has continued to star in independent movies.
But with the ratings success of "Vikings"--History announced Friday it was renewing the show for a 10-episode Season 2--Fimmel has turned his ax-wielding hero Ragnar Lothbrok into something of a breakout role.
"It was an amazing experience, mate," he told me over the phone. "I'm so happy that I'm at this point in my career."
Based on a Viking legend (and possible historical figure from what I read), Ragnar Lothbrok is warrior and adventurer, a farmer and father, husband, brother and a rebel, too. He dreams of exploring beyond the traditional Norse raiding routes decided by the local chieftain, Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne).
That desire, and Ragnar's unsanctioned raiding voyages West to Northumbria (modern Britain), have brought him in direct conflict with the Earl, who in recent episodes attacked Ragnar's farm and neighbors and severely injured our hero.
In "Burial of the Dead," debuting at 9 p.m. CT April 7 on History (watch the preview below), Ragnar is still recovering from his wounds but challenges the Earl to a fight after he learns that the leader tortured his brother, Rollo (Clive Standen), to learn Ragnar's whereabouts. The episode kicks off the final four of the nine-episode season, which Fimmel said were his favorites.
"I feel like the show just gets better and better and better. There's so much drama in the last four episodes. I was excited to read the next script and the next and the next," he said, giving props to his co-star: "It gets very intense between Ragnar and the Earl and I really enjoyed doing those scenes. Gabriel Byrne is just amazing in his role. He's such a great actor. He's so great to work with."
Fimmel, who still goes home to Australia to work on his family's farm, talked about the aspects of his character with which he most identifies, his favorite Viking weapon (the ax, of course!) and the time he spent in Chicago.
You filmed "The Beast" in Chicago. Do you have any special memories of being here?
I love Chicago, mate. It's my favorite city actually in the States. Except for the weather is pretty drastic, but I had a great experience there in working with Patrick [Swayze] that I'll never forget.
Do you remember going to any special places that you hung out or anything?
Oh mate, I went to a lot of places in that city. I love the beach and all that stuff, mate. I lived on Wabash and the river and it was beautiful. The people cycle there.
Well Ireland's a far distance, and different.
Yeah, but it's just as cold thought. It's a beautiful country, mate. I've never seen such a place so green. It's great landscape.
Is it easy to get into the role being surrounded by all that nature?
For sure, mate. We were on the boats all the time. They actually built three boats for us, and we were just rowing up the rivers in the morning when it was very misty. It just felt very authentic. And all the set decoration and the costumes were so realistic and it really put you in the character.
It's got the adventure, the fun, the banter, the drama, the love stuff. So it's got a bit for everybody.
What part of all that do you like the most?
My favorite moments have to be the boat stuff. The action for sure. [Laughs.] Yeah, you don't have to remember any lines, mate.
You just have to beat the hell out of things.
I've told that joke so many times, mate.
Tell me about how the role came to you.
I actually put myself on tape and sent it to Ireland. I was pretty late in the process and they still hadn't found Ragnar so I was very lucky. Luckily they liked the tape and I was over there within a week.
So no time to prepare really.
Not a great deal of time but the writer, Michael Hirst, is amazing--a very intelligent man. He did so much research and made that available to me, too, so it really helped.
What qualities of Ragnar's did you most identify with?
I'm a farmer, too. I grew up on a farm in Australia and I still work there. And I don't know, I came to the city to try to make something of myself. I think Ragnar's all about making his children proud and I guess a lot of the stuff that I do is to make my future children proud. Be successful and make something of myself.
You play him as if he always seems a little bit bemused but still irritated by the Earl's fear of the unknown and everything. Is that something you were going for?
Yeah, for sure, the Earl's the older order, you know? And I think Ragnar realizes that there's not much more they can do in their own country. ... So he wants to expand and the old order creates a lot of conflict with them. So Ragnar goes behind the Earl's back and commissions a boat and he sets sail.
Why do you think he's so curious about the East?
He just wants more from life. He thinks there are things out there that will be intriguing and are more satisfying--and going back to that thing about making his children proud and somebody that they will hear legends about and that sort of stuff. He's intrigued with the world and he knows that their little country is not the only place in the world and he's heard rumors about other places. He's got the courage to try, you know. He's a pretty courageous going on a boat not knowing if you'll fall off the edge of the Earth or if there's gonna be anything out there.
He also seems a little bit more introspective or sensitive compared to what we know about Vikings from history. What everybody says about Vikings that they were just pillagers and everything.
Yeah, the Viking history is always portrayed by the Anglo-Saxons and other people that the invaded. The Vikings actually never read or never wrote so this show gives the Vikings the opportunity to show their point of view. And to show that they're caring people and they just--they actually needed to raid because they'd run out of resources. Especially the climate and the land in Scandinavia in like places like Sweden and Norway, there's not many resources at all so to survive they sort of had to--their population was getting bigger and, you know, they weren't gonna last.
Right. Were you surprised at all by some of the stuff you learned about the Vikings?
Yeah for sure. I thought of the Vikings like everybody else, but it all makes sense, mate. They've got family, they love one another. And what was surprising about how strict their laws were within their own society and how religious they were. They were very well organized, mate, and I think that's why they were so successful. They were very intelligent people.
How was the experience of acting the scenes where Ragnar and his group come ashore on a new lands and invade from the beach? That episode is cool.
I know, it's good fun for sure, mate. As an actor all that stuff makes it more enjoyable. It's better than sitting across the table with somebody talking or whatever. We're in boats and the fight scenes are really intense.
You guys were actually on the boats jumping, sloshing around in the water and everything?
Yes, for sure. I'm sure there's some CGI. There wasn't much snow in Ireland but, yeah, like I said they had boats specially made and we did a lot of work in the boats. It was great fun.
Did you have to do special fight training and stuff for this?
Yeah they had great stunt coordinators and that there. They choreographed it really good. And, yeah, I like all that stuff, mate.
Do you prefer the ax or the sword?
The ax, [it's] more Viking, yeah. We used a bit of both in all of it. We see swords in so many things now, it is great to have something different.
Were there any special challenges you faced during the production?
The weather was probably the biggest challenge over time, mate, and on such a tight time schedule. It was freezing. We just had to shoot inside the first fight scene it was just pouring down rain and the crew was having trouble getting equipment there and all that. But we had no choice. So it makes it very realistic. I'm sure they didn't pick sunny days to fight.
Odin appears in Ragnar's visions. How important was including that spirituality aspect?
The Vikings really were into their spirituality and their belief in their gods and Odin was Ragnar's god. And Odin was the god of slain warriors and curiosity. And rumor has it and legend has it that he actually hung himself, Odin did, just because he wanted to feel how death felt. And my character, Ragnar, thinks he's a direct descendent from him. That's how curious they were.
But Ragnar's not going to hang himself, is he?
Oh, you never know. Could be.
So in myth Ragnar dies when the King throws him in the pit of vipers or in the legend. At least that's one of the legends I read. Are you up for that if it comes to it?
Yeah, for sure. It may be fun. There are snakes everywhere.
You've done a lot of movies since landing the lead in "Tarzan" back in the day. And some TV appearances and everything. And we talked about "The Beast" a little bit. How does "Vikings" compare to all that experience?
It was an amazing experience, mate. I'm so happy that I'm at this point in my career. It's just the crew and Michael Hirst is just a brilliant, brilliant man. He created the show and it's a privilege to be on this show.
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