"The director screams 'cut' on the megaphone and [there's] silence in the forest—apart from this giddy, girly laughter coming from somewhere," Blagden said during a phone call last week. "Everyone's like, 'Who is that?' and it's me like on my back in the mud laughing my face off. I was on such an adrenaline high."
That's a far cry from Athelstan's situation in the first season of the hit series, when the former monk was captured by Ragnar during a similar attack on his Christian settlement. After witnessing the torture and murder of his fellow monks, Athelstan was saved from a similar fate by Ragnar, who recognized his value in teaching Ragnar about the monk's homeland.
The new season begins shortly after the first season ended in 793 A.D., with Ragnar and his brother, Rollo (Clive Standen), on opposite sides of a fierce, deadly power struggle. But the second episode jumps ahead four years to when Athelstan has become the troubled Ragnar's closest confidante.
"The way that Travis and I wanted to play it was that Athelstan is really the only person that Ragnar can trust, or feels comfortable talking to about all of the marital issues ... and about his brother's betrayal," said the British actor, who played Grantaire in the 2012 film "Les Miserables."
Athelstan seems to have given up his Christian beliefs for the Vikings' pagan customs, but Blagden says the character remains just as conflicted as he was in the first season. Athelstan faces more than the sharp blades of Anglo-Saxon fighters during the raids—and it takes it's toll.
"I cannot wait for people to see the emotional and psychological downturn that he goes through," Blagden said. "I had so much fun mapping out his psychological roller-coaster ride in Season 2."
Blagden called in from the set of "Blood Moon," a "heaps of fun" Western-werewolf mashup in which he's starring, to talk about what's in store for Athelstan in the new season.
EPISODE 3 SCENE
Athelstan's journey last year was probably one of the most radical of any of the characters. It seems like that is about to continue.
It certainly does, doesn't it? Yeah, I think it may have been you at Comic-Con who I told that Athelstan goes through more changes in the course of a season and a half than Walter White does in five. As sort of joking as that is, there is some seriousness in it. The arc Michael has written for Athelstan is amazing. ... You've seen where he ends up at the end of Episode 4 and what that sort of implies about where his future lies?
A hospital, I hope. (No worries; no spoilers coming)
[Laughs.] Unfortunately not, no. No. It's one of the most physically and emotionally straining experiences I'm sure a human can have. ... I think if we've got it right, the team on "Vikings." If I've got it right, hopefully it will be a very hard to watch. Yeah, I had so much fun mapping out his psychological roller-coaster ride in Season 2.
Let's talk about where he is at the beginning of the season. He's better integrated with his new Viking friends, right?
Well, so we start Episode 1 of the Season 2 right where we left off Season 1. When we come back viewers will meet an Athelstan that they very much know. He's very, very conflicted. He's just been through the experience of the Festival Uppsala at the end of Season 1 and the plague in Kattegat, so he still has that kind of hangover of being the outsider in their community. ... Then we have a four-year time jump after Episode 1. And hopefully the viewers will see Athelstan much more confident in social environments in the Viking lifestyle, in Kattegat and in the Great Hall. And like you say, they will see a much more integrated man in that society.
So yeah, it's fun to play that because there are so many different levels: Is this a bluff? Is this Athelstan really? Has he completely left his past behind him? And it's great being able to play characters that have these deep inner conflicts ... It's a gift of a character that Michael's given me..
He and Ragnar are still close and trust each other. But doesn't it seem like a lot of the other Vikings don't necessarily trust him; they're always testing him?
Athelstan, as he was in Season 1, is a very, very important man in Ragnar's life. So yeah, you're quite right. The relationship between Ragnar and Athelstan just continues to be more and more and more important.
Was it fun to finally get to fight with all the boys?
It was amazing. Yeah, it was fantastic. ... At the end of Episode 2 you see this ambush where the Anglo-Saxons ambush the Vikings once they land in Wessex for the first time in the forest. And this is Athelstan's first experience of a battle in Viking warfare. And that first shield wall that Athelstan was a part of, I remember the Anglo-Saxon soldiers, all 100 of them rushing toward our shield wall. Me, George, stood there behind the shield. And it's all real in Vikings. Nothing is pretend; nothing is make-believe when it comes to battles. Those are 20 stuntmen running at your shield who are about to fly-kick you from here to Scandinavia. They did! ... I couldn't believe it. It was seriously intense but a lot of fun. I'm so glad that Michael gave me that chance as Athelstan to be the warrior.
Do you like his haircut this season better than the monk style?
[Laughs.] Slightly better than the shaved circle on the top of the head—and certainly warmer. Yeah, everyone always jokes because I have more hair changes throughout the course of the first and second seasons than any of the actresses on the show. It's always, "Checks on the hair for George," or "His extensions are coming out," or "Is his bald spot covered up?" It's just good fun to be able to play of all of these different personalities of Athelstan in a way. Playing the warrior, with his hair let down and the more kind of rugged feel to him and this very sort of like ruthless warrior type is just good fun. It's really good fun for an actor.
It looks like the friction between his old Christian faith and the new Viking beliefs still comes up. Is he not too happy with what his Viking pals do to people in Wessex?
After the four-year jump, Athelstan really is part of their community. Hopefully audience members won't be able to discern whether really is this integrated man or he is bluffing. It's kind of up to the viewers discretion in a way. But Episode 3 and 4, once he lands in Wessex, I remember speaking to Ken Girotti, our director for Episodes 3 and 4 ... saying there's something about when land back on your own home soil.
Nowadays we fly all over the world all the time; the world is such a small place in a way. But there's something about when you land back in Chicago and you get out of O'Hare airport and you're home. And there's something about standing on your own home soil that changes something in you, I think, or the particular type of air—like the very brisk cold air you find in New York when you come out of the airport. You know what I mean?
And we were talking, Ken and I, about what that is for Athelstan. He's just sailed across the ocean and he jumps out off that boat and he's back on English soil for the first time in five years. And I think his experience of going through the battles and seeing how the Vikings operate in a foreign land and how they wage war and then how they deal with their prisoners and how they sort of tactically go about outwitting and manipulating their opponents is maybe something that Athelstan isn't prepared for, especially now that maybe he's back in the land where he grew up.
I hope when watching those episodes that you can see that Athelstan is kind of confused, and all of these feelings are resurfacing that he has tried to shy away from for the last four years in Kattegat. It's great to be able to work with all of those layers that are going on with his character.
He kind of forgot what he witnessed when he was a prisoner, right?
Exactly, yeah. Yeah, well it's that sort of, what do they call it, the complex where you fall in love with their captor? ... Stockholm syndrome—there's a bit of that going on with Athelstan I think. OK, sorry, so he's not in love with Ragnar! Let's not get viewers overexcited in that respect.
Although Travis always hints at that.
Yeah, here we go, he does. No, but in a way, there it is. Ragnar is the man who has kept Athelstan alive in Scandinavia throughout Season 1. And so I think where you find him in Season 2, he's alive four years later in Scandinavia because of Ragnar. And I think to move on it's very easy to forget some of the scenes that maybe he witnessed as a monk when he first comes into Kattegat in Season 1 and sees all of his brethren monks hung up to die in the market square. I think to move on and survive you [have to] block them from your memory. I think you're absolutely right, when he comes back to Wessex and lands on the English soil for the first time, it's very hard for him, it's very conflicting.
This has nothing to do with "Vikings," but you haven't posted any singing videos lately on your YouTube page. What's up?
To be perfectly honest, I kind of haven't had the want to. It's bizarre, sometimes I go through periods where I really want to put a song up online and sometimes I'm sort of busy with other things. ... It's very much a hobby, that kind of thing. I sort of post it more for maybe my mom's benefit and suddenly she says, "It's got 50,000 views." And I think maybe I should've put it as private. But I love singing and playing the guitar. And who knows, maybe I'll go out and put up another cover on YouTube tomorrow.
We tried to get you to sing at Comic Con. (See video above)
You did, yeah. I guess you didn't push hard enough. I've talked to some singers before and I remember some of the boys that I worked with on "Les Miserables" who are predominantly musical theater actors in London and they said ... people go, "Go on, sing us something, mate; give us a song." They say, "Would you ask Ian McKellen to give you a Shakespearean sonnet at a dinner party?" ... And it's a good point, right?
You might not ask Ian McKellen to do that, but I might have.
[Laughs.] You might have. I think there's something nice about singing for a kind of particular purpose. I sound extremely pretentious now.
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