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Alexander Skarsgård Wants to Teach You All About The Vikings With The Northman

9 minute read

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 Northman, a brutal Viking epic, out 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, This is how you should interpret 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 result is an immersive, affecting adventure. 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.

Much has been said of the research director Robert Eggers did to make sure The Northman was as historically accurate as possible. What were you reading or watching to prepare for the role?

Just like Robert, my go-to Viking Bible, my source of inspiration, was Neil Price, who was also a consultant on the movie. His book, The Children of Ash and Elm: A 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. I learned about the fylgja, the female spirits within all Vikings that control their fate, and the Nords, these three female entities that are arguably the most powerful creatures in the whole Norse mythology, which is so integral to the story and what gives Amleth agency. 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.

Why was it so important to you that The Northman was so steeped 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. That the audience will see the world through the eyes of Amleth and understand the complexity of it. The goal was to try and give an accurate depiction [of the Viking Age] and go a bit 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 have joked that your experience on The Northman might give Leonardo DiCaprio’s experience on the 2015 film The Revenant a run for its money. As far as I know you didn’t sleep in any bear carcasses, but what made this such a difficult film to shoot?

Rob [Eggers] is all about authenticity so the fight scenes were shot in very remote locations up around Northern Ireland and Iceland, and that was a blessing and 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. I kind of thrived on that. It was physically and mentally tough, but I loved that way of working, as challenging as it was.

What was the most challenging scene to film?

The hardest was probably the final fight on the volcano because it was not only a technically challenging scene, but it also had to be the emotional climax of the movie. 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.

Courtesy of Focus Features

Amleth carries himself like a beast. How did you create his animal-like walk? How did the physical transformation help you get into the psyche of this character?

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. You see it in his eyes as well. After he completes the ritual, the abandoned little boy who also exists within him is completely gone. He’s a predator.

You got to work with Björk on this film, which marked her return to acting after more than 20 years. What was the experience of working opposite her like?

Absolutely magical. Björk hasn’t done a movie since Dancer in the Dark so to share that moment with her was an extraordinary privilege. She is an incredibly unique human being and that night [we shot the scene] was magical. Obviously when you shoot with Björk it’s going to be a massive full moon that night. I have very strong memories of this gorgeous moon behind her head. Björk’s wearing this incredible crown and I was pinching myself that I had the privilege of being there for that. I was having a hard time staying in character because I was so awestruck and excited to be there with her. I almost felt like I was part of the audience, like eating popcorn and being amazed by her performance.

The Northman also has you reteaming with your Big Little Lies co-star Nicole Kidman. How would you describe that relationship? What makes you want to keep working with her?

It’s about trust. Big Little Lies was such an incredible experience, partly because the nature of that relationship is so brutal and dark. In order to get through that we had to hold each other’s hands and completely trust each other. Nicole and I formed a very strong connection on that set and when you have that with an actor you never lose it. 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. We hit the ground running because we know each other so well. We just dove in and she’s so phenomenal in this movie. Just extraordinary.

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. At night, the Valkyries, the female warriors, ride down through the skies from Valhalla to collect the dead warriors from the battlefield. They are so busy riding back and forth, picking up all the dead warriors from the battlefields, that the horses get sweaty and the sweat beads fly off the horses as they ride up and down. 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.

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