Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgård has been obsessed with Vikings since he was a child. Spending the past ten years on a quest to make the definitive Viking movie, he finally achieved his dream with The Northman.
As a boy, Skarsgård and his family – including actor brothers Gustaf, Bill and Valter, and their famous father Stellan – would spend their summers in Oland, a Baltic Sea island rich in Viking folklore.
“My great grandfather built a house on Oland and it’s been in our family ever since. Growing up we spent every summer there and it’s a culturally significant place for the Vikings with close to 200 rune stones,” recalls Skarsgård. “Oland is quite flat so you really see these massive sacred stones protruding out of the ground, and its visually something quite special.
“My grandfather would explain what was written on the inscriptions and tell tales of Vikings travelling down to Constantinople or Istanbul – most of whom would never return – and how these stones were erected by their families. And that was really titillating and exciting for a young kid, the thought that I was standing exactly where a Viking stood 1,000 years ago, who carved this into their rock. I was really blown away by that,” he adds.
But the idea of making a film about Vikings seemed like childish nonsense until, years later, the actor shot to fame playing the vampire Eric Northman in HBO series True Blood, and he began envisioning the Viking epic of his dreams, something he would both star in and produce.
A development team worked on the project for a while, but it stalled in the writing stage. “We had a hard time figuring out where to enter the world, because the Viking era went on for over a century, and they travelled all over the world,” he explains. “One thing that remained constant from the beginning was this specific tone. We wanted the story to reflect the laconic feel of the Icelandic sagas.”
Teaming with Danish producer Lars Knudsen, the pair began looking for a filmmaker with a specific vision, who understood the unique tone of the Icelandic sagas and was familiar with the culture and history of the Vikings.
Knudsen, who had produced first-time filmmaker Robert Eggers’ arthouse horror sensation The Witch in 2013, suggested Eggers to Skarsgård and when the pair met in New York, they ended up spending an entire afternoon discussing Viking lore.
Ultimately the two would collaborate to make the immersive, terrifying and gripping action movie that is The Northman, starring Skarsgård as the vengeful Amleth, robbed of his rightful throne.
If this tale of treachery and vengeance seems familiar, it’s because this original Danish story was likely plagiarised by none other than William Shakespeare.
“The idea was to base it on the works of Saxo Grammaticus, a Nordic story from the 12th century. And it’s already predated by another two centuries, because that one was probably based on an Icelandic saga from the 10th century, so it’s a very old story. The viewpoint is that this is the story Shakespeare based Hamlet on,” says Skarsgård.
“Robert Eggers and his screenwriting partner, Sjón, came up with the idea to build a world around that story, and it lent itself perfectly, because what we’re trying to accomplish was a big entertaining Viking epic action-adventure, but to base it on the narrative of the old sagas that often revolve around family feuds and revenge stories – and this is the classic revenge story.”
Danish actor Claes Bang (The Square) was immediately attracted to the role of Amleth’s villainous uncle, Fjölnir, being already familiar with the original Amleth story.
“The reason everyone knows this story in Denmark is because Shakespeare got his hands on it and turned it into Hamlet, and later it morphed into The Lion King,” says Bang. “Robert and Sjón have made it gorier and set it in Iceland during the day and age in which it actually took place.”
In portraying a “Beserker” warrior, whose given name is a combination of wolf and bear, Skarsgård bulked up to an intimidating size not seen since his starring role in The Legend of Tarzan six years earlier.
“It felt imperative to look a bit more like a bear than I do normally. So I wanted to put on some bulk and volume to look a bit more animalistic, and so I began training about five months before we shot the film,” says the actor, who reunited with his Tarzan trainer, Magnus Lygdback.
“It was great to have that existing relationship, because it was a long intense shoot. At this point, Magnus knows my body better than I do and how I would respond to specific training and diet. I was basically lifting weights and eating a lot of food, seven meals a day, to put on weight and then try to incorporate a lot of the choreography from the long action sequences into the training to help streamline on the days when we shot those scenes.”
If The Northman has proven a huge success then the only sorrow for Skarsgård, after a childhood spent dreaming of Vikings, is the result of a recent DNA test.
“It was quite disappointing. It was just all Swedish basically,” he reveals. “No-one in my family had done it, so I thought it could be fun, but it was basically all Scandinavian and a little bit of Holland, Belgium, Finland and Great Britain, which probably could have been Vikings. But I guess my ancestors didn’t venture that far from Oland.”