A Monk's Tale: Interview with Vikings' George Blagden

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A&E Networks/HISTORY Channel

George Blagden as Athelstan in Vikings

Around the age of nine or ten, George Blagden saw a stage production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. When the show ended and the curtain came down, he thought, “I really want to be one of those people up there onstage,” recalls the actor. “Back then, my only frame of reference was the theatre, so I began doing school plays. When I turned 18, I auditioned for drama school and got into the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. That was the start of it all for me. I’ve always wanted to be an actor and I feel extremely lucky to be able to say that that’s what I do for a living.”

In 2012, the actor made his big screen debut playing Soldier #1 in Wrath of the Titans, followed by a much more substantial performance as Grantaire in the award-winning Les Miserables. Currently, he can be seen in the regular role of Athelstan in the HISTORY Channel’s first scripted drama series Vikings. Blagden plays a monk who, against his will, winds up living amongst a group of people whose ways are undeniably alien to him. While his character is taken aback by this sudden upheaval in his life, the actor wanted to jump right into it, fictionally speaking, of course.

“I was in London and got a call from my agent telling me about a role for this new television series called Vikings,” says Blagden. “He said, ‘I don’t really know much about it, except that it’s for the HISTORY Channel and something quite original for them.’ All I needed to hear, though, was the title; it is really clever what HISTORY has done as far as calling their show Vikings. It’s one of those household names that as soon as you hear it, everyone knows what you’re talking about.

“So I immediately said to my agent, ‘Yes, I’d love to audition.’ I subsequently met with Frank Moiselle, who was the casting director in London, and when I got to the audition, it was, I kid you not, in a chapel, which was in the basement of this very nice London hotel. I usually arrive at auditions and they’re in a studio, a boardroom, or a cupboard,” jokes the actor. “In this case, however, I walked in, opened the door and there was this underground chapel. I thought, ‘No way. I’m auditioning here for the part of a monk. This is perfect.’

“I did a taping with Frank Moiselle, and about a week and a half later I got a phone call telling me that HISTORY and MGM Studios would like to hire me for the role of Athelstan. I think it was one of those really fortunate things where people had seen my tape and they were looking for a particular someone to play this part. Sometimes the character just walks through the door, do you know what I mean, and I was quite lucky that [series creator/writer/executive producer] Michael Hirst decided to write a character that was what everyone envisioned as being very close to me. So it was a very painless as well as easy audition process and I was over the moon with how things turned out.”

Young Viking farmer Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) is the focus of Vikings. With dreams of exploring (and plundering) civilizations across the seas, he joins with a clever craftsman named Floki (Gustaf Skarsgard), and together they build a faster longship suited for such a journey. Using a new type of navigational device, Ragnar leads a group of volunteers, including his brother Rollo (Clive Standen), and sets sail in the show’s second episode, "Wrath of the Norsemen."

Their first raid is an Anglo-Saxon island monastery off the coast of England. Ragnar and his men kill most of the monks and take the rest with them back home as slaves, including Athelstan (George Blagden), who is almost killed by Rollo before Ragnar intervenes. When they return to Kattegat in the next episode, "Dispossessed," the local Viking chieftain, Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne), claims all the spoils for himself, much to Ragnar’s chagrin. Ragnar is allowed to pick one item as his, and he takes Athelstan to be his slave. The new member of the Lothbrok household has a memorable welcoming, as did Blagden when first starting work on the show.

“Our first couple of weeks in Ireland [where Vikings was shot] was spent doing various pre-production things, including a cast read-through of the script. It’s also when I got my god-awful monk’s haircut,” says the actor with a chuckle. “As far as my actual first day on set when the cameras began rolling, it was to film a scene for episode three. It was this particular scene that had a lot of people talking, and it’s where Athelstan is propositioned by Ragnar and his wife Lagertha [Katheryn Winnick] to climb into bed with them.

“That’s the very first scene we shot for the show. So just imagine, it was my first day of putting on my new costume, this big brown robe, or as I called it, this big brown sack, walking onto the set, and I’m presented with a half-naked Travis Fimmel and Katheryn Winnick. I was screaming inside; I was so terrified. It’s not every day as an actor that you have a half-naked man and woman opposite you, especially on the first day of work. Believe me when I tell you that there was no acting required on my part. It was all just pure, terrified George. Talk about a great icebreaker.”

Initially, Ragnar’s wife and children consider Athelstan to be more of a curiosity than anything else, but the Viking sees something far greater in this pious young man. Acting-wise, Blagden was thrilled to take on such a challenging role.

“During our first week in Ireland and in my first conversations with Michael Hirst, one of the first questions he asked me was, ‘Where did you go to school?’” notes Blagden. “I told him that from the ages of seven to 18, I went to boarding school in England. Michael said to me, ‘That’s perfect. I’d like you to bring as much of yourself to this role as possible, because that’s essentially how Athelstan has grown up, in this isolated community on an island out at sea.’

“I had just come from shooting Les Miserables in London where I played a character that was really not me at all. He was a drunken womanizer and far removed from who I am. As an actor, it’s sometimes easier to play roles that are far away from who you are as a real person, because you then get to sort of analyze them from a distance and are able to have fun playing them. However, it’s not easy when a director or a writer asks you, in this case, me, to bring as much of George as possible to the role.

“Suddenly, you start to recognize certain things about yourself and think, ‘I don’t really like that about me; I’ll just change it and make my character seem cooler.’ Then, of course, you have the director or writer saying, ‘But that’s not what you do if you went to boarding school.’ I know it sounds sort of adverse or conversely true, but it’s far more difficult to bring a lot of who you are to a role as opposed to slipping on the costume as it were of another character.

“When it comes to Athelstan’s development, that’s the most exciting thing about this role,” continues the actor. “It’s such a gift when a writer gives you a character that goes on such a big journey. You can only have fun with something like that. I’m not going to spoil anything for the audience, but Michael and I really wanted Athelstan to be a character who at the end of the season will hopefully have viewers looking back at his first episode or two and thinking, ‘Is that the same guy? I can’t believe how much he’s changed.’”

In "Dispossessed," Ragnar tricks Athelstan into revealing specific information that allows him and his men, accompanied by Lagertha, a skilled shieldmaiden, to launch a second blood-soaked raid, this time on England’s kingdom of Northumbria. While Ragnar and his wife are away, Athelstan is left in charge of their farm as well as children. That might sound to some like a rather big leap of trust, but as season one of Vikings continues to unfold, Ragnar’s and Athelstan’s relationship takes a number of surprising twists and turns.

“The Ragnar/Athelstan relationship is a very, very complex one of master and slave, and, again, without spoiling too much, when you get to episodes four, five and six, that relationship shifts,” says Blagden. “Whilst maintaining the title of master/slave, there are certain barriers that are broken, and certain ways of interacting with each other become easier and friendlier shall we say than what you saw in episode two where Ragnar puts a rope around Athelstan’s neck and drags him from his burning monastery.

“In my opinion, their relationship is one of the more interesting ones on the show. Of course, I am biased,” he jokes, “but it’s neat to watch as the two of them realize and discover that Ragnar is equally as interested in my character as Athelstan is in him, and they can actually help each other out. They’re both thinking, ‘Hmm, perhaps this person is going to be quite an important figure in my life.’ I think that’s the thought process of the two of them, which as an actor is very exciting to play.”

While the Vikings may have been lacking in some of the “social graces” when dealing with outsiders, Blagden and the rest of the Vikings’ cast and crew could not have gotten along any better.

“The five months filming in Ireland was like a summer camp with the coolest of people, some of whom were all just like big boys, really, with swords and riding around on horses,” says the actor. “I think anyone you talked to about the series would agree with me in saying that it just wouldn’t be what it is without Mr. Fimmel in the hero role as Ragnar. He really does make the show, and his professionalism on set was just unbelievable.

“Don’t get me wrong, Travis was quite the joker, and there have been stories that some people have been telling about how he’s a big prankster and how much he enjoys practical jokes. However, it’s wonderful when you have the lead of a show that can find the perfect balance between being really professional and getting the job done — and doing a bloody good job at it while doing it — but who also doesn’t take himself too seriously. It was such a joy and a gift to work with Travis, and I sincerely hope I get to go back to Ireland and do it again.”

When asked if he has a favorite episode or scene from the first season of Vikings, the actor is reluctant to reveal any specifics as to not, again, spoil things for viewers. He is, though, able to divulge one or two more memorable moments.

“I can say that what I think is the most interesting episode from a developmental standpoint is probably episode eight,” he reveals. “Now I feel like I’ve given away some sort of secret that I shouldn’t have. I won’t tell you what happens, but as we get towards the end of the season, some really interesting things start to happen with my character, and his mental conflict just gets worse and worse.

“As far as specific scenes, oh, boy, I’m going to sound like such a geek now,” he says laughing, “but when I was 15 or 16, or maybe even a bit younger, that was when the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie came out. I sat there watching the film and at one point, Orlando Bloom and Johnny Depp climb into this big pirate ship docked at a pier. All I could think was, ‘My God, imagine one day if I as an actor, get to climb onto a ship and sail off into the ocean.’

“I remember last July when we were in Ireland working on Vikings and filming the scene where we put the Viking ship into the water for the first time. It had been built in Eastern Europe and then shipped from there to Ireland, so we had no idea whether or not it would actually stay afloat. There’s a scene in the second episode, or it may even be in episode one, where Floki is putting the boat into the water for the first time and he’s terrified it’s going to sink. That was real, because we really didn’t know if it was going to work or not.

“The first time I had the chance to get into the boat was in a scene where we’re actually getting off the boat and onto a pier. I’ll never forget thinking, ‘Hang on a minute. I’m on a Viking boat, and there’s a pier, and a Viking town, and the ocean - this is incredible.’ It was like a boyhood dream of being in a television series about Vikings. I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant or, oh, look at me, look what I’ve done, because I don’t mean it to be. I just remember dreaming about stuff like that when I was young. So for it to now come true, it’s just kind of the giddy little boy inside me going, ‘Oh, wow, I’m in a TV series about Vikings.’ I know I’ve used the word lucky already, but I really do mean it when I say I’m a very lucky guy.”

Born December 28th, 1989, Blagden was educated at Oundle School located in the ancient market town of Oundle in Northamptonshire. Having already been bitten by the acting bug when he was younger, his interest in the craft continued to be fostered as part of his ongoing education. While at school, he had the opportunity to participate in a master (acting) class taught by the legendary Sir Ian McKellen.

“The head of our drama department organized for Sir Ian to come and give a talk to the English and Drama departments about Shakespeare’s sonnets, and more importantly how they weren’t written as poems, but rather to be spoken,” says the actor. “They were actually written to be used by men to help them find the love of their life. They were apparently meant to recite one of these sonnets to a woman and the two of them would then go off and live happily ever after.

“Sir Ian asked for four members of the school’s acting community to be chosen, and for them to prepare two or three sonnets each. He would then get them up onstage with him and work with them one-on-one on these sonnets. I was selected to be one of the four students, and we were all blown away by it. I was 17 at the time, and it’s one of those experiences that you really don’t know how to properly process until three or four years later when you say to yourself, ‘Of course, that’s what that means.’”

While at Oundle School, the actor also had the chance to take part in the UK’s National Youth Theatre. “The National Youth Theatre isn’t really a specific class you take, but rather something you can audition for when you’re 15 or 16,” explains Blagden. “If you’re accepted, you get to go on an intensive fortnight acting class type of thing during the summer. Once you’ve done that, you then become a member, which means you can take part in National Youth Theatre shows throughout the UK. I never really got to do the latter, though, because I was at boarding school, and after I graduated, I went to drama school in London. So my experience with The National Youth Theatre was just that two-week summer course, which was still a fantastic time.”

Prior to Vikings, Blagden booked a role in the big screen adaptation of the aforementioned stage play Les Miserables, which afforded him the chance to combine acting with another of his passions, “I’ve always been a singer, and I mean not professionally, but in the shower,” jokes the actor. “I’ve always loved singing, though, and I’ve found that I can sometimes be much more expressive through song than just normal dialogue. I think that was the thing that really drew me to this project, and when they started getting all the people on board as far as the lead roles and the real Hollywood heavyweights, it was just another dream come true for me and such a rewarding project to be a part of," enthuses Blagden.

Please note, all Vikings photos copyright of A&E Network/HISTORY Channel.

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A native of Massachusetts, Steve Eramo has been a Sci-Fi fan since childhood, having been brought up on such TV shows as Star Trek and Space: 1999. He is also an Anglophile and lover of British TV. A writer for 35 years – 17 of those as a fulltime freelancer – Steve has had over 2,500 feature-length…

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