Interview: 'Vikings' star Travis Fimmel discusses making Ragnar relatable
Aussie talks about his character actor instincts and Emmy chances
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We're on the eve of the 10th anniversary of The WB's "Tarzan," which introduced the world to Australian model-turned-actor Travis Fimmel.
Fans of History's "Vikings" whose only point-of-reference for Fimmel was "Tarzan" may have been surprised by his intense, intriguingly crazed performance as upwardly mobile warrior and family man Ragnar Lothbrok.
Since his short-lived WB debut, though, Fimmel has made a string of interestingly quirky career choices, starting with an dark and internalized performance in "The Beast," going even darker and more tortured in the early episodes of NBC's "Chase" and going unexpectedly Southern and backwoods in FX's "Outlaw Country," a pilot that didn't go to series but aired as a TV movie.
I got on the phone with the self-deprecating Fimmel a couple weeks ago to talk about "Vikings" and about his own acting instincts, which tend more in the "character actor" direction.
Fimmel, who insists he's still just a farm boy at heart, discusses the challenges of making Ragnar and the Vikings relatable, the ego-free Irish set and his appreciation for "Vikings" creator Michael Hirst.
He also handicaps his Emmy chances in very amusing fashion.
Click through for the full conversation.
[Note that James Gandolfini and "The Sopranos" get a mention and this interview was, of course, conducted before Gandolfini's death.]
HitFix: I talked with Michael Hirst the other day and he said he's through six episodes of the second season. Do you know when you're going to be returning to shooting?
Travis Fimmel: In a month's time we're going to go back.
HitFix: What does that mean for you in terms of when you begin preparations, physical and otherwise?
Travis Fimmel: It's really the emotion stuff that's a lot more preparation, know what I mean. It's working on the scripts. We got back two weeks before we start shooting.
HitFix: Does that mean you actually get rehearsal time?
Travis Fimmel: I'm not sure, actually, what we're doing, to be honest. I'm sure we'll do some rehearsing.
HitFix: With Ragnar, you're playing character who's a real person, but a real person about whom only certain things are known. How much research is actually part of your process?
Travis Fimmel: We're provided with a lot of research and we did a lot on our own, but the Vikings didn't read or write, so they were portrayed, in a way, they were portrayed by the people that they attacked and so their reputation was pretty bad. It was sorta our job to humanize them and make them relatable, you know? I like my family. I like my children. I honor my family. So it's a real family saga.
HitFix: With that research, then, is that the sort of thing where you learn what you can learn up-front and then you don't need to return to it again as the show progresses?
Travis Fimmel: Yeah, exactly. There's really not a great deal known about the Vikings. There's not a lot of research you can do. It's just sorta myths and stories and our job as actors was just to make them human and try to get the audience to follow the story. We're doing a lot of horrific stuff and we need to keep our audience engaged and give the audience the reasons why we do this horrific stuff, because obviously we don't think we're doing bad stuff.
HitFix: When I talked with Michael, I suggested that working in the historical period frees you from contemporary morality when it comes to things like that, but he compared Ragnar to other TV anti-heroes. Do you view Ragnar as being in that mode of modern, flawed, cable-type anti-heroes?
Travis Fimmel: Yeah, for sure. I suppose he's a bit Tony Soprano. [James Gandolfini] is a million times better actor me, but Tony did horrible stuff, but you just loved him and you loved "The Sopranos" and it gives everybody a lot of conflict with who is a good guy and who is a bad guy and you make the audience feel like we're doing this to provide for our family, which we are -- our family and our culture and our communities. It sorta gives the reasons. We think we're doing the right thing. We never think we're doing a bad thing.
HitFix: When it comes to Ragnar, which of his instincts are most relatable for you and which seem the most completely foreign to you?
Travis Fimmel: Well, I'm a farm boy, so I love the farm boy aspect of him and the world that they live in. It's a beautiful country and all that stuff. But the stuff that I felt close to is just trying to make your family proud of you.
HitFix: And how about what seems most foreign to you about what he does?
Travis Fimmel: It was a different world back then, so the violence was kill-or-be-killed and because of their beliefs and their religion, it was honor to die in battle and that's sorta a hard concept to understand, but if they died in battle, they get to go to their kind of heaven, so it's an honor to fight and an honor to kill people and an honor to die.
HitFix: The producers have talked very frankly about how hard it was for them to find the right actor to play this role. Do you remember what your approach what to Ragnar initially and how you were able to make this character your own?
Travis Fimmel: I just tried to humanize him. Of course, I was tape. I sent it over. I actually wasn't around for the audition process. I just sent myself on tape and they were dumb enough to employ me.
HitFix: As the man with all of the story in head and the only writer on this show, how much of a resource has Michael been for you?
Travis Fimmel: He's just a brilliant, intelligent man. He's just a wealth of knowledge in any history, not the Vikings. He's certainly a Phone-a-Friend on "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire." He's an extremely talented man, extremely.
HitFix: Was this a time period or culture that you had any interest in before starting with the show?
Travis Fimmel: Not abundantly, no. But I love the past, man. I wish I was born at least a hundred years ago and this was just an interesting one. Reading the scripts, you learn so much about the culture and imagine how it must have been. The ships and the costumes, they're done so well that it really makes you feel like you're in that period.
HitFix: Why do you wish you'd been born at least a hundred years earlier?
Travis Fimmel: I don't like technology and all that. I'm a farm boy. I would rather live in that time when you had to provide for your family. I don't know. I'm a country kid, so I don't like modern technology.
HitFix: Has that changed in the time that you've been doing television and you've been acting? "Tarzan" was 10 years. Has your perspective on all of this changed?
Travis Fimmel: A bit? I mean, this has always just been a job. It's just trying to make some money, trying to make myself proud. Yeah, I don't know. This job came and it was at the right time, I guess.
HitFix: Do you feel more comfortable? You came into acting and it wasn't necessarily something you planned on doing for a career and now you've been doing it for a decade. Are you better now than you were 10 years ago?
Travis Fimmel: Oh, of course. Of course. It's still, in some ways, it's just a job, but of course you get better and have more life experience and this opportunity is just the best opportunity I've had.
HitFix: One thing I've found interesting is that since doing "Tarzan," your tendency has been towards more character actor type roles. Why do you think that has been your preference or instinct?
Travis Fimmel: Well, I always wanted to do that. It's just that as an actor, sometimes you've gotta take the jobs that you may not want to do. It's so hard to work as an actor. But ummm... I don't know. I'm way more attracted to character stuff and darker roles. It's just my personality, I guess.
HitFix: Is it becoming easier to convince casting directors, directors, producers etc that you can do those things maybe than it was when you'd just gotten started?
Travis Fimmel: Yeah, but I guess that's true for everybody. Yeah. But it's the opportunities you get, too. It's hard to prove yourself when the substance isn't there in certain roles. I'm just so lucky to come across Michael Hirst. He's such a talented man.
HitFix: Have you shied away from conventional leading man roles? Do you sometimes have to get deeper into a script like this one to see that while it is the leading man role, but it's a different kind of lead role?
Travis Fimmel: Yeah, the following's way more interesting. I actually wanted to get Rollo's character or Floki's character, but they were already taken. But this, they've been so creative. It's good. On paper, he's a very bad person, so it's been good challenge to try to make the audience follow him.
HitFix: What were you drawn to in Floki and Rollo?
Travis Fimmel: They have a lot of flaws, the characters, and a lot of pain and they're a bit more eccentric. But I'm very, very lucky with Ragnar, because the directors and Michael have let me add a lot of dimensions to him and given him a lot of conflicts.
HitFix: What are those dimensions that you've been able to add? There is always that crazy glint in his eye that's a lot of fun. How much impact have you had in that?
Travis Fimmel: With an actor, it's always input. They give you the scripts and then you have to substantiate it and add whatever you can to the character. There's no time in TV to be guided through everything and directed through everything. It's just a good experience to just let you do what you want to do. If they don't like it, they tell you and if they like it, they say, "Just keep doing it."
HitFix: So you like the process of maybe not having time to overthink the role?
Travis Fimmel: No, I overthink it all. But if I make mistakes, I'd rather it be my choice.
HitFix: Ragnar is the lead here, but a lot of my favorite scenes are when the character can go head-to-head with other strong characters. Can you talk a bit about the scenes with Katheryn Winnick and Gabriel Byrne and how they helped you hone your own performance?
Travis Fimmel: Yeah, Katheryn's a feisty girl and that's an exciting, passionate relationship. And Gabriel Byrne is just brilliant. He's extraordinary. He has such a great presence. He's such a nice guy off-set, too. It's just such a big difference when you act like someone like that.
HitFix: You've talked a couple times about being a farm boy at heart. Does that make it easier for you to do the physical side of the role?
Travis Fimmel: Yeah, I guess it has to, in a way. Yeah. You grow up so physical. And that stuff's exciting. You don't have to remember lines, which great, because I forget. It's exciting and fun to do that stuff. And the locations that we shot at were just beautiful. I really enjoyed just being around set and being on set. It's so dry and flat where I'm from and it was just such lush surrounding in Ireland and the people, the crews, were just a treat to work with. There's no egos over there at all.
HitFix: Do you find that there are more egos when you're doing productions that are based in the States?
Travis Fimmel: Yeah. 100 percent. Yeah.
HitFix: Had you been looking for that sort of international thing where you wouldn't have to deal with that?
Travis Fimmel: No. I didn't expect it actually. I thought it was just such an industry thing. No, it was such a pleasant prize when you get up there. I really enjoyed living in Ireland and working with those people.
HitFix: As a last question: We're approaching Emmy season. Give me your favorite Ragnar moment or episode from "Vikings"?
Travis Fimmel: Ah, s***. I've got no chance at Emmys. Michael Hirst should get an Emmy and the hair department should get an Emmy. Yeah.
HitFix: But you can still have a favorite scene or episode?
Travis Fimmel: Maybe the third? I guess? The third. There's a lot of Gabriel stuff in the third and I really enjoyed that.
"Vikings" will return in 2014.