British actor Clive Standen stars on History's Vikings series as Rollo, Ragnar Lothbrok's devious brother. We sat down with him to talk about Viking mythology, sociopaths and how relearning stage combat made him ambidextrous. Vikings Season 2 premieres tonight at 10/9c.
Playboy.com: Vikings has an incredible array of people working on the show. You’ve got the metal smith who crafts the beautiful weaponry, and the cast was even able to use a seaworthy long boat, which must’ve been really fun, especially for you since you’re a self-described history buff. What’s your favorite Viking lore that people may not know about?
Clive Standen: There are loads! I found it fascinating that Vikings refused to throw their nail clippings on the floor. They believed in a boat entirely made of human fingernails named Naglfar. During Ragnarök, the gods were going to fight to the death at the end of all things and Loki would have a ship that was entirely made out of dead human fingernails and would transport Hrym and others to the sea. They would never throw them on the floor because it would seem that they were helping Loki build his boat. Instead the nails would be put into lockets and things.
Playboy.com: In past interviews you’ve described your character as a bit of a sociopath, and to be quite honest I’m a bit scared of Rollo. Is there anything that you admire about him, though?
Standen: I suppose that he never backs down and that he knows his own mind. His courage is the thing I most admire. The fact that he always stands up for what he believes in, no matter who or what he’s up against. He will become a wrecking ball to get whatever it is he wants. You want him on your side rather than not. I think that’s one of his qualities, too. People put up with all of his bad qualities just because they’re afraid of fighting against him.
Playboy.com: Having those characteristics to work with as an actor must be really fun as well.
Standen: It’s fantastic. I see Rollo as a volcano; he can erupt at any time. It’s great for me because I can really pinpoint moments in the script to let him out of his cage and times to contain him. He’s a feral animal. The actual name “Rollo” comes from “wolf” in Norse. I think I’ve taken that on as his characteristics, he’s a caged wolf.
Playboy.com: You guys got to attend Comic-Con last year to promote Vikings. What was that experience like for you?
Standen: It was wild; I’ve never experienced anything like it. I’m a nerd at heart; I love all of my comics, sci-fi and all of that, so I suddenly felt like I was king of the nerds for a day. I got off the plane and I’ve never seen so many Captain Americas waiting to get a bus! But the most amazing thing was when we got together for our panel. We didn’t really think anyone was paying attention to our little Viking show. When we got there the room was full of people dressed up as Vikings, all with shields and swords and blowing horns. They really got into it! To be in something that I really enjoy filming and to know that people are enjoying it just as much is such a pleasure. It hopefully means we can get Michael Hirst’s story out there! We’re really just hitting the tip of the iceberg in Season 1 and Season 2 is only just the beginning of the golden age of the Vikings—we’ve got a big story to tell. As long as people are watching, we may be able to tell the whole tale.
Playboy.com: I know that you have a pretty extensive background in stunt training, but I’m sure you learned a couple of new tricks for Vikings. What’s been the best skill you’ve picked up along the way?
Standen: I’m often ambidextrous on the show. When I started learning the art of sword craft I had a teacher who was an excellent Olympic fencer and also a stickler for historical accuracy. In medieval times you would learn to fight with your right hand because fighting left-handed was considered witchcraft or untrustworthy. Also, a lot of the castles were designed for a right-handed person. If you were defending your castle then the banisters and the balconies would all be designed to be held on to with your left hand so you could go down the stairs with your sword in hand and there would be a straight drop to those who were coming up the stairs. So it was always built, and it still is, in a right-handed man’s world.
So I had to retrain to do my entire advanced gold certificate in stage combat to use my right hand, so it left me ambidextrous. I always thought that it was going to be fun to fight with two swords, but you’ve never seen anything until you’ve started fighting with a spear in one hand and an axe in the other. There’s a scene in Season 2 where I get to throw two spears at the same time, which is also a thing that Vikings used to take pride in practicing with their weaponry. Some of the best Vikings would be able to throw two spears and pinpoint two targets at the same time. So we have an episode, I believe Episode 3, where I was put to the challenge to throw two spears. Luckily I don’t have to kill real people, but I don’t think I would’ve been able to do it if I didn’t have that ambidextrous training beforehand!
Playboy.com: What’s in your garage? What are you driving these days?
Standen: I just bought a new car, actually! I’ve always wanted a Land Rover Defender. I have great memories of uncles that used to drive with me in the back of Land Rovers going across forests and things. One of my uncles was a park ranger when I was growing up, so when I went to the dealership with my wife I had that car and that car only in mind. Unfortunately, my head was touching the roof and it was really uncomfortable. I couldn’t breathe! But my wife stepped in and we ended up with a Range Rover Evoque, which is a little bit more doable. I have three kids, so I have to take a step back [laughs] walking in there with my wife thinking I was buying a Defender and then coming out with an Evoque… It’s a great car, but it’s not necessarily what I thought I’d be coming out with when I came into the dealership. [laughs]
Playboy.com: What’s one piece of clothing you can’t live without?
Standen: Myleather jacket. It was one of the first things I bought with a proper paycheck from acting. I’ve had it for years now and that’s one thing I’d save if there was a house fire and I had time to save one article of clothing. It kind of looks like it’s been through the apocalypse, because I wear it everywhere. But it seems that the more I beat it up, the better it looks. And I also have a great old vintage embroidered cowboy shirt from the Martini Ranch. I think it’s just because I’m British, I’m sure you see them all the time in America, but I think I’ve aspired to become a cowboy every now and again. I’ve had that shirt for years now, too; it’s been patched up so many times. But anytime I go on the Internet and try and track down the make or try and find something else of theirs, nothing ever comes up. It’s a one-off piece. It’s right in front of me, actually; that’s how sad I am. It’s at the forefront of my wardrobe!
Playboy.com: I’m sure for work you have to travel a lot. What do you always bring with you?
Standen: The image and memory of my wife and kids, I suppose; my family is imprinted on the inside of my eyelids. They’re why I do this, now. It’s a bit of a corny answer, but it’s the truth. Everything I do, every decision I make, they’re included in that now. Even if they’re not by my side I’m taking them with me.
Playboy.com: That’s some good advice for others, but what’s the best advice that you’ve been given?
Standen: If you believe in something, fight for it. Every time we witness an injustice and we don’t act on it I think we train ourselves to be passive in its presence. If you really do believe in something, go and fight for it. Don’t just stand in the street and turn away like it’s not happening. I think that’s a good lesson in life to hold on to.
Playboy.com: On your Twitter account it seems that you’re really into raising awareness of the dolphins slaughtered in Tariji. What started your passion for this cause?
Standen: I suppose it goes well with my last answer—it’s wrong. It shouldn’t be happening. My wife and I are avid scuba divers; we do a lot of diving in wreckage and deep diving. I just got back from the Red Sea where I was diving with dolphins, and I just don’t believe that you should be going to SeaWorld or aquariums and watching dolphins being starved to perform tricks when you can easily go out to loads of different types of oceans and see them. In the Red Sea I was swimming with a whole pod of dolphins. It came out of nowhere and it was the most incredible experience of my life. It’s sort of impossible to be uninspired to act on their behalf after you’ve seen them up close in real life. These dolphins don’t belong to Japan, they belong to the ocean. They sell certain bottlenose dolphins to aquariums and then slaughter the rest of them in the cove. Most of us have now seen the documentary that came out a few years ago called The Cove, but unfortunately the slaughter is still happening. I just don’t understand how they can get away with it in this day and age. You can hold on to traditions to your heart’s content, but we all change. The Vikings used to kill whales in the eighth century because whales were plentiful and they didn’t have any other options for things to eat. But you can’t turn around and say, “It’s okay to slaughter whales in the Faroe Islands now, it’s our old Viking tradition!” I play a Viking on TV, but in the 21st century there is just no room for that kind of barbarity. It’s just not humane. So if there’s anything I can do in my own little way to voice that, I’ll do it.