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January 17, 2018

The Damaged Warrior

Alex Høgh Andersen channels Ivar the Boneless, one of the fiercest warriors in Viking history who was, in fact, only human.

Melissa Byers
  • History
  • History
  • History
  • History
  • History

History's Vikings is essentially a family story. A very violent, powerful family.

Created by Michael Hirst, who has written every episode of all six seasons, the story follows the story of the Scandinavian hero Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) and his sons, Bjorn (Alexander Ludwig), Ubbe (Jordan Patrick Smith), Hvitserk (Marco Ilsø), Sigurd (David Lindstrõm), and Ivar (Alex Høgh Andersen).

The sixth season has focused on the sons of Ragnar, after Ragnar was killed at the end of season five. Each son wants to carry on Ragnar's legend, but the five do not agree how that is to be done. Each son has something to prove, but perhaps none so much as the youngest, Ivar, known both in the series and in history as "Ivar the Boneless."

Historians disagree on why Ivar was named "the Boneless," but the series takes it head on as a birth defect that has left Ivar without the use of his legs.

For actor Alex Høgh Andersen, that has presented definite challenges in portraying Ivar. It also gives a strong motivation for the cruelty and viciousness that the fictional and historical Ivar share.

Emmys.com recently had the opportunity to interview Andersen.

What was your acting background before Vikings?

I started out on the stage at the age of 11 and continued in theatre for a decade. I was actually stage-trained until I started working a bit in front of the camera at the age of 16 or 17. Before that, I starred in musicals.

Working at the theatre taught me all the basics of being professional at a very young age. Discipline, concentration, confidence and the understanding of the importance of teamwork are just some of the many things that created my acting foundation. I owe that drama school so much. I absolutely love the theatre and cannot wait to get back on the stage when I'm available to do so.

Have you researched the historical Ivar? Has any of that gone into your portrayal?

When you are doing a period piece there's always a lot of research that you can and should do. Mostly it goes into understanding the show's universe and in my case, the realistic limitations of my handicapped character within that universe.

The fact that Ivar the Boneless was one of the most famous, cruel and successful Vikings of all time is not important to know. What's important is to understand is his disease and how the Viking culture and society handled people of his kind to understand how his life might have been and what that would have done to him physically, and more importantly, mentally.

Even though we portray characters on Vikings that are more than a 1000 years old, they were just humans. Humans that we in the 21st century need to be able to relate to, otherwise it's not going to be interesting.

How do you channel someone like Ivar? What do you tap into in order to create the character?

It's really not that difficult. All you need to understand is who he is and where he's coming from. I completely feel for him and I see a hurt and broken kid on the outside as well as on the inside, compensating everyday for his unfair life terms. I see straight through all of the terrible things that he does and don't judge him, but try my very best to defend him and balance him out as a character, keeping him three-dimensional.

Michael Hirst and I are in a constant conversation about Ivar, and I'm incredibly thankful to be able to have a say in all this. It's such a learning experience as an actor.

Do you think Ivar is mad?

Well, I know I would be mad If I was in constant pain and had been forced into a lonely life in a physical Viking culture that simply did not embrace my disease. It's just so unfair. Working with his limitations everyday at work has been quite an eye opener and I have the deepest amount of respect for the people who fight a disease like this on a daily basis.

Ivar is a very physically demanding role, in a way different from the usual physical demands. How do you train for that?

First step: Skip leg day at the gym.

The second step is to crawl around in your hotel room for a month and practice, practice, practice. I learned a lot of the movements from watching documentaries on people who suffer from Brittle Bone Disease and studying how they get around in their everyday life.

I have unbelievably fun and tough days on set where my upper body is completely destroyed after 10 hours of crawling around in the cold mud on a mountain top, but I also have days where I'm the only one in the scene who's gets to sit comfortably in a chair. It's a total win/win.

Ragnar told Ivar that his seeming disability could be a source of great strength. Do you think Ivar has taken that to heart and begun to use it?

I mean, if Ragnar tells you something you better listen right?! I think Ivar has really taken that to heart, perhaps a bit too much. His interpretation of Ragnar's words is more extreme, straight forward and deadly than what I think it was meant to be.

Ivar is on the edge of tearing the family apart because of those words that ultimately provided Ivar with the knowledge and confidence to become as strong as he's gotten. I do not believe Ragnar would have approved every choice Ivar made, but I genuinely think he would still be proud of him.

What has it been like this season without Travis? Has the dynamic on set changed among the "Sons of Ragnar"?

It's still the best job in the world and the atmosphere on set is still great. There are significantly less food battles and pranks, so he's missed, but mostly because he's an extraordinary actor and it's such a learning experience working with him.

The dynamic on set is still the same: a light and fun tone while shooting all this dark, heavy and serious stuff. I think it's essential to keep the spirits high - especially when you have to crawl through horseshit and mud in deep woods in January.

What would you like to see coming up for Ivar?

I would like to see him mature, relax a bit more and believe in his abilities so he doesn't feel like he has to prove himself all the time.

Then again, those are all key parts of his character and a constant struggle for him, which I think keeps this powerhouse of a man a little broken on the inside.

So maybe just a love story? If there's any character on the show that deserves a little love, I vote Ivar. Or maybe just a dream sequence in which he's running on healthy legs in a field of flowers, laughing from ear to ear in slow motion… just as the cherry on top.

What would you like to see coming up for Alex post Vikings?

I would love to do some theater again. The live connection with the audience is such a profound life-affirming experience. I'd like to work in Denmark as well. We have incredible talented people here and working in my mother tongue is something I really miss.

Along with before mentioned, I would love to explore the indie genre more. It's very simple; I've always been challenge-oriented, so the bigger the challenge the better. I would prefer to portray a supporting straight drag queen in an Indie than a stereotypical lead hero in a blockbuster.

Is there anything you'd like to add for your fans and fans of the show?

I really hope you enjoy the show. It's so much fun to shoot even though the conditions can be a pain in the butt, literally. I have the privilege to work with the greatest crew and I hope the fun we have on set translates to our work on screen. It's just a great experience giving life to a badass cripple. It happens too rarely.

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