A Journey with Faith: Viking's George Blagden talks Athelstan's progression, Ragnar's betrayal, and the importance of interacting with fans
This Interview contains Spoilers for all episodes up to the finale.
History channel’s first scripted series, Vikings, has been a great success so far offering viewers a rich, complicated story and diverse, imaginative characters. The series follows Ragnar Lothbrok, the legendary Viking warrior as he travels to the West for the first time, discovering new lands, including the monestary of Lindisfarne. Although the series focuses on Ragnar, one of the most complex characters on the show has been the Anglo-Saxon monk Athelstan, played by George Blagden.
Watching Athelstan’s journey from his home in Lindisfarne and life as a monk, to his integration into Viking society and how he manages to cope with being a Christian in a Pagan society has been one of the most fascinating elements of the series this season.
Back in February before the premiere I spoke with George about his character and what it was like to film this epic series. Once again I had the opportunity to take some time to talk with George about his experiences playing Athelstan this past season, and what he hopes to see in the upcoming season. As Vikings ends its first series we take a look back at the struggles Athelstan has faced in terms of his faith, what it’s been like dealing with fan response to the show, and where he hopes Athelstan’s journey is headed.
SpoilerTV: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us again, how are you?
George: I’m good, thank you. I’m very good!
STV: How does it feel to be back in London?
George: Yeah, it feels really good, it feels really good actually.
STV: So last time we talked, Vikings was just starting. I don’t think it had even started. We talked in February, so it hadn’t even premiered yet.
George: No it hadn’t, yeah.
STV: So now we’re just a couple days away from the finale, can you comment on the response to the show and did it surprise you how well people responded to it?
George: I think yeah, I think everyone was surprised. I was hugely surprised. Like I said to you before, this is my first television show, so I didn’t really know what to expect and I think everyone involved has been really kind of surprised at what History has been able to do with the show and the amount of people they’ve got to watch it, and I think a lot of the cast are British or Canadian and I don’t think we realized the impact that History has in the US and how much of a viewership they have. So I think yeah, everyone was kind of taken aback and it’s amazing, it’s just amazing that everyone is enjoying the show and it seems to be popular.
STV: I’d say pretty popular.
George: Yeah, no I mean, what we expected it might do which has happened, is appeal to quite a few different types of people. I get tweets from lots and lots of different age ranges and lots and lots of different types of people, which is great you know, that the show can appeal to a wide audience. It’s what you dream of really. So we’re all amazingly happy about it.
STV: Fan reaction, like you said, has been really incredible and what is it like for you to interact with the fans through the live tweeting, and you did WonderCon, since that’s all a new experience for you, what has that been like for you?
George: Yeah it all has been new and I think it’s great to be able to comment with fans as it goes along. I think everyone thinks that actors get some kind of inside track on the show and they get to see episodes before they’re released and the reality is that we really don’t, so every episode that comes out every week I’m seeing it sort of for the first time along with all the fans so it’s just been really good fun to have a chat with people that aren’t your Mum. You know, have a chat with real people outside in the real world. It’s just been amazing and I think Wondercon was the first kind of big shock to me because you sort of walk out on the panel in front of 800 people and there’s, you know, tons of people dressed as Ragnar and it’s kind of crazy, people dressed in Viking helmets.
STV: Was that your first Con you’d ever been to?
George: Yeah that was my first con, first panel I’d ever sat on, first time I’ve ever done anything like that. So it was all really kind of new and exciting. Wondercon was mental because we were getting ready in the same room with people like Seth Rogan and Danny McBride, Jamie Cambell Bower was there and all the cast of Mortal Instruments, we were getting ready with them, they were doing a panel for the film, so it was crazy for me. It was lovely to be in an environment where you could promote the work you were doing.
STV: Would you want to do another one?
George: Yeah absolutely! And I think I was a bit kind of scared as well, well not scared, but you know?
George: Yeah it was all new, yeah, nervous. I’d be a bit more willing to interact more with people. It was just sort of “I’ve got to survive and get through this and not look like an idiot.” Yeah, I’d love to do another one. They’ve not said anything about Comic Con yet but we’ll see.
STV: So one of the fan questions that I got, and there will be a few that are directly from fans that I wanted to include,
George: Ok, great.
STV: They wanted to know, do you feel that Vikings is different from other historical dramas and what do you feel is making the show stand out from other historical dramas that may be on the air right now?
George: Good question. I think the thing that a lot of people have been saying on social media or people I’ve spoke to about why Vikings is standing out is because of the extremely high level it has for its production values. It’s a show that people say they turn it on and it looks very very cinematic. It’s almost a bit jarring sometimes because it looks so epic and so dramatic for television, it's quite exciting and it really draws the viewers in. So you know the production values, they were very high, and History and MGM have spent a lot of money on the show, so when you have that kind of budget available to you, you can really push the boundaries of what you can do with special effects and the locations that you can shoot at. I think that’s something that sets it apart from a lot of other television is just the scale of it all and the epic nature of it.
STV: It is very epic, its gorgeous. Every week when I watch I think “I didn’t think it could get any prettier than last week,” but then it does.
George: You’re right, I know from what we’ve shot as well that the locations get a lot more beautiful and the episode that we just past with Uppsala, our director of photography, John Bartley, is a genius really at making things look otherworldly and making them really pop out of the screen. He’s a very talented man.
STV: One of the questions people really wanted to know from you is how have you approached playing Athelstan, and has there been anything that’s been particularly important to you to portray in terms of his character?
George: Well the big thing that we wanted to get across with Athelstan obviously was his crisis of faith and how very hard that is for him. And although the time jumps are quite dramatic, especially in the last couple of episodes that have aired, you know a lot of time passes. You can see that from his appearance he’s suddenly grown a beard and you know, although time does move quickly, his crisis of faith and his attempt to deal with living in this pagan society happens very slowly and it's [his faith] something that’s really difficult for him to just give up and try and take on board their religion. So that’s the main central thing, when you’re trying to work through a character arc like Athelstan, that’s the central thing that you have to keep coming back to and making sure that you have tabs on it. I think that’s the thing that helped me focus on his character arc and how he develops.
It’s such a big journey and I think he really does change quite dramatically in the course of nine episodes in this first season, and to be able to monitor that as an actor and make sure that you achieve that successfully you need something that you can lock onto and focus on, so I’d say that was the central thing that we really concentrated on. And it’s such good fun when you have a character like that who does go through so much change and you can really sink your teeth into him, as it were.
STV: Is it difficult to fit so much story into such a short amount of time? Because you have basically nine hours in a season to tell this story and how do you deal with that as an actor with only getting a few minutes to convey that much information and that much emotion in just a few seconds?
George: Well I think it’s hugely exciting to have a story that moves that quickly. You know there are other shows that I watch on TV, where, without naming shows, if it’s a show that has quite a lot of characters and five or six different subplots you can quite easily watch an hour episode of that show and the plot not advance really. By the time you have a five or ten minute scene in every subplot you can spend an hour having one conversation in every different world, do you know what I mean? I think it’s great that Vikings moves at such a pace and so much happens because people get to the end of an episode and think “Oh my gosh so much has happened and I’ve only seen three episodes of this show and I need to see the next week!” And I think that’s why people are enjoying it a lot from what I’ve heard from people and talking to people. And also as an actor being in a show that moves quickly in terms of story or plot, it’s great because it means every week you’re filming you have something completely different, and the way you film it as well, you jump around, you don’t film in chronological order. You’ll be going in one week and have a big goatee stuck on your face and you’ll come out the next week and have to film something from four episodes previous to that, it’s great it keeps you on your toes and keeps you focused. I just think it’s good fun, playing with stuff that moves quickly.
STV: Athelstan himself is a very relatable character, and he is portrayed as the voice of the Western world. One of the things I really like about him is he really has a strong survival instinct but he’s also very curious about the Viking culture. Can you talk about that balance at all, and is that intentional to show both sides of him?
George: Yeah, absolutely it’s intentional. You know, I’ve talked about the balance before and I’ve used some pretty awful analogies before, planet zorg and aliens with bunny outfits and I won’t do it again.
STV: No, those were actually good ones, I think people liked those.
George: [laughs] No, but you know its what’s interesting about his character and why I think people are interested in him is because, you know, it’s such a difficult task. He’s like the kid in school who's trying to fit in with one of the cliques that are in school. Am I a sports guy? Am I a theatre guy? All humans do it, all humans want to belong somewhere I think and that’s what you get to witness with Athelstan. Yes, he’s this hugely devout religious man but that world has been completely ripped away from him and as far as he’s concerned it’s lost and forgotten. So now he has to try and fit into this new world and it becomes his life really, that’s his day to day existence and it’s a constant struggle. So yeah,
STV: I think that’s one of my favorite parts of his character actually, is the curiosity he has for his—basically captors but not really anymore, so it’s been a really interesting journey to watch.
George: Yeah I think that was quite... what was so shocking about episode 8 was, you know, essentially Athelstan is considered by the audience and even considers himself at this point to be part of their society, he feels accepted and yet even at this point he’s been betrayed by Ragnar and brought on this trip essentially for the plan that he will be sacrificed. Even at this stage where he’s been in this new land for months even years now he’s still the outsider and I think it’s a real set back he has in episode 8 in terms of whether he feels like he belongs.
STV: Yeah, I would definately call being sacrificed a setback.
George: A little bit of a setback, just a minor one!
STV: How much time has actually passed? That’s been a big question for people, is the time jumps and how much time has passed, do you know at all?
George: Yeah, I would give you Michael Hirst’s number! You know it was a question we had a lot on set like “um, guys, how much time has actually passed in this scene?” And we had an amazing continuity team on set the whole time and they have really accurate time graphs and mapping of how the plot moves through months and even years, so uh, if I had those in front of me I could absolutely answer you! No, but I think basically what kept us on track was Lagertha’s pregnancy. So you know Lagertha became pregnant at the end of episode 6 and in episode 7 she miscarries and you can see she’s heavily pregnant so that has to be at least 6, 7, 8 months between the end up episode 6 and the end of episode 7. So we’re assuming it’s probably been about a year, a year has passed or maybe even 18 months because they only raid during the summer. The raid in episode 7 is the summer after the summer they attack Lindisfarne, so over the course of season 1 there has been at least a year to 18 months passed . So quite a lot of time, probably a lot more than people thought, and maybe, maybe not as clear as people might want it to be!
STV: Sometimes it’s fine! Sometimes it’s fine and then sometimes you’re like wait, what? But so far they’re doing a good job. What would you say is the most difficult thing about playing a character who is trying to survive in an environment that is constantly testing his faith?
George: I think the thing you have to remember when you’re playing a character that has such a strong link with something like religion, is that you really want to portray the seriousness and the level of intensity that this character has with that thing, whether it’s religion or sexuality, or big thematically issues characters have to deal with. I think you have to remember that religion is a very important thing and as an actor, obviously you don’t want to be thinking too much about your audience when you’re in the middle of filming it, but you have to understand that there may be a lot of people who watch Athelstan’s journey who also are very religious and who also are having issues dealing with their faith. So you kind of want to take it as seriously as possible and I think that’s the hardest thing, to make sure you’re portraying this crisis of faith accurately and with enough sincerity.
You don’t want the character to appear as though his faith is something that’s very…you don’t want it to be like one episode he’s all about paganism and chats around the fire about gods and the next episode feel like he’s cursing them under his breath. You sort of want to be able to map it accurately and map this slow, gradual descent or loss of faith. I think that’s the hardest thing to make sure that faith is…that you’re giving it the weight that it deserves. Because for a lot of people watching the show I’m sure it’s quite a topical thing, Athelstan’s faith, and losing it, and what is it to keep it in a society that seems very different.
STV: Was there anything that you were particularly excited for fans to see this season now that we’re almost at the end? Because when I talked to you before we couldn’t say much, but now we’re at the end, so was there any particular thing that you just couldn’t wait for people to see?
George: My favorite episodes are episodes 7 and 8 and I think it’s just because I am a little boy at heart and I love big battle scenes and episode 7 is just so well engineered by Ken Girotti, our director, and there’s this whole tug of war type thing between King Aelle and Ragnar, you know in their camps and going in and having a meal and this whole kind of like art, if you like, of war, if I can say that without offending anyone. It’s so clever and so dramatic and it’s a really exciting episode, so I couldn’t wait for people to see those epic battle scenes and everything.
STV: That was a fantastic episode actually, it was one of my favorites.
George: It was so good, episode 7. You know my mum said, “Oh gosh, it’s like braveheart!”
STV: It was very well done and there was a comedic aspect too, but in a serious way,
George: Yeah, yeah!
STV: Like with the dinner, it was really tense but then you kind of find yourself laughing because you’re like, oh it's kind of funny but wait no, not so much. They played that balance really well.
George: Yeah. And I think I shared Michael Hirst’s views about episode 8. Michael has said that episode 8 is his favorite because it’s everything that he wanted to convey about paganism in the space of an hour. It’s such a different episode compared to anything we’d seen in the previous 7, it has a different pace and a different feel. It almost feels like it's kind of like a different show, not really, but do you know what I mean? It’s a very different episode.
STV: I agree, even when the episode started out it was very almost solemn, going in there and seeing everyone worship. There was a kid of reverence there, which portrayed really well to the viewer.
George: Yeah and I couldn’t wait for people to kind of see the festival at Uppsala. And I said, I think in our last interview, that I feel like it’s a show that people will come back every week and learn something new about the Vikings and I think that episode 8 did that so amazingly. If people have been watching the show all the way through they’ll have got to episode 8 and see a completely different side of this culture and these people that they haven’t seen before, so I just loved it for that. They introduced so many new aspects, like hallucinogenic trips and lots of orgies!
STV: Yes, yes they did! Do you think Athelstan still regards himself as being a slave, or is he free now? Where is he at this point?
George: It’s a very good question and we sort of never really answered it on set, which I think was a very clever move for us to never really deal with it on set because to be perfectly honest, it’s still unclear to us as actors, which I think really helps the dynamic on screen. I think we very, very briefly agreed that, in the scene in episode 5, when Athelstan is cutting fish and having a conversation with Ragnar, Ragnar says “If it matters that much to you” and I say “it does.” It’s sort of like him accepting him as “I won't treat you as a slave anymore.” However, he then does take me to be sacrificed at Uppsala so it's, I’ve said it all along, it’s an extremely complex relationship, master and slave, and I think it becomes even more complex when you start letting the slave become a part of your family, including him in a lot of chores and daily life. So yeah, it’s still unclear and I think Athelstan, as he sets off to Uppsala, at the end of episode 7 start of episode 8, I’m sure Athelstan believes himself to be a free man and very much his own identity in this new world, but it’s clear by the end of episode 8, it’s understood that that’s not the case.
STV: Why do you think he hasn’t made an attempt to escape and do you think he would, if given the opportunity go back to England or stay?
George: What I love about that scene in episode 3 where Athelstan sees his brothers hanging up in the marketplace at Kattegat, it’s such a strong image, and I think that is what stays with him the whole of his time here. He’s been here for months, even years now in this land but he’s still, whether he likes it or not, very much considered by the people that are close to him in this community as the outsider. It takes a long time for people to accept this foreigner into their way of life. So I think that it’s just, Ragnar has given him a new life in this land and chosen to save him. He chose to save him in Lindisfarne at the church and then he chose to keep him as a slave rather than let him get hung up with his brothers in the market square, so I think that he realizes with Ragnar he’s not on his own and if he left him and his family and tried to escape where would he go? He wouldn’t have a clue. He doesn’t know how to sail a boat, so he couldn’t go back to the UK. I think he just thinks as long as he’s with Ragnar and his family then at least he’s alive, and he has some sort of life that he can try to manage and live. It’s still very much still about survival.
STV: That kind of leads in to another question. In episode 3, Athelstan states that the reason he was saved was because of God’s judgment, and Ragnar kind of contradicts him saying he’s alive because Ragnar saved him. Do you think Ragnar is playing God in Athelstan’s life? Is he kind of becoming a substitute for that or does he still hold his faith really close to him? Because there has been aspects where he’s questioned God.
George: Yeah no, wow that’s an interesting question. Do you mean that Ragnar is aware that he is playing like a God to Athelstan, or from Athelstan’s perspective does he consider Ragnar a substitute for God?
STV: I think both, I think either way.
George: Well first of all, I don’t think Ragnar considers himself to be a replacement deity or a replacement role model to Athelstan. I think it’s just tactics and a bit of an opportunists’ mind going on with Ragnar, he feels like he can use this monk to his own good, you know? That’s why he saves him. But from Athelstan’s point of view I think that, I’ve talked about it before, but he saved his life and it’s like he’s his savior in so many ways and that’s why he respects the man immensely, and that’s why he follows him and decides to stay with his family. And absolutely I think Ragnar’s presence and Ragnar’s help to Athelstan is what makes Athelstan question God in episode 4. I don’t think Ragnar is his replacement for God, quite clearly, he’s very still much holding on to his Christianity.
STV: Athelstan reacts to Ragnar’s control with kind of a mixture of gratitude and fear, that’s kind of how he sees him. Do you think this parallels how he used to view serving God? Do you think there was a mixture of gratitude and fear with living at the monastery as well?
George: Yeah I think so, I don’t think Ragnar is a replacement for God, but I’m sure that there are parallels of they way in which he behaves with Ragnar, I think the respect he gives him, the kind of…I guess you could say Ragnar is very mysterious to Athelstan and kind of unknown. I guess there’s a lot of ambiguity as to whether or not he has a relationship still with God, so I guess there’s some parallels there in that they’re both becoming mysterious figures again. But I wouldn’t say that Athelstan primarily sees Ragnar as a parallel character or parallel entity to God, no.
STV: Now we kind of talked about this a little bit, but as Athelstan has kind of had to reinvent himself to survive. Do you feel that he’s lost any of himself or do you believe he’s still staying true to who he really is?
George: Well, that’s a great question, I suppose he has lost part of himself in trying to blend in with their society, he must of done. I mean if you look at the fiery passionate religious monk that you met in Lindisfarne monastery, compared to the Athelstan in episode 8, there's so much, I guess, sort of blind naivety that Athelstan had in the episodes where you first meet him. His whole world was that island, he didn’t know anything outside of it, and now his eyes are open to a completely new world that he never knew existed. So I wouldn’t describe it as him having lost a lot of himself, I would describe it as him having gained so much more in his life and changing because of it. I think there’s still him as Athelstan the monk somewhere underneath it all, but it’s just that there’s no part of that in his existence now. As you see in episode 8, he’s asked 3 times if he’s still a Christain and he denies his religion three times, so I’d say he’s just sort of adapted because of all the new information he’s had to take on.
STV: Do you personally like the changes that he’s made?
George: Yeah, yeah I do! I mean I’m a big believer in change just generally in life. I think people change from everything, just everyday activities. I mean, you change just cause the sun suddenly comes out and life is all about change. I love the change that Athelstan has made; I mean for one, no shaved circle on top of his head! But no, jokes aside, I do love the changes that have gone on. I think he’s become a very interesting and complex character, and a lot more three dimensional maybe than the very simple religious monk that he used to be.
STV: Right. So I want to talk to you about a few specific things from episode 8, cause people had a lot to say about episode 8.
George: I’m sure they did!
STV: So one of the things I wanted to ask you about and a lot of people want to ask you about was the crumbling of the bible. Do you know exactly, I mean I know we talked about the time issue, but how much time had passed or what happened to make it disintegrate so quickly? Was that a symbolic gesture as well do you think? Of kind of Athelstan's crumbling faith?
George: Absolutely yes! So you’ll have seen in episode 5, when Ragnar’s farm is attacked by Earl Haraldson’s men, Athelstan takes the bible with him. We assume that Athelstan placed the bible under the great hall at Kattegat, he found a floor board that you see in episode 8 and kept it there safe when they eventually ended up in Kattegat and Ragnar became Earl. All we wanted to show is since then you haven’t seen that book at all. We’ve been through all of Lagertha’s pregnancy, so ¾ of a year has passed where Athelstan has not been back to the book. The last time you’ve seen him reading the gospel of St. John is in episode 5 where he’s questioning his faith and asked God where he is. So it was just really a way of showing, after having been asked to this pagan festival, it was a way of showing Athelstan trying to check in with his Christianity and trying to deal with the fact that he had to mentally prepare himself to go to a pagan festival and he goes to find his bible to find some kind of comfort.
The bible has been under these damn floor boards for months and months, even a year and it's disintegrated, it's completely disintegrated though the winter and it falls apart in his hands, and I think it’s like a confirmation to him that I have to go on this journey that Ragnar’s asked me to go on with him. I have to see what this pagan festival is about and I have to start opening new doors. And of course having made that decision, it’s still an extremely difficult thing to do, to dispose of your faith that easily.
It was absolutely symbolic; it was sort of how my faith disintegrated? Metaphorically and physically.
STV: Guess they didn’t make books very well back then.
George: [laughs] No!
STV: The sacrifice in particular, it was a big moment for Athelstan and a lot of the viewers. Do you think he really had any idea that this was coming or that’s what he was there for? Do you think he felt like in the back of his mind that something like this could happen eventually?
George: No, none whatsoever. Human sacrifice is something that I don’t think he’s ever contemplated or dealt with in his own world or mind. I don’t think he even felt like it even really existed. The moment where he’s told by the priest that he’s been brought as a sacrifice, I mean the moment before that actually when he sees the pen, the empty pen and Ragnar tells him this is for the nine humans, it’s so difficult for his brain to process this. Then to be told in the temple that he’d been chosen as one of the nine humans, it’s like an information overload. It’s too much, so it’s a complete shock to him, so that’s why the priest and the ancient seer feel he’s not ready for it, because he really isn’t ready for it. It’s something that he cannot deal with. And I think it’s a really sad moment because when he sees his bible disintegrate at the start of the episode and he makes the choice to go on this journey to Uppsala, you really feel like he might actually try to involve himself in this pagan religion and try to join in and try to take on some of the religious aspects of the Viking culture, and it’s like, without making it comical, they really throw him in the deep end, know what I mean? And it’s just too much. So yeah like we said, big setback.
STV: Do you think Ragnar knew that Athelstan wouldn’t be accepted or do you think he truly believed that he would be able to deny his Christian beliefs and be able to do this?
George: That’s a good question; I don’t know to be honest. I think, I don’t think Ragnar thought it would be a possibility that the ancient seers and the other priests at Uppsala would make that call and actually flag it up and say this man is not ready to be sacrificed, I didn’t think he thought of that as an option. I think he assumed whether I wanted to or not I would still be sacrificed. I don’t think Ragnar was fully understanding that it had to be a willing sacrifice. So I don’t think that Ragnar knew that’s what was going to happen all along. Which is kind of very scary in a way about their relationship and what direction that goes, because it’s a big betrayal and it’s a big…its kind of like “Well what, you were going to sacrifice me, what’s going on?”
Will that be dealt with, that betrayal?
George: Very good question. The season finale is the day after tomorrow and I won’t ruin it but yeah…I won’t say. *The season finale aired tonight
STV: All right, I’ve got to try, you know? So we see this relationship with Ragnar and in episode 8 Lagertha really seems kind of concerned that Ragnar hasn’t told Athelstan about being a sacrifice. What is the relationship between Athelstan and Lagertha at this point?
George: I think their relationship strengthens so much when they come back from their second raid to England and Athelstan has successfully looked after her children and been a good babysitter, and I think it's not as tense as it used to be. I think she feels like he’s part of the family, so you know, yeah I think they’re not besties, but I think Lagertha has definitely accepted Athelstan as part of the family, so it’s mutually good.
STV: So episode 8, you get a great new haircut.
George: Yes, which everyone has had a bit of a problem with.
STV: I didn’t have a problem at all, what I saw it as, and maybe you can confirm this, is Athelstan trying to fit in with everyone else.
George: Yes, it’s exactly that and we had a long chat with the hair and makeup department, and I said listen, if this much time has passed, this is what will have happened to his hair and this is what will have happened to his face if he’s trying to fit in. And I’m not fussed about looking like a cool Viking, I wanted to look how Athelstan should look, so kind of for character reasons and trying to fit in.
STV: I think it made sense.
George: Right, and it’s right that he looked like a bit of a Muppet cause that’s kind of what happens when you try and fit in. It’s like when you’re a kid and you’re trying to wear that cool new hoodie that the cool kid in school has got and you can’t quite wear it as cool as him but you’re trying really hard.
STV: He just wants to be one of the guys, he wants to fit in.
George: Yeah, exactly!
George: It’s unclear as to what really happened, and I’m unsure if that was a creative decision. But it is unclear.
STV: You’ve talked about this before, and I think we’ve talked about this too, that Michael really asked you to bring a lot of yourself into your character.
STV: What aspects do you feel you relate the most with and as the character has changed, do you feel more or less of yourself went into that?
George: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think where Athelstan starts out in the monastery at Lindisfarne I had quite a lot of parallels to his character there from my teenage life when I was in boarding school and that blind naivety you see from Athelstan. His knowledge of the world, although he’s traveled and he’s a learned monk, his knowledge of what he knows of the world is limited compared to what he knows at the end of the series, so you could say that you have this sort of bright naivety, this sort of earnest nature at the start, and I kind of can relate to that being at school and boarding school can sometimes be a bit of a bubble. So I probably grew up in what some people would refer to as a bubble. When I came to London as an 18 year old my eyes were opened a bit to the real world, so there is definitely a lot of me in Athelstan in his Lindisfarne stint. And then I think as he progresses, his curiosity is something that I really kind of attach myself to. I’m quite a curious person about the world and I like finding out about things and learning about things and if I don’t know all the information on something I’ll come Google it, not that Athelstan has Google.
STV: It might have made his life easier.
George: [laughs] Yeah. His curiosity about the world was something that was quite easy for me to tap into, his curiosity about their culture.
STV: So you’ve gotten to interact with the children quite a bit on the show. What was it like working with younger actors?
George: Amazing, I love working with younger actors, because they don’t think about things too much and they’re very instinctual. And they just like react naturally, and I always think acting’s about reacting, you know? There's no kind of thought process of, you know, how to make this scene as effective as if Daniel Day Lewis was doing it, they’re kids you know? So they’re just being Bjorn or they’re being Gyda, there’s no sort of awful thing that us actors do where we try and make it more interesting than it actually is type thing. Everyone always says never act with a kid or animal cause they’ll always show you up, and it’s true. Whenever you're interacting in a scene with a kid, they’re always brilliant and you’re like why can’t I be as good as them? So they were great, they were really great to work with and so energetic and kept it all light for us, kept it fun and light.
STV: Do you think Athelstan and Bjorn’s relationship has improved at all? Cause it was a little rocky in the beginning.
George: Yeah, yeah of course it was and I think it has. I’m fascinated, because obviously we haven’t got scripts for the second season and I’m fascinated to see where that relationship goes. Bjorn and Athelstan may become very good friends, who knows?
STV: So obviously you don’t know much about the second season
George: I know nothing!
STV: And you wouldn’t be able to say anything about it anyways, but we have a few speculative questions. One of the things that someone wanted to know is do you like where Athelstan’s character is headed, from what you’ve experienced so far, and where you think it might go? Do you like this progression and do you like where you see him going?
George: Yes, absolutely. I want to see it go further, and I want to see him really kind of get into the Viking culture and stop sitting on the fence, basically, and I’ve absolutely loved playing that throughout the first season and it’s been so much fun, but I love the direction he’s going in and I’d like him to go further. Please can you write to Michael Hirst?
STV: I can do my best!
George: Thank you! Seriously, I’d like to see him really try to commit, that would be really quite interesting.
STV: Would you want to see Athelstan sing more on the show?
George: To be honest? I love singing, so I’m always into having any of the characters that I play have a little sing song, but I don’t know if it will happen. Maybe there’s some Viking chants or something that Athelstan can learn, but he’s not going to pick them up off Ragnar anytime soon. Ragnar doesn’t seem like a singer really, so I doubt it, but I’d love to see it happen! Someone write to Michael Hirst, we could do Vikings: The Musical.
STV: Do you want him to do any fight scenes?
George: Is that a trick question? Of course I would love to because I’m a guy, I’m a boy at heart, so I’d love to pick up a sword and ride on a horse and do everything that all the other guys get to do on the show, but whether he’ll be allowed to, whether Ragnar will let him, that’s another question. One for which I have not the answer.
STV: I always thought he could just hit people with his bible but now that’s gone, so…
George: Probably not so effective as a sword.
STV: Hey, knowledge is power.
George: Hmm, yeah true, very true, oh you’re good!
STV: I try! What do you really hope to see from him in season two? If you were running the show, what would you want for Athelstan? It could be anything! You could tell us like, you want him to go to the moon, anything you want!
George: Well, I don’t want him to go to the moon, cause he’d die without a spaceship! I don’t know. I think, like I said, I’d like him to really try and commit to Viking culture and paganism, and sort of become his own man in this society and start to have a bit more confidence and feel like he can have just as much weight in this society as all the other men, I think. And I feel like that will be very hard to achieve, but I feel like maybe if he has an argument with Ragnar there could be the possibility that he could win the argument and not be the slave anymore. I’d love to see him become a much stronger character.
STV: That would actually be very neat to see. Obviously I love the character, but I would love to see him standing up for himself. I think that would be an interesting new aspect to add to him.
STVFan reaction to the show has been immense. Do you enjoy hearing from the fans, and I know people send you art and all these different things, how do you feel about that?
George: I love it, and I love interacting with people. I sent a load of letters last week. I actually had a sort of backlog from people who had written me and I wanted to set aside a few hours to reply to them all. I just love writing to people and connecting with people and I think it’s really important. I’ve said this to you before, a thousand times so you know, I love that people feel like they can create things like fan art and try to share it and anything that means having a chat or connecting through talking about the show I enjoy, so yeah I always love it.
STV: Do you ever find it overwhelming?
George: No, I don’t think so? I like to have a chat with people who like to have a chat about particular things. And obviously I say hello to people to reply to them, but no, it doesn’t seem overwhelming because I talk to the people I’m interested in talking to and are interested in talking to me, you know what I mean? Does that sound really harsh?
STV: No, no, I mean personally, I think it’s a fascinating thing and everyone deals with it differently and for me personally, it’s always interesting to hear the other side of it.
STV: You and a lot of the cast interact very frequently with fans on twitter and how important is keeping that connection and being able to get that feedback?
George: I think it’s very important. I’ve talked about social media a lot before with you, but I think it’s a very immediate way of finding out what people think of the show. I guess when social media wasn’t as big as it is now, before you could quite easily do something like a television show or a film and once it goes out into the world you don’t really know specifically what real individual people out in the world think about the work or think about the show in general. So I think it’s a great way of kind of checking in with the world, I guess, about what the show’s response is. And I’m sure as well writers do take note of it. Someone was telling me in Game of Thrones a lot of people had a fan favorite character and, hence as the season went on, his character became a lot bigger than apparently intended. I don’t know if that’s true or not but it’s an interesting take on social media and how that affects our medium if that’s true, you know? So I think it’s very important, I think it’s important to connect with the people that support your work, really.
STV: Do you see any downsides to it?
George: I guess the downsides are that you then allow absolutely everyone to have an opinion, which they are more than entitled to, but sometimes it’s probably not beneficial to take note of everyone’s opinion, as it can be quite damaging. It’s also quite a personal thing if you’ve created a show, if you’re a show runner like Michael, it really is your personal work. So if people start saying I think this is what should happen to Lagertha in season 2, it’s well, ok... I would probably prefer not to know that. I guess the damaging thing is that suddenly you get personal messages about your personal work that maybe you’d prefer not to have seen, but then I guess that’s life.
STV: Do you like to keep up with what critics are saying as well as fans?
George: Yeah I think so. Yeah and often, you know, maybe, this is going to sound awful, but they have a much more honest review of things, I guess, if you’re listening to a critic. Because the critics, generally speaking, are writing their reviews and their reports on the show not based on trying to get the show runner to like them or the actor to like them. I’m sure it’s very common for Katheryn or Clive or I to get tweets about the show praising our work or being very complimentary and often it’s because people want to connect with us, do you know what I’m getting at? The critics can be a lot more honest because they are just writing their opinion about the show and they aren’t afraid to say and include all the negative aspects, but I think if you’re writing a personal message to an actor involved, for example, you don’t want to be telling them how awful the show is if you want to have a conversation with them. I don’t know, does that make any sense?
STV: Oh yeah, I deal with it every week.
George: Yeah, yeah, critics reviews are a lot more sort of honest, I think. You think as an actor or someone creatively involved, if you’re reading a critics review, you’re getting a much more honest approach.
STV: Do you have a favorite Norse God?
George: I’m still pretty shaky on my Norse Gods; I’ve got to do a lot more research. I think just because Ragnar is so obsessed with him, I think it’s kind of rubbing off on me a little bit, I’m a bit of a fan of Odin with his one eye. It was amazing actually, we actually had an Odin in the show, so when you see them in the show on episode one he had these sort of massive branches coming off his shoulders with crows sitting on them, and he’d just hang around on set with like these crows on his shoulder and like an eye patch. It’s amazing actually, really cool character. So yeah, Odin is the god of choice at the moment.
STV: I do need to ask you because a lot of people want to know, the covers that you post, are you planning on doing anymore of those?
George: Yeah, I just, I don’t really think about them too much. Just if I feel like it and the covers that I’ve posted have tended to be just because I’m sat getting ready to go out somewhere or I’ve been getting ready for bed and I’ve just felt like picking up the guitar and playing something and then I’ve just thought, "Oh, you know what I’ll just throw this down and put a recording of it and put it up on youtube." I’ve not really kind of consciously thought about doing them as like, I’ve not thought about releasing them …it’s just kind of when I feel like it. So I hope people don’t feel like they should expect one once a week, cause that just won’t happen, I’m afraid. It happens when I feel like it, when I feel like playing something. Obviously I will keep doing it, but I don’t make an announcement about it. I just put it up on youtube, I never tweet them, cause I just think, "I’ll just put this up on youtube so I’ve got a recording of myself and then if people choose to watch it they choose to watch it."
STV: Well people definitely choose to watch it.
George: Well good and thank you to everyone who's watching them! I just like playing songs that I love and I will continue to do it, but it wont be like a weekly thing or anything, just when I feel like it.
STV: Right, right. Would you ever want to record an album?
George: Um, eh, maybe. Just, I think that people that want to record an album should be people who have songs of their own that they’d like to promote and I know people do cover albums and people like listening to them, but I think if you’re not someone who's a singer professionally, I wouldn’t say I’m a professional singer. I would say I’m an actor who happens to be able to sing, so you know, I think professional singers are much better at doing an album with covers than I would be. I just like doing it when I feel like it in the evening on youtube, do you know what I mean? So probably not, but we’ll see.
STV: Are there any other roles on stage or screen that you would love to play?
George: Yes, there are loads! I love the show Once, I adore the show and would always love to be in the show. But I am 23 and the guy in the script, you know, it’s about a man who is a the end of his youth and he’s gone though the youth of his life and not found love, and so it’s very hard to make that story believable if you have a kind of young 22 or 23 year old guy in that role. So I really hope it’s still running in ten years so I can go back and do it, because I’d love to.
STV: Do you ever get recognized?
George: Not really, no. Actually, when I was in Los Angeles, I was at an audition for a little indie film and someone else in the audition room said “Are you George? I’m watching Vikings at the moment.” And it really knocked me off my feet. I don’t know, you just don’t think people recognize you and the fact that this guy could recognize me in an audition room, you’re just like, “Oh my God, there’s actually real people out there that watch this television show.” You know when you see the ratings, it’s just a number, so I was really taken aback and flattered and humbled. But no, I don’t get recognized in normal everyday life.
STV: If you could pick one thing, what is your favorite thing about playing Athelstan?
George: I think the favorite thing that I like is that he gets to interact with so many characters and a lot of character's subplots and drama and conflict happen because of Athelstan. So the first time you really see the brothers have a big argument and fallout, Rollo and Ragnar, is in episode 2 when Ragnar decides to do something that Rollo doesn’t want to do and that kind of follows throughout the course of the series. He’s very good for plot details and differences in plot. So I like that aspect, that he gets to be a kind of tool that Michael can use to get the most out of these interesting characters that he created.
STV: Right. So is there anything else you have coming up besides the second season of Vikings?
George: No no, we’re looking to start filming the second season soon, I’m not sure exactly when, but no is the answer. I’m just looking to go back to Ireland and film Vikings and I can’t wait.
STV: Well thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us!
George: It’s my pleasure. Thank you so much for the support, speak to you soon, thank you!
Thanks again to George and keep checking here all summer for your latest Vikings news, and you never know who might pop up!
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