Last February our TV screens were invaded by a new phenomenon as History Channel brought us its new series Vikings. In a stand out first season, Vikings brought to a viewers a new grasp on Viking culture, in a combination of action, gore, heart, and humor.
One of the most captivating characters of the season was an enslaved monk, Athelstan, played by British actor George Blagden. Athelstan acted as ambassador to the audience in a story that was filled with revelations, questions of faith and friendship, and acceptance and betrayal.
At the end of season one we were left with some burning questions, and even more as we draw closer to season two. I chatted with George about his experience on Vikings, the changes we might see in season two, and how he hasn’t let the popularity of the show go to his head.
Spoiler TV: So how are you?
George Blagden: Really good, really good thank you.
STV: How was your holiday?
GB: Really good, really relaxing. Got to wind down after 5 months of running around like a little boy.
STV: Yeah I’m sure it was nice to have a relaxing time. Are you in London right now?
GB: I am yeah, rainy, rainy gusty London. It’s horrible, really horrible.
STV: Well thank you for talking with me again; it’s our annual chat.
GB: Oh yeah, quite all right.
STV: So I have a few questions for you. A lot of them are fan questions and some of them are other questions. So I have a few questions for you about, well now it’s called After The Dark, but previously known as The Philosophers, and wanted to know a little bit about what your experience was working on that, since it is coming out soon in the US and was your first film. So if you could briefly talk about that a little bit?
GB: Yeah sure, I mean I’m sure everyone says this about their first job but it was really like a dream come true for me. I was in my final term at Guildhall School of Drama and Music here in London and after [a] Skype audition with director John Huddles, I was cast and I had to leave Guildhall early. I was cast in Kiss Me Kate; the final big year production of Guildhall’s final year showcase was the musical Kiss Me Kate. And they kind of save you for your role in your final year to showcase yourself to the industry and that was my role, playing the lead in Kiss Me Kate, as a way of going down the routes of musical theatre in London, if you know what I mean? But then being cast in the Philosophers I obviously took a different turn. I’m not complaining, I’ve had an amazing, amazing, amazing time in the industry and I’ve been very lucky so far, but it was just a really interesting point in my development because that was supposed to be my showcase to enter into the musical theatre world in London and After The Dark or The Philosophers just snatched me away from that.
So I left Guildhall early and went off to Indonesia for two months to film my first job. The teacher in it is an actor called James Darcy and he’s also a British actor and he went to drama school like me so he sort of took me under his wing a little bit and I remember him saying “It’s all downhill from here, George, you will never get to film in a location like this ever again, you’ve really shot yourself in the foot here.” Just everything you see in terms of location of the film, After The Dark, they’re all real, there’s no CGI or anything we really were filming in this massive open space crater and volcanic mountain, and we really were filming on a deserted island out in the sea of Sumatra and it was just like a two months travelling experience almost in Indonesia with a bit of filming thrown in. It was amazing. And it was really nice as well as a first project in the industry to work with basically a cast my own age. There was James who was playing our teacher but then twenty Philosophy students who all were between the ages of seventeen and twenty-three, the actors, so it was like a two months school trip, I was very blessed to be part of that project so I can’t wait to see it when it comes out February 7.
STV: Had you ever studied Philosophy at all at school or was it kind of your first introduction to the kinds of themes you see in the film?
GB: It was a bit, no I’d never studied Philosophy, but I was interested in how much of the anecdotes we used in the film I had heard before. Philosophy can kind of be touched upon in other areas of life, other kinds of lessons at school or whatever, so no I’d never done Philosophy but I knew of some of the details before we started shooting.
STV: Very interesting. So I have seen the first four episodes of Vikings…
GB: Really? You’ve seen more than me!
STV: They’re amazing!
GB: I’m so jealous! I am so jealous! I’ve not seen any footage!
STV: Well it’s good, it’s amazing, and I was blown away by the four episodes that I saw so I think people are going to love it.
GB: I think a really nice think about going back to season two is that we were going back to film a second season because people had enjoyed the show first time around, it wasn’t like History had planned to do four years straight in a row and they were going to do four seasons they just thought they would take it season by season and if they audience were enjoying it we would make more, more Viking madness. So I think that approach this year is also exciting because although you say you really, really loved the four episodes you never know until it’s aired whether people will actually watch it or not so it’s exciting it means that when you go back to do another seasons it’ll be because people are enjoying the work and people out there want to watch.
STV: Yeah, that makes sense.
[Minimal spoilers for season two of Vikings, nothing that has not been shown in promos. If you do not want to know anything don’t read!]
So throughout season 1 there were a ton of changes for each character in the show, and from season one to two you can already see there are some changes just from the promos and things like that, Can you tell us anything about the changes and can you tell us anything about the time jump that happens? I’m not sure if you’re allowed to say anything…
GB: Oh yeah, I’m not really allowed to say anything about specific changes that happen at the start of season two although I’m dying to! I think it’s already been announced, and correct me if I’m wrong, but History has already said somewhere in press that there is a time jump at the end of episode one of season two, we jump ahead four years. I think someone, Travis, Clive, or Katheryn said this in an interview? I mean it’s kind of self explanatory as they cast an older Bjorn and that was announced, so I think the audience will be able to figure out that Alexander (Ludwig) is not trying to recreate the same age as Nathan.
So yeah there’s a time jump at the start of season two, but we start season two exactly where we left off at the end of season one, probably about seven months have passed. What you’ll see is this battle between Jarl Borg and Rollo and Ragnar and Horick, so it sort of throws you right back into where you left, where you left all the characters off.
STV: Let me ask you, do you like it when shows work that way with the time jump and giving it a fresh take and skipping a lot of the backstory?
GB: I think yeah, simply yes, I love it when characters are allowed to progress at a speed that makes it very exciting and new and fresh every week for the actors who are presenting these roles. If we filmed Vikings the way that 24 is filmed, we’d be sat in boats a lot of the time and not getting anywhere very quickly, if you know what I mean?
Yeah it’s good fun and it gives characters a lot to play with and especially when you have a character like Athelstan who is so complex and develops in such a big way over the course of two seasons. Had that progression not happened as fast I might not have had half as much fun as I did trying to navigate how to portray this lovely, lovely character.
STV: Now I know you can’t say much about the changes he does go through, but how difficult it is for Athelstan as a man of faith to go through these changes we’ve seen in the promos at least, we’ve seen there’s quite a big change without spoiling anything, and do you think that will influence his arc throughout the season?
GB: Oh, I think yes. The changes that you see in Athelstan at the start of season two really do affect his trajectory throughout the rest of the season. He changes in quite a big way at the start of season two and he just kind of keeps going in terms of his changing nature. Oh god, I don’t know how to…it’s very frustrating for me to know that you’ve only seen up to episode four because oh boy if you’d seen episode five…
STV: Oh don’t even do that to me! I was just blown away by what happens in episode four.
GB: Yeah I’ve yet to see it and without revealing anything to your readers, what happens to Athelstan at the end of episode four was the most physically and emotionally challenging thing I’ve ever had to do as an actor. It was just one of those days that I will probably never forget. Very tough. I don’t know how it will all come across, I have no idea what it all looks like, I don’t know if it looks as bad as it felt on the day but it was a…yeah
STV: So one of the questions someone brought up was Athelstan’s kind of inner self conflict regarding whether to conform to Viking society or remain true to his faith, and as an actor do you find it more rewarding to play characters with a great deal of conflict?
GB: Yes, I do. In every single interview I’ve done about Athelstan I always get asked this question and I think it’s because I harp on about it so much, I always say whenever someone says, “What do you love about playing Athelstan?” I always say the conflict, the inner struggle and I will probably sound like a broken record but I’m going to say it again. The thing that I always say is the most interesting characters to get a hold of as an actor are the ones that have demons and real internal struggles because it layers the work and it layers these really detailed characters that Michael has created, it layers their relationships. I think it really does make a difference when you watch a show that adds that that sort of detail and subtly to its character make up.
STV: Right. So a lot of people wanted to know if we will see you in any battle scenes this season, and specifically if you finally get to ride a horse.
GB: Well obviously I can’t say anything, and you know as well as I do what the answer to that question is, but I think from the promotional photos that have been released…
STV: We do see you behind a shield.
GB: We do see me behind a shield, which could be me hiding behind Lagertha in Kattegat when a horse comes galloping down a street, which could be what that photo is. Yeah, I can’t say, everyone will just have to watch.
STV: Would you want to ride a horse though?
GB: Yeah of course! Of course I would want to ride a horse, I was sort of begging for it, all these other Vikings around me. Travis is really, really good on a horse and can like show off on one and ride backwards and stuff while twirling his axe around and looking like seriously cool. And then there’s me, jumping up and down next to him like, “Can I get on now? Can I…?” So yeah we’ll see if Athelstan gets to ride along side them.
STV: Do they go to like, horse school, to learn all that stuff?
GB: Yeah there’s a riding school in Wicklow, so sometimes guys who have to ride a lot in the show go for riding lessons there, but mainly they get lessons on set from our horse master Tony Doyle who has the big stables in Wicklow. He’s brilliant because he’s worked in the film industry for years and years and years and did things like King Arthur when it was filmed years ago in Ireland. He has a full stable of horse that are so well trained, they’re like driving cars, you pull left on the reins and it’s like 90 degrees to the left immediately. It’s like riding robots, it’s amazing for an actor cause it means you can just sort of forget about falling off a horse and do your job which is the acting part.
STV: Yeah I used to work with horses and train horses and the falling off part is not so great.
GB: Yeah it’s not, no. Though how would I know though, how would I know?
STV: How would you know? Maybe in a past life you rode horses.
GB: Yes! Possibly that’s it!
STV: So we have to talk about your hair, because every interview we do we have to talk about your hair, you should be used to this by now.
GB: Yes, oh god.
STV: So you got long hair this season, which you tweeted about quite a bit.
GB: Yes, yes that’s true.
STV: Do you prefer your season one hair or season two hair? Basically, people want to know if you miss the bald spot.
GB: Well people I don’t think will be very surprised to know that I don’t miss it terribly. I feel a lot warmer now, I can go outside and not feel like a chill down the back of my neck, yeah I’m all for not having a bald spot. But yeah the hair extensions…I mean the fact is we’re so bloody fickle. Like as soon as you have one thing you desperately want something else and as soon as you have that you start complaining about it. So as soon as I got long hair like the rest of the Vikings of course I started complaining with everyone else about the hair extensions, “Ugh they get so tangled.” No I’m joking, it’s amazing, it’s great. They’re really quite good, you really can’t tell the hair extensions when they’re in even up close. Dee Corcoran, head of hair, does an amazing job. I’m very appreciative to have shoulder length hair.
STV: Did you ever pick up any tips on how to deal with it, because I know you were looking for pointers?
GB: Oh yeah I did sort of. I think the trick is a good brush; you really do need a good brush.
STV: In the changes that Athelstan experiences, he seems to go from a very innocent character at the beginning of season one to a much darker one at the end of season one. Which has been your favorite to play, the more innocent aspect or the darker aspect?
GB: I suppose that’s kind of like a trick question isn’t it? I mean I just love playing dark sides to characters and I don’t often get to go up for auditions or roles that have real dark sides to them. I think, I don’t know if it’s just my demeanor or…?
STV: You’re just too nice of a person.
GB: Well thank you! What Michael has given me in Athelstan at the end of season one and throughout the beginning of season two, really throughout the middle and into the end of season two gets really, really dark and it’s great because it’s so much more fun. Maybe it’s that you’re not allowed to be very dark in real life, I mean I guess you are allowed to be, but I don’t allow myself to be, and that’s what Michael allows me to be with Athelstan. We go to some really dark places in season two, which is really fun to me.
STV: As an actor how do you work through these kinds of performances, what is your process? Especially with not really knowing what lies ahead for the future?
GB: I think the key to playing a character that constantly changes is to not knowing too much in advance what’s going to happen to your character. Had I known where Athelstan would end up at the end of season two when I started shooting season one I never would have been able to sort of convincingly make that transformation. I think it’s really important that information like that is withheld from the actor because then you’re making choices about your character in the moment from scene to scene and you’re not pre-empting things. You’re not assuming that because X happens in episode nine at the end that Y can’t happen now.
It’s what’s amazing about episodic television is you get to do that. If we were doing Vikings the movie and Athelstan had this kind of change obviously I would know in advance and that would be a different sort of challenge. The success of Athelstan fitting into the Viking world is because Michael keeps the story very close to his chest right up until your about to film it and it means that the actors are very receptive to whatever is thrown their way. It’s exciting.
STV: Right. So the big point of conversation at the end of season one was Ragnar’s betrayal of Lagertha. Who do you think Athelstan would chose? Where do you think his loyalties lie?
GB: That’s a very good question! Well perhaps we’ll discover at the start of season two where his loyalties lie! But I think going on from the end of season one, I’ve said before that Athelstan and Ragnar have this very strong bond between them. It started out as master/slave but it’s sort of grown into companionship and they both need each other in a way. Ragnar really desperately needs Athelstan to sail west and to keep assuring his endeavors in England. Also Athelstan at the end of season one still needs Ragnar as his ally because he is this foreigner in this foreign land. So they need each other, and that sort of…well I can’t spoil it but that will be where Athelstan goes at the start of season two, he can’t really not keep that allegiance to Ragnar because of that strong bond between them.
STV: Is there a person or character that you haven’t worked with much that you would like to?
GB: I’ve worked with, obviously, a lot of the cast, but there are some I’ve worked with a lot more. Particularly in season two there are some I’ve worked with more than others and as the audience will see, the characters do really take much more of their own paths and Michael carves out lots and lots of different exciting subplots in season two.
In season one the story arc very much involved the family and all the drama and action centered around Ragnar Lothbrook’s family and all the characters came in and out of that. In season two, and maybe you disagree with me with the first four episodes, but it does feel like Michael has started to kind of create these other tendons, do you agree?
STV: I think in season two you see that other characters are being fleshed out, other characters have personality, other characters have their own destiny basically. It’s one of the things I really liked about the episodes I saw was that it does seem like you’re getting more of a chance to explore the entire world of the show and not just one point.
GB: Exactly, yes.
STV: Were there any pranks that happened on set? Anything really memorable from filming season 2?
GB: Oh goodness, I mean yes obviously there were quite a few I’m just trying to think of the best ones to tell you about…um…
STV: Wow, this one’s the hardest question!
GB: Yeah, it really is! Just I mean, there will be antics between all the cast, I mean just this sort of game that all the cast have in their dressing rooms where you’ll come back to your dressing room and your phone will be taped to the ceiling and stuff like that. That’s just sort of norm now, like I’m expecting to not have my phone for a period of today because it will be taped to my ceiling.
STV: Well you are pretty bad at keeping track of your phone and your ipad, if twitter is anyway to judge. Your sister seems to get a hold of those…
GB: Ugh yes I thought that I could maybe trust my sister a bit more to be slightly mature and not grab my ipad every time I leave it on the kitchen table at my mom and dad’s house every time I visit but no she’s sneaky. It got to a point where I sort of, I have to let her to do it now, so it’s not as much fun for her. If she’s doing it behind my back and I’ve gone out of the room and I come back and I catch her and she’s tweeting something and I catch her and have a go at her then it’s really good fun and she get’s a kick out of it. If I sort of hand it over to her and be like, there you go have a go at it then, then it’s not the same.
And it also got to the point where people were preferring her tweets to mine on my account so I was like oh ok, maybe I should just give my sister my twitter account. What’s terrifying though, when I read what’s she’s said, is almost everything she’s said is true. Like some of them are so ridiculous that people are like ha, she must be joking, obviously George didn’t go and watch 17 again five times on his own in the cinema but yeah…
STV: Well now the truth comes out.
GB: Now the truth comes out yeah, I shouldn’t have done that but yeah it’s a lot more dangerous than people think when Katie get ahold of my account. Very dangerous. Anyways.
STV: So what has been your experience seeing your popularity grow after Vikings and did you imagine the worldwide success that it would become?
GB: Um no, not at all! I don’t think any of us thought or really knew before we were doing season one what Vikings would become. I think because it was such a new take on the Vikings as a race of people and it had Michael Hirst as a writer not for Shotime as he had been before but for History, it was their first drama. It was sort of, it’d never been done before so I think it was very unexpected but a lovely surprise and I think it’s been a really great help for us and the show to have our show being aired on History because what I’ve come to learn is it’s such a massive channel in the states, in terms of viewership and if you have something that’s on the History Channel in the States, how many people your work is being exposed to. So I think having Vikings on History has been amazing for us because it means the work is seen a lot more frequently on a regular basis.
STV: Right, I mean I got questions from Chile and Argentina; you have a very worldwide fan base!
STV: Yes, they wanted me to say hello from Chile and Argentina, so hello from those countries!
GB: Well hello to them! Hello to everyone in South America!
STV: Yeah, you’re big time now.
GB: Actually there was a, in Dublin airport, towards the end of season two filming, I was picking up my bag from the conveyor belt and this lovely gentleman tapped me on the shoulder and said [in South American accent] “Excuse me, can I ask you a question?” And I said, “yeah, yeah of course go ahead.” And he said, “Are you in a TV serial called Vikings?” And I said, “Yeah I am!” And he said, “Come here, come here!” And he took me over to his wife and he pointed at me and said “Priest!” And that was how he introduced me to his wife, so that was his reference point. So I was aware that someone from South America must have been watching, he said he was from Chile and visiting Europe. But it’s lovely; it’s lovely to know I’m being watch by people all over the world. And they do know me as Priest.
STV: That’s amazing. Do you get recognized often?
GB: No not at all. It can be quite weird in the states, the comparison between the States and the UK. Just before we started filming season 2, when we came out to LA to do the Emmy panel, Clive and I walked out of the LA airport and there was all of this camera crews and people with Vikings photos and sort of saying, “Clive, Clive what’s it like to be in the United States? George!” and all that. I thought I was being Punk’d, I thought it was like an Ashton Kutcher, you know what I mean, it was so extreme!
And in the UK no one knows what Vikings is, because it’s on an online format, it’s not…well in actual fact the viewing figures for Vikings on Love Film in the UK have been higher than like The Tudors on BBC2 so clearly lots of people are watching it here in the UK and the rest of Europe where it’s on Love Film but it’s sort of, because it’s on video on demand I think it’s sort of kept in the bubbles of people’s living rooms. You know what I mean?
I feel like I’m doing a disservice to Love Film here because obviously they do an amazing job in promoting it and obviously people know about the show in the UK but I think compared to History in the States, it’s different.
STV: If you think about it when we talked for the first time a year ago, I think on Twitter you had like 5,000 Twitter followers, the show hadn’t been aired yet, and now I think you have like 25,000 followers and that’s just in a year. So obviously you have a fan base that is rapidly growing and how do you stay true to yourself and keep your head out of the clouds so to speak?
GB: Well, I think it’s quite easy really. I’ve found it odd when, I’ve seen in interviews with other actors where people have said how do you keep your feet on the ground and I think that should just be how you are. I think people shouldn’t change. I mean obviously people do change in life, life is all about change, life is all about you experiencing things and you change as a result of your experiences but it’s not like it’s easy or hard, I just am who I am.
I think one of the reasons, why I’m so active on Twitter is I like connecting, it’s all about sort of talking to people. Sometimes I talk to people on Twitter a lot more than other times, sometimes I go quiet for a couple of weeks if I’m busy and I don’t get the chance to but I like coming back and sort of talking to people and responding to them and I think that’s maybe, in trying to answer your question, that’s how you sort of can not get too carried away with it. You engage with it, you know what I mean?
STV: Yeah, it keeps you grounded?
GB: Well yeah, if you talk to people on Twitter, like you know me and you have done, you realize it’s people that I get to have a conversation with. And I think people sort of ignore it or use it as sort of like, “Oh yeah, I don’t like the social media aspect because I don’t feel like I want to connect via that form, I want to connect with people through my work.”
I understand that view but at the same time you get to speak about your work with other people and other people’s work and you get to learn with other people besides your friends and family. And it’s nice because people are really honest on Twitter because at the end of the day they aren’t your friends and family so if someone wants to criticize you for something really heavily, they will and it’s good, it’s not just like the only conversation you have with someone about your work is your mom, who thinks you’re amazing and brilliant and lovely.
STV: I think one of the questions that I really liked that you could briefly talk about, during season one Athelstan was often the character with which the modern audiences could most associate, do you still feel that he will still be a character that the audience will be able to associate with the most?
GB: That’s a good question. I think in a way, not to sort of downplay the importance of his character in season one, but I do really do feel like for Michael the character of Athelstan is a very useful plot device, and he became a very interesting character, but initially essentially he was a very useful plot device. I think in season two you see less of him being a plot device or the character that the audience can relate to and just being part of the Viking world and watching him develop as much as any other character develops. So I guess, maybe, I don’t know we’ll have to wait and see whether there’s lots of abuse held to Athelstan this season or whether everyone’s along side with him, we’ll see if he’s still an audience relatable character.
STV: Excellent. Thank you so much for talking today, I’ll be getting the chance to review the show again this season.
STV: Well thank you very much! Hopefully we can talk again soon!
GB: Thank you, Katrina, and we’ll talk soon!
Don’t miss the season premiere of Vikings on February 27!