|Fimmel (centre) surrounded by the main cast members of Vikings
Michael Hirst has become one of the leading storytellers in historical TV drama. The English screenwriter, who penned Elizabeth (1998) before writing virtually every word over four seasons on The Tudors, is now responsible for everything you see on Vikings. The Canada-Ireland historical drama returns for a second season Thursday night at 10 p.m. on History.
Vikings did very well in Canada and the United States last season. It pulled an average audience of close to 1.2 million on History, making it 2013’s No. 1 rated scripted specialty series.
I met Hirst in Ireland last October and he was happy to take full credit for the series’ success.
“They say we did better in America than The Bible,” he says, referring to Mark Burnett’s very successful Biblical epic, which also aired on History. “So I talked to someone over there and I said, ‘Can we issue a statement saying, ‘We are now bigger than Jesus?’ And they said, ‘The last person who tried to do that was John Lennon.’”
|Screenwriter Michael Hirst
Hirst, by the way, wears the same style of round, wire-framed eye glasses Lennon used to sport.
Along with TV Guide’s Greg David, I interviewed Hirst in one of the primitive yet luxurious Viking dwellings on the sound stage near Dublin where the series is shot. The conversation came around to casting, specifically the lead Viking Ragnar Lothbrok, played by Australian Travis Fimmel.
Fimmel, it turns out, very nearly did not get the role.
Casting took a long time. Hirst and the other producers saw “a lot of pretty English actors” for the role, “but these guys couldn’t even lift an axe.”
He wanted to avoid the cliche of the bearded, Scandinavian strongman, pointing to Ragnar’s brother Rollo (played by Clive Standen) as more “the Viking you’d expect.”
Hirst saw Ragnar as “a very imposing, brutal fighter, someone who doesn’t ask too many questions, who absolutely believes in the Gods and all. I needed someone who was more thoughtful. I always think of these Scandinavians as being kind of deep, or at least they give the impression because there’s always something always behind the eyes.”
So I was looking for those qualities, and, what happened was, we couldn’t find the “Ragnar.” I mean, we were looking at Scandinavians, there were a couple of Scandinavian actors, but they were sort of two big names, you know? Until you get a show up and running, and until it’s successful, it’s harder to cast it obviously.
In TV, you can create stars, you don’t normally hire them, but anyway, we finally got a “Ragnar” who fitted the bill more or less, and, he’d been tested three times and our first director, Johan Renck had worked with him a little bit, and everyone had signed off on him, ‘cause we needed to sign off ‘cause we were getting close to shooting and Johan said, ‘You know what, I think I can probably work with him. He’s not ideal. It’s not what we talked about, but never mind. We’ll work with it.’ And so, that night actually, it was just then me to sign off, and my wife said, ‘Let’s look at the tests that this guy did. Let’s just, for our own piece of mind.’ So we watched them, and she said, ‘I can’t watch this guy as the hero. He doesn’t do anything for me very much, and it doesn’t seem all those things you talked about. Where’s the depth? Where’s the – you know, it’s not there.’
And I had to agree. And I realized that I was sort of being pressured slightly into compromising – fair enough, there’s a time limit on these things.
But I called them up and said, ‘If I have any power at all, I’m sorry, I’m exercising it now – we’re not going with him.’
And then I think, three days later, Travis’s self-shot test came in – in his farmhouse – in the kitchen of his farmhouse in Australia. And he didn’t bother with the accent and he didn’t dress up as a Viking, which a lot of the others, believe me, had done–a lot of them with horns. And some in things you never even associated with Vikings, by the way, you know, a sort of a North American Indian look.
And he wasn’t loud, you know, I loved it the most that he was a Viking.
So he did this reading, and he did that, and it kind of was raw, but it was real and Johan and I watched it and we said, maybe, maybe this is the guy. You know, we’ll test him, but we have a very strong sense that this might be. And an Australian! Who knew?