In the first part of a series of interviews that we’ll be presenting leading up to the Season Two premiere of History’s Vikings, I recently took part in a conference call with George Blagden, everyone’s favorite monk-turned-Viking Athelstan. Hailing from London, Blagden is a young face with a ton of potential and talent as evidenced by his work on this show, as well as his other major credit as Grantaire in the Oscar nominated Les Misérables.
Things are just getting started for the extremely charming and polite actor and having seen the first four episodes, I can tell you readers that there are major things in store for Athelstan this season. As a result, we’ve omitted references to major spoilers below, but beware of minor plot details if you want to know absolutely nothing going into this season. Here are the highlights of the conversation:
How has Athelstan and Ragnar’s relationship changed since season one?
It’s changed quite a lot, I would say, as we’ve moved throughout Season One and Season Two. You all know Ragnar captured Athelstan at the start of Season One and we have this very complex master/slave relationship that develops into sort of friendship and companionship by the end of Season One. We really see Athelstan integrated into their society.
Potentially, the way Travis [Fimmel] and I decided to play it was Athelstan was the one figure in his life that he really could trust. With all of the marital issues that [Ragnar] has to deal with in episode one and moving into episode two, he really is the only sort of strong point to hunker on to. I think where you find their relationship at the start of Season Two is somewhere that is very, very a deep friendship to each other.
I think as we move through Season Two, you really do understand how much these two men are connected and how important they are for each other, and what choices they make to make sure they are always a constant in each other’s lives.
Brilliant question. When we set off shooting Season Two, we leave Athelstan at the end of Season One in a very, very conflicted place. We’ve just had the festival at Uppsala in episode eight. The most interesting characters to play as an actor and to watch as an audience are the ones that have deep conflicts running throughout them. It would have been far too easy for us to have made Athelstan just completely converted pagan and sort of gung-ho into Viking life.
What you see throughout the first few episodes of Season Two is maybe this attempt, and essentially a bit of a bluff on Athelstan’s part, but what I think hopefully we’ve really been able to capture throughout Season Two is this ongoing conflict that Athelstan has. I wish [the press] had seen past episode four, because you really see that enter into a completely different paradigm and a big shift up another gear for him. To answer your question, it’s absolutely ongoing for Athelstan, this very deep internal religious conflict.
How have you, yourself as an actor, changed with the character of Athelstan?
Great question because I find that on Vikings, what we’ve been able to do is actually mirror character changes and actor changes fascinatingly. When we are on set, we get the scripts maybe two or three weeks in advance of shooting, so as an actor you are unaware of what will be happening to your character in more than a month’s time, in terms of the shooting schedule.
Had I known that was going to happen to Athelstan when we started shooting at the start of Season One, I really doubt I would have been able to portray the character as well or as accurately as I have done. It’s a real bonus working in that way, and that’s what is great about episodic television. So we’re very lucky to be working in that way with Michael [Hirst] and his writing.
What’s the vibe like when you’re on location shooting? Your relationship with the cast seems very big brother/little brother, so do you constantly mess with each other or is it all business on set?
[laughs] Yeah absolutely, it’s probably the prank heaviest set known in the television world. It’s so much fun, we’re such a family, especially coming back for Season Two, it really did feel like coming back to work with family in a way. I’ve only recently just seen some footage from Season Two, but the footage I have seen, I can just see how hard everyone has worked to create something that has just gone up a level this year.
Whilst we work very hard to make sure Season Two is something more for everyone to watch, we also had a load of fun doing it. And this year we got a bit better at getting back at Travis and his pranks. It wasn’t as much one-way abuse towards the dweeby little monk that Athelstan was in Season One, tying him to things. We managed to pull a few pranks on [Travis]. I remember Kathryn [Winnick] tried to get a goat into his dressing room at one point, which he didn’t find very funny. Yeah, it’s good fun. Really, really good set to be on.
What’s your mindset like while trying to get back into character after being away since your work on Season One?
I think the big thing for me was trying to pick up the character of Athelstan when he was in a way, halfway, over the hill on an arc that Michael had written for him. We leave Athelstan at the end of Season One obviously very conflicted, but it’s not final in any way how we leave the end of Season One for any of the characters, but particularly Athelstan. So to have six and a half, seven months off and then come back and hit the ground running again, I think as an actor, I’m just talking about the challenges for me as an actor, that was quite hard for me to kind of re-plot in my mind the arc that the character had been on and think “Okay, here we are now.”
I think the season opener as well, is very much about the plot, resolving this very, very intense conflict between brothers, Ragnar and Rollo. I watched it literally a couple of days ago, I don’t know what you think, but that whole opening twenty minutes just… I obviously didn’t see any of it, I didn’t see any of it shot. I wasn’t there, it was just words on a page to me in a script. I watched it a couple of days ago, mouth open, it was just so sort of epic and amazing.
I think the season opener is really about resolving that and finding out where all the characters are once that’s been resolved, and how it affects all of them. Athelstan is very much sort of that man at home who has to deal with all the repercussions that big battle brings home for Ragnar.
Can you tell us about the overall journey of trying to find the identity of the character?
I’ve gone on record before as saying that Athelstan goes through more change in the course of one and half seasons than Walter White does in five. [laughs] I will probably be chastised for ever having said that, but there is some sort of belief in me that there is that much change that he has to go through.
From episode five in Season Two onward, you see how this journey that Athelstan has gone on, how it really starts to affect him mentally and it’s not anymore about survival. It’s not about “how do I make sure I’m not cut to pieces by some Viking in the town square?” It’s not about “how do I withstand this bizarre festival Uppsala?” It’s about “how do I keep my mind sane after all this,” and coming back full circle where he started Season One, but very changed. Hopefully you’ll see a massive emotional change in Athelstan.
I guess it’s good in a way you haven’t seen it, because now you’ll be tuning in! [Author’s Note: Yes we will!]
Vikings returns at 10:00pm on Thursday, February 27th, exclusively on HISTORY.