Vikings' Latest Casualty: 'He Was the One Character Who Would Never Stop Changing'
Of course there are spoilers ahead. You knew that, right?
Athelstan's suffering is over but the pain of Vikings fans will take some time to heal. If it ever does. The handsome young monk who became an instant fan favorite – some would say fan obsession – died a joyful death as a Christian martyr, murdered by Viking shipbuilder Floki (Gustaf Skarsgard) in the episode, "Born Again."
Since Season 1 when Viking king Ragnar (Travis Fimmel) captured Athelstan (George Blagden) on a raid and brought him back to Scandinavia, we've watched him go from a frightened young man to a confident one -- a bit of a parallel to Blagden's journey as Vikings was his very first TV series.
We talked to Blagden about his last day on the Vikings set, his take on Athelstan's true nature, and the advice he once got from Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne.
How did you feel when you found out Athelstan's days were numbered?
I was a little shell-shocked. I received an e-mail from [show creator] Michael [Hirst] saying why he had to remove Athelstan from the show and I totally agreed with everything he said. It was all about the right moment and it was the right moment. I've now had nearly a year to get used to it [laughs.]
What was it like to shoot Athelstan's death scene?
It was very intense. It was about being very connected with Gustaf [Skarsgard, who plays Athelstan's killer Floki.] We were very much on the same page about what we wanted to try to achieve in that moment. We wanted to demonstrate the mutual respect both characters had for their two different religions. Even though it resulted in tragedy it felt like an inevitable mutual event. This sort of understanding between them in the moment, that this is what had to happen and it was okay for Athelstan to let that happen. I think it's a beautiful ending for him as a character.
It seemed like Athelstan was ready to die.
From the moment Athelstan is visited by God, he knows it doesn't really matter what happens because everything will be all right. The knowledge that he is safe in the hands of God makes him suddenly more provocative in Kattegat. We tried to play that he knew his death was coming and who it was coming from. In the moment he is murdered, his emotional state is that he's already taken that leap of faith. He's already crossed over that line between life and death when Floki walks in the room. It's not a surprise.
You were speaking Latin earlier in that scene. Was Athelstan saying some version of a Mass?
Yes. It's a version that we discovered that was kind of what we thought at that time would be final rites. It was almost like he was preparing himself for death. It's very similar to a Christian funeral blessing that we would have today, working through all of the senses of the body. You see Athelstan touching his eyes, his ears, his nose, his mouth, and making sure that all of the senses were ready to cross over into the afterlife.
How long did it take to shoot the death scene?
My part of it was shorter than Gustaf's. We did it all in one take from different angles. Essentially I got to play the whole action through from when I prepare the religious ritual to Gustaf as Floki walking through the door and committing the act of murder. So for me it was very simple, actually. For Gustaf it was more – his build-up to that climax had to happen in lots of little beats on different days of the week, a few weeks apart, sometimes with different locations and weather conditions. I think he did a splendid job. For us it was a couple of hours in that room.
How did you feel after you had finished shooting that scene?
It's not the answer you want, I'm afraid [laughs.] It was one of the last scenes of the day and we'd had a number of quite complex scenes throughout that day. To be perfectly honest with you, it was sort of a very quick, Okay that's done let's get on to the other scene. I had work the following morning. So, yeah, it's there you go.
What was the very last scene you shot?
It was a very simple. It was in the Great Hall. It was a big group scene where I walk in and everyone notices my arm ring is missing. It was lovely, actually, when they shouted "wrap." Everyone locked the doors of the Great Hall and everyone came in. They brought me a shield that all of the cast and crew had signed. They gave me an axe and had this big surprise presentation for me. It was lovely. It was an overwhelming moment.
So that's when the emotion happened.
Do you know what, actually? The main emotion comes after you stand there and you thank everybody. Everybody's clapping and everything, and you say good-bye to everyone. The main emotion comes when you walk down the corridor to hair and makeup. I had my costume taken off for the last time and I just lost it. Tears were streaming down my face. Having your hair taken out and being shaved – that was sort of, "Okay this character's really gone now. I'm not coming in tomorrow."
What scenes from your time on the show are most telling about who Athelstan is at his core?
In Season 1, for better or for worse, the sacrifice sequence really highlights who Athelstan is and how different he is from the Vikings. He's not willing to sacrifice his own life. There is a lot of guilt and shame that comes with that, as a man. We see his weakness and vulnerability when he is up on the cross in Season 2. We see him at the start of Season 2 very much trying to convince everybody that he has converted to paganism and is one of the Vikings, but in a moment where he truly believes he is about to die, he turns back to Christianity and starts praying to God again up on the cross. So I guess all of these breadcrumbs were there for this rebirth throughout the season, although he did quite a good job of convincing others he'd strayed from his Christian ways, Michael has always tried to keep him very much a devoutly religious man at heart. Events like that really pinpoint that religious, loyal man that he is.
For Athelstan, what was the most enjoyable part of being a Viking?
Getting to let his hair down. The whole first few episodes of Season 2 were hugely scary and hugely overwhelming for him as a character, but I think there was a weird passion for the violence he had at the start of Season 2. Or maybe that's just me as an actor, wanting to play with an axe [laughs.] The thing he enjoyed most, in all seriousness, was learning about the Norse mythology. That's the main narrative for him as a character. He happened to end up amongst battles. He happened to [laughs] end up in bed with women at different times. But I think of all the things, it was about learning what made Ragnar tick as a human being and what had made him the man he was and is.
One thing Ragnar says when he is burying Athelstan is, "You saw yourself as weak and conflicted but you were fearless because you always questioned." Is this a good description of Athelstan?
Yeah. Hugely. He was the one character who would never stop changing. A lot of the characters experience huge changes throughout the show but Athelstan more so than anyone. His curiosity made him continually change how he reacted to the world and what the world had to offer. It made him an extremely diverse and interesting character. There's that lovely scene between Ecbert and Judith in Season 3 where Ecbert warns Judith about Athelstan, telling her that while a man who is complex is very endearing, he can also be very dangerous.
Athelstan did turn out to be dangerous for Judith. After he leaves Wessex, she's brutally punished when their adultery is discovered.
Yes, he did turn out to be dangerous. When we started playing out those scenes of Athelstan and Judith's relationship, we hadn't received the scripts that had the Vikings returning to Kattegat so I didn't know where that relationship was going. Once you, as an actor, learn that Athelstan made the choice to leave, you then have to justify it. I was speaking a lot with Michael and we decided it was like a young man's first love. Athelstan got caught up in the moment and said things that perhaps in retrospect he didn't mean. The tragedy of that situation is that Athelstan never can know he has fathered one of the great future kings of England. One of his last moments alive was to be very dangerous and unpleasant to Judith.
But if he goes to Heaven, as he believes he will, he can look down from the clouds and see Alfred.
Exactly. Yeah. A lot of people have been giving me lots of suggestions I can take to Michael for resurrection and flashbacks and ghost sequences for Athelstan. So I've got a long list of suggestions for Michael that I'll compose in an e-mail [laughs.]
How did Vikings change you as an actor?
It was my first TV show. I'd never seen myself on screen until I finished filming Season 1. I didn't know if I was any good. When it's your first-ever TV job, you walk onto a set and it's like Disneyland. It's your dream come true. There are big cameras everywhere and it's very, very scary. You're shaking every time you do a first take of any scene. You feel like you'll never be able to get over these horrendous nerves that will stop you doing your work.
Did you get advice from anyone before you started shooting Vikings?
I remember actually speaking to Eddie Redmayne on Les Miserables just before I went in to do Vikings Season 1. And he said, "Oh, you've got this TV show. I remember when I got my first TV job. That was the first time I felt like, Oh, okay, I can do this job now. I'd worked in films for five or six years before I got my first series regular on a TV show. Before then I'd just worried about doing enough to make sure I wasn't bad." [laughs.] If that makes any sense. He said once you start doing your first TV job and you're working every day for six months straight you start thinking, Okay, I've survived, now how can I make this really good? Not just, How can I make this not bad? I totally understood that. Vikings was a big learning playground for two and a half years of honing my craft as an actor for camera work and coming to know it was my main passion.
Working with Travis was such a huge part of this job for you. What was it like for you and Travis to say good-bye?
It was very special, the last scenes we did together. The last scene I filmed with him was the scene where Athelstan runs into Ragnar's lodgings in Kattegat and tells him. "I've been born again," and he hugs me and tells me I can't leave. It was an amazing moment of -- This is what the characters are saying to one another, but this is also what the actors are saying to one another as well. There was a lot of chemistry in that scene because of that. Travis is emotional. He is an emotional man. So don't pretend that you're not, Mr. Fimmel!
Can people in Heaven visit people in Valhalla? Will Athelstan and Ragnar see each other again in the afterlife?
I actually think that the speech Travis makes at the end of Episode 6 where he says he will never see Athelstan again because he has gone to Heaven [a place that would not welcome Ragnar] – I don't remember that line being in there and I wonder if it's a line Travis added –that's a more beautiful way to leave it and much more tragic, because Athelstan has this rebirth they will never see one another again.
But we will see you again. What's next?
It's a TV series called Versailles for Canal Plus in France. I play Louis XIV and how he as a very young king attempted to centralize his government by building this monstrosity of a palace that we now know as Versailles. It's got all the action and intrigue and sub-plot that you would expect from a TV show. We shot it in Paris for six months and finished about a month ago.
So you did get to go to Paris, even though Athelstan died before he could go on the raid of that city that he and Ragnar planned together.
Yes. We filmed in Versailles. There was a very special moment in the Hall of Mirrors. I did a monologue in there when it was completely empty. Just me and the camera. With the sun setting through the windows. They were very kind to let us film them. It was very surreal. It's a very different kind of Great Hall. One with high heels.