Vikings. Brutal and blood-thirsty. Ruthless men with a hidden vulnerability. Imagine a time and place where the anticipation of the next moment opens the door to fear - to what might come next. Somewhere in the wilderness of Ireland, some of these moments lost in the past are being recreated by Danish born actor, Alex Høgh Andersen.
Alex is fascinated by people, so it is not surprising that he portrays Ivar the Boneless on the historical drama, ‘Vikings’, created by Michael Hirst. Known for their brutality and blood-thirst the Vikings are often misunderstood figures in the retelling of their past. Ivar is a multifaceted character, he is ruthless, but vulnerable; a true underdog by Alex’s own admission. Born with osteogenesis imperfecta - a rare defect where several bones in his legs never formed fully - there is always an obstacle for Ivar to overcome. Alex joined the show two years ago, and in that short time his character has gradually become a fore figure in the storyline following the death of his fictional father, Viking Ragnar Lothbrok. When it returns for its fifth season, the show focuses further on the development of Ivar the Boneless.
Photographer Doreen Kilfeather meets Alex off set at a visually enviable location just outside of Dublin to capture the boy behind the character. It is a playful Alex that unfolds before her lens, as he lets his natural flare for storytelling take over. Whether he is creating stories for film, stills or being behind his own camera lens, creating moments seems to come very naturally for him. Stylist Colm Corrigan sets the relaxed tone further with clean-lined, comfortable garments in a colour palette that matches the colours in the surroundings. Everything merges together as the Boys by Girls team continues to get an insight into the talented Scandinavian actor.
Alex’s interest in people expands to passionate and informed views on politics, contemporary culture and the way the world works, or sometimes doesn’t. It is easy to forget that he is 23 when he talks about his experiences to date; from studying in Copenhagen’s most prestigious drama school to moving to Ireland to work on a successful series. There are moments when he apologises for talking too much; unless Frank Ocean is the topic of discussion. Despite Alex’s complex conclusions on social injustices there is a man who craves a life of simplicity, of finding all you need without having to go too far from yourself or where you came from.
Hey Alex, how’re you?
I am fantastic. I’m really excited, because my family are coming to visit me here in Dublin tomorrow. It will be the first time in about three months that I’ll get to see my mum, dad and sister. It’s going to be so cool having them here with me.
How did you get into acting?
I think I had too much energy when I was a little kid. I was always trying to find something to do. I think acting eventually became a way for me to use up that energy. When I was ten or eleven years old, I was already playing a lot of sports; handball and football, but that wasn’t enough. So, my mum signed me up to a local theatre group.
Had you expressed an interest in acting before your mum had suggested that you try it?
No, not at all! It was the opposite, actually. When she told me I said to her; “Mum, really? What is this, why did you sign me up for this?”. I don’t know how she did it, but she managed to convince me to participate in this small local theatre group. It’s so long ago now that I can’t really remember what exactly happened - how I finally came around to the idea of acting - but I kept going to the group and I did a play with them and then I did another play the year after. The lady that directed that play was also a teacher in this amazing school in Copenhagen. At that stage, I was this young, local farmer dude from a small town of about five thousand people. She told me that I should audition for the school that she taught in.
Did you feel nervous about doing that?
A little bit, I was moreso shocked. I didn’t think that I was any good, really. I mean, I enjoyed acting and I thought if she liked me and how I performed that much to suggest that I audition for this big drama school, then I probably should. She saw a lot of potential in me and I thought; “Ok, let’s try it”. I auditioned and I got in at the age of eleven an stayed there for the next six or seven years. I got a professional education in how theatre works during my time there. I also learned exactly what discipline is and understanding teamwork and that teamwork is the key to everything, especially when you work in acting. So, I learned all about theatre in this school, but also what you need to be equipped as a human being. One thing about drama school is that it prepares people to get ready to work in the business - to get on a stage or in front of a camera but it also inspires people to be very, very good human beings. That place taught me all the basics about how to work with people and how to be in front of a camera. Once I was finished there, I just kept going.
Was it after your time here that you then went on to study Film and Media Studies?
Yeah, I did that when I was finished with High School. When I started studying Film and Media Studies in Copenhagen, that was after a year of working and relaxing after finishing high school, at the age of about twenty. I absolutely loved it - some of my best friend from university are still my closest friends today. I actually had to drop out when the opportunity to work on ‘Vikings’ came about. But, I really found learning about film and media so interesting. Of course it was incredibly academic, but it was the closest that I could get to my passion at that time which was and still is, of course, acting.
And you’re an avid photographer, as well?
Yes! That’s my therapy session. It’s kind of like acting, where you become extremely focused on this one thing that you do that it becomes so relaxing.
Do you bring a camera with on set with you to occupy the hours in between shooting?
I do, actually. There’s obviously a very strict policy on set of not taking photographs while filming is happening so that spoilers are avoided. I keep it to taking a few cool black and white portraits of some of the extras that we have on ‘Vikings’, because the extras that we have are absolutely tremendous. The first, no second time, that I walked on set there was about sixty or seventy extras that were ten times more Viking looking than I am; beards down to their belly buttons, lines on their faces, because they’re old and hardworking Irishmen and they’re covered in blood and mud, they’re in costume and they just look tremendous. It’s a gift shop for a photographer. I waited an entire year before I brought my camera to set to take photographs of the extras and when I finally did I was like; “Why did I wait so long? What have I missed out on?”. It’s absolutely incredible, it’s a great pleasure to be able to do it. It’s also a really nice way to give some kind of recognition to the extras, that is really important to me, because they are the ones standing around outside in the cold for twelve hours while us actors are getting coffee, cakes and blankets. The extras are so important to the show, because it is such a visual programme and they give it life.
Do you think that your understanding of photography and being behind the lens has helped you when you’re acting?
I definitely think so, yeah. In trying to sound as humble as possible, I do think that it has given me a very special understanding of how to be in front of the camera when I’m filming. It gives me an extra bit of excitement, as well. It’s so exciting for me to be on the set and to look at the camera operators and the director of photography communicating with each other. I mean, I was on a trip for the first three or four months of filming trying to follow what they were saying to each other, but now I’m getting used to it. It was such an incredible learning experience to work with these tremendously talented men and women on the set.
What has it been like for you relocating your life to Dublin?
Culture wise, it’s pretty close. I mean, I’m a very relaxed guy and the Irish people are so friendly. It’s been the best experience. It’s a really great town. I moved to Dublin when I was 21, and before that I had already lived away when I was in university studying. I was living with three other people, so I was used to being away from my family. I was completely excited to move to Dublin.
When I was going through your Twitter feed I got excited when I found out that you’re a Frank Ocean fan.
I am a huge Frank Ocean fan! ‘Chanel’ [Ocean’s current single] has been on repeat for me constantly since it was released. I think it may be his best piece of work.
What is it about him that you like so much? What I love about Ocean is that he is visual with his music, he considers how his music can be appreciated as a visual medium, as we’ve seen with his album 'Endless'. His music has a filmic quality. Is that maybe why you are drawn to him as an artist?
Absolutely, he is an amazing visual artist. I mean, just look at the music video for ‘Pyramids’. It’s so random, as are his lyrics. I don’t know what it is about him, but he gets away with being so unpredictable. There’s his voice which is through the roof; every single time. When he finally released 'Blonde', he released ‘Nikes’ and people had been waiting four years since Channel Orange to hear his voice again. So back in the summer when the single came out the day before the album everyone was so excited and then for two thirds of that song his voice is autotuned! So it was like, ok he just does not care one bit what people think. It’s just power, in a subtle way. He lets his art speak for him, and that’s what he is; he is an artist. He proves that he can do everything and do all the stuff himself. Can we just talk about Frank Ocean for the rest of this conversation?
Are you musical?
I play a little bit of the guitar and I sing in the shower, but that’s it. I do have a lot of experience on stage doing musicals with the theatre group when I was younger. I was never one of the singers, though. I was always really privileged to get selected to have a main part, I never had to sing in those parts. But I will sing along to Frank Ocean everyday!
Getting back to your career, ‘Vikings’ has been hugely popular worldwide. The show’s creator, Michael Hirst was involved in other historical drama series including ‘The Tudors’ and ‘Elizabeth’. Why do you think that there is such demand amongst audiences for historical series especially when the period depicted is so far removed from our reality?
Maybe it’s because the story is so far removed from our reality, I think that is probably why people gravitate towards historical dramas. It’s so far away so you don’t really know the story, particularly with the history of Viking excursions. I mean, we all hear the stories about how brutal they were, how extreme they were. It’s funny, because I’m from Denmark and that’s our heritage, but the show isn’t actually so big there, which is nice because it means whenever I go home I don’t get recognised and I can remain a private figure.
What kind of TV shows do you like to watch?
Oh, anything once it’s good! I loved ‘Breaking Bad’. I’m a sucker for great acting, so ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘House of Cards’, they were two of my favourite TV shows. They had great actors, storylines and writing.
That’s something that ‘Vikings’ is praised for. The writing on the show remains as true to history as possible, and there isn’t a dependency on creating tantalising storylines for the sake of it.
Yeah, exactly. Michael has a huge interest in history and he always, always wants to keep the storylines and the writing as authentic as possible. He takes pride at keeping things subtle. Also we had Travis Fimmel (he played the lead role of Ragnar Lothbrok), who is a spectacular actor and he also understands the importance of subtly illuding emotions in how he acts. Both he and Michael really excelled at that on the show. I really looked up to Travis, in particular, and I really enjoyed observing him and getting the opportunity to act with him. We, the actors, are extremely lucky to work with Michael and the writers on the show, because there is a constant dialogue between him and the actors while the episodes are being developed and he gives us the freedom to take our characters in directions that maybe aren’t entirely in the script. Michael appreciates that the actors have spent a lot of time researching and becoming their characters and that sometimes they will understand the character more intimately than he will and he’ll allow us the freedom to act out a scene in a way that we believe the character will react.
How was the transition from doing small time theatre in Denmark to acting on a big production like ‘Vikings’?
Oh, that’s a huge change. It takes a lot of years to fully adjust from stage to screen, it’s so different. I started going to auditions for television shows when I was fifteen and I didn’t have a clue how to be in front of a camera. It’s such a different approach. When you’re on stage you have to reach all the way to the back, right to the back row of the audience. They need to understand what you’re saying and what your gestures are. Talking with you now, I’m using my hands while I’m talking, but in front of a camera, that is too much. You need to tone it down, a lot. There is a completely different technique to acting for stage and screen. When you get used to it, that is when the job becomes interesting. You become fully immersed in what you’re doing, you’re focused on what’s going on and then what is happening around you and everything comes together. It’s a really great experience. What I love about working on ‘Vikings’ is that there is a great vibe on the set and amongst everyone that works there. We get our work done, but we also have a lot of fun there and it is a relaxed environment. It makes it so much more enjoyable to do your job, especially for me with my character constantly dragging himself through the mud, because he is crippled. On those intense and tiring days of filming, you need to have that fun and support around you to keep your mood elevated. Acting is really playing, and good friends play the best.
You’ve described your character, Ivar the Boneless, as a man that is “crippled in tremendously physical Viking culture, abandoned by his father, suffocated with too much love from his mother, overcompensating for his disease.... He has always been the observing one - a lone wolf- but that has made him very intelligent. He is manipulative, skilled, religious and provocative, but most of all he is a sad, angry and vulnerable kid.” It must be exhausting to portray such a complex character?
It’s mostly fun! The bigger the challenge, the further away you can get away from yourself and that is what makes it fun. When I’m doing Ivar the Boneless, he is so far away from me and that is why I love playing him. There is so much diversity to him, and I really have been so privileged to play him. I love the anti-hero, like Walter White from ‘Breaking Bad’ and Frank Underwood in ‘House of Cards’ - they are inspiring characters that will always be a constant struggle for the audience, because one minute he will be funny and charming and then next he can be sassy. That is my constant challenge, to never judge him and to always try to make people understand him and where he has come from. I still, to this day, cannot tell whether Ivar the Boneless is a protagonist or an antagonist and I find that very interesting to play.
What is your favourite historical period?
Native Americans, they are very interesting. I love that vibe they had, that spiritual vibe. It’s like the Disney movie, ‘Brother Bear’, I really loved the serenity of it. I know that’s not exactly from then, but I find that ability to find everything that you need within yourself and from the land so amazing. Also the spear and arrow, that’s very very sweet!
Finally Alex, what makes you happy?
Doing what I love to do and being able to share it with people I love. It’s so cheesy, but it’s true. What is it worth doing something if you can’t share it with family and friends. I’m so lucky to do something I love, that’s what life's about.