After several seasons of lost wandering, during which he puzzled both himself and everyone around him, Vikings concluded the troubled Hvitserk’s story by having him abandon his native beliefs for the Christian faith. As opposed to his brothers, who either went off with a bang to Odin’s Valhalla or found meaning in the New World, his conclusion was fittingly muted as he finally found peace after so many years adrift. Similarly, Marco Ilsø, the Danish actor behind Hvitserk, admits he was pretty off track when he was first cast in Vikings. Back then, acting was more of a side-gig, something he did now and then for fun. There was no clear aim to his life, but getting cast as Hvitserk changed all that. A lost actor coupled with an equally lost character proved to be a solid match that grew into a stunning performance that climaxed with Hvitserk’s aching rock bottom at the beginning of season 6.
While the time in Ireland filming Vikings revealed his purpose and taught him focus, the popular show didn’t change the fact that Marco is “just fucking Marco”. A real homebody who thrives near family and friends in Denmark, far away from the smug mainstream acting scene. Valuing his time, he tries to keep work and personal lives separate, but occasionally struggles to leave the character by the door at the end of the day. Alongside the gift of purpose came overthinking, a double-edged sword; his mind works overtime now - in breach of his own rules - mulling over something he should or shouldn’t have done. The intention now is “getting better at what I’m already good at”, so it’s bound to occupy the mind, awake and asleep.
Marco and I caught up over video call to talk Hvitserk’s journey through the show in parallel to his own, Vikings' gruelling battle scenes, Ivar and Hvitserk’s complicated relationship, and - now standard - we reflected on the year we (barely) made it through, to the brighter future we hope is on the horizon. In another time and place, none captures the sea quite like Emilia Staugaard does. Flushed by its sheer strength, Emilia meets Marco on land, feet firmly planted on Danish soil. Though the coastline is carved by winds and threatens to make Marco part of it, the landscape beyond does not turn rugged. It remains as is, predictably flat. There, stillness upholds the peace. Maria Angelova wraps Marco in colours that conform, granting him passage to the sea, and thick knits that keep the chill at bay just long enough so that he may bathe in the peach tinge of sunset.
2020 was in so many ways a terrible year for the world, but putting aside the negative for a moment, in what way was 2020 a positive year for you?
It was a terrible year, especially for the movie market. For most of 2020, it was pretty quiet on the acting part. Except for some reshoots here and there, the business was mostly still. I had a lot of time to spend with my family. You could say I learnt to enjoy those moments. To enjoy walks on the beach or walks in the park. I learnt to enjoy the slower pace, and that's pretty nice. I also spent a lot of time fixing my finances, like taxes and stuff, so I'm getting better at keeping those things in order. Maybe a few DIY projects and stuff like that. 2018-2019 was pretty fast-paced, so I reckon it was good for me to slow down and chill out in 2020 and, you know, put up some shelves or whatever.
We’ve just entered a new year, have you set any intentions or goals for 2021?
Yeah, I guess. I'm not into that whole 'new year, new me'. Everybody wants to get fitter or do this and that. You don't have to do a 'new you'. Everybody doesn't have to match up to be this one type of person. My goal is to get better at what I'm already good at. To get better at some areas of acting and explore different versions of myself, so I can go into the extremes of every character I play. Instead of playing this one sided character, I want to expand that and test out some extremes. Like I did with Vikings, for example. That's what I want to do for the new year.
Yeah, you definitely accomplished that with Hvitserk. He is such a complicated character and a bit of a question mark to both himself and everyone around. How did you prepare for the role?
He is so weird! I didn't prepare at all. I didn't know anything about him. I had no clue what Hvitserk was about. There was no real character description for him. The other brothers had inherited different traits from their father, Ragnar, but Hvitserk had absolutely none. Michael Hurst and I sat down thinking, 'what do we do with this character?'. In the beginning - for the most part - he is just there. I began reading up on what happens to Hvitserk in the sagas and it says he was burned in Russia or something like that, but there wasn't a lot to look into. Ivar the Boneless is famous. There are so many sagas about Ragnar, Ubbe, Bjørn - but with Hvitserk, there’s close to none. So how do you prepare? I didn't know where my character was going. The thing is... You only get two episodes at a time, so you only have those two episodes to go off of. When your character doesn't really have the biggest decisions, you can't quite shape the character, so you just have to freestyle it. It was pretty difficult in the beginning because I didn't quite know who he was. Is he the funny brother? What trait did he inherit from Ragnar? Coming into it, I winged it.
That kind of works with the character though because he also doesn't know what he's doing. As you got to discover him further, what did you find that you had in common with Hvitserk?
I reckon we have a lot in common in just winging it. I've been on so many different education paths - it's unbelievable. I had no clue where I was going, so I started teaching at a school as a substitute teacher. Then I got invited over to Dublin to do the audition for Hvitserk and I told the headmaster that I was going. He said I couldn't be gone for a week and that I would be pretty much fired if I went, so I said, 'fuck it, I'm going'. I'm just strolling along, which is pretty much the same thing that Hvitserk is doing. After strolling along for a while not knowing what to do, we both figure out what to do with our lives.
It sounds like it was a very successful casting match. Do you think the legacy of Ragnar sometimes works against Hvitserk?
Ragnar's legacy - and the fact that Hvitserk is his son and has to build his own legacy - is a huge problem for him because he doesn't know where he's going. It's pretty hard when you don't have a goal to know what your faith is, so I reckon that's why the character clings to the other characters. That’s why he's in the shadow of Ubbe and Ivar. His legacy or his goal is probably just to help somebody else, in a sense. And because he doesn't know where he's going, he's constantly asking the gods for solutions. He's constantly asking Odin for solutions. If he can't find it there, then he goes to Buddhism to ask questions there. But since he doesn't get a solution there, he goes back to the old gods. He can't find his purpose. I really thought he found it when meeting the Viking goddess Idun, but I guess in the end, he finds that kind of solution in Christianity and that's why he converts. But I really did believe that a meeting with a Viking goddess would make him completely faithful to the gods.
That would make sense. If he were to meet one of the gods, you would think he would end up firmly believing in it. But how about this... Even though he met Idun, maybe the old gods weren't right for him in the first place?
You're right - maybe.
As you mentioned, Hvitserk converted to Christianity in the end. In Christianity, he finds peace and calm - which is the opposite of Viking brutality - do you think this is what he craved all along?
I think he found some peace. The rest of the Vikings characters go out with a bang, pretty much. I thought Hvitserk was going to do the same, but it suited his history really well to finally find peace. He's been a wreck since the end of season 5 and hasn't found his place at all. I think maybe that's what he seeks in Christianity in the end - that peaceful place. The thing is, the character also likes the raiding. He likes the brutality of it, but maybe in the end, it was too much.
Even though he feels very lost at times, when Hvitserk’s in battle, he looks like he’s on top of the world; in his element. What's the preparation for the battle scenes like?
Oh, you couldn't imagine the preparation! Normally, a day is pretty rough in itself with all the acting, especially for me in season 6 because I had to get up around 4 every morning to do crying scenes in the rain for a whole day. I would be off at like 7-8 in the evening maybe, but then I would have to work out the battle routines for two or three hours. Then I have to rehearse the scenes for the next day and maybe get a little bit of a workout in and make food and all that. It's very stressful, so it's hard to be at your absolute best during those stunt rehearsals. They are pretty demanding. The stunt guys know exactly what they want it to look like and they are some of the best in the world at what they do. I think it shows that we've put a lot of hours into perfecting those scenes. But honestly, doing those stunt rehearsals in the evenings were such a relief for me. Even though it was demanding, it was a great place to get all the crying in the rain stuff out of my head. If you're crying for 10 hours every day for a whole week, it's pretty hard not to take that home with you. If you're constantly depressed on set and you have to be this person for more hours than you're being yourself, it starts to rub off on your personality. Doing those stunt rehearsals and workouts pretty much saved me from being completely isolated in my apartment in Dublin. I quite enjoyed doing them. I think that also shows in the character - that he enjoys the fighting.
It's very draining. The thing that people don't realise when they watch a stunt scene and it jumps between different characters is that the whole stunt scene was shot as one continuous scene. It’s really challenging to remember all the things while also acting, shouting and being out of breath. It’s one thing to do it in rehearsals in the stunt shed, but it's a whole other thing to do it on set, in the mud, wearing fur and big armour. The armour also constricts your chest, which makes it harder to breathe. You're pretty much out of breath a lot, so it's really challenging. But sometimes you just forget all about it because you're in the moment... I had a few moments in season 6 in the end where I was about to pass out because it was hard to breathe. In the end though - when you're looking at the finished product - you're just really proud of yourself.
I was watching season 6 yesterday and remembered this time that I split a stunt guy's lip open. I felt so bad. There are so many things to remember during these scenes and sometimes you completely lose focus. I felt so bad for him, but the stunt guys are so professional, they don't give a shit. I completely froze. He was down on the ground bleeding and he said, "Keep going! Keep going!". That same guy was also my stunt double for Hvitserk's execution. He got his eyebrows burned off because he didn't jump in time. That guy just completely ran out of luck with those things, but he still enjoys it.
Let's chat about Ivar and Hvitserk's relationship. Despite Ivar being a terrible brother to Hvitserk most of the time, Hvitserk tends to go back to him. Why is that?
I think Hvitserk always knew he was fated to be with him. Since he’s so conflicted, he just goes with what his gut tells him to do and I think that's why he ends up with Ivar. But their relationship is very, very complicated and it's hard to describe, I guess. After going through all these tormented things, he ends up thinking that his fate is to kill Ivar and that's what he goes with. And then he ends up with this love/hate relationship with his brother which I really wish we could have explored a bit more. I think there could have been a bit more back and forth. But, you know, I reckon the end product was really good. The end part with Ivar - the scene I did with Alex in the end - was probably the most emotional scene I ever filmed. Most of the time, I just pretend to cry, but that one scene with Alex [Høgh Andersen], I actually cried my eyeballs out. I remember Alex getting up after the scene and I was crying my eyes out, 'fuck, dude, it's hard to stop crying once you get into it'. And Alex started crying too, "I can't stop crying either".
In season 6, Prince Oleg says this about Hvitserk to Ivar: "I believe that he loves and hates you in equal measure". Do you agree with this quote?
I think that up until the last scene when Ivar dies in Hvitserk's arms, it was pretty much 50/50. I think the last part with Ivar's death made Hvitserk turn from 50/50 love/hate to 100% love. In the Viking days, dying wasn't a big thing - you go to Valhalla, it's fine, I'll see you there - but since Hvitserk’s so conflicted about faith, it made Ivar's death really emotional. I think the percentage of love really rose to 100% when he saw his brother dying in his arms, but up until that point, I think it was a 50/50 love/hate relationship.
Ivar also changes quite a lot in season 6 because of young Prince Igor. Do you think Hvitserk notices that his brother is changing?
Absolutely. If I'm not completely mistaken, after seeing Ivar interacting with Prince Igor, I believe he has a line which comments on the change in Ivar. That would also take a bit of the hate out of Hvitserk, seeing that Ivar has actually changed for the better and has matured a lot more. And I think that also makes Hvitserk mature much more as well. Seeing that Ivar has those feelings and that he can show that kind of emotion towards other people changes Hvitserk's perception of Ivar. That's also a big turning point in their relationship.
In what ways do you think Vikings impacted or changed you?
Well, it changed my need for sleep haha. Before I could sleep for 10 hours, no problem, but after Vikings... I wake up so early in the morning now. I've matured a lot as a person. That also has to do with finance because before getting on Vikings, I had absolutely no money whatsoever. I didn't do any big jobs. I didn't have a lot and was struggling a bit. Getting a stable job that you do for three or four years matures you and makes you a bit more secure. That helped a lot.
It changed me a lot. Before getting on Vikings, I was a bit of a cocky, outgoing dude. I've turned my cockiness down a bit now. I've also learnt to focus a hundred per cent on the job instead of just having it be a side job that I do for fun. Now I know that this is what I want to do with my life. That's probably the biggest change. Although, it's more stressful because I overthink all the scenes and new projects that I work on. I've also gotten a lot better at my job. Having been able to talk to other actors, like Jordan Patrick Smith who plays Ubbe, has taught me a lot about acting and thinking outside the box. Jordan is most likely the reason I grew so much as an actor on set.
How would you describe yourself?
The best way to describe myself is that I'm just fucking Marco. During a Danish TV show, they asked, "So how's your life now? Is it just glamour, champagne and supermodels?". Absolutely not. The biggest high of my days is getting my dog to sit on command and give him a handshake.
What makes you happy?
I enjoy the smaller things in life. I enjoy chilling and being myself. My dog being happy makes me happy. My mum being happy makes me happy. I'm more of a family guy than this actor who wants to go see the world. I don't want to get a house in America and stay there and be this outgoing actor who is all over the place. I don't want to do that. I try to distance myself from the whole American acting scene. I'm down to earth, both feet on the ground type dude.
I can imagine that it is easy to get carried away when receiving a lot of attention - which can be a dangerous path.
Yes, that is why I have my Instagram be work-related as much as possible and keep my Facebook to my friends and myself. I like to keep work and personal life separated. When you're being someone else for a living, it's hard not to bring that home.
What makes you sad?
I'm generally a very happy person. It upsets me if I can't leave work at work and I get too much into it. I'm having a bit of trouble leaving work behind when I leave work because I want to do my best when I play a character. Sometimes it's hard to forget when I'm trying to sleep. It's hard to stop thinking, 'oh I should do that and that'. I feel like I need to write it down for tomorrow. Or if I'm watching myself on screen and see something I shouldn't have done or should have done better. I'm pretty self-aware when it comes to work. It makes me sad that I criticise myself. I get angry for getting angry with myself haha.
It's a bit of a vicious cycle. It's hard I can imagine as your craft is yourself.
Sometimes if I'm having a rough time at home or my friends are having a rough time and I see that, my mind starts racing, 'oh, I could use that if I do a character with this...' or 'oh, I need to remember those traits' or 'I need to remember this funny conversation'. It’s pretty fucking annoying sometimes that I can't be in the moment.
You’ve got Sunday and Vildmænd in post-production. What can you tell me about the two projects?
Sunday is a Danish comedy series. I've never done comedy in my whole life so I thought I needed to do that. Also, I really enjoy playing football. I thought I was going to be a professional football player at some point, but then I didn't have the mindset to do that apparently. Sunday combines the two things I love the most, football and acting, so I could not miss the opportunity to put those two together. I really enjoyed doing that, especially since I had just finished Vikings which is so dramatic and emotional. I really enjoyed getting to play around and have more fun, in a way, with the scenes. It was just a small part but it was fun.
Vildmænd was a fun part. I had to get prosthetics done and I love that. I love getting prosthetics - scars, a broken jaw - because it gives so much to the character. I shot Vildmænd in Norway actually - near Bergen. It was this big, beautiful fjord. It was so gorgeous there. All the mountains and the snow falling. Just beautiful. I love my job.
Where in the world do you feel most at peace?
I reckon it aligns with my goals in life. My biggest dream in life is to have this big family. I imagine looking down on all my kids and grandkids from the end of the table and thinking, 'this is my family'. That is where I would be most at peace. Looking out on my family, knowing I created this.