When the first half of Vikings‘ fifth season wrapped earlier this year, fans of the History series were shocked to see the return of Rollo . For one, the actor who plays him, Clive Standen, had scored the starring role in NBC series Taken as Bryan Mills, a man with a particular set of skills and the role made famous by Liam Neeson in the film series.
Now the Duke of Normandy, Rollo sent troops in that final episode to aid Ivar (Alex Høgh Andersen), Hvitserk (Marco Ilsø), and King Harald (Peter Franzén) in their bloody bid against Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick), with the stipulation that Björn (Alexander Ludwig), the nephew he adores and whom he taught to fight, was left to live. Ivar, now the king of Sweden, left that climactic battle victorious while Lagertha and Björn fled.
Some may see Rollo’s sending aid to Ivar as the warrior picking a side and ultimately betraying his favorite nephew and Lagertha, with whom he notoriously bears a love-hate relationship. But the actor behind the warrior assures Rotten Tomatoes that it’s not all that cut and dry. At the end of the day, Rollo is on team Rollo, according to Standen — expect the unexpected.
Rotten Tomatoes caught up with Standen to discuss the return of Vikings season 5, what Rollo has been up to in the time since his last appearance (hint: he’s missed the fighting and savagery), and those bubbling fan rumors about Björn’s actual parentage. Is Rollo actually his birth father? Catch up on all that and more below.
Benjamin Lindsay for Rotten Tomatoes: The second half of season 5 marks your grand return. Tell us about that first phone call with Michael Hirst when he told you that you were coming back. What was that discussion like?
Clive Standen: It was great, because it was more about the discussion before I left. At the end of season 4, we talked about the death of Ragnar, and I was concerned because I was going, “Well, most of my storyline is entwined with Ragnar’s. It’s very much the saga of Rollo and Ragnar at the moment, and then the next stage is the sons of Ragnar, it’s the Golden Age of the Vikings — and I’m not sure how Rollo fits in with that.” And [Hirst] said, “Yeah, you’re right,” and I said, “Well, I don’t really want to stick around in the show if I’m doing a disservice to the character and the audience.” And he said, “You’re right.” It was literally like we cleared the air because he was going, “Well, this is a problem. We don’t want to lose you, Clive, but it’s called Vikings.” He has to introduce these sons because we’re losing a major character in the show. We need to create some more characters that people can root for and some new stories and alliances, and they’ll see the saga of the Vikings in the Golden Age — we go all sorts of places. So we put Rollo on a hiatus, and that was nice.
I mean, Taken came along for NBC, and I did that and that kept me really busy, and a couple of other films in between. And then Michael said, “Don’t worry, I’m going to find the most opportunistic moment to bring you back, and it’s going to be like the old Rollo: He’s going to be like a volcano all over again; he’s going to erupt and everyone’s going to have to deal with the consequences.” And that’s what he did. He rang: “Look, you’re coming back, I’m sending you the scripts tomorrow.” We had a little talk about it, and it was everything I wanted.
It’s a fiery return, and there’s so much going on that we were able to add to what the real Rollo was doing in history. In the later life of Rollo, there were historical documents that recorded that he was questioning his own mortality, and he lined up 100 Christian soldiers to be slaughtered in the town square and at the same time sent 100 pounds in weight in gold to the Christian churches. This was certainly a man who was worried about the gods he’s worshiped his whole life accepting him into Valhalla, so he’ll appease them by sacrificing 100 soldiers and at the same time sending 100 pounds in gold to the Christian church to kind of hedge his bets. We didn’t want to do it like that. We didn’t want to make a big thing of it, but we thought we’ll pay homage to that. So Rollo is coming back, and he’s dealing with his past wrongs.
Obviously he has a whole [group of] people that he looks after now, that he rules over, and they come first. As the Duke of Normandy, he’s matured. He has responsibilities and he’s a leader. So the politics of the situation come first, and that’s what gives him the opportunity to come back and make an alliance with Ivar. But it was really in the end what Vikings is always about: It’s about family. It’s about all those emotions. It’s about coming back and opening up those old wounds and hopefully having people that may sew them up for him. He has no idea if that’s going to happen, and that’s what plays out in the episode. That’s the real reason for his return: facing his demons head on.
A lot of people may see the fact that Rollo gave Ivar the assist as a betrayal to Lagertha and Björn. Is there more than meets the eye to the situation?
That’s the thing: Whenever Rollo comes back for a new season, Michael and I always want to make people think — to expect the unexpected. He is coming back, and he’s not team Lagertha and he’s not team Ivar. He’s purely team Rollo, as he’s always been.
Ivar is very much the runt of his brothers. He was born disabled. He was kind of written off as a child by his own father; Ragnar left him in the wilderness with an ax to fend for himself. The brothers were teasing him. He’s risen up against all odds and learned the hard way, and now a lot of what drives him is that.
Rollo is no different. If you think about Rollo being the shadow of his brother, who went on to become the King of Sweden and do so much in the Viking mythology, he always felt like he was second best. When you compare Rollo and Ivar, Rollo has been there, done that, and got the T-shirt. He’s now an old, wise dog. So there’s nothing Ivar can throw at Rollo that he hasn’t seen coming way down the line. It’s a chance to school this little runt [laughs]. But he also offers Lagertha and Björn something that he feels that they can never, ever turn down.
So is he really team Ivar? He needs a reason to go there in person. He has responsibilities now as the Duke of Normandy, he’s become — in history, and it’s no different from our story in the series — stronger than the king of France. So he needs a reason to go and help Lagertha and Björn, but his alliance is obviously with his own people. He needs to provide what’s more beneficial for the people of Normandy, and that’s always going to be the case. There has to be an alliance with Ivar because Ivar is the King of Sweden.
His position as the Duke of Normandy is a transition from the savagery of the Vikings to a more sophisticated European place of power. Has Rollo missed the fighting and savagery?
Definitely. I’m not sure if it made the cut, but I hope it does: There was a scene we filmed where Rollo talks about an old Berserker he knew — which is obviously Rollo — that missed the battles. That’s what he was best at. He would gather all the pots and pans and weapons and anything metal in his domain and carry them to the top of the hill and threw them off the top so they clattered and crashed and smashed against the rocks below, just so he could hear the sounds of battle one last time. And, you know, Rollo is really speaking about himself. I don’t think it makes it into this episode, but that was a real sense of getting under the skin of Rollo for me, because very rarely does he actually talk about how he feels.
There was a scene late in season 2, I think, where Floki’s character is talking to Björn about Rollo and says something along the lines of, “Unfortunately, the warrior never reveals [himself]. You’ll never know what’s going on in the warrior’s heart, so the ax reveals it.” And there’s a lovely parallel seen in this episode.
It all certainly gives you a lot to play with as an actor. In a previous interview Michael Hirst hinted that going into season 5, part of the action is going to be based on a “seed” planted in season 1 between you and Lagertha. Can you speak to what that seed might be? What should we be keeping our eyes peeled for?
This is one of those moments where as an actor, you just realize that you’re in such a special show and you work with so many amazing people. Our very first director, who I’m always going to speak to the rafters about, Johan Renck, [is] a phenomenal director. I remember the very first scene with Lagertha, Ragnar, and Rollo. He likes to take actors out of the set and whisper things into their ears — every single take something different just to try to get a different performance and see how it changes. And it’s always the subtext; it’s always about what’s not being said.
He whispered something into my ear in a scene where Ragnar goes out to relieve himself and [Rollo is] left all alone with Lagertha for a second that changed the whole construct of the scene. It was never said. I think maybe some may have picked up on it, but I never forgot it because it was a note that I never really thought about, and it made me as an actor question the whole character a little bit more and the subtext that Michael was writing. It’s lovely to have something that started out like, just as you said, a seed that’s come to fruition, and it’s grown, and the actor finally gets to speak it out loud. Maybe half the [audience] will go, “I knew it!” and then half of the other people are like, “Oh my god!” But what I love is that it all came from Michael’s writing and also this brilliant director at the very, very beginning.
It sounds like you’re tapped in to fan theories and the discussion surrounding your character and this “seed.” What do you say to theories surrounding Björn’s parentage?
Well, there was no paternity test back then in those days, so no one really knows at the end of the day. It’s not like you can get a pregnancy test and find out! Or take a sample of Viking hair and go get a DNA test.
But that’s what’s so great about Michael’s writing. There’s always a reason for why someone hates someone so much. There’s a fine line between love and hate. You know, if someone’s impassive towards someone, then there’s no story. But drama is built on conflict, and the fact that a character can one minute have so much anger towards someone and the next minute have so much compassion usually means that there’s a history between them or that there’s a love there.
There’ve been scenes between Rollo and Lagertha all the way through Vikings: sometimes she hates him, sometimes he hates her, sometimes he loves her. It’s all that stuff, just as it was with Ragnar and Lagertha when Ragnar moved on from his marriage with Lagertha. That’s the good stuff. Nothing is stronger than our imagination, and I think what’s nice is that this has festered for a little while and now it’s either going to let people down or it’s going to explode the world of Vikings a little bit more.
In a previous interview with Rotten Tomatoes, you described Rollo as a very base character: impulsive, selfish. How might these characteristics benefit or hinder him going into the action of these new episodes?
The thing is, because he is impulsive, he trips and stumbles so often. But what’s great about Rollo is that he always learns from his mistakes. He’s trying so hard to be someone he’s not, but he’s almost forgotten who he is, so he can be very malleable and he’s got many layers to him. That’s what made him grow as a person. I think that’s why some people have gone from hating him to loving to hate him to just loving the guy. You can’t keep him down. He’s like that puppy dog who will just do anything to impress his owner.
I’ve always used his physical pain as an avoidance of his emotional pain. I’ve always thought about that, why he’s so aggressive on the battlefield. Why is he a Berserker? Because the word “berserker” stands for “bare skin,” so he fights with bare skin — not the skin of bears, but his bare skin on the battlefield. He doesn’t wear armor, because he has no reason to. If he’s going to die, he’s going to die, and the gods have chosen the day of his death when he was born. So he’s very hedonistic; he’s very reckless. And that, for me, means someone who’s actually trying to escape something. He definitely has a very different inner temper than his outer tempo, and that’s what interests me about him. He’s kind of trying to stop feeling that emotional pain by getting smacked in the face. That’s definitely what makes him tick. He’s a very, very wounded man.
With that in mind, what is your favorite part about playing this guy and why are you excited for audiences to see him on screen again?
I really genuinely feel that I got into this profession to draw attention away from myself rather than towards myself. What really gets me up in the morning and makes me excited about my job is feeling like I’m playing someone who’s so far removed from myself that I get to lose myself in that character, and that’s what excites me about Rollo. He really is one of those characters who, if you saw someone smash him on the floor into a thousand pieces, he’d piece himself back together again before you can see what he’s built of and what he looks like. That’s why I love him. I’m so excited to come back.
I think since the transition of losing Ragnar and the old band, it’s been quite awhile, [and] the audience deserves to have some of that old guard back again to shake everything up a little bit and keep it fresh and exciting. Rollo is always that character. While Ragnar is very mercurial, Rollo would sometimes just explode like a volcano and the devastation that that volcano and the lava would cause was always fun to watch. I think it’s one of those moments where it’s just about right to have a character like Rollo come in and keep everyone on their toes again.
Vikings airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on History.