Clive Standen just wrapped filming on NBC’s spring series Taken, in which he plays former Green Beret Bryan Mills, the man with a particular set of skills. Those skills made Mills famous when actor Liam Neeson played the character in the 2008 Taken film and its sequels.
From Executive Producer Luc Besson, the 2017 TV prequel stars Standen as a younger Mills dealing with personal tragedy as he sets off on his CIA career and hones those skills.
But first, the British actor had to polish his courtly manners for his role as Rollo, sibling to King Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) in History’s Vikings, which returns for its midseason premiere in November.
When we last saw him in April in episode 10 of season 4, Rollo was enjoying the adoration and appreciation of the people of Francia after driving back the Viking horde led by none other than Ragnar. He’s a formerly wild and woolly Viking in the French court who’s been tamed (somewhat) and groomed (sort of) by his princess wife, Gisla (Morgane Polanski).
Clive Standen: We left him being crowned by the king and being called Caesar. He’s seemingly got everything he could possibly have ever wanted and ever dreamed that he could succeed at: He has the princess that genuinely loves him. He has a whole people, a whole realm of people that back him and believes in him. And he has that king, King Charles (Lothaire Bluteau), who’s like a father figure he never had. So now, he really has stepped out of the shadow of Ragnar Lothbrok, accomplished so much, and got so much faith within both Viking society and within Francia.
But as we all know, when you want something for so long and you never really achieved it, you have no idea how it’s going to feel when you get it. So may be a case of the grass is not greener on the other side. Is it all it’s cracked up to be or is he going to be in the middle of a Viking midlife crisis? And rather than be the Ferrari or Porsche that the modern man often pines for in a midlife crisis, it’s going to be the longboat maybe that Rollo is missing and wanting.
It’s still a tricky road for him going into the second part of the season. He was born to raid and fight — those are his own words from season 1. With the responsibility of being the Duke of Normandy and having the whole realm of Francia under his wing, is he going to be allowed to fight? Is he going to be too important? Is he going to be allowed to flex his muscle, so to speak? So, maybe all those type things start to get in the way of his satisfaction and happiness.
RT: The show has been so successful in showing how his background and his character clashes so greatly with that of his wife, but she came around to him and embraced that sort of wildness of him.
Standen: As much as they love each other and as much as there is a genuine connection between Gisla and Rollo, I think the one thing that worries her and probably worries himself that deep down is whether his Viking roots are still embedded in his psyche from an early age. If you get brought up in religion from birth and it’s a very conflicting religion from the one he’s now embraced, is it going to come back to haunt him? When everyone in Francia hears thunder and lightning in a storm, is it thunder and lightning to Rollo or is he still hearing Thor?
I think that worries Gisla a little bit: whether he really has put his Viking past behind him. You can change and teach someone the fashions of the time and the etiquette, but religion is a big thing, and I’m not sure once you believe in these gods, can you truly just leave them behind. That may be one of the confrontations the two are going to have going forward as a power couple.
RT: Rollo has had so many ups and downs and so many disappointments, then he comes to this point where his power and influence explodes, but he has to give up everything in order to have that.
Standen: I think he had all of his chips on the table. When he first came to France in season 3, he didn’t really realize what an uphill struggle it was going to be. Being offered the princess, the title, the land, it seemed like a win-win to him at the time. But he didn’t really realize the last time these people had seen him, he was the marauding crazy bear berserker running down the streets of Paris murdering people. And these are the same people that are meant to embrace him as Count Rollo. I don’t think he realized what an uphill struggle it was going to be when learning the fashion, the etiquette, the discipline of being a ruler. When he realizes the princess is someone that he’s fallen for, I think that was the incentive, and that was what I was attracted to in season 3 is that he did it all for love.
It think now he’s mastered that, he’s transformed himself completely, entirely, and I think it’s unfair to say that he — It’s funny when a lead character of a TV show speaks and the audience believes, they never doubt it. Like in real life, just because someone says something out loud doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what they mean, or necessarily that’s what they believe. So when Ragnar turns around to Rollo on the boat and says, “When everyone wanted you dead, I kept you alive, and you betrayed me. You betrayed your people,” and we have to an extent. But Rollo has done so many things for Ragnar over the years. He’s had his face cut to pieces in season 1 to protect his brother’s whereabouts. He lied and fought for him. There’s so many times where Ragnar has just kept him down and kept him in his shadow, that now Rollo is well and truly, almost like a phoenix from the flames, is just going to reinvent himself till he can shine.
I don’t think he necessarily has betrayed his people or left his people, because they never were his people. He was never allowed to be one of Ragnar’s people within Kattegat. He was always kept on the sidelines. If anything, he’s going home because he’s found his people. He’s found someone that loves him and admires him and is his rock within the relationship. He’s also got people that genuinely embrace him as a ruler and respect him and enable him to spread his wings and be his true self and explore who he can be.
So I kind of think of it more as he’s gone home, than he’s betrayed and left his brethren.
RT: If you apply the formula of the character’s life to say, just a modern anybody anywhere, how scary and difficult it would be to completely uproot yourself and put yourself in an entirely new culture and thrive. It’s an interesting arc for anyone who’s ever felt sort of out of their element, in their element. You know what I mean?
Standen: When I was offered the character by Michael Hirst and his troupe, right back at the beginning of my journey, I’d read the first two scripts and I realized what a base person Rollo was. In that second episode, he’s seen raping a slave. He’s very selfish, he’s very self-centered, and he lives on the margin. I’d done a lot of research on the role before day one of shooting, and I’d realized who this man was in history, and he’s worthy of the history books. He’s far more famous, has accomplished far more real things, genuine things in Viking society within the time period than Ragnar Lothbrok or any of the other Vikings ever did.
So he seemingly on paper, and in the written words in the history books, seems to be this ruler, this duke of Normandy, this great leader, and I couldn’t understand why Michael had written him so base. But also that was the challenge and the incentive to play the character, because I really knew how big an arc it was going to be. How I’m smashing this character down to pieces in the beginning, and I’ve got to piece him back together slowly over season after season, turn him into this man that is worth of being the great, great, great grandfather of William the Conqueror.
RT: Why do you think that Michael Hirst wrote him so base? Is there truth in that characterization of him?
Standen: To be fair, history books, in most of them, the truth lies in the middle somewhere. Take Rollo as an example. Many historians writing about Rollo over the ages, and sometimes he’s written in the sagas. He has his own saga in Iceland, which is about Rollo the walker, which paints him into a man who’s stealing from the king, and he gets banished, finds his way; it’s like a fairy tale story.
Then there’s other documentation that comes from Dudo of Saint-Quentin, who was an historian writing 400 years after Rollo had lived, who was writing for the current Duke of Normandy. So he’s been commissioned to write the lineage of the current Duke of Normandy, so he’s obviously, it’s going to be full of propaganda, because he’s going to write Rollo to be this amazing leader, this perfect man, because he wants to show off where the current Duke of Normandy comes from.
So you can’t really take that as being true, and you also can’t believe that necessarily some of these Viking characters are fighting dragons or orcs and things as well. You kind of have to find the real person in the middle of it, because there’s so much propaganda involved in the history books. Vikings were one of the few cultures that didn’t write anything down. They were illiterate. So most of what was recorded about the Vikings was written by Christians in the invaded country. History is usually recorded by the invaders, not the invaded, but in this case it was. It was the Christian monks that reported on the Vikings being these horrible, marauding devils who came from the ocean that raped and pillaged the land. But you haven’t heard the Vikings side of it. And it’s the same when it comes to the characters.
Michael starts him off at the base level because the drama needs to go somewhere. But it’s also as simple as, at the writing, you’ve got two brothers playing against each other, and you need to make very clear very quickly which one the audience has to root for, which is Ragnar Lothbrok. So you make one brother a little bit more base and a little bit more living around the margins. Every Viking was raping slaves and things. They had slaves and they were allowed to do what they wanted with them. Just because you see Rollo doing it on screen doesn’t necessarily mean he’s the only one to be doing it. It obviously lets the audience know that because you don’t see Ragnar Lothbrok do it, then you’ll be rooting for him.
The long answer I feel is that Michael actually wrote Rollo to be a 50-year-old cousin of Ragnar Lothbrok in the beginning. Because the biggest artistic license we take with history really in the show is that Ragnar and Rollo were never brothers in history. They lived nearly a hundred years apart, but they both had an extremely amazing adventurous story to tell, so to get them both in the drama, what better device than to make them brothers.
I was offered the role of Rollo, and it changed to become a younger character and the brother of Ragnar. So I suppose that’s where it came from, because he was probably always meant to be the slightly older, jolly, crazy Viking.
RT: What can people expect in the next few episodes that they’re going to see between Ragnar and Rollo. Will they have much interaction at all? Can you say? Or no?
Standen: I think Rollo and Ragnar, even if they don’t share as much screen time as they used to, they probably have far more of a connection now. I think Rollo’s absence at the end of first half of season 4 is the catalyst for Ragnar’s evident downfall. He’s come to Paris. He’s tried to be too big for his boots, for want of a better phrase. And Rollo has sent him packing. He’s also been addicted to drugs, and there’s nothing like your brother smacking a few, seven bells into you to kind of get you off the drugs.
So he’s going back, and now I think his sons are growing up, and they kind of want to travel their own path, just as Rollo did. And now he’s gone from one brother who wants to step out of the shadow and know what he’s worthy of and capable of, and that’s the way that Ragnar dealt with it, by fighting him on the battlefield, to try to reign him in and contain him and punish him. But he’s going to go back to four other sons who are going to want to do the same thing. Who are going to want to escape the name of Ragnar Lothbrok. They want to fly the nest. So it’s kind of almost the beginning of the end for Ragnar, his trip up the Viking totem pole. I think Rollo is always going to be there to haunt him, even if he’s not there physically.
RT: I don’t know if it’s premature, but do we know anything about season 5? Is it too early? Can’t say anything? I noticed you have a new series. So —
Standen: An amazing series. It kind of nearly killed me. I’ve only just finished. It’s my first week off. I’m spending the whole time off just trying to recover. Long hours. It’s Taken. I don’t know how much I can say about it, but I can tell you a little bit. Taken is the prequel to the films you may have seen with Liam Neeson, but it’s not a direct prequel in time frame, as it’s set in 2016. It’s a younger Bryan Mills.
In the pilot, you very quickly see the same kind of character that you see in the film, where something traumatic and tragic happens in his family, and Bryan is a one man wrecking ball who tries to go out of his way on his own to try and put it right. But he hasn’t got that particular set of skills yet. He’s a rough diamond, and the CIA, Christina Hart, played by Jennifer Beals, and her vice-ops team are watching him closely and using him as bait, if anything. But then they see this man with heart and a kind of work in progress, and by the end of the pilot, they kind of take him on under their wing and then recruit him into this black-ops team. So it’s about how he acquires that particular set of skills.
It’s written by Alex Cary, who wrote most of the episodes of Homeland up until now. He’s a fantastic writer. It’s really written in the real world. It’s not a crazy silly action show. It’s what I pride myself on in Vikings as well. In Taken, everything this man does is real. He’s a spy. He’s not going to be running and doing back flips and spin-kicks up the walls like has been in some of these silly action films that have just been full of sound and fury. They signify nothing to the real world kind of situation whether these guys can be in and amongst every one of us right now protecting America and sweeping the dirt under the carpet.
It’s very different than anything out there at the moment, I think. It’s got the fast pace of a show like 24. It’s relentless, but it’s also got the integrity and the real world scenarios of a show like Homeland.
The character is Bryan Mills, and his main super power — if he has one — is forward momentum and the desire to protect people. When most people freeze and clam up and run in the other direction, he goes forward and gets the job done. So it’s brutal. I’ve been throwing myself in front of cars and doing assisted Krav Maga, close combat fighting with stunt men that are far bigger than me. It’s exciting. I can’t wait. It’s going to be on the 27th of February on NBC, Monday night.
RT: I’m really stoked for you. That’s such a great property.
Standen: My time is here, but we are doing 20 episodes of Vikings. I know that they’re only on episode 10 right now. Episode nine, I think. That’s all I can say. There’s nothing, just because I’m doing another show doesn’t mean I’m not on the other show. I just means I might be really, really busy.
RT: It’s better to be really, really busy than not busy enough. That’s so exciting. The movie Patient Zero is also coming out, yes?
Standen: I’ve been so busy with Taken, I literally have been doing 18- to 20-hour shoots on Taken, so I really haven’t had a life other than just taking my kids to school after a night shoot with no strength, then kissing my wife good night. You might know more than me.
RT: What does the next year look like for you?
Standen: I’m excited for people to see Taken, I really am. It’s the first time I’ve had this, I’m in every scene. It’s a standalone leading character, and Bryan Mills is such a great character in the first film with Liam Neeson. I got to meet him, which is kind of iconic for me. I’ve always been a massive fan of Liam Neeson and now I’m kind of stepping in his boots. I’ve put everything I possibly can into to it.
It’s a network show, and it’s got half the budget of some of these big massive epics. But I think we have such a great team and I do all my own stunts, within reason. I mean obviously some of the car chase stuff is just too dangerous for me to get involved in, piling up and spinning cars down the road. But all of the fight scenes and all of the stunts, running, jumping, climbing trees kind of stuff is all me, and I’ve really put everything I possibly can into it. And a lot of the skills I learned growing up — I’ve been an international Muay Thai boxer, and I’ve done lots of stunt work before, so I’ve kind of put it front and center in this job.
And also some of the stuff that I’ve learned through Vikings, about getting the camera on the action, just feeling the pain and actually getting — If the actor is involved in all of the action, you can really connect. You can see the anger, the cowardice, the fear, whatever emotion he’s going through. There has to be a story through the action or otherwise it’s meaningless. And that’s what my problem is with a lot of these big action films, they shoot the back of the stunt man’s head all the way through it and you can’t connect with the character.
I’m very proud to say I’ve done everything myself on this. They have moments where they put the camera right bang in the center of the action, and you can see Bryan Mills, you can feel his pain, you can feel his hurt. Because it is one of those things, he’s a little wrecking ball. I’m really proud, and I can’t wait for people to see it.
I think it might offer something a bit different, even the character himself, I think, is full of heart. He’s not as suave as James Bond. He’s not as tall as Ethan Hunt in Mission Impossible, but they’ve all got the wise-cracking lines. They’re all a bit too cool for school, where Bryan is just a normal guy and everyone can relate to him. That’s why I think the film was so successful. He’s just a guy. He’s a dad and his daughter has been kidnapped, and he’ll do everything in his power to get her back, and you’re with him on that journey.
I think that’s what Alex Cary, the writer of the Taken TV show, is so good at. He takes you on a journey every week. You feel like he’s just like you and I. He has a few extra skills up his sleeve. But you feel his pain, you feel emotion and empathy for him because he’s real. He’s not tall and suave. He trips, he falls, he gets back up again. He’s a gentleman, and an honorable and decent person with a good moral compass.