Having graduated from drama school in 2011, English actor George Blagden has had a momentous beginning to his professional career. He has already appeared in Wrath of the Titans, Tom Hooper's smash hit Les Misérables, and The Philosophers – set to be released in 2013. He also stars as the Anglo-Saxon monk Athelstan in History's new series Vikings. He spoke with Buzzine's Jesse Livingston about impressive and desolate locations, experiencing the ancient past, working with Sir Ian McKellen, the play that inspired his passion for acting, and singing in the new style of movie musical.
Jesse Livingston: Vikings is History's first scripted drama series – Hatfields and McCoys having been a miniseries. How did you get involved in the project?
George Blagden: I auditioned for it! [Laughs] I was told about it by my agent in the UK – that there was this new historical fiction drama being done by History, and it was about Vikings, and I said, “Please get me an audition, because I'd love to be a Viking.” So, I went along to an audition in London, and I was cast as the only character in the show that is not a Viking. [Laughs]
JL: Have you always been interested in historical dramas and history in general?
GB: Yeah, I have. I've always loved historical fiction. The great thing about it for an actor is that you get to exist in worlds that are so foreign to what we are used to in our modern society. You get to experience characters and interact with characters that wouldn't exist nowadays, you get to experience ancient cultures, and in the filming of historical fiction you get to learn so much. It's so educational. If you're interested in the research aspect of the job, then you get to learn a great deal.
JL: What was the most interesting thing you learned during your research?
GB: My character Athelstan is an Anglo-Saxon monk who lives in a monastery on Lindisfarne Island off the coast of Northumberland, which is the first place that the Vikings landed in the UK on their first raid to the West. I asked if I could go to Lindisfarne Island in our pre-production weeks. So, I went for a couple of days. Just to experience that environment was amazing for my research – to see how that community of monks lived, and to talk to the historians there. It's a very dramatic place. I couldn't have done anything better to get into the role.
JL: Is it an austere wilderness type of place?
GB: It is! The only thing I can think of to relate to it is... Have you seen The Woman in Black with Daniel Radcliffe?
JL: Yes, I have.
GB: So, you know the island in that film where there's a big causeway, and it's out at sea? It's very much like that. There's a big causeway, and it's out at sea. [Laughs] It's very isolated, and feels very dramatic to live there or to even be there. Actually, you can only access the island at certain times because of the tide. So, in the time that this series is set – 793 AD – to get to the island, the monks would've had to wait 'til the tide started going out and then run as fast as they could across the mud flats. People often drowned trying to get there. Just learning about all of that set my character's context in a very real way. It was fantastic.
JL: The series was filmed in Ireland and northern Europe. Was there any other location that made an impression on you in the same way?
GB: Yes, absolutely. The Wicklow Mountains – about forty kilometers south of Dublin – are such a gorgeous, gorgeous landscape. It's amazing, really. Within a forty-minute drive from the city center of Dublin, you're in this completely wild landscape that I never knew existed. It's funny, when they said, “We're going to film Vikings in Ireland,” I thought, Ireland? Why are we going to Ireland? There aren't any fjords. What's on the east coast of Ireland? And then I got there, and I was very, very wrong. It's gorgeous. You should go if you've not been.
JL: Oh, I would love to. Now, the Vikings are known for their ruthlessness and brutality. I know you yourself don't play a Viking, but did the cast find it hard to portray characters that the viewer could root for?
GB: I think – like I said before – as an actor, when you get to play roles that are so foreign to what we're used to nowadays, it's always exciting regardless of whether you'll appear sympathetic to the viewers or not. I think that's why people like playing baddies so much, is because you really get to have fun with them. I can tell you for a fact that all the cast had the most amazing time being Vikings for five months. I mean, the interesting thing about the show – that I'm sure everyone will get to see – is a whole different side to the Vikings. Yes, they were ruthless warriors, but for most of the show you'll get to see the very human aspects of the Viking culture. I think that was a big misconception that a lot of us had going into the job. So, that was a lot of fun to be able to engage with that more normal level rather than this misconception of ruthless psychopaths carving their way across the world.
JL: Do you think viewers are supposed to be on Athelstan's side, or do you see him as more complex?
GB: Speaking to [series creator] Michael Hirst about Athelstan when I first arrived in Ireland – he's the one “Western-society character” that people will see in the show. He's from a Christian, Anglo-Saxon background in the UK. In creating Athelstan, Michael really wanted to create a character that was the eyes of the audience. So, when Athelstan is captured and taken back to Scandinavia by Ragnar, what we tried to achieve was that the audience would be able to go on that journey with Athelstan in discovering this new Pagan culture – discovering all these interesting things about their diet, the way they built their villages, the technology of shipbuilding. So, I think he is probably the most sympathetic character in the show that the audience will be able to relate to. Which is great for an actor to be able to play that role.
JL: Let me ask you a little bit about your life. You started singing when you were thirteen?
GB: Yes. Well, I started singing lessons at school when I was thirteen. I'm sure I was probably wailing around my house before the age of thirteen. [Laughs] I started having a half-hour singing lesson at school when I was thirteen, and I've just always done it since. It's something I adore. I did the classic thing as a teenager where you try to write your own songs, and I took up the guitar. I think it will always be something that I do in my spare time.
JL: And you were in a band for a while?
GB: Yes! [Laughs] I was in a band at school. We played for our... we call them “discos.” What do you call them here?
JL: School dances?
GB: Yeah. So, we played for our school discos for a few years. It was great fun, and I loved doing it. But I think that's all it was, really, was just a bit of fun at school.
JL: You went to school on a drama scholarship. What drew you to theater?
GB: You know, it was when I was about ten or eleven. I went to see a play of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I wasn't really into acting before I went to see that show. I just remember the show ending, and me looking at the men and women up onstage and thinking, I would really, really love to be those people one day. So, I went back to school and auditioned for a school play, and that's how I got into loving acting. I did school plays all throughout my childhood and teenage years.
JL: Did you have a favorite play at school?
GB: I did. You probably won't have heard of it. It's a play called Art [by Yasmina Reza].It's a three-hander. It's a very simple one-act play about three men arguing over a piece of art – three white lines on a white canvas. It's brilliant. You should look it up. It was my favorite play at school.
JL: Would you say that's been your favorite stage production overall?
GB: No, probably not. At eighteen, I went to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. In that three-year course, I got the opportunity to do some fantastic plays – some fantastic work by some brilliant dramatists. I think probably the most exciting play I got to do was a Greek tragedy [by Euripides] we did in our final year. I played Orestes. It was epic. Again, we're back to my love for historical fiction.
JL: You became a member of the National Youth Theatre and were one of four students to participate in a master class with Sir Ian McKellen?
GB: Yes! The master class with Sir Ian was at my senior school, Oundle. He very kindly decided to come and give a talk about his career and about sonnets in general – it was more a talk for our English Society. He asked for four students to be chosen to help demonstrate the genius of Shakespeare's sonnets. So, I was part of his workshop and his question-and-answer session. It was fantastic – a dream, at age seventeen, to be able to work one-to-one with Sir Ian McKellen.
JL: He's pretty formidable. Were you very nervous to work with him?
GB: Yeah, obviously! [Laughs] This is the man who has, quote, “changed the face of Shakespeare in London.” His Shakespeare productions in London have been phenomenally groundbreaking. To be able to just talk to him and bounce ideas off him about why the sonnets were written and how they come across in performance – it was eye-opening.
JL: Did he encourage you to pursue film and television work?
GB: No, I don't think at that stage... Obviously, you have to audition for drama school, but he didn't know at that stage talking to me that I would be able to carry on my passion for acting as a career, because it's an incredibly difficult and challenging industry to be a part of. But he really does love the theater. I remember he said to me at the end of the session, “You're very good with the iambic, and you should try to get into a Shakespeare play in London at the first possible opportunity.” So, I still have to prove to him that I can do that. [Laughs]
JL: Actors from the UK find it notoriously challenging to break into the Hollywood system, yet you seemed to find your way relatively quickly into some big-budget films like Wrath of the Titans and Les Misérables. What was your secret?
GB: Well... Quite simply, there is no secret. One of the most exciting things about this industry is that it's completely unpredictable. For someone starting out like I am, leaving drama school, you really don't know which path you're gonna carve out for yourself – especially if you want to do everything, like I do. I'd love to theater, I'd love to do television, I'd love to do film, I'd love to do radio plays, I'd love to do a Disney animation film... When you have a want to cast your net very wide, you take what comes your way, really. It's just the way it happened that the auditions I went to for films or television seemed to work out. I've been incredibly lucky with what I've been able to do in the last eighteen months out of drama school. Yeah, very lucky.
JL: Les Mis has been a huge success, and a lot has been made of the groundbreaking technique of having the cast sing live during filming. Was that process comfortable for you?
GB: I would be very surprised if people making movie musicals from now on didn't decide to do it in this way, because it completely changes the way you experience a movie musical. When people go and watch it, the effect it has on them is because of that reason. Eddie Redmayne – who worked on Les Mis with me – was saying that it was such a blessing, because had we shot it in the way that movie musicals have been done in the past... You go and record your singing parts in the studio three months before you meet the rest of your cast. So, if you're the romantic lead like he was, he has to record his love song with Amanda [Seyfried] three months before he's met her on-set. And then when you get on-set and you have to act out that scene, you have to keep the scene in the rhythm that you pre-recorded three months before.
So, the way that Tom [Hooper] decided to have us sing live on-set was groundbreaking, because it meant that you could really exist in the moment as an actor. You could really connect with the people opposite you on-set, and if you wanted to pause halfway through a line, you could do. It meant that the raw emotions we were trying to convey could really be captured. I think if you have seen the film, you'll witness that and experience that.
JL: Are there any other upcoming projects you're excited about?
GB: I'm relaxing in the sunshine at the moment, dreaming about whether I'll be allowed to go back to Ireland in the summer to film the second series of a television show called Vikings. [Laughs] I'm dreaming, wishing, and hoping that we'll get to do it all over again.
'Vikings' premieres Sunday March 3rd, 2013 on History at 10/9c.