Before we had even begun the interview, I already had a sense of the thoughtfulness of Danish actor, Alex Høgh Andersen. It was late on a Friday evening in Australia and just before dawn in the Netherlands. When I apologised for such an early start, Andersen’s response was simple yet profound: “One planet, we only have one of them.”
At 25-years-of-age, Alex Andersen has burst onto the film and television scene as one of Denmark’s shining exports. After studying at the Danish drama school, Eventyrteatret from a young age, Andersen has gone on to appear in critically-acclaimed theatre productions as well as local television. But it wasn’t until he was cast as Ivar the Boneless in the History Network’s drama series Vikings that his name went global.
Facing the youngest son of Ragnar Lothbrok – legendary king of Denmark and Sweden – Ivar the Boneless is famously known for his brittle bone disease that has rendered him to crawl. As one of five siblings, his performance as what he describes as an “evil young man” is raw, captivating and real and after five seasons, the series has garnered a huge and passionate fanbase. Drawn from 12th century history, the series is genuine in its execution and filmed on the unforgiving terrain of Ireland, it takes a toll mentally and physically on its cast and crew.
ICON caught up with Andersen for an insiders grasp into the most loved and condemned character of the series. And according to the young actor, “they say if you have done Vikings, you can do anything in the world.”
ICON: For those who are unfamiliar with your character, can you explain who Ivar the Boneless is and what sort of traits he carries in Vikings?
“But he is a special kid, he really is, I’ve always thought of him as a little boy on the inside. A very broken boy on the outside but probably an even more broken boy on the inside.”
Alex Andersen: “Ivar the Boneless as you would say is the youngest son of Ragnar Lothrok in Vikings and he is also born with brittle bone disease. He is a very different character and a different human being from all his brothers and that has absolutely changed him or it has at least put a mark on him in terms of his physicality obviously, but also his mental state. He is brought up in a world that does not embrace his disease whatsoever. So, he’s turned into a little evil, evil young man who’s not easy to please and is he also a very strong young man because he is surviving despite having a disease in a society that degrades or doesn’t help him at all. He’s also very very strong and very very determined. I look up to him in that regard in many ways as an actor. But he is a special kid, he really is, I’ve always thought of him as a little boy on the inside. A very broken boy on the outside but probably an even more broken boy on the inside.”
ICON: He’s known for his crawl. Do you have to work hard at having a strong upper body to be able to act and pull yourself around in that role?
AA: “I mean it hasn’t been always the most fun on set, you know pulling yourself around in horse s**t. Doing that for 10 hours straight and wearing a costume that’s already pretty heavy … There’s been some rough, rough days but I have a great team taking very good care of me. Otherwise I’m not sure I would of pulled through some days … there are good and bad days but personally I actually prefer crawling around because you know it’s a constant reminder of first of all who he is as a character… It’s very rare that you see a handicapped person [as] elite surrounded by regular folk, so to speak. That’s been really, really cool as well and he’s just so phenomenal to bring to life, he’s so extreme he’s so far away from who I am and that’s always fun for an actor too, to run around and have fun with.”
ICON: Tell me about the casting process for Ivar. I have read that you almost didn’t get the role?
AA: “Yeah, absolutely … I’m pretty sure that production only had one usable take of me doing Ivar … I was only auditioning for the three other brothers not Ivar, and I did that for five hours until our casting agent Frank Marcel comes down and pokes me on the shoulder and asks to reach for Ivar … all of a sudden I had to learn and enter a new character and entire new scene within the next half hour and get up in front of the big guns. I was sweating, put it that way … [I] absolutely destroyed the first take in a bad way, horrible, couldn’t remember any of the lines and I was like oh my god, and the second take [I] stumbled again, I couldn’t find the words and I was like okay you have this one shot, this one opportunity and you can’t just let it slip. On the third take I got through it I don’t know how, but I got through it and that’s actually the only real take … the only real start to finish.”
ICON: So, like you said before with Ivar he’s quite broken on the inside he’s a bit of an outcast, how do you prepare for such an emotionally intense character?
“My job as an actor is to never judge my character, always defend him and always try to understand him.”
AA: “I‘ve actually gotten that question a lot especially after that scene. It’s at the beginning of season five where I’m covered in all that blood and I’m sitting by the chariot. That moment. Everybody is like “how do you get into that psycho, panic vibe, how do you do that?” and I have no idea … My job as an actor is to never judge my character, always defend him and always try to understand him. So, in many of those situations that he gets himself I understand why he is there, right? When you’re sitting there and you are literally covered in blood and there’s fifty extras standing in from of you with raised bows and arrows pointing at you, there are four cameras, the rain is on, the wind is on, people are yelling and screaming at you … there’s no other way to get through [that] scene than do one hundred and ten percent right so it actually pretty easy to get carried away and easier than expected… And that’s why Vikings feels and looks so authentic, it’s because it is authentic … They say if you have done Vikings you can do anything in the world.”
ICON: Does tapping into those sorts of emotions take a toll on your own mental health?
AA: “I wouldn’t say that my character’s state of mind has an effect on me. I don’t go to extremes in terms of method acting with this guy. I think it’s very important to be able to put away the character … Especially when you work on Vikings for two and a half years almost constantly which I have … if the work had taken a toll on me mentally and physically it would of been because of the amount of work that I had to go through for two and a half years and working eleven months a year on that thing, we only kind of had a break in Christmas and in-between seasons. So, it has everything to do with leaving your life behind and moving to another country, saying goodbye to family and friends and seeing them very rarely … But, it takes a toll on a human being to have such an epic transition just out of nothing from one day to another and then working as intense as we have and holy cow the human body is not meant to work as much as we did and on top of that I’m handicapped you know, it just adds to the whole equation.”
ICON: Despite being drawn from historical times, Vikings is set around the 12th century. Are there lessons within the series that we can apply to modern times?
“…from my characters point of view, how we treat one another…”
AA: “I do believe so, otherwise it wouldn’t be a very well written show. You need to learn things from everything you see and especially if it’s a periodic time – the really good pieces are the ones that are timeless. Vikings is known precariously to be full of blood and terror, drama, wars but most of all, I believe it’s a drama about a family and families in general, in a difficult time of history and I think we can build on things, on how we communicate to each other. Oh and especially from my characters point of view, how we treat one another … It was very interesting to see how hope and faith is the thing that brings people together and how the religion is the thing that separates us and I think that is something we can learn a lot from today…”
ICON: Can you give fans any hints as to what they can expect from part 2 of season 5? Are there any little teasers you can give them?
AA: “Absolutely, so part two season five, first and foremost. I would like to formally apologise for some of the decisions that Ivar makes in season five. Because, now he’s king obviously and he’s not the kindest guy in the world … Ivar the Boneless picked feared instead of love even though I personally absolutely whole hearted believe that he just wanted to be loved. But he doesn’t how to be, he just doesn’t know it, he hasn’t had it… He picked feared because that’s what he knows and it tears him apart. So you will see a rumour in Ivar who will be extreme and will be caught up in being so but absolutely hated at the same time. But also, you will see him find a queen that he thinks is helping him and she might be in some ways but she might be making it worse in some ways.”
ICON: And lastly, with your big break into the Hollywood sphere with Vikings, do you have any plans for your next film or series? Is there anything coming up in the near future?
AA: “Well right now I’m in Denmark you know, having a social life again. Picking up the pieces of my life. Seeing family and friends again so I’m actually enjoying life a little bit, and yes there are projects. But right now I’m taking it pretty slow and I’m doing a little bit of Danish [work] so there might be some time before you see me on the international stage because I really want to do theatre and I’m also a photographer on the side. But I’m trying to pick up the little steps on the career staircase that I feel like I’ve skipped … I’d love to go back and pick up some of those steps … I can spend my time doing more important stuff, I’ve become a huge philanthropist I’m doing do much charity work and it’s the best thing I’ve ever done for myself.”