How Alexander Skarsgård was a Viking for The Northman

Alexander Skarsgård has been drawn to Viking stories since childhood. His family's home on the Swedish island of Öland was surrounded by ancient rune stones, monuments erected to commemorate Vikings who died with great honor in battle. The actor grew up surrounded by the legend of these fearsome warriors and has long wanted to tell their story in a more authentic light. That wish became a reality when he sat down with director Robert Eggers for an early meeting that would lead to The rthman.

"This is more than a big action movie, even though there's a lot of action," says Skarsgård. Based on the rse tale that inspired Shakespeare's Hamlet, the story follows Prince Amleth from adolescence into adulthood as he seeks bloody vengeance for his murdered father. The lore has been combined with careful research to create an odyssey that honors both the brutal reality and mythology of the Viking Age. "I believe that by working with Robert we were able to create something special that has never been done before."

We spoke to Skarsgård about becoming a Viking Berserker (frenzied rse warrior), training with axes and more.

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Men's Journal: How does it feel to finally have your Viking epic out in the world?

Alexander skarsgard: Ever since I was a little boy in Sweden I've had a dream to do a project like this. I spent my summers on an island in the Baltic Sea and some of my earliest memories are of reading inscriptions on Viking rune stones. I was fascinated by them. I would pretend I was a Viking when I was a kid. I became so obsessed with it that I even gave my two younger brothers their own Viking names. So Gustaf's actual legal middle name is Ormr, meaning snake, and Sam's is Ymir, the name of the first giant in rse mythology. I think it would be an understatement to say that making this film and bringing it to market is a dream come true.

At the beginning of filming, what should your Viking character physically look like?

When we first see my character Amleth in adulthood, he is a berserker - part of that savage fighting team within a Viking army raiding along the Russian rivers in what is now Ukraine. It is used by the Viking chieftain as a spearhead for his invasion. He is thrown into the lion's den along with his group of Berserkers to initiate the attacks while the rest of the squad arrive as the second wave.

As such, it was important for the character to appear physically capable of a tremendous amount of violence. His whole goal at this point in his life is to wreak havoc. He got lost and forgot the mission he gave himself as a little boy. w it is used as a weapon to attack villages for the benefit of others. I had to make sure he looked as imposing and intimidating as possible.

You've been working with trainer Magnus Lygdbäck to get in shape for the role. What did you like about working with him?

Magnus and I spent nine months together while making Tarzan. That was the first time I've ever worked with a personal trainer. It was the first time I had to drastically change my body for a role. We didn't know exactly how my body would react to his training plan and diet. I was very stressed and nervous about whether we would achieve our physical goals. I had a hard time relaxing and carried that stress through much of the prep and into the shoot.

The process was a lot easier this time because we knew each other — and how my body would respond to certain workouts and diets. I would say it didn't make the job any easier because we trained extremely hard from the start. It was a huge amount of time in the gym and learning fight choreography, but at least I was able to sleep at night! I was meant to be incredibly lean while remaining muscular when I made Tarzan, and that meant a very restrictive diet. I couldn't even drink an orange juice or a drop of alcohol because of the sugar. With The rthman, the situation was different because I wasn't portraying this very popular character that people had all these preconceived notions about. I'm playing a warrior with an original design based on what we know of the time - so we had more room to work with while the crowd was there. The goal was to build a body that looked like the combination of a wolf and a bear.

I guess it was nice to get a break from the diet from time to time.

Since I was more concerned with mass and not so much with being completely shredded, I was able to call off the diet at times. I was allowed to have the random indulgence meal or the occasional beer. That helped a lot because filming is long and a bit of good food or drink can go a long way towards happiness.

How was the weapons training?

I kept the axes and hatchets close to me because you need them when you're fighting 300 soldiers. There were months prior to filming when we were able to work with weapons ranging from hatchet to spear. Magnus and I tried to incorporate a lot of that into our gym workouts - working with weights that stimulate the same muscle groups as those weapons. A second sword was even made so that I could train with it during our sessions. During part of the film, my character is enslaved in a Viking farming community, so we did a lot of training to emulate the physical labor he was forced to do on that farm. I was lugging around big boulders. Doing this type of training felt very purposeful.

The battle sequences in The rthman are epic and mostly done in long takes of continuous action. How difficult were these scenes to film?

They were really, really difficult. The shooting style we used for this film was very specific and precise - with no cuts or breaks. So the fight scenes were these long takes, which is challenging because so much can go wrong and if something happens you have to start all over again. Most films do inserts or camera changes to replace a new take if there's a mess, but we didn't work with that safety net. These three-minute combat sequences had to be executed perfectly. The experience was grueling and utterly exhausting - but it was worth it in the end.

The rthman is in theaters now.

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