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Finding the Flaws

Travis Fimmel likes “good old boys,” but he wouldn’t want to play one.

Melissa Byers
  • History Channel
  • History Channel
  • History Channel
  • History Channel
  • History Channel

“I think the best characters always have a lot of flaws, a lot of obstacles and even obstacles they put upon themselves.”

When Travis Fimmel chooses roles, it’s the flaws that draw him in. “ I never want to play the goodie-two-shoes or whatever. I’d rather play maybe a sinister character that you can get the audience to follow. I love that challenge,” he says.

He certainly accepted the challenge for five seasons on the History Channel’s Vikings. Portraying legendary Scandinavian king Ragnar Lothbrok, Fimmel took the character through an arc that spanned 30 years of Lothbrok’s life, ending with his death in a snake pit.

Along the way, viewers were introduced to a nuanced character. Ragnar could be as brutal as he was kind, with shades of difference in between. Fimmel says, “It was a very early choice I made to make him always feel like he’s doing the right thing. And he always tried to do his best for his kids, even though his approach was a bit off-kilter sometimes. He always thought he was doing the right thing for his people and his family and friends.”

“I feel my job is more just to make people relate to the character, not about exactly what he’s doing. I had family in Vikings, I had children and I really relate to that stuff and just getting across the same struggles no matter what period or time in the world.

"People still have the same basic needs and wanting to be loved or wanting to work out what their point in life is or to have prosperity when they die, trying to be a good father, and trying to overcome all your flaws.”

Although many series would be loathe to kill off their main character, Fimmel feels that it was the right move for the series. He says, “I’ve had my arc. It was very enjoyable. Not many characters you get to span over 30 years or so. It felt right when I died and I’m not coming back. But you never know.”

Among the many memorable scenes in the five seasons, perhaps the most disturbing was Lothbrok’s death. Fimmel was tossed into a real pit with real snakes. “Yeah. 80% were real snakes. There were going to be more, but the weather was a bit cold for the snakes, so they couldn’t put them all in, all the ones that we wanted to. But, yeah, that was fun. They were friendly snakes.

"And the scene was really very short because of the weather, because the snakes can’t be in the cold for very long. It was shot in the start of winter, so it was actually a very quick scene. We shot it in five or ten minutes.”

On screen, the scene felt longer. For that, Fimmel credits his crew. “The editing crew and the directors have all been amazing on the show. They certainly make us actors look better than what we are.”

In fact, he says the show  as a whole wouldn’t have been as good as it is without the Irish crew.  “I think the show wouldn’t still be on the air if it wasn’t for the Irish crew and the very talented departments. We didn’t have a huge budget, and I wish the audience knew how hard the crew worked to make this show work with the budget they had.

"We’re sort of the underdog compared to some of the big shows and I just really appreciated the effort and work that the Irish put in to make us look better than what we are. “

Now that he has finished his stint as the complex Ragnar Lothbrok, Fimmel is turning his attention to a new project with A+E and the History Channel, an anthology series called Sinners. He explains, “It’s called Sinners, but it’s trying to tell the truth behind the stories and some legends, or people who were made out to be legends and not the good guys that you thought they were, and vice versa, some people that were made out to be evil and a lot of them had very traumatic lives and and it’s not as black and white as you think.“

The series starts out with a retelling of the story of Wyatt Earp. Fimmel is the creator and one of the writers on the show, and he wanted to start with the Wild West.

“I love cowboys so I wrote the first one about that period. But the show will span any time period. It can be present day characters. Every year it’s going to be a different character. It can be present day or modern characters or it can be characters from the past. That’s the whole premise of the show. Every year it will be another iconic sinner.“

Fimmel has very definite qualities that he looks for in deciding to tackle a role. “The character’s gotta have a lot of depth and, well, for Sinners, I wrote it, so I definitely want to do it. I’m the so-called creator, or whatever they say.

"Any character that’s got a lot of depth and a lot of flaws, and is trying to make something of his life. Or the underdog that fought for what he believed in and sort of went against society. I never want to play just a good old boy. I love good old boys, but playing one is just not as exciting. Good old boys are the best people in the world, but playing one as an actor just doesn’t intrigue me,” he says. 

He has found some similarities in the kinds of characters he’s played. “I suppose I’ve found that human beings are very, very similar. Maybe if it’s someone who’s achieved a lot or has gained recognition for stuff, a lot of the time they have the same mentality. They’ll have a cutthroat mentality or thinking on a larger scale. They have the same thought process.

"They’re always a little different from the average person. Formidable characters seem similar a lot of the time.”

Still, he always tries to leave his own mark. He notes, “I try to turn the character around a bit and not be what the audience were expecting. Makes it more interesting for me and, I feel, the audience. Nothing’s black or white in this world.”