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A Hero for the Ages

From the ninth to the 21st century, Clive Standen fights the good fights.

Melissa Byers
  • NBC
  • Courtesy The History Channel
  • NBC
  • History
  • NBC

Clive Standen straddles centuries.

The British actor has starring roles in both History Channel’s Vikings, set in the 9th century, and NBC’s Taken, based on the character from the Liam Neeson films of the same name, which takes place in present day.  And recently, he was juggling both roles, bouncing from one continent to another to play Rollo on Vikings and Bryan Mills on Taken.

“I’m pretty busy at the moment,” he says. “I finished season four of Vikings and went straight on to Taken, and as soon as I was done with Taken, I went straight back to Dublin for more episodes of Rollo.”

Rollo, Standen’s character in Vikings, is based on a real person. The real Rollo was a Duke of Normandy, prolifically chronicled in history books.  “It’s been remarkable, really, because you’re playing a real person, in history. 

"There’s many historians who write about Rollo. One, for instance, Dudo of San Quentin, who was writing about Rollo as the Duke of Normandy. He was commissioned by the then current Duke of Normandy. He was writing 300 years after Rollo lived, but the man he was painting was the perfect leader, the perfect duke and how he’d taken charge of the feudal system within Francia and basically changed the country. 

"Then you go to the sagas, and you read about Rollo Ganger-Hrolf, or Rollo the Walker in Iceland, and they paint him as a very different person, living on the margins, stealing from the Háfagri, Finehair, and the Spanish and made a name for himself away, and none of these Rollos are a fair representation of the real person, because every part of history has propaganda involved, and it’s all bastardized somewhere down the line. 

"I always think the truth lies somewhere in the middle.”

Helping Standen to find that middle ground is showrunner and writer Michael Hirst.  “It’s a fantastic character arc. I love what Vikings and what Michael Hirst have allowed me to do over the five seasons of working on it. We almost reinvent the character every season. We took this character from the beginning, because we knew he was the Duke of Normandy and the great, great, great grandfather of William the Conqueror in the history books.

"Michael wanted to start at a really base level and then give me such a massive character arc to eventually create him into this man. So we kind of took the character and threw him on the floor and smashed him into a thousand pieces, and I’ve slowly been able to rebuild him over every season.”

“There’s this lovely Swedish proverb that says 'Everybody wants to be loved, and if they can’t be loved, then they want to be admired, and if they can’t be admired, they want to be feared, and if they can’t be feared, they are willing to be hated' and that’s me abbreviating. We’ve kind of almost done that every season.

“So, in the first season, back to that proverb, you kind of hated this man that was put up against his brother, and then by season two, you kind of loved to hate him.  Then in season three, when he actually begins to take responsibility for his actions, you start, unbeknownst to yourself, you start to kind of root for him.

"And then, in season four, you’re really torn between them, because Ragnar is going in an almost downward trajectory of questioning moral things and getting obsessed with his own ego and power. But Rollo is almost traveling up through the ranks. So, you’re torn between them, not knowing which one to root for any more, which is almost mission complete.

"But, now, in season five, he’s almost a completely different man. Playing a character who’s a pagan for so many years, not just on the show, but in the span of the years of the character, it all becomes about the gods, the monsters, the pagan belief system and what it is to be a Viking, and he’s almost disinherited all of that, disowned all of that to become a Frankish duke, which itself comes with all the fashions of the time, the etiquette, and most of all, the religion.

"So, he’s almost changed his whole self. Now, many years have gone by in season five, so when he comes back, he’s a man who’s completely torn. It’s almost a case of you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

“He’s a lot later on in his life, and he’s not quite sure where he’s going in the afterlife.

"So he starts -  and this is also what happened with the real Rollo in history – at his death, he had a midlife crisis, not knowing where he was going to end up in the afterlife, so, he supposedly put 100 Christians in a hog pen and had them all beheaded.  So, he was kind of hedging his bets by making this huge sacrifice to Odin but then sent hundreds of pounds to the church to try to hedge his bets as to which one he’d end up in in the afterlife.

“It’s one of the very few spoilers I can give away. There’s some very big stuff coming up.”

As if that weren’t enough, Standen then moves onto Taken, where he is, in his words, doing a “reboot, or modern day origin story. It’s simply taking that character and putting him in his own world, just like taking James Bond and updating that.”

One of the first differences from Vikings Standen noticed about the modern day series is the difference in costuming. Acting without the elaborate hair, makeup and costuming of Vikings was quite a change. Standen notes, “Yeah, it’s modern day clothes. It’s the most vulnerable I’ve felt acting in a long time, because I can’t hide behind all the make-up and costumes. “

Another difference, and one he was very cognizant of from the beginning, is that Taken is a major network show. However, it is the fact that Taken is not like many other network dramas that drew him to the project.

“It’s kind of like Vikings, because it’s about how life is exciting as it is, and you don’t need a veneer of gloss on everything. And that’s why I signed on to do this for NBC.

"I wasn’t interested in a lot of the network shows that are out there where everyone looks pretty all the time, and they wake up in the morning and they have perfect hair, and they do their action scenes and they jump through glass and slide along the floor and get up like nothing’s ever happened, like they’re in the middle of a hair commercial.

“I think, what’s wrong with people wearing clothes that aren’t ironed, because they work for the intelligence service and they work so many hours that they leave their washing in the washing machine because they can’t remember to take it out, so it’s a bit stained and smelly and they don’t have time to do their ironing in front of the telly in the evenings.

"When they get up in the morning they have eye bogies and messy hair. When you get punched in the face, it hurts. When you get hit by a car, you get up, and sometimes you can’t get up, or at the very least you’ll be limping to the finish line of the episode.

"So that’s what I’ve tried to do, and I learned that from Vikings. I have no interest in making something more fantastical than it really is, because life is fantastic, and we should go back to that, telling stories that are real.”

That reality extends to doing as many of his own stunts as he can, not to prove that he can, but for the sake of keeping the story real.

He says, “I’m not a stunt man, I’m just an actor who does stunts, but the reason I try to do everything myself in Taken is that, in Vikings, we never had anyone to stand in for us. The rules in Ireland are a lot less stringent than they are in America.

"The actor on the screen has to almost draw the audience in. It’s a challenge from the first moment. Not to mention when commercial breaks come into play, and you’re constantly telling people to switch off their brains and their imaginations.

"So, with an action show, no amount of car chases and explosions is ever going to make you fall out of your seat. It might make you eat your popcorn quicker, but it’s not the same thing. It’s only character that can do that.

"I think the secret is not that every actor needs to do their own stunts or have a death wish, it’s about there’s a way of putting the camera on the actor’s face in close-up during action, then you can suddenly engage, then you can see the whites of the actor’s eyes, see the anger, the frustration, the terror, the cowardice sometimes as an actor.

"The character of Bryan Mills in Taken, he’s an everyman. He’s on his own, jumping through hoops trying to get to the finish line, and you’ve got to be on the journey with him. You’re not going to be there if it’s the back of the stunt guy’s head. But you are going to be if you can see his plan formulating in his head, or the lack of a plan he has at that moment in time. The feel, the clock is ticking and he can sense it.

"You can do all those things if the actor is doing his own stunts. And that’s what I’ve tried to bring into Taken, and I think it’s going to pay off.

"I just hope I won’t be walking around in my mid-40s with arthritic joints and back problems.”