The actor sits down to talk becoming a Viking King, the logistics of battle scenes, and accidentally breaking someone’s nose on set.
After working on period dramas like Victoria and Sanditon, British actor Leo Suter has plenty of experience on horseback. Transforming into the horse-riding warrior Harald Hardrada on Netflix’s Vikings: Valhalla, however, required another level of strength and vigour. “In the history books, Harald is called the Thunderbolt of the North; he’s bigger and stronger than anyone,” Suter says over Zoom. “And, thankfully, mercifully, I had lockdown in which no pub was open. That was a very monastic existence of going to work and working out.” Suter jokes that during the arduous process of filming season two of the Netflix series, which premiered in January, going to the supermarket was “a treat” — though he still made time to kick back with fellow cast members like Frida Gustavsson, who plays his love interest, Freydis Eriksdotter, and Sam Corlett aka legendary Viking Leif Erikson.
How did you go about exploring and developing the origins of your character, Harald Hadrada?
As a schoolboy in England, you learn about Harald Hardrada at the end of his life, but he’s kind of a side plot because there’s a big battle in which he dies a few weeks before the Battle of Hastings. So you know Harald Hardrada’s name, but he’s the guy who didn’t win. He’s the last Viking. But there is actually a whole saga devoted to Harold Hadrada’s life and his upbringing and season two [of Vikings: Valhalla] kind of tells that story. I read the stories about Harold Hardrada and what he got up to, but the nice thing is that when [show creator] Jeb [Stuart] writes a script. you don’t need to do that stuff. You can very comfortably leave it at the door because the scripts do all the work. He makes cool characters doing cool things.
I know when you did the first season, it was in the thick of the pandemic. Were things a bit more open this time around? How was the experience different?
When we came back for the second, Omicron had just sort of reared its ugly head and the restrictions were still, in many respects, just the same. Particularly for filmmaking, where the rules are even tighter. But there was an easing of rules towards the end of filming when pubs opened.
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The concept of destiny is very present in the show, particularly with Harald. He feels his destiny to be king and that drives every decision he makes and sometimes causes him to lose sight of things. In what ways do you feel like destiny impacts Harald and the way he lives his life?
We talked a bit about the idea of tunnel vision. And as you say, the disadvantage of that is that you lose sight of your periphery and other important things that you might be missing. Harald’s destiny is not a small ambition, it’s to be king of Scandinavia. That’s how I’ve always played it in my head; he wants to do bigger and better. So, destiny is something that Harald is grappling with. During the filming that was always an interesting thing to remind myself of, just to remember that this man is wildly ambitious and that often clarified a few things.
I think that’s particularly evident in the second episode where Harald enters a fighting competition to earn money. It becomes very violent and then Leif is kind of like, “Whoa, what just happened?” I feel like that moment really called out the differences between those two characters. What was it like preparing for that scene, emotionally and physically?
It was a big one. I found it really enjoyable, it was one of my highlights of the season. In season one, I got to do fights with swords and axes and all that, so it was quite fun to go bare-knuckle. I had never boxed before, so I had my hand held through the process and a very talented stunt team taught me some of the fundamentals. The filming for [the scene] got delayed, because we had a COVID outbreak, so the fight got pushed for a few months. When we eventually got to film it, it was a massive release to finally be done with the choreography. We were meant to film it in one day and then we spent the first day filming all the reactions of people watching the fight. So we had to come back and film the actual fight the next day, which was great. It was brilliant. And no one got hurt. Well, actually, no… We were running out of time and there was a cool bit of choreography where Harald gets thrown into a pillar and he falls on a mat. And then the director said “Oh, we’re running out of time, we’ll just cut that bit.” And adrenaline was pulsing and I said, “No way. I’ve been doing that damn jump and smash into a mat for three months. We’re gonna film this.” And there wasn’t time to put the mat down, so I just did it without the mat down. And it made it into a show. That was the one bit that did really hurt. That was maybe a little bit stupid. But that’s part of the fun of those days.
I heard that in season one you accidentally broke someone’s nose? Is that true?
It is true. I bought him this sort of cuddly toy the next day. [Laughs.]
Prior to Vikings, you’ve done some historical dramas, but mostly in the Regency period, which is obviously a very different setting. Is there anything that surprised you when working within these two worlds?
The action, I guess, is the main difference from what I’ve done before, and the scale of the action sequences. They take months of planning behind the scenes and a huge crew of people. You realise in that process that they are just as invested in the show as you are as Harold or whatever character
Given your experience doing historical dramas, do you have the itch to do something more modern? Are you like, “Put me in a rom-com!”
I did a show called Intelligence , which was a comedy with David Schwimmer, among others. I was only in it very briefly, but I so enjoyed the really natural improvisation and the hilarious vibe of a comedy set. So, I’d love to give that a go.
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