It was a risky choice when “Vikings” killed off its protagonist, Ragnar (Travis Fimmel).
But the History drama’s audience has grown exponentially as it’s reshaped its narrative around Ragnar’s son, Ivar the Boneless (Alex Høgh Andersen), who was born without the use of his legs.
“There was inevitable pushback with the idea that I might kill off Ragnar,” says creator Michael Hirst (“The Tudors”). “Ragnar was the center of the show, and if I got rid of Ragnar, then no one would watch.”
That didn’t happen. Following Ragnar’s Season 4 death (he was dropped into a pit of poisonous snakes), ratings for the second half of the fourth season jumped from 2.2 million to 2.5 million viewers each week.
As the second half of Season 5 kicks off (Wednesday at 9 p.m.), “Vikings” finds Ivar as the king — and has found an audience that’s proven it will stick around with the new guy in charge.
“I never believed [the audience would leave],” says Hirst. “I knew … that Ragnar’s sons were as famous as he was. There was a great Viking leader called Ivar the Boneless who might have been [handicapped] — what an extraordinary Viking hero that would be! It seems so unlikely, and yet it was true. So I wanted to figure out how this guy could have been so worth following, so spectacularly famous. We’re following Ivar’s trajectory and he’s such an unusual, compelling lead character. We had to cast someone for Ivar who was extraordinary.”
Enter Andersen, a 24-year-old Danish actor who was unknown to international audiences before he became the antihero on “Vikings” in Season 4. Since then, his popularity has grown (he currently has over 1 million followers on Instagram).
“I had a few thousand followers [before ‘Vikings’] because I’ve done some stuff back in Denmark, but nothing compared to this,” says Andersen. “It’s been overwhelming in many ways. Coming from a small town in already-small Denmark, it’s been a massive journey so far.”
Part of that journey involves acclimating to the international spotlight.
“I’ve gotten a few love letters which I’m very fond of, thank you very much,” Andersen laughs. “I have no idea how to reply to them and I’m a little scared by this whole thing — keep in mind, I’m just a Danish dude. This is a whole new world to me. But people are so nice, really. If you made a big deal out of it, it will become a big deal. I’m chill with that stuff. You need to be, otherwise you’ll go insane.”
Hirst says Andersen captivated him right from the start.
“Just before his reading, he said to me, ‘I only have one question: Is Ivar in pain because he [can’t use his legs]?’ ” says Hirst. “I said, ‘I think he’s in pain all the time.’ And he went and did the reading, and you couldn’t see any pain. All the other boys who were reading for [Ivar] were showing agony. And then the guy who was shooting, said ‘Do you want to look through the camera?’ There was no pain in Alex’s performance — but when I looked through the camera, his pain was in his eyes.”
Andersen teases a “dark” season ahead for Ivar.
“He is an antihero with emphasis on ‘anti.’ It’s interesting to have a character who is becoming the lead character and yet he’s almost the villain,” he says. “Good characters don’t believe they’re bad. As long as you as an actor believe in them and try to understand them, it’s not hard to have empathy and sympathy.
“[Ivar] had a rough upbringing in a society that doesn’t embrace him at all, and too much love from his mom that eventually ended up suffocating him, his dad abandoning him,” he says.
“It’s a privilege as a young actor to work on a character that has so much meat to it.”
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