Alexander Ludwig was a little nervous working with his latest costars in History’s Vikings, but not because they were two giant Kodiak bears.
“First off, I was a huge fan of their work because they were the ‘Anchorman’ bears,” Ludwig told me during an exclusive Wednesday phone interview. “They were by far the most famous actors on set and they could hit their marks better than I could. They were just showing me up every way possible.”
Ludwig and the bears—Ursula and Whopper—filmed their big bear fight scene from the latest episode, “Mercy,” in far northern Canada. In the episode Ludwig’s character, Bjorn Ironside, killed a bear while on his self-imposed wilderness walkabout to find himself.
But Bjorn is not quite out of the woods yet. Ludwig and I talked about what’s coming up, filming in a blizzard and working with the bears, whom he seemed pleased he was a fan.
“I think they took it pretty well,” he joked about his fanboy attitude toward them. “I mean I’m still here, talking to you.”
Is Bjorn ready to take over as king as he sets off on his journey in the wilderness?
He needs to prove to himself that he’s ready. He thinks he is but he’s not sure, so he goes through this experience. When he comes back yeah, he’s ready. And over this season you’ll see that kind of come to fruition.
You shot the wilderness walkabout in Sault Ste. Marie in Ontario, Canada?
Yeah, we shot in the north of Canada. I’m from West Vancouver so it’s closer to me to go to Los Angeles than it is to go there. It’s as far north as you can go—in the middle of nowhere.
Did you have blizzard conditions, or shoot while it was snowing. It all looked so real.
Yes. We had to take snowmobiles to set and that’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever, ever done. I thought it was one of the most beautiful and spiritually awakening experiences I’ve ever had.
Even though it’s a hardship trying to act in this weather it looks so amazing. Were you happy to be able to film so authentically?
That’s it exactly. It gets to a point when you’re so miserable, but Canada wasn’t actually that. In fact, it’s even worse in Ireland right now.
Canada was freezing but it was more of a dry cold so you could stand it. I think it was like negative 20s or 30s, something ridiculous. But you find solace in the fact that the worse the weather is the better the show looks.
Going to the North was so important for our show because we haven’t really seen those conditions and you can’t fake that stuff. You can CGI but people see through it. To really get people immersed in the tone and the world I think it’s really important that we did it and I’m really happy we did. I’m really happy that the studio and everybody took the risk because it was definitely worth it.
You’re by yourself most of the time in the wilderness episodes. How difficult is it not having a scene partner to play off of?
It was really interesting. What I loved about it was that you could say so much without saying a thing. … We really tried to tell this story without having to say a word and that was so exciting to me. The dialogue really doesn’t matter in this situation. You can say so much with just your eyes and your physicality. So that was the challenge for me and that’s something that I haven’t really ever had the opportunity to do to that extent.
You worked with two real bears. Tell me about them.
Ursula was the bigger bitch. [Laughs.] Whopper was awesome. But they were both really great. It was an incredible experience to work with such beautiful animals.
Are they just trained to not actually maul you?
Well look, they’re raised around people so they’re used to us. … But at the end of the day they’re killing machines. You can train an animal as much as you want, but one thing can go wrong and you’ve got to respect that boundary.
They had like an electric fence around their trailer where they would stay. When one of them had to work they would walk it out in its own little pathway and the crew and everything would stay back until they got in position.
I would come in and separating us was a clothesline between myself and the bear. The bear thought that the clothesline was electric when in reality it was just a fricking clothesline. So I was telling the producers, “I can’t wait for you guys to have to rewrite the ending of the bear fight, because Whopper gets hungry and realizes that there’s nothing stopping him.”
Did you guys actually physically touch at all?
No, I never actually touched the animals but I really wanted to. I was within—oh my God, it was right in front of me. It would have had no problem taking me down for real if it wanted.
Did you ever imagine as you became an actor that you would be acting opposite a bear?
No man. It’s such a surreal experience. I can’t wait to see those episodes just to see that because it was unbelievable and I don’t know if it’s really hit me yet. I never would have thought I would work with such a beautiful creature—a Kodiak, which is even bigger than a grizzly bear.
We film in all this shitty weather—all that stuff—but you get in a scene like that with a creature like that you just know how lucky you are. These kind of opportunities we get doing what we do make it all worth it, you know?
Leonardo DiCaprio just won an Oscar for fighting a bear in “The Revenant.” Are you thinking Emmy for this?
An Emmy for fighting a bear? I absolutely do, but I think the bear deserves the Emmy.
Does Bjorn feel invincible after he defeats the bear?
Yeah, yeah, of course.
And that dip in the freezing water, what was that all about?
That was symbolic of a kind of rebirth. Michael [Hirst] put that in. I thought it was a very interesting thing for him to cleanse himself and come out a new person. And I think he does. He comes back with a newfound strength and determination to take what he wants and trust his own instincts.
Bjorn isn’t safe just yet, is he?
Dude, what happens in Episode 4 is amazing. I can’t wait for people to see it.
Alexander Ludwig at San Diego Comic-Con