Starring a warrior in History’s “Vikings,” Ben Robson runs around the Irish countryside with axe and shield in hand, screaming and playing at war.
“That’s my favorite bit. It’s great,” he said during a recent phone interview. “It’s all really, really good fun because it’s not something you get to do in everyday life.”
As Kalf, the Earl of the village of Hedeby, Robson also shows viewers his ambitious and calculating character’s political adeptness.
In the past, Kalf took his leadership role in Hedeby by overthrowing his lover, Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick), the former wife of Viking King Ragnar Lothbrok. In Season 4, he has made her co-Earl with him and eliminated her chief enemy in a treacherous massacre.
But the family of Ragnar Lothbrok—or anyone else—shouldn’t rest easy just yet.
“I think you’ve always got to be worried about any Viking in a position of power,” Robson said with a chuckle.
Born in Newcastle Upon Tyne in northeast England, Robson now calls Los Angeles home. We chatted about Kalf and Lagertha, starring in TNT’s upcoming drama “Animal Kingdom,” and his love of surfing.
Why do you like playing a character like Kalf?
You get the most fun things to explore. It’s interesting because when he’s playing all these different things you can kind of get a sense of why he’s doing them and then what his motive is when you start looking into the reasoning he’s doing all these things. It is fun to play someone who is playing 100 different cases in his head because you have so many more things to explore with his reasoning and sentiment and character.
How has he changed over the time you played him?
Michael Hirst has written an incredible arc for the character Kalf. I mean physically as well as positionally in terms of where he is in his society. He’s a boy, he’s subservient. He knows what he’s doing. And then as he grows up I think even his stature and his position. Normally he would be following Lagertha and the rest of the leaders.
Now he feels strong enough and proud enough to walk alongside her, if not in front of her, as we start Season 4. By going to certainly the biggest battle of recent times, he’s accomplished some goals. He’s proved himself, has been recognized by the gods, will be written about by the poets just like they write about Ragnar. … That’s something that no one can take away from him. He’s come out much richer. I think a lot of respect comes with the sort of success he’s achieved. I think it’s more important that he’s done it alongside the very people who were dictating and redefining the way that the Vikings live.
Before Paris, he took Lagertha’s Earldom. What was that about if he claims to love her?
We’re talking about a time when recognition came from being a power, a leader. If you’re second in command and loyal to your superiors you can’t really claim that you’ve really put your stamp on the world. I think for him to earn that power and respect and maybe validate himself as a man, he had to do something like that. … Men want to be successful and it’s very alpha male for him to think that once he earns that respect, he can then earn the right to Lagertha’s love. I think that’s kind of where it’s at. There is a time, frankly, in Viking lives where they all want to be powerful and be recognized.
Now he’s made her his co-Earl. Is that another political ploy or is that a heartfelt move?
It’s all the above. It’s a safety move in terms of political strength—having Lagertha on his arm. His goals do kind of change at that point. He’s constantly sort of aware of his surroundings. He’s very intelligent and able to read situations and try and put himself in a position of strength.
But I think ultimately the closeness and the bond he has with Lagertha is a very difficult thing to kind of shake off. … I think he is deeply in love with her. I think he’s ready to be the man alongside her rather than the boy underneath her.
Kalf also betrays Einar. Is this part of his loyalty to Lagertha?
I think there are a lot of similarities with Ragnar in the way that Kalf operates in situations like this. I think he’s gotten everything he can from Einar and he makes a decision to maximize his position of strength.
In Episode 3, he tells Lagertha that as long as he can remember he’s loved her. Is he a master of BS or is he telling the truth there?
He says those things definitely with a sense of sincerity. Whether she accepts them, after she’s been deceived so many times by Kalf, that would be more her decision really.
But he’s planning against her family. Can audiences trust Kalf?
I think that’s a very subjective question. It depends what side you’d rather be on … He’s an intelligent guy who is constantly looking to keep himself in a position of strength and as with all these things you have big decisions that can bring big changes. He has a task that he set out to achieve, which he did agree with Erlendur when he needed his army. I think it’s almost influenced by that to a certain extent because Erlendur still holds an enormous part of his power.
I think Kalf is always trying to search for the best way moving forward. That’s why he’s such an interesting character to watch and I can imagine it’s very frustrating to the viewers because they don’t know which way he’s going to go.
Is there anything he wouldn’t do for fame or Valhalla or whatever his motivation is at the time?
I don’t think he’d put himself in a position that would hinder him or harm him or weaken him. He thinks things out a lot and is smart. … There’s nothing he wouldn’t do to achieve what he wants, as long as it’s done the right way.
What for you has been the most challenging thing about playing a Viking?
Forgetting everything that you live in today. I think the most interesting thing about playing a Viking is just the dedication to and fearlessness of war and putting themselves at the will of the gods. Still to me that’s always it.
The other sort of side challenge—which isn’t I guess directly apparent within the show but you’re just always aware of it—is recognizing the daily struggle for survival they experienced. They lived in very difficult conditions every day just to get food on the table, to stay warm and to stay alive essentially. It was just a constant battle that we take for granted today. We go out to the supermarket, jump in a hot bath and get into a nice cozy bed. Whereas then you had a daily struggle for everything.
When they set off to new lands they really were going into the unknown. Today we’re fully aware of our surroundings from one side of the world to the other. The bravery and fearlessness they had to have to jump on a ship and cross seas that you have no concept of how big they are, how treacherous they are, is amazing. And to go into lands where you see a new race of people and [hear a new] language.
As an actor, you almost have to unlearn everything that you know so that when you go back you start everything with an open set of eyes as a Viking.
Michael Hirst talks about how it was very important for him to put the Vikings spirituality into the series. That plays into how they don’t fear death but look forward to it. What was it like to get into that headspace?
They had such a dedication and belief, or as you said spirituality, and embraced it because they believed that by proving themselves on this Earth they get to fight a bigger war alongside Thor and Oden and the gods. It’s just such an incredible thing. … It’s a difficult thing for us to comprehend. I think we, especially the Western cultures, sort of treasure every moment that we have on Earth. … I think now everyone really does appreciate life so much more, whereas Vikings believed they had a second life. Maybe it’s an injustice to say it wasn’t as daunting to die, but they looked forward to a good death.
Death for me today is—it doesn’t matter if it’s a good or bad death. It’s not the most pleasant of thoughts of leaving life.
So it is a challenge to constantly sort of have that engaged while you’re acting in this. But it’s also quite liberating because you’ve got no shackles. We’ve grown up and are accustomed to fearing death, so to play [the opposite] has been quite liberating in terms of it sort of brings an added invincibility to your mind in battle scenes.
I imagine the French weren’t quite prepared for how it was going to be when the Vikings raided because they weren’t willing to put themselves—their lives—on the line for the greater good. It’s quite a unique mentality.
You have 20 episodes this season. How was that? Did they just come out one day and tell you all, you get to fight another 90 days?
It was more than 90 days actually. It was great. I’ve got such a family and everyone gets on. I came in in Season 3 but immediately got on with everyone so well. You become such a family in Ireland because everyone is from all over the world. You sort of become very close and everyone has a good time. So in terms of actually getting to spend time with everyone it’s great.
The show as well is a very special show. It’s fun to work on stuff that you enjoy doing. It is also incredibly grueling as long a shoot as it is, but these things all help. The Viking life wasn’t easy and working constantly within this environment that they’ve created, you just get more and more in depth with the work.
You’ve talked about how it was a little bit daunting to join a show in its third season, but you’re right in at the beginning for “Animal Kingdom.” How has that been?
We just shot the pilot. … But it’s good. It’s obviously a very different sort of show than “Vikings.” But it’s a very great experience and there are some really incredible people behind it as well, with John Wells, TNT and Warner Brothers. So it’s exciting. I’m looking forward to getting into character and it’s going to be a fun one and again, another sort of family show to a certain extent—with a strong matriarchal character played by Ellen Barkin.
Do you still get a little star struck with cast members?
I do. That Dracula movie [“Dracula: The Dark Prince,” 2013] was kind of the most star struck I was. … They hadn’t cast Van Helsing yet and then they started dropping some names and then they said Jon Voight. And I was like, “You’ve got to be kidding.” I mean Jon Voight is, you know, a legend in Hollywood and it was quite a moment when we had to sit down and I realized I was pretty much acting in every scene with him. He’s an Oscar winner. I’ve watched countless movies with him and I’ve been a huge fan.
I had it to some extent with “Vikings” because I used to watch the show for two seasons. And then the next thing is you sit in a read through and then all the characters that you love start becoming the people you’re playing with on set and hanging out with drinks.
And how about “Animal Kingdom?”
The same thing with “Animal Kingdom.” Ellen Barkin’s another one who’s just a great person to be around. The most amazing thing is when you work with all the people you get star struck with and they’re all such incredible professionals and human beings. They’re all about helping everyone put out the best performance they can get. And you can understand why they’ve had such long, successful careers. … You learn it the whole time with them so it’s been fun.
I noticed on your Instagram you like surfing. So are you happy to be shooting your next show in LA?
I am very excited about that, yeah. And it’s also a bit warmer than Ireland so it’s nice and you can get on the water and it’s good fun and the character surfs as well. I’d love to spend more time in the water chasing more waves and getting better at it.