Maude Hirst probably wouldn’t have stood by her man as long as her character in History’s “Vikings” has, but the actress understands that loyalty.
Hirst plays Helga, who remains the devoted wife of devout boatmaker Floki (Gustaf Skarsgard) despite his many bizarre actions over the years.
“I’m not sure I would’ve been able to bite my tongue as much as Helga has done throughout the years, especially when Floki, last season, properly lost it,” said Hirst, whose father is show creator Michael Hirst.
At the end of Season 3 of the hit series, Floki killed Athelstan, the Christian monk whom Floki thought was wielding unhealthy influence over his friend and Viking king, Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel). Floki’s arrest for the murder has strained his marriage to Helga, but also causes a horrible tragedy involving their daughter, Angrboda.
During a recent call with reporters, Hirst talked about the tragic events in “Kill the Queen” and what’s coming up for Helga. Here’s an edited Q&A.
New episodes of “Vikings” air at 10/9c Thursdays on History.
[Spoilers ahead if you are not caught up and have not seen Season 4, Episode 2!]
Is Helga 100 percent behind Floki or does she have doubts and think maybe he’s just a bit crazy?
Interesting question. I think up until the end of Season 3 she genuinely was 100 percent behind him but it’s so complex. He does struggle with mental health. … I think she really wants to be 100 percent behind him but until the very end of Season 3, actually, it’s even too much for her. She does have a switching moment that she questions what he’s doing and how far he’s willing to push himself and the people around him. That’s going to be continued to be explored this season. Whether she does stay loyal or not is to be revealed.
What kind of a change should we expect in Helga, and what challenged you the most?
I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say that there are dynamic changes. … Until this point Helga looked like she was more dependent on Floki, and that dynamic is going to switch because he realizes, I think, that actually together, they’re a lot stronger than he can possibly be by himself. He can’t really deal with his own emotions, so I think having me as his prop to lean on and as a partner is very important to him. That definitely adjusts our dynamic going forward.
How does the relationship between Ragnar and Helga evolve this season?
Yes. The first few episodes it gets explored. It was really interesting, and I think it comes out of the blue, but they do have a bond. They have a real love for Floki. They’re the only two people I think that could understand the love for him, and so I think they bond over this understanding.
He understands what she’s been through, really, more than any of the other characters because he sees Floki’s whole journey as well. They have a real male love, I think. So he reaches out to her and it’s been great to explore that both as the character, and working with Travis is amazing.
The burial of Angrboda is so brutal. Was there anything behind that scene where Ragnar relates because of his loss with Gyda?
That’s a huge turning point for Helga this season. For him, it will bring back all those memories of the pain that he went through for his loss of a child. … I think it would bond any human with somebody else who understood how horrendous that would be.
What was the hardest scene that you had to shoot?
The burial scene, by far, was the hardest not only emotionally and putting yourself in that position, it’s practically impossible to know how a human being will deal with that. On top of that, we were in a hailstorm. It was just like everything was against us that day, which I guess helped get into the mood of it, but it was definitely one of the toughest days of filming that I’ve had.
How much input have you had on Helga’s journey?
Now, four years in, you feel very connected to your characters, and you all want to have your say. I think there are definitely parts of me that come out in her, and I definitely had a say in the past. But we have to also respect the writing and just go where the characters are taken, so I guess tiny bits of me and my ideas come through.
Do you ever read your scenes with Floki and think, how as Helga am I going to react to what Floki put me through?
I think it does show Helga’s strength, but it has been difficult, I think on her journey, to keep level-headed, especially when he admitted that he murdered Athelstan. That was quite a shocking moment for Helga. It’s been really interesting to go through her journey.
What do you relate to so strongly with Helga?
I think Helga and I feel very empathetic toward people. I’m fascinated with how human beings work. I try and always look for the positive in people rather than jump to conclusions. I think Helga’s quite like that and quite an observer. She has relationships with people but it’s almost silent. She bonds with people. It’s not necessarily about big dialogue moments, but I think the empathy through both of them is what connects us. I definitely think we differ in some ways.
Shooting the series is always physically challenging, but was there anything in particular this year that you had to go through that was a little worse than previous seasons?
With the extended season this year, it’s just been through all the months of the year and Irish weather is so unpredictable. We normally filmed over the summer, which had its problems anyway, but we’ve been filming through the winter here as well. Weather here is crazy and having whole days outside and on boats and all you have to cover you is just your costume, really. Yes, it’s hard; it’s freezing cold.
Floki is a very traditional Viking and really rooted in tradition and culture while Ragnar represents modernity. How are the female characters negotiating this transition to a more modern culture?
I think the show in general is so interesting because there are so many pretty strong female characters, but they’re completely different from each other. I think Floki and Helga’s relationship is interesting because it has always been on a very level playing field. They are both complete and equal in their relationship.
Going forward from this, I think the women just become stronger. The Vikings generally, were hugely forward-thinking with how they treated the women. The women could own land. … Christianity came in and actually changed that, so I’m interested to see if the series continues, where that would go.
Why is she still loyal to Floki?
I think they have a real fundamental bond. They both connect in a real spiritual level, and they have ever since they met. That’s something that she can’t walk away from and something that keeps pulling her back. There is a lot of love there. … I don’t think he’s ever necessarily treated Helga badly, and I think she feels almost as if she can fix him by being there; she makes him better. I don’t know how far he’d have to go to push her away, but it’s definitely a complex relationship. Fundamentally, there’s just a lot of love between them.
Did you ever see Helga as an outsider herself, and that’s part of the reason she might have been attracted to Floki?
Yes, absolutely. I think that’s why and how they met, actually. I don’t know if you remember back in the first season where they first met. We were just in the hut, in the middle of the woods that later became our home. Helga’s definitely a bit of an outsider. That’s, I think, one of the bonds that they have over the years that they are both just a bit different from everybody else.
As you continue to explore the character, is there anything you found that you’re surprised to learn about yourself as an actress?
It’s always terrifying when you read a script and you’re confronted with something that in life you haven’t actually gone through. You want to do it such justice, especially when it’s things about children and what real people go through and how much their lives would be affected by it. You need to really do your research … It’s always shocking and then when you do it, you feel it so much. It’s amazing that humans can understand other humans like that and get into a different headspace.
What do you feel is about the series that it resonates well with viewers?
I think it brings two different things. It brings the family aspect of Vikings, which is never been seen before, and it still has the fighting. It still has all the brutality of what the life would’ve been, but also humanizes all the people. It’s a world that I don’t think has really been discovered that much.
Also each of the characters has a lot of complexity and growth every season. I hope that all the fans have seen that and grown to love each of the characters and wanted to continue following their journeys.
One of the things your father does amazingly well is create strong, complex female characters. At the beginning of Season 4, the ladies are all separated. Are they going to come back together at some point?
There are a lot of unexpected friendships this year and not necessarily just with the women but throughout the whole cast. There are a lot of friendships that crop up that you’re not really expecting.
Helga (Maude Hirst) and Floki (Gustaf Skarsgard) in happier times on their wedding day. (History)
Helga (Maude Hirst) explains a tragedy to Ragnar in History’s “Vikings.” (Screen grab)
Helga (Maude Hirst) and Angrboda in History’s “Vikings.” (Screen grab)