TV's new drama 'Vikings' sheds light on Dark Ages

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ASHFORD, Ireland (AP) — If historical fiction guru Michael Hirst has his way, a legendary Viking raider named Ragnar soon will conquer North America on behalf of the History channel.

History's ambitious Dark Ages drama "Vikings," debuting Sunday after five months of filming in Ireland, dramatizes the myth-cloaked story of Ragnar Lothbrok, leader of a Viking people typically depicted as horn-helmeted brutes.

Here's one pointed clue that "Vikings" aims to smash a few stereotypes along with English skulls: There's not a horned head in sight because real Vikings never actually wore them.

This lavishly produced nine-parter, the biggest production ever commissioned by History with a reported budget of $40 million, seeks to get viewers rooting for the Norsemen even as they butcher defenseless Christians and loot their way through Europe. With a cast including Gabriel Byrne, the series debuts on History Sunday at 10 p.m. EST after another big History miniseries, "The Bible."

"It's always been in the background of my mind to do a Viking project," said Hirst, whose reputation as a master of history-based drama has grown from his days as screenwriter of 1998's film "Elizabeth" to his creation of the 2007-10 Showtime series "The Tudors" about the life, times and ill-fated brides of Henry VIII.

Speaking to The Associated Press during the final weeks of shooting, in a rain-soaked ash forest in the Wicklow hills south of Dublin, Hirst said he loved poring over the history of an ill-understood person or period, then weaving it into compelling entertainment.

Hirst, the showrunner and executive producer of "Vikings" as well as its sole writer, found working with 8th-century Scandinavian warriors a liberating experience because, while there's such rich legend in Norse culture, there's simply no written history from the illiterate Vikings' point of view.

"By definition, not as much is known about the Dark Ages. This is particularly true of the Vikings who were pagans and didn't write anything down," he said as, in the distance, actors on horseback worked on a scene of Ragnar taking his son on a mission to a magical tree, one facet of Norse religious belief. "Because not a huge amount is known, that gives me some liberty. But I like working from historical material. I always start projects by reading as much research as possible."

"Vikings" employs much of the same Irish talent pool that crafted "The Tudors," including production designer Tom Conroy and costume designer Joan Bergin, both Emmy winners for their "Tudors" creativity. It's the first production to use Ireland's brand-new Ashford Studios, where Conroy oversaw the construction of a Norse temple to the gods of Odin, Thor and Loki using design ideas distilled from trips to Scandinavian archaeology museums.

On the nearby shores of Lough Tay, the filmmakers set the actors loose on a 56-foot reconstruction of a dragon-headed Viking longboat. Wicklow's relatively gentle, sloping hills did have to be manipulated with CGI technology into cliff-faced, snow-capped fjords. But other scenes of Irish rural beauty, such as the Powerscourt waterfall, feature prominently without alteration.

For all the show's stunning scenery and attention to production detail, its success or failure will hinge on the appeal of its characters. They may each be cleverly based on actual Viking warriors and deities, but that won't mean much to an audience that mostly doesn't know a Valkyrie from Valhalla.

The biggest-name cast members are Gabriel Byrne ("In Treatment," ''The Usual Suspects"), who portrays a ruthless chieftain threatened by Ragnar's ambition and popularity, and Jessalyn Gilsig ("Nip/Tuck"; Mrs. Schuester on "Glee") as his mercilessly power-lusting wife.

"Vikings" offers more of a showcase for a quartet of lesser-known actors: Clive Standen, a 6-foot-2 Englishman whose skills in kickboxing, sword fighting and stunt work complement his portrayal of Ragnar's hard-fighting brother Rollo; George Blagden as the doe-eyed Saxon monk whom Ragnar kidnaps, enslaves and ultimately befriends; Gustaf Skarsgaard, a son of Sweden's best-known acting family, as a boat-building genius and uber-eccentric named Floki; and perhaps above all Canadian-born Katheryn Winnick as Ragnar's gorgeous warrior wife, who in real life has two martial-arts black belts and looks more than able to fight alongside the men as a "shield maiden."

But oh yes, Ragnar: Who's he?

In the production's biggest gamble, it's an Australian actor named Travis Fimmel, who shot to magazine and billboard fame a decade ago as Calvin Klein's most highly paid male underwear model. His acting career since has been humble. Interviewed on set between takes, he punctuates every other sentence with "mate" and parrys each question with a quip.

"Nobody knows me. I'm just a guy with a silly haircut," said Fimmel, who for his role has shaved his hair into a Mohawk topped by an artificial braided ponytail, and a tattoo of a raven on one side of his mostly naked scalp. But just one tattoo, he kids: "It's a budget thing. Can't afford two."

There's no doubt Fimmel looks fine on horseback or skewering an enemy with his broadsword. He's a confident physical performer and — more Fimmel self-deprecation here — suggests he likes the sword fighting best "because you don't have to remember lines while you're doing it."

But it's an open question as to whether he has the dramatic chops to make audiences believe in his declared quest for knowledge, riches and power.

Fimmel himself sounds unsure when asked if "Vikings" will win enough of a following to fight into a second season. "No idea man, it's up to the audience and the suits," he said.

But Hirst sees a complex soul in Fimmel, whose self-made audition tape persuaded Hirst to dump another better-established — and unnamed — actor who was within hours of signing on as Ragnar.

"I wanted someone who can fight, but who has depth in their eyes, because this guy Ragnar's a thinker, not just an action man. We were getting desperate. We nearly went with someone else. We nearly made do," he said. "But Travis has that depth and stillness I was looking for. He's going to be a star, no doubt about it."

While the first season is expected to end with Ragnar triumphant versus Byrne's earl, Hirst has picked a legend with legs: The real-life Ragnar spent decades expanding Viking sea routes and pushing armies all the way to a besieged Paris.

"Obviously I want to do four or five seasons of 'Vikings,' but I already know it's a better show than 'Tudors.' Everything has worked. And it just looks astonishing," Hirst said. "Whether it's a hit or not is in the lap of the gods. Which is a pretty appropriate place for it to be."