When “Vikings: Valhalla” star Leo Suter sits down for a Zoom conversation with TheWrap one sunny Thursday afternoon, it’s quickly becoming a big day in the early history of the show. As the British actor fields our questions about playing the young, passionate and fierce-fighting version of history’s Viking prince Harald Sigurdsson, he’s seeing a flutter of social media alerts pop up on the side of his computer screen. The final trailer for his Netflix series, which picks up about 100 years after events of the first “Vikings” franchise, dropped just hours before our chat, and with it, an epic poster showing Harald, sword and ax in hand atop a mountain of skulls, shields and arrows.
“As I’m doing this interview with you, I think I, just a few hours ago, posted that poster on my Instagram and so my computer is firing out notifications,” Suter laughs. “So yeah, it’s happening and it’s cool to see the number of people who are already invested in the show. And yeah, it’s all sort of been positive. It’s all been nice.”
It’s been a long journey, though, to this point, where a hungry audience of existing “Vikings” fans, historical drama lovers, and Netflix bingers ready for their next show await “Valhalla’s” Feb. 25 drop. In fact, it was all the way back in 2019 that Suter was called in to audition to hold Harald’s shield, which went successfully, with producers bringing him out to Ireland, where the show films, to screen test. There, he encountered and “clicked” with actors Sam Corlett and Frida Gustavsson, who won the roles of Greeland-born Vikings the famed Leif Eriksson (Corlett), and his sister, brave warrior Freydis.
Then, of course, the pandemic hit and plans to shoot the show were forced to take an alternate route.
“We had this weird window where we’d been cast, we knew what was coming, but as with the rest of the world, we were just in pandemic mode,” Suter, who used the time for historical research and lots and lots of reading, recalls. “But we did Zoom calls every week with the writer Jeb [Stuart, also the show’s executive producer] as well and sort of kept that momentum. So we hit the ground running when we [turned] up in Ireland late August.”
For Suter, those early weeks on set began with a Viking bootcamp of sorts, consisting of choreography training for the big fight sequences in Season 1, sword fighting and ax-wielding. Boxing and Muay Thai were part of the bootcamp curriculum, as well as footwork.
“We really dove into it and got quite technical. And the stunt team, they’re incredible instructors, and they’re kind to us because we’re actors, so, they properly treat us much kinder than they otherwise would,” Suter said, with a chuckle.
All that training (and the research) will be on display when “Vikings: Valhalla” debuts on Netflix Feb. 25th. While the series is a historical drama, filed with big speeches, big battles, paganism vs Christianity, and English vs the Norsemen, “Valhalla” is also an origin story of sorts, introducing viewers to the young men and women – including Leif Eriksson, warrior Freydis Eriksdotter, and Harald – who would go on to become legends.
“Jeb would always use Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid as a as a reference,” Suter said of the relationship that develops between Harald and Leif almost immediately. “I think there’s a yin and yang element to these two characters. They complement each other quite well. They come from two different ends of the Viking world. And Leif brings like a stillness and a composure that complements Harald’s brazen brashness. And actually, I think together they’re going to do great things. And Harald can also identify in Leif that he’s bound for something special.”
Suter recalls first reading about Harald as a 10-year-old, as the Viking earned a single page in a history book he had at home. “He’s a key figure in 1066, which is a turning point in English [history]. So I knew about him back towards the end of his life, because that ain’t a successful battle for him – that ain’t a spoiler – that’s history,” Suter said, referring to the battle of Stamford Bridge. “But this [show] really interestingly, and excitingly, is the start of his life. … I knew roughly what that person was like at the end of their life, but I got to explore maybe what it was like for them at the beginning of their life.”
“He was famous across Europe as this berzerker,” Suter continued, mentioning the wild style of Norse fighting. “Someone described him – I’ve said this before – but someone described him as ‘The Thunderbolt of the North’ – a chronicler at the time. So yeah, he was a big deal. And as a result of that people have written interesting things because he traveled across Europe as a berserker, as a badass warrior.”
It’s England, though, on Harald’s mind as he begins the “Valhalla” story seeking revenge for his people following a bloody event (St. Brice’s Day Massacre) ordered by King Æthelred. The problem, though, with being so far from the shores where they can dish out Viking justice is the ones in this story (and in history) were dealing with religious clashes between pagan and Christian beliefs.
“One of the things I spoke with Jeb about was, at the start of the series, things are quite simple, things are quite black and white, he’s out for revenge for the Viking people. He doesn’t care about the split between Christian and pagan. He just wants everybody to get together for this common cause,” Suter said of his character. “But then, over the course of the series, his own ambition, his love, his lust, his relationships, actually really muddy that.”
All episodes of “Vikings: Valhalla” will be available on Netflix on Feb. 25.