Exclusive Vikings postmortem with Alyssa Sutherland

Queen Aslaug's role as mother to many of Ragnar's sons made her a character to remember as did her powerful ambition
Aslaug’s role as mother to many of Ragnar’s sons and her ambition made her a character to remember

SPOILERS! Don’t read if you have not seen the latest episode of Vikings

M&C spoke to Alyssa Sutherland about her character Queen Aslaug, who has been a powerful force on Vikings and has provoked strong emotions amongst fans.

It’s never easy being the other woman, and even when history books say that the main character of History’s Vikings had multiple wives, it’s the other woman that catches the brunt of that reaction.

Never mind that those viewers are projecting modern day societal expectations, or that it’s just hard to stand in the wave of support that a woman scorned receives.

The semi-mythical Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) was said to have had up to three wives, but there is no one more the fans want to see him with than his first wife, Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick).

Yet it’s with Queen Aslaug, portrayed by Alyssa Sutherland, that Ragnar has multiple sons, some of whom would go on to gain more fame than he did.

So Aslaug had an important role on Vikings, even if she did bump Lagertha out of the way. Unfortunately, this was not a society where the characters can forgive and forget.

In Season 4B, Lagertha may have let her hate for Aslaug pass for taking her man, but she couldn’t forget how she took everything else from her, like her throne, her city, and her people. It’s taken three and a half seasons (and 20 years time on the show) for Lagertha to get her revenge.

We spoke with Alyssa about her character’s bewitching ways and her final scene, plus we had a quick word with Vikings creator Michael Hirst about Queen Aslaug.

Ernie Estrella: We have some comeuppance for Queen Aslaug and this is a moment that a lot of people have been waiting for.

Michael Hirst: I know. I feel a bit sorry for Aslaug that she’s always the other woman. I agree the most perfect relationship was Ragnar and Lagertha and here comes the other woman. I guess I am to blame to separate them. Alyssa took on a lot of bad stuff on social media for taking Ragnar away from Lagertha. (So I told her) last season and coming into this, ‘let’s take you slightly to the dark side.

You could give Ivar to Floki to educate him on becoming a Viking through the old ways.’ Alyssa completely embraced that and took the character to a more Viking fundamentalist place. I thought she was very brave to do that and I think her performance was enhanced considerably.

That said, there was always going to be an end game. Lagertha was never going to accept what happened to her. She’s a powerful woman. She doesn’t forget. So there was going to be a final showdown.

EE: Alyssa, I find the character of Aslaug to be such a dynamic and interesting puzzle piece to the Vikings world. This was a big moment for Aslaug, these past two weeks but it was definitely something that was building since Season 2. Talk about developing this big moment, earning it and whether or not it could have come at an earlier point as Aslaug took Lagertha’s man, her city and her people.

Alyssa Sutherland: I come to think if the conversation was going to happen earlier it would have. I wanted this to be about Aslaug’s incapability to leading a town of people well. I wanted that to be what this was about. How old is Ubbe at this point? About 20 odd years since all of this happened, I think realistically people let bygones be bygones.

To me it made more sense that it was about Aslaug not being a great leader. I wanted that to be the case. I wanted her to be greedy, and for Kattegat not to be doing well. That made more sense to me because otherwise why didn’t it happen earlier?

I wanted her to be bad at something. [Laughs] I love to see characters struggle, because otherwise things get boring to watch. I think Aslaug is greedy, entitled, and narcissistic and you don’t want someone like that leading a town.

Ragnar had his own faults, but was he ever power hungry in that way? People loved him because he was this reluctant king, right? Fate led him to all of this power, fame and glory.

EE: It’s interesting that some of the earls and kings who Ragnar overthrows are more fundamental in their Pagan beliefs. Aslaug is more of a Pagan fundamental. Do you think there’s a point that the series is trying to make about how Christianity or Ragnar’s more liberal views on the Viking religion is sweeping across and winning out?

AS: Right? I think they do a beautiful job (with saying that). Aslaug is definitely a fundamentalist. I love Aslaug going to Floki to tell him that Ragnar is not going to raise Ivar the right way. ‘There’s something special about Ivar, and he needs to be raised Pagan and I know that you’re a fundamentalist like I am.’

I love the way the show deals with religion, the comparison of Paganism and Christianity, but also the contrasts as well. It’s one of the more interesting things to me about the show. Props to Michael (Hirst) on how he handles that.

EE: In what is an understated quality about Aslaug is her connection to the supernatural, spiritual side of the show, how she believes she can communicate with the gods, as Floki does and as the Seer does. Was there an exploration on your part in shaping this character with Michael about her Seer qualities?

AS: Yes. Again I like how the show deals with that because it doesn’t really force it down your throat in that the supernatural is real. It shows you what these people believed. It’s up to the viewer on what to decide what was real and what wasn’t real. They certainly believed all of these things. Aslaug believed that she could prophesize, she believed she could see things, she believed she could cast spells.

Back in Pagan times there were women who felt they could do it and the people believed they could do it as well.

I was very lucky because I had the opportunity to go to Fyrkat, Denmark as a part of the Real Vikings documentary series for History (which is airing after Vikings this season).

I got to see a site where they found this burial of this woman and everything they found with her in the grave were things that proved that this woman thought she was magical and the people around her thought so as well.

Again, whether it was real or not, we could sit and talk forever whether God exists, or if psychics are real. It’s up to what people believe. I think the show does that well. Aslaug absolutely believes in what she thinks she can do. Whether she actually could or not, that’s up to the viewers to decide.

EE: Let’s talk about Lagertha and Astrid’s raid on Kattegat in the episode, “Two Journeys” shall we? As they’re attacking the city we see Aslaug preparing to wield that sword to possibly do battle with Lagertha, which we’ve never seen before. You had issues with that, didn’t you?

AS: [Laughs] There were a lot of conversations about that scene that I had with the director Sarah Harding and Michael Hirst sort of teasing the viewers to make them think that Aslaug was headed to battle but having other reasons to not have them fight, because they didn’t want Aslaug to go to battle.

I was pleading my case, saying, “that’s not how she is, that’s never been who she is, she’s not going to all of a sudden don armor and say, ‘Right then, let’s go for it.’ She’s never fought in her life. This didn’t feel like it was in character for me.

Aslaug is so much smarter than that. I was pretty adamant, and we had conversations about the sword being more symbolic and that it should be a thing that whoever is leading Kattegat should have. I was okay with that. I wanted it to be obvious that she’s not going to fight a fight.

EE: What originally drew Ragnar to Aslaug in the first place was her mind and her wit, not that she was a shield maiden.

AS: Exactly! I love how fitting it all is, she came in that way and she goes out in that way.

EE: Do you feel that Aslaug’s been short-changed in showing some of those nuanced details? I feel like there wasn’t enough of that smarter thinking Aslaug than we should have.

AS: I do, but I think that’s a general frustration of being on an ensemble show. We all want our characters to be seen exactly as the way we see them. We want people to know all of the things that we work on as actors and actresses, but unfortunately you’ve got 45 minutes to get out how many storylines for how many characters?

Of course I would have liked to have seen more of that–and there were moments along the way–but that’s the general frustration of most actors, even if you’re the lead of the show.

It’s something you just learn to accept because everyone feels it. You create this human being and you fall in love with them, and they’re this living and breathing thing to you, which is a very weird thing.

I’ve never lived with a character for four years before and this is the first experience for me where I’m doing that, and it’s odd how you want to defend them. [Laughs]

EE: Speaking of defending Aslaug. Talk about the final confrontation and the way Aslaug goes out

AS: When I got the script, I immediately emailed Michael a message: “I love this! Thank you so much, this is incredible but please don’t revise anything!” [Laughs] Because of course you always get revisions along the way. So I was like, ‘Please, oh god, don’t change anything about this scene. We talked about how Aslaug came in with sass and some wit, and she goes out with that.

EE: And Aslaug smiles as she drops dead.

AS: She goads Lagertha into killing her in a way you don’t expect Lagertha will. Aslaug gets shot in the back! (She basically says in her final moment) I’m going to make you look a certain way in front of all these people. Do these people know what’s inside of you? I like that it’s a little vague and a funny little moment.

EE: Aslaug gets the final word in her own death because the dialogue that will continue on will not be in the best light.

AS: Right, I think that’s it. It’s Aslaug saying, ‘You think you’re getting the last word, but not really because I’ve asked for safe passage in front of all these people, quite loudly, by the way [laughs]. You agree to it and then you still shoot me in the back? It’s like saying, ‘Nah-nah-nah-nah-nahhh’ as you die. Aslaug was ready to go, what else was she going to do? She thinks Ivar is dead, right? Lagertha has come in with a huge army.

EE: She was up against it. Is this where you saw her demise?

AS: I wasn’t sure where she would end up. I knew that she couldn’t go a whole lot further. Once you see at the beginning of Season 4 with the Seer about a woman ruling over Kattegat, but then he won’t tell her if it’s her or not.

And as an actress reading that, I knew, ‘Yup. I get it. Okay, I see what’s up.’ [Laughs] Also, knowing that there’s this massive time jump and all of these sons who have been there the whole time but they’ve been young kids running around on the set in the background in most scenes. Maybe they get a line or two, but when Michael ages those sons up and he’s going to have to write storylines for all of them.

It should go onto them. These are the Viking stories that are going to be told. Honestly, I didn’t really see where her storyline would go once her sons were grown up.

EE: Is it hard to leave a show that’s been your home for so many years?

AS: You have so many mixed feelings because it’s this person that you worked on and at the same time I was starting to get itchy feet. I got to be in period costumes, I’ve been speaking with an accent that we created, I had done a lot with Aslaug but as an actress you want different challenges. I want to be a lawyer now, or a policewoman.

That’s not to diminish my experience on Vikings, it was wonderful and everyone on the set were so wonderful in Ireland. It’s a great crew.

I was so lucky to get the role, I had barely any work before Vikings. So I was kind of ready but it was really sad to say goodbye to all of those people and say goodbye to a woman that I came to understand moreso than anyone else, I suppose if you do your job properly.

EE: You’re actually onto your next project already, a TV production of Stephen King’s The Mist.

AS: That’s right! I’ll be much nicer and also I kick ass too, so that’s fun.

EE: In my opinion, you’ve been unfairly treated in social media as fans are unable to discern the difference between character and actor, lashing out their frustration of the story’s direction onto you. I mean there are some hateful things out there in the comments section of your Instagram photos or replies to your tweets. How tough has that been for you?

AS: [Laughs loudly] To tease the finale of Season 1, they posted a picture of me and these comments came rolling in. I was unprepared. I was just excited to be on a TV show. I really don’t care if the comments are directed at the character. That’s great, I’ve done my job.

You can’t go onto a TV show and expect everyone’s going to love your character and if you come on and do something questionable, that’s okay. As far as I’m concerned, if people are invested and they’re feeling something–because my job as an actress is to make people feel something, that’s what entertainment is.

But… [Laughing] there were some comments about the way that I looked, and I was like, ‘Oh, wow. I’m not reading anymore. I’m done here.’

It’s a testament to how strongly these people feel about the storylines and characters but I just won’t read it anymore. So I don’t honestly know what people are saying. Most of what’s said on my personal social media posts are lovely.

EE: It’s probably for the better in the end to shut all of that out.

AS: As an actress, if you start reading comments about what people think about your character, that could start to bleed into your work. I didn’t want to be reading scenes for Season 2 or Season 3 thinking about what people on social media will say about this. That’s not doing my job. My job is to read that scene and interpret it for myself and find the humanity for myself regardless of what other people think.

If you come from a place of wanting to please fans, it becomes uninteresting. Also, it’s fun to do bad things. It’s not fun to do bad things in real life.

Most people have a conscious apart from 1 in 25 that are sociopathic that I think I’ve read. So for most people when they do bad things, it’s kind of hell for them. But to get to be able to do that, to pretend, with no ramifications, as an actress, that’s fun!

EE: Well you’ve effectively made back day drinking en vogue with Aslaug’s form of day care.

AS: [Laughs] Yeah, I kind of wanted her to be a drunk. I’m sure people drank a lot back then, what else is there to do? It’s cold, you’re sitting by a fire and your husband is away. I also wanted her to dark and twisted. I don’t do that in my real life. It’s really boring. It’s fun to be able to push that.

EE: It’s been a wonderful arc with Aslaug and I think you’ve played her honestly, which is all you can ask for in a viewer and I think you did that extremely well.

AS: Thank you so much!

We look forward to seeing Alyssa on our screens again soon.

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