Until recently, Leo Suter often experienced a rather troubling recurring dream. It wasn’t the recurring dream experienced by so many actors, when they find themselves onstage before a packed audience and cannot remember a word of their lines. He’s had that dream as well, of course he has. But while filming the second season of Vikings: Valhalla, a new dream started to plague his unconscious state, a dream in which he shaved his beard off and awoke with a jawline as smooth as an eggshell.
The astute reader will have already identified the cause of concern. Aside from longboats, raiding monasteries, horned helmets and dickheads who insist the horned helmets are apocryphal, there is little we associate more with Vikings than prodigious facial hair. Suter grew his own to play the charismatic, and bearded, Harald Sigurdsson; the alternative would have been daily visits to the make-up chair. Whenever Suter dreamt about shaving his beard off, he’d wake up and touch his face to check it was still there.
It isn’t anymore: the Suter I meet in Kings Cross is cheerful, charming and cleancut. Once filming finished – and after our photoshoot –he made his dream a reality and can now see his chin for the first time in three years. “I look like a 16 year old, which is very disconcerting,” he grins. “But it’s growing back.”
Suter arrives not by longboat or horseback but on his bicycle, which I suppose you could argue is the 21st-century urban equivalent of horseback. (What’s the 21st-century equivalent of the longboat? No idea. A tandem bicycle?) The designated café is absolutely packed, so we wander around until we find a rather swish restaurant and order two coffees. During our wandering, Suter tells me that he recently took a sledgehammer to one of the interior walls of his flat as the damp was becoming an issue. The insurance man is coming over this afternoon.
Shall we start with Leo or Vikings: Valhalla? Let’s start with Vikings: Valhalla, the latest show to prove that TV producers took all the wrong lessons from Game of Thrones – namely that its popularity was founded on magic and dragons, rather than the sex, violence, politics and intrigue. Being based on real history, Vikings: Valhalla offers the audience abundant sex, violence, politics and intrigue, with stupendously successful results. The original Vikings ran for six seasons on the History channel; Netflix picked up the spinoff with a three-season order of its own, a remarkable statement of confidence from the notoriously capricious platform.
As it happens, the second of those seasons was released the night before my coffee date with Suter. How does it feel, knowing it’s finally out there after months of filming?
“It’s cool. It’s very nice when you’ve worked on something for a long time, and worked hard on it, for it to go out into the world and seek its audience.” He saw the new episodes a month ago; now everyone else can catch up. His friends will understand the references “when I talk about Harald getting strung up by his nipples and driven behind horses. People can see it in the flesh.”
Sounds like it’s gonna be an eventful season for Harald; but then the man had a very eventful life. [Thousand-year old historical spoilers follow.] English history knows Suter’s character as Harald Hardrada, the Norwegian king whose invasion of England in 1066 indirectly caused the Norman Conquest. Basically, Saxon king Harold Godwinson was guarding the south of England; when Harald H landed in the north of England, poor Harold G was forced to fight two major battles at opposite ends of the country.
(To add insult to injury, Harald H had allied with Harold G’s estranged brother, Tostig; back in the day, royal fraternal rivalries were settled properly, with mass bloodshed rather than smashed dog bowls and autobiographies ghostwritten from Montecristo.) Anyway, Harold G defeated Harald H at the Battle of Stamford Bridge but lost the Battle of Hastings, and the English throne, to Duke William of Normandy three weeks later. And you thought your month was tough.)
These events lie in our past and Harald’s future. Season two will depict a younger man, a charismatic warrior on the make. Exiled from Scandinavia, Harald must leave behind his love Freydís Eiríksdóttir and journey with best mate Leif Erikson to Novgorod and then Constantinople – where the historical Harald eventually became leader of the Byzantine Empire’s elite Varangian Guard. (Yeah, dude was cool as they come.)
Suter talks enthusiastically about learning boxing – “I put the sword and the axe down and get in a fist fight. That was really, really good fun” – and the joys of playing a character whose fortunes fluctuate as much as Harald. He clearly loves the role, loves the show, loves the cast and crew. “Shooting it is very good fun. Sometimes it’s wet and gruelling but that’s part of the fun. And you make great friends with the people who you are fighting with. You get really close.”
That’s reassuring – surely you want your opponents in the fight scenes to like you. “You want them to like you,” agrees Suter. “Otherwise they might accidentally slip.”
As well as being the greatest warrior of his age, Harald also wrote poetry: “She told me once to carry / My head always high in battle / Where swords seek to shatter / The skulls of doomed warriors.” As Suter observes, “it’s quite self-aggrandising” – not that you would offer such a critique to its author. (“What do you think?” asks Harald Hadrada. You consider the Norwegian king, all six foot six inches of him. He’s looking at you expectantly, running an idle finger along his sword blade. “I think it’s good, Harald,” you assure him. “Really?” “Really.” “Even the shattered skulls bit?” “Especially the shattered skulls bit. Loved the shattered skulls bit.”)
Suter did his prep. Read Harald’s poetry, read up on his history – try the fantastic 1066: The Year Of Three Battles by Frank McLynn. He even read some Harald soft porn, albeit inadvertently. “My dad got me a book called Varangian. He judged the book by a cover: it had a picture of a Viking on the front, it was about Harald Hardrada. And it turned out to be a soft porn novel about Harald getting up to all kinds of mischief in Constantinople. I could only get to page seven, it was so full of smut!”
Page seven? Harald doesn’t mess around. “Yeah, on page seven Harald was doing all kinds of dirty things with the Empress. I brought the book to set and gave it to our showrunner – his face was hilarious when I read him some paragraphs.” (Varangian was written by Stuart G Yates. Suter would like to reiterate that he’s not recommending this book to other readers but I’ve already Googled it and so I suspect will you.)
The third season has already been filmed. It may or may not climax with the Battle of Stamford Bridge – judging by the span of history yet to be covered, and Netflix’s commitment to the show, my hunch is that Suter and Harald will endure into a fourth season and quite possibly beyond. The beard will be back, actor and Viking will continue to influence one another despite living a millennium apart. “You can’t help but put some of yourself into the character,” Suter muses.
Like what? “Oh, that’s a good question. I teed myself up. Shit. I don’t know.” He takes a moment. “Harald often has a smile on his face and a sense of humour. Serious things happen and dangerous events unfold but he can crack a joke here and there. For me, that’s an important part of filming and life in general – to have a sense of humour and never take things quite so seriously. There’s a line. But a slight smile is an important thing to keep.”
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Like many actors, Suter found his vocation through an inspirational teacher. “Mr Gilby Mackenzie. He ran a drama club and a big school play at the end of the year, which everyone got involved in. He inspired an interest and a love of theatre. And so I acted all through school, and when I went to university.”
He studied at Oxford, but not drama – you can’t study drama at Oxford. Instead he did Human Sciences. “It’s trying to understand humans in as rounded a sense as possible. I think the anthropology and the sociology elements definitely are useful for acting. And it fills me with useless little tidbits of information, which on a slow day on set provides some entertainment.”
Why not drama school? He wanted to experience student life before devoting his own to acting, and the Oxford University Dramatic Society allowed him to scratch the itch. “I got to go to a great university and meet amazing people who weren’t actors and aren’t actors now, doing interesting and amazing things. The life experience of going to university, I really valued.”
He graduated from Oxford with friends, memories and an agent. There were stints on historical dramas such as Victoria, Beecham House and Sanditon followed by a lead role in the film I’ll Find You alongside Stellan Skarsgård. Suter played an opera singer, Skarsgård his mentor; life imitated art offscreen. “He sort of guided me through that whole process,” says Suter, describing Skarsgård’s focus and clarity on set. “Making sure the actor was able to tell the story the best they could. The importance of an actor being clear what they want to do in a scene and not letting too many other external things compromise that.”
As well as inspirational teachers, most successful actors tend to have supportive families in their corner and the Suters are no exception. His parents attended all his university plays, travelled up to the Edinburgh Fringe to see their son in shows where the cast members often outnumbered the audience. “They supported me all the way through and I’m eternally grateful to them.”
His mother even flew out to Poland to visit him on the set of I’ll Find You. Suter smiles at the memory. “She came from a business world and a film set is kind of chaotic. She was struck at how this is chaos, but clearly it’s working – it’s organised chaos.” His mother passed away before the film was released. However, Suter managed to share his performance with her nonetheless. “I got some footage from it and was able to show it to her. So she did see me in that, which was very, very nice.”
The late Dame Helen Alexander sounds like an extraordinary woman. Her prodigious CV included a stint as chief executive of the Economist magazine; she was awarded a DBE and a chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur.
“She was an incredible person but I knew her as Mum,” says Suter. “I knew how impressive she was but after she passed away, the level of support and stuff coming from these big worlds of business and politics… It hit home how much she’d done with her life.”
What does Suter want to do with his life? He’ll turn 30 on September 26; Harald Hardrada met his destiny at Stamford Bridge on September 25, 927 years and one day before Leo’s birth. Let’s deal in shorter time spans: what does he want from the next decade?
“I’d like to have sorted out the leak in my flat,” says Suter promptly. “Get better at answering emails on time.” A pause, a slightly rueful grin. “It’s quite scary to make plans that far ahead. Gives me the willies. Having a family’s always been very important for me, making my own. Keeping a varied and interesting career that’s well-rounded and keeps me on my toes. That’s pretty mundane, but it’s a nice thing to wish for. Who knows what the next ten years will bring?”
What about the other way? Would the Leo Suter of 2013 be happy with his progress? “Yeah, I’d like to think so. He probably wouldn’t pay too much interest. He’d just keep doing his own thing. But he’d be happy.”
Do your own thing and be happy is a great creed to live by. I shall do my best to follow it, and so should you. I know Leo Suter will.
Vikings: Valhalla is streaming on Netflix