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"I wanted to let other people know that they're not alone." How Alexander Ludwig conquered his demons

After starring in Vikings and Bad Boys For Life, Alexander Ludwig is set to take over 2020. Yet alcoholism and substance abuse nearly destroyed the young actor. He shares all in this remarkable interview... 

Early last year, Alexander Ludwig sat down to make the most terrifying film of his life.

He stares into the camera. Smiles nervously. Claps once – ‘action!’ And, for a little over 15 minutes, he speaks. About his alcoholism, his anxiety, his struggles with depression. About how he drove himself into a dark place – and how he found the strength to climb out again. It’s a raw, deeply moving, painfully intimate watch: one man sharing his demons with the world.

Bite The Bullet is a series of videos in which people share their stories of struggle and triumph. Ludwig has starred in bigger productions. He played the villainous Cato in The Hunger Games, the first film of the multi-billion dollar franchise. His Bjorn Ironside is one of the most popular characters on the hit History show Vikings, the sixth and final season of which premiered in December 2019. This January, he teamed up with Will Smith and Martin Lawrence in Bad Boys for Life. He’s 27 years old – yet despite the impressive resume, and the glittering future, Bite The Bullet may always be his most impressive work.

Nor does he want to stop talking about what he describes as an ongoing struggle – to stay sober, to strive for better, to live up to the man he knows he can be. We begin by discussing Vikings and his journey through Hollywood – from Hunger Games to Bad Boys. Then I bring up Bite The Bullet, and the conversation deepens, moves into difficult and sometimes uncomfortable places, places of darkness yet, ultimately, light.

It’s one of the most candid and thoughtful interviews I’ve ever had the fortune of conducting. I hope you get as much out of it as I did.

Vikings: it's been six years. Must be strange losing something like that from your life?

It really is. It felt surreal when they when they called cut on my last day. Not only have I fallen in love with the whole world and the character, but also the crew and the cast. You create a total family on that set. 

That’s every young boy's dream, right? To be a Viking?

I can't tell you how many times I was on set just going my twelve-year-old self would be so damn proud of me right now.

My twelve-year-old self is unspeakably jealous of you. What are you going to miss most about the show?

The crew and the cast. And I’m a big history buff, so getting to really explore another culture. In many ways, Vikings had a very progressive culture. In the ways that they respected their women, in the ways that they treated their land. To share parts of the beauty of their culture was a dream come true. 

There's a chance that I could end up reprising Bjorn Ironside in some capacity

Yeah, the adventure, the exploration – it’s very romantic…

Totally. In a weird way, they were the first astronauts, they were the first explorers, they had no idea where they were going or what they were going to find.

Do you have a particular favourite story from your time on the show?

Travis [Fimmel], who played my father on the show, we used to prank each other all the time. It got relentless. And I'm not just talking pranks: we would be in bars, throwing each other over tables getting thrown out. And by the end of it, I had enough.

One day he walked into a porta potty on set. One of the extras turned to me and said, “this is your moment” and I’m like, “Damn right it is.” I ran up to the porta potty and I decked it over with him inside. He was out with shit all over his boots and like, “Oh, my God. Oh, my God.” It was brutal. It was also my favourite thing that I did, because he never bothered me again after that.

After the final season, is there any talk of a film?

I have heard rumblings about that. I’ll never say never. I certainly think there's a chance that I could end up reprising my role in some capacity. I know that Netflix has already picked up a spinoff series that will be happening one hundred years later. But it's early days with all of that. I think Michael was talking to MGM about planning a script and stuff.

Tell us about Bad Boys For Life… What’s it like to enter into the franchise?

Completely and utterly surreal. I'd grown up watching Will and Martin, and I love the Bad Boys franchise, so to be a part of it, it was one of the great experiences of my life. And working with them was amazing. Will is the consummate professional and Martin has a heart of gold.

Who’s funnier on set?

Oh, man. Martin is such a kind and soft spoken man. He's a very gentle soul. Will is more of an extrovert, he's more of a jokester. They both bring their elements. I wish one day I could look at my wife the way that Martin and Will look at each other. 

You started acting as a child, which apparently your parents didn't want?

Yes. They were cautious about it. My father had owned a tugboat company, and my mum was a former actress – she was in Friday the 13th, Part 8. They were worried because you hear these horror stories about kids getting lost in the shuffle. They worried about if I had success too early, and in a lot of ways, they were right.

When I was nine, I took my mum's phone and I called her old agent and asked for a meeting. I went out for my first commercial, which was a Harry Potter toy commercial, and I booked it, which was wild because it was my first audition ever. And then I worked my way up from commercials, and guest spots, and small straight-to-DVD films. Now I'm here. 

After Hunger Games there was a tectonic shift in my life: 'Things are never gonna be the same again'

After The Hunger Games, presumably you became recognised everywhere?

There was a moment in time where it was crazy. And I was in college and, you know, a bit of a wild man and trying to get my feet under me. And it was just a lot of attention. I’m grateful, because had I been the main star of that film, I feel like I would have had way too much money and way too much attention, without realising how much work I needed to master my craft.

You did The Seeker when you were 15. Was it tricky to stay grounded as a teenager?

Well, fortunately, with that film, it wasn't particularly successful. When I was like 15, 16, I did Race to Witch Mountain with The Rock. Those films, they were great, they helped build the resumé, but they weren't like these huge, massive hits. Hunger Games was the first thing I'd ever done where there was a tectonic shift in my life, where I was like, “Things are never gonna be the same again.”

I watched your Bite The Bullet video, which was very beautiful and eloquent...

To date, that was actually the most terrifying thing I've ever done because I didn't know how it was going to be received. When I was going through my substance abuse, addictions and all of that, I would go online and I’d be like, “Am I the only actor ever whose had this problem?” And I would find these little things that are lost in the shuffle – like, “Oh, this person is sober, that person’s sober.”

That gave me a bit of confidence. But I never saw a full testimonial of what it's like. And I wish I'd had something like that. So in a sense, it was my way of saying, “Look, guys, this is me. I'm not perfect. I've made a lot of mistakes in my life and I'm doing the best I can to be better. But here is my experience and take what you will from it.”

I'm so grateful that it was received so well, because I wasn't quite sure that I would be. I'm blown away by how many people have seen that video and have come up to me, being like, “Hey, dude, thanks for biting the bullet. Hey, thanks for doing that.”

When I was alone and it became very, very destructive that I checked myself into rehab

I just wanted to let other people know that they're not alone. We’re human beings. We are all flawed. And we're all trying to work out our own things. It’s OK to admit it. It's not your fault, if you're born a certain way or if you have something that’s wrong in your life. But it is if you don't do anything about it.

I wanted a specific career and I wanted a specific life. I wanted to be a man that could be depended on. I had to get my shit together, you know? I was always able to fly under the radar because I was always pleasant... I was happy when I was in those situations, not like some disaster to people. If you'd seen me in these kind of stupors or states, you never would know that this is what I was struggling with.

It was when I was alone and it became very, very destructive that I checked myself into rehab. I spent basically all the money I had to get better. That was the best investment I've ever made, but also the scariest one, because I didn't know if I'd ever make that money back. And it was a lot of money to go to get help. But I did. And I'm really happy I did.

You have a lovely line about ‘grieving for life I was going to lose’ – no longer being that person who goes out and drinks and has fun. You’re losing part of yourself…

A thousand percent. At one point for me, it became life or death. I couldn't sustain this anymore. And, it is an absolute grieving process, especially in the beginning. When I talk to people who are getting sober and they're in their first 90 days of sobriety, I'm like, “This is going to suck for you. Everything is not going to happen at once. But if you can stick the course and have faith in the fact that it's going to get better, it will.”

And I can't tell you how much the universe is rewarding me in ways I never could have imagined simply because I'm sober and I'm taking care of myself and I'm starting to love myself and the people that I was afraid I would lose – the ones who stuck around were the friends that I was meant to have.

Since I've been sober, my ability to shine as an actor has grown tenfold

Did the addictions stem from a sense of unworthiness?

Totally. There's also this misconception in our industry, it's something I really, really hate about acting in general: being a tortured soul – or an asshole on set – doesn't make you an artist. You can be a tortured soul and also an artist. But it's not what makes you an artist.

And I think that people get this confused all the time: that they have to have gone through some crazy experiences to find this sense of depth. What makes you an artist is the work you put into your craft, period. If you're an asshole on set, you're not an artist. You're just a dick.

So many people in our industry get that confused, and I think I fell into that trap. Fortunately for me, I was never an asshole. I've always been quite humble and grateful for the opportunities that I had. But I certainly fell into that trap of thinking that I needed to be some sort of self-destructive personality in order to reach another level of creativity. And that's simply not the case.

Since I've been sober, my ability to shine as an actor has grown tenfold, more so than I ever could have if I was still drinking and using.

That's such an astute point, and I think it’s true across a lot of industries...

It took me a really, really long time before I realised that. The work I've been doing on Vikings, it speaks for itself. That's because I have the time and energy when everyone else is going out and partying, I'm able to happily stay at home and focus on what I need to do.

That being said, when I was first getting sober, my friends were like, “Oh, should we not be drinking around you?” Guys, it's the exact opposite of that. You can do that, and you can do it well. I was just the idiot and the guy who couldn't handle it – you guys can. And that's fine. Go out and do that. There's nothing wrong with that. If you don't have a problem with it. But the second you do, it's your responsibility to take control and take your life back.

Why do you think you couldn’t handle it?

For me, I felt like it was just unworthiness. Feelings of imposter syndrome: that it all came too easy to me, and I hated that about myself. That I wasn't born in some terrible neighbourhood and had to fight my way out and survive. I felt guilty because of it. I felt like I needed some sort of dark kind of experience to justify my existence. Which obviously was totally wrong.

One of the great traps in our industry, or maybe why a lot of actors are very introspective, and specifically the great actors that I've worked with, like Anthony Hopkins, who's also sober, or Will or Martin or Mark Wahlberg – everything they have is because you're not comparing themselves. The second you start comparing yourself to what other people are doing or what they have, you go into this sense of entitlement that is so fabricated.

It’s only when you can sit back and realise, “I'm grateful just to be healthy and to be alive.” That's enough. Anything else that comes as a result is just a bonus. The second I started embodying that mentality, things have really started to happen. The only thing I have over everyone else is who I am as a person. And I'm just going to do me the best way I possibly can come what may.

It's not like everything's solved now. We're constantly growing. We can always grow

Sounds like healing was a process, rather than a case of waking up one morning and saying, “Fuck it, I’m changing my life…”

I can't tell you how many moments I've woken up and said those same words – and it hasn't stuck. For me, it still is a process. It's a daily thing, and some days are better than others. It's not like everything's solved now. We're constantly growing. We can always grow. We can always get better. And we always strive for that. 

You can think you've turned a corner and then you crash into a wall...

Exactly. Like it’s this mountain that we're climbing, and we'll go a certain way and then we're gonna fall a little, and we're going to climb ourselves out. But we're still farther ahead than we were before. Even if you take a few steps back, you're not at the bottom. You're still moving up. And that's been the case for me. 

What age were you when you first checked yourself into rehab?

In my early 20s.

What prompted it?

There was a serious moment where I… I started realising what it was doing to the people around me. Addiction can be very selfish. My girlfriend Kristy [Dinsmore] was a huge catalyst for me. In a sense, you take family for granted: “Oh, that's just them worrying.” Then somebody new comes into your life and you're like, “Oh, my gosh, like, this is affecting everybody. It's not just my family worrying about me.”

I would go missing for four days at a time, you know? And then I would resurface. At one point, when I had been sober for six months and it happened again, I was like, “OK, this is it.” And within three days of that happening, I was on a plane to rehab.

And she stuck by you through all this?

It was so selfless and unbelievable. I put her through the wringer. It was truly remarkable.

People can act badly almost to prove to themselves that other people do care enough. It’s like that Marilyn Monroe quote: that if you can’t handle me at my worst, you don't deserve me at my best...

A thousand percent. We have been tested time and time again in our relationship. And we still are. And we're still together. It’s that sense of loyalty. I’m grateful to say that I've been able to return the favour in many ways going forward. In my sobriety and the way that I stick by her and the way I stick by my family.

I'm so blessed to be able to be that guy now that my friends and my family can call up and say, “Hey, look, we need you.” And I show up. I can't tell you how many people have reached out since then. People I never would expect who are going through similar situations. I’m so lucky that I can pay it forward in that sense.

About three months ago, I had to bury one of my first writing partners and a close friend of mine. It was really, really shitty. He just got the wrong stuff. He was taking something and it had something in it. It was just a fluke accident. That’s what's really scary about it. I can’t tell you how many people I know that have died because of it. It’s like Russian Roulette – it's gotten so much worse. And I'm so grateful I got sober when I did, because I don't know if I would be here talking to you.

We have been tested time and time again in our relationship. And we still are. And we're still together

I’m sorry for your loss. Your girlfriend, though, sounds like an absolute keeper.

I know! I know, dude. (Laughter) I know.

Put a ring on it, as Beyoncé said.

Yes, exactly. I can't tell you how many people have told me that. I need to wise up.

What are your ambitions for the future?

I just want to keep telling great stories. I've got a TV show that I helped create that I can't talk too much about right now. I finished another script a few days ago that I'm hoping to get off the ground for the summer of next year.

And I'm shooting a TV show in March, which I’m really excited about, called Heels. Kind of about independent wrestling in Georgia. The characters are incredible. 

Is there anything you want to do away from acting?

Actually, it's funny, it’s kind of a secret I have, but I always loved country music growing up. There’s a huge country music scene in Canada. I recorded a little country music E.P. that I'll release in January. I was going back and forth to Nashville with different writers trying to figure out how to do it.

I had no idea what I was going to do. And I met this guy called Tully Kennedy, who plays for Jason Aldean. Jason is a really big country artist, who I'm a huge fan of. Tully's also producing with Jason, and he's taking me under his wing, and really helped me navigate the waters of Nashville.

I found an interview from when you were 14 – you were asked your favourite superpower?

If I know myself, it'll probably be the same as now – which is fly.

Yes!

I've always loved flying. I got my skydiving licence. When I'm in L.A. and I'm not working, I'm usually jumping. I'm halfway through my PPL, my pilot's licence, which I really enjoyed doing. I started out in Ireland. And that was a really, really cool experience. 

One final thing – you need to update your Wikipedia page. The photo is from 2009…

But who does Wikipedia?

You can do it. Anyone can do it. Get a nice modern picture of you brandishing an axe...

That’s a great idea. I will get on that. Thank you for the heads up. (Laughter)

If I had a Wikipedia page, I’d check it all the time...

I haven't. I didn't even know that you could change it.

Guessing you don’t Google yourself much?

Back in the day, a lot more than I do now. Just because I was worried I might have done something the night before. (Laughter) Now I'm OK.

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Bad Boys For Life is in cinemas now. The final season of Vikings will be available on Amazon Prime.

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