If they gave Emmys for Outstanding Acting In a Vintage Roman Bath… That would be a very strange and limited Emmy category. It would also be a category that Linus Roache would win with ease this year.
Roache has been a new addition in the second season of History's “Vikings,” playing King Ecbert, a real history figure brought into the “Vikings” world as this year's Big Bad to oppose Travis Fimmel's Ragnar. Or at least that's the way it looked at first, but soon King Ecbert and Ragnar were making tentative treaties and Ecbert was showing great interest in the Viking religion. So who can say how things stand between King Ecbert and Ragnar at this point?
One thing we know with certainty, though, is that King Ecbert loves a good soak. He meets with political allies in the bath. He meets with religion advisors in the bath. And when he and Ragnar were ready to negotiate? They certainly didn't do it at a conference table with their clothes on.
Last week, I got on the phone with “Law & Order” and “Wings of the Dove” veteran Roache, to discuss King Ecbert and his love for bathing. The actor, whose London stage production of “Uncle Vanya” with Stephen Dillane is one of my all-time favorite theater-going experiences, talked about series creator Michael Hirst's vision for the character and his own take on Ecbert as a nemesis, but not a villain this season.
Roache is also getting ready to do a guest spot on NBC's “The Blacklist,” playing the cryptically named The Kingmaker, a character he doesn't hesitate to call a villain.
Check out the full Q&A below and tune into “Vikings” on Thursdays on History…
HitFix: How much did Michael Hirst have to pitch you on this character to attract your interest?
Linus Roache: First of all, I got on the phone with Michael and I realized I was talking to an extremely smart man and when he started describing this man and who he was, I didn't totally understand it until we embarked on the process of doing, because it expanded. He gave me the rough idea of who this man was, because not that much is known historically, really, about him, but I could feel that his role and his function was to be a real nemesis to Ragnar and that's what was attractive. And then I started doing my own research, finding out what I could and reading about Ecbert's time with Charlemagne, but it was really when I got to Ireland and Michael and I started to talk more and just riff off ideas from each other that I suppose the scope of the character started to expand more organically into this very interesting, free-thinking politician-warrior-diplomat and so it kinda went beyond just research and started going into creative elements, which was a lot of fun.
HitFix: Talk a bit more about that research. As you say, this is a real person, but like most of the characters on “Vikings,” he's only a real person to a certain point and then he becomes Michael Hirst's creation. So how much of value could you actually learn about him?
Linus Roache: It's always useful. It just helps to immerse you in a world and a time and even a consciousness and a culture. Research is just invaluable, finding out about Saxon England and the fact that he studied with Charlemagne and that might be the major the influence on him was very important to me, because I view King Ecbert as really the first King of England. We all know that his grandson, Alfred the Great, is really heralded as the first King of England, but without Ecbert sort of bringing all the kingdoms together and becoming the overlord of all of them, without that empire-building vision, there wouldn't have been an England, in that sense. So it was fascinating to read about what it might have been like to be in Charlemagne's court and the fact that he was a man who was ahead of his time and willing as much to do a political deal as he was ready to go to war and that was a kind of different thing. So that research was very useful, but then when Michael starts giving you dialogue and using this character with his interiority — That's what I think Michael's great strength is, by the way, that he makes history exhibit an interiority so you can experience it and feel it — but he started exploring and he started bring up all other kinds of things, like Ecbert's own knowledge of the Romans, for example. Without giving too much away, that's something that's going to start to come out through the season and that was fascinating, to explore those connections with Michael and leave, if you like, the historical research behind and start experimenting with what works within the show.
HitFix: How does your own process work along those lines? You've played a number of real people and many of them are people about whom there's plenty of information and movies and audio. Is it always your inclination to learn what you can up-front, but then leave that behind?
Linus Roache: Yes, generally. You can't play everything you learn, anyway. You just try to bring it all on-board and use what's useful. In the end, it's your job to own the role and, in the end, you are playing certain aspects of your own self, even. This felt like there was a lot of dramatic license because, as you said, there isn't that much that's really known about Ecbert and so I used what I could and then, in a way, what has been fun with it is to really follow Michael's lead. He's such a great writer. Every time you get a script and you have a scene, you start mining out how many layers there are within it, so it's very rich material to work with. I didn't have that experience of, “Oh, I'd like to change this” and “My character wouldn't do that.” I had none of that. I actually was very grateful for everything he gave me, that seemed to have purpose and intrigue and intellect. When you've got good writing, you can kind of give up all the research, in a way, and start just following the emotional integrity of the journey of your character.
HitFix: I like that when you started, you referred to Ecbert as a “nemesis” for Ragnar. I think there's something different about the idea of a character being a nemesis or adversary, as opposed to being the “villain' of the season, per se. Is that the way you look at him? He's not a villain, but he is an adversary or nemesis?
Linus Roache: Absolutely! That's why Michael's written him so well. He's not the villain. He's an opportunist. He likes Ragnar. I think it's like having someone who's an equal at chess and someone who thinks out of the box. He lives in a society or culture where things are very rigid and set and he's a future-thinker, he's ahead of his time. And Ragnar also, in his own context, he's ahead of his own culture and his own time. So I think he sees Ragnar as great sport. He also respects him. He's not like a villain. It's two men very wary of each other and full of all the competition and, I suppose, the hubris of power and it's very nuanced. I think with King Ecbert, one of the fascinating things that I've explored is how much is he really a man of God? Because I don't know if he truly is. He's in a Christian culture, but he's also willing to look at pagan ideas. He's really an opportunist and that makes a sorta dangerous and interesting character.
HitFix: As you say, he's a man who puts on a show of faith, but maybe is flexible. He puts on a show of being honorable, but we've seen hints that maybe that's not exactly right. How trustworthy is King Ecbert?
Linus Roache: [He laughs.] I don't know whether to answer that! [Laughs.] I think I said it in that he ultimately is a man of vision and ambition. He's willing to be ruthless, but he's also willing to be a politician and a diplomat. He won't just use brute force to get what he wants, so he's a manipulator of the highest order. How much can you trust a manipulator? I don't know!
HitFix: One of the big takeaways that I got from the character's first few appearances is that this is a man who LOVE taking baths. [He laughs.] What are you able to learn about this man from how frequently in these first few episodes he's bathing?
Linus Roache: [Still chuckling.] Well, I have to say that it's a wonderful touch of Michael's that he has King Ecbert living in an old Roman villa. It's a very, very clever idea. The interesting thing, what I thought was amazing, was to have Ragnar and Ecbert meet each other basically naked in water. That was just a brilliant idea, two great, powerful men stripped of all their adornments — no crowns, no battles, nothing — it's just two naked men faced faced with each other. I just thought that was brilliant. And I think Ecbert, he's got some more pagan, if you like, ways of being. He's not shy. He's not shy to walk around with his belly hanging out and everything else hanging out. I think it says a lot about this kind of man who's very comfortable with himself and very comfortable with his position and his talent. That's what I thought, just to go back to your earlier question by the way, one of the hardest things about playing a king is to actually absorb the fact that you really have that much power, because none of us have anything like that in today's world. God-forbid. So as an actor, when you're actually trying to embody what it would be like to just know that everyone's at your beck and call, it's quite a thing to absorb what that might be like and what that would do. I think he's very at ease in his bath, the king in his bath is very happy.
HitFix: Does that produce technical challenges when you're actually on the set? Are there audio challenges? Are there physicality and emoting challenges to it?
Linus Roache: No, it's all very great. It's actually warm water. They look after us extremely well. Audio-wise, it's perfect because it's a nice studio set with a lovely ambient spirit. The lighting looks amazing, so I've been told. This is one of the great things about the show that I would champion, I am so proud of it, is its authenticity. Even during that bath scene, I swear sometimes you couldn't even see the camera, it was so hidden in the shadows and the dark. You just felt like you were in a Roman bathhouse. It just feels very real and very authentic. Sometimes I'd stay in there between shots, it was so comfortable.
HitFix: Your most recent TV projects have been on the American network side of things. Did this feel different because of the cable aspect? Did the shooting in Ireland make it feel different? How did this feel different from your recent TV work?
Linus Roache: It's true. It does feel different. Most of the TV shows I've done have all been in the US. I did do “Titanic,” which was an ITV/ABC thing a couple years ago, but that was all shot in Budapest. One of the other great joys of this particular job is working in Ireland. It's an amazing crew, nearly all-Irish crew, and it's wonderful to work with such great people. It's a great culture and such a beautiful land. I've been to Ireland many times, but I'd never spent that much time there, so being embedded there for four months, I have to say it was an absolute joy and I've fallen in love with the place. I think it's a big part of why the show is so good. The landscape works so well and doubles for so many things, for Scandinavia, for England, it's perfect. But it's also just a wonderful atmosphere and a culture to work in. It felt a bit like going home, as it were, but not quite, because Ireland is very different from England, but I love it and I'm really really grateful that the show is shot there.
HitFix: You talked about Michael Hirst helping convince you to do this and helping you develop the character. What is his day-to-day availability to you?
Linus Roache: Oh, he's totally available. He's available to talk at any time. I know a lot of people have a lot of input in script and dialogue changes and things with actors, but the interesting thing with me and Michael is that I got pretty quickly what he was trying to do with Ecbert and as soon as I started to see the pages arrive, I would start digging into it and realizing how much more was there that I didn't have in notes. I just felt like, “This is great!” He writes so well. To take history and bring it to life like that, I think it's a stroke of genius. I wish it'd have been available when I was a kid growing up, so that I could have seen history in this way. But for me and Michael, it was more like a few dinners and having a couple bottles of wine and little things might pop up, little creative ideas and nuances then he'd go away and he'd go away and he'd do what he wanted and then scripts would arrive and you'd say, “I can see a little bit of that is from our dinner the other night.” He's wonderful to work with. Wonderful.
HitFix: I know you have a “Blacklist” appearance coming up. What can you tell me about The Kingmaker?
Linus Roache: You know what? Without giving too much away, what is fascinating… I was just sitting here, actually, looking at it and realizing, and I talked to you just a minute ago about playing a king and the power of being a king and this is a man who thinks he makes kings, so I suppose that's an even more powerful position to have. A king is a still vulnerable, because he's visible and seen and the structures around him have been taken down, but a man who goes around making kings? He can't be seen. So that's all I'm gonna say. It's an obtuse answer to lead you on. But I'm very happy to be doing “Blacklist.” It feels like quite an honor.
HitFix: Going back quickly to the idea of Ecbert as a nemesis or adversary, but not a villain. Is The Kingmaker a villain?
Linus Roache: Definitely.
HitFix: Is it fun to play a character you can just categorize that way?
Linus Roache: Yeah, I think it's going to be fun. I'm sorta playing around with how to do it and what the approach should be. But it's a fun show. I loved the show when it came out. I liked the idea. It's very entertaining as well. This is not King Ecbert. You won't, hopefully, see much of King Ecbert in him, although I will have very long hair and a bit of a beard, because I have to keep that for “Vikings.”
“Vikings” airs Thursday nights on History.