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Vikings star Travis Fimmel: meet the Victorian farm boy dazzling Hollywood

As Ragnar Lothbrok, the star of Vikings, Travis Fimmel lets his acting do the talking. Now, his talent for understatement is earning him some big roles in Hollywood.

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Who is this Aussie dark horse of the big and small screen?

 

The soaring white sails of the Opera House and the grey steel arc of the Harbour Bridge are gleaming in the morning sun as the beelines of cars and pedestrians in the streets below weave into the organised chaos of rush hour, gearing up for another work day. But up here, perched above Sydney harbour on level 36 of the Shangri-La Hotel, all is peaceful, except for the civilised sound of clinking crockery and Travis Fimmel, padding about in his socks and trackies, snapping open a fridge door in the Blu Bar to grab two bottles of mineral water. He hands me one and for a brief moment we both stand in silent reverie, drinking in the dress-circle view. "Quite something, eh mate?" he says.

The star of the hit TV series Vikings is looking a tad unslept and dishevelled – his piercing ice-blue eyes are puffy and his thick brown mane could do with a brush (he will later 'fess up to a late night at the Star Casino, losing money on the blackjack tables). It's easy to forget that this serious actor, who is more easily recognised when he's on acting duty in his fierce Viking garb – tattooed, often bloodied skull, deer-skin tunic with matching axe and shield – started as a buffed-up underwear model for Calvin Klein. The sulking surfer boy face that launched 1001 billboards across the world in 2002 (reportedly causing the odd traffic jam by ogling drivers) has evolved into something weathered, handsome – and vastly more interesting. Like Mark Wahlberg before him, Fimmel doesn't like to talk about those camera-clicking days in his tighty-whiteys, and I've been warned if I so much as broach the subject he'll march out of the interview.

I ask him whether he gets recognised much in the street. "Not much," he explains, slumping into a chair opposite me across a conference table in an adjoining room. "If you want to be seen, mate, you will. If you don't, well, you won't."

He takes a gulp of water, grabs a felt pen – and proceeds to doodle in a pad. Not an idle scribble, mind, but an elaborate sketch, which resembles a rather fetching Viking amulet as it begins to take shape. I've been reliably informed that Fimmel is uncomfortable doing interviews and that he only does them under sufferance because of the pesky publicity clause in his contracts (this particular chat took more than 18 months to organise). 

To top it off, although he's affable and exquisitely courteous, he's not exactly a big talker, tending to reply to questions in short, soft-spoken, matter-of-fact sentences (in preparation for this story, I read one Q&A in which the reporter's questions were approximately five times longer than Fimmel's answers). Although he occasionally looks you directly in the eye, I must confess that as I watch the 37-year-old doodle away to his heart's content there are one or two awkward moments when I'm tempted to spin my pen on the table or play Flappy Bird on my iPhone to puncture the silence.

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After the first 10 minutes of our chat I decide that Fimmel, who grew up in country Victoria, is the shyest, most un-actorly actor I've ever interviewed. When he occasionally replies in more than two sentences at a time, it seems like a verbal explosion. I wind up abandoning most of my pre-prepared questions and trying to navigate a less formal conversation, starting with a subject that's usually fail-safe with most blokes: sport.

Do you still follow the footy, Travis? You were a serious AFL hopeful when you were 18 ...

"No, not really."

Not at all?

"I watch it if I'm here."

Didn't you dream of playing for the St Kilda Saints until that broken leg sidelined you?

Ragnar does everything for his family and people. if that means chopping a few heads off, so be it.

"Nah … wasn't that good, mate."

You nearly had another broken leg when that horse collapsed on you during the Warcraft film shoot.

"Yeah, but I was fine."

Wow, those Vikings sure had some fang, sailing into wild uncharted waters in those little boats, didn't they?

"It took guts, didn't it?"

You get the idea. In Fimmel's case, brevity is the soul of a (sly) wit: it's his signal gift as an actor, and as I discover, his easy charm as a human being. Some actors are spectacularly self-absorbed, with a gold-plated talent for banging on endlessly about themselves –Fimmel, for the record, isn't a member of Club Narcissus. "A lot of people talk too much," he tells me at one point. "They speak … except they don't."

When I press the point further, he describes how, as a teen, his mum would admonish him for his muttering and moping. "Mum would ask, 'I beg your pardon?' and tell me to stop mumbling," he laughs. "I'd be with my mates, and we'd spend a lot of time together, but wouldn't always talk, and I'd speak this kind of shorthand with my brothers." He laughs again. "Blokes, eh."

I think I know what Fimmel is alluding to: those moments of wordless understanding between men, who so often get a bad rap as communicators for not "opening up" more. It's about silent sharing, being alone together in the moment, whether at a fishing spot, a surf beach or just in the pub, when words, especially personal ones, are superfluous. Heart-to-heart guy moments do happen, but they're rare; men overall being constitutionally less willing to spill their guts than women. "Some actors are better with words than me," shrugs Fimmel. "I prefer to play it rather than say it – and keep people thinking."

A pause, and then in his typical self-deprecatory manner, he jokes: "To be honest, mate, I'd rather do stuff without dialogue so I don't have to learn the lines."

Fimmel has been able to parlay his own natural stillness and reticence into a kind of Brando-esque broodiness onscreen. In his portrayal of Nordic leader Ragnar Lothbrok in Vikings, Fimmel conveys intensity and internal conflict through his highly expressive eyes: his glassy stare after he's committed some gory act of ultra violence, his yearning, hungry gaze as he sets out on another seaborne adventure. He counterbalances this with small, emotive gestures: tenderly stroking his wife's face, cradling a jumpy lamb or playing the clown with his children. Luckily for Fimmel, the camera pays avid attention to these details, enabling his expressions and gestures to say it all (for a lead role, he doesn't have that many lines). Visit Fimmel's fans on Twitter and you'll see this laid out: GIF after GIF of his trademark, unspoken gestures, which together form the emotional skin of his character.

This explains why Vikings is so much Fimmel's show. In numerous interviews, the series creator Michael Hirst has insisted that Fimmel has single-handedly reinvented the Viking, endowing the stereotypical rape-and-pillage brute with an introverted, introspective depth. Lothbrok's major pastime may be sweeping in from the North Sea on his longboat, marauding monasteries and making hell for the Anglo-Saxons, but he's also a trader, a herder and a farmer, whose first priority is his family and community, which is in keeping with what we now know about Viking culture. "My biggest thing with Ragnar was to make him relatable, to show why he does some bad stuff," observes Fimmel. "He does everything for his family and people. If that means chopping a few heads off, so be it."

Vikings also shows how the Norse, despite being mostly illiterate, had a rich oral tradition that included epic poems and dramatic sagas. They were also master craftsmen with metal, fashioning fine jewellery from gold, silver and bronze. Ragnar's home village of Kattegat, with its rugged mountains in the background, is modelled on Viking villages of the time.

This faithfulness to historical reality separates Vikings from Game of Thrones, with which it is frequently – but absurdly – compared, given that Vikings works at the intersection of art and history, while Thrones is located purely in other-world fantasy. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, US critic Nancy DeWolf Smith applauded how Vikings, now in its fourth series (which continues on SBS in January and is now on DVD) was not a gratuitous sex-and-gore-fest, but a "study of character, stamina, power, and … of social, emotional and even intellectual awakening".

For his part, Fimmel says he loves feeling part of history and trying to inhabit ancient lives, even if they're cut from a brutal cloth. "I don't know how to express this properly, but when we're shooting in an isolated spot in Ireland, it really feels like we're in a landscape that hasn't changed in thousands of years." Does he recall one scene in which he felt especially part of that long chain of being? "In one of the early episodes my brother and I – our characters Ragnar and Rollo – were rowing a proper Viking boat in the middle of nowhere. We really did feel we were back there."

Fimmel recorded his audition tape for the show in the kitchen of a mate's farm, without donning Viking horns, without brandishing a fake shield or sword, without issuing a pummelling growl to the camera. But so intriguingly understated was his brief performance that within a week of emailing the footage Fimmel was flown to the UK for a script read-through. What was it that so impressed Vikings writer and creator Michael Hirst in that audition tape?

"Dunno, mate ... you'll have to ask the drunk bloke who hired me," he says.

Sounds like he had the gig sown up before he reached the boarding gate, I suggest. "I think they were pretty desperate; they said, 'This guy will do', because they had to start shooting."

Much of Fimmel's modesty and ease in his own body stems from his days growing up on a 2000-hectare farm about 40 kilometres from the picturesque river town of Echuca, in Victoria. The youngest of three brothers, he had an idyllic childhood milking the cows in the pre-dawn dark, catching the school bus, spending his weekends fishing and riding his trail bike about the property. His mother, Jennie, a recreation officer for the disabled, and father, Chris, a cattle farmer, raised him and his brothers to "believe in ourselves, but not to think we're anything special".

It's not easy for Australian dairy farmers at the moment, I venture. Fimmel nods: "Yeah, it's horrible, Mum and Dad have actually sold the cows. None of us boys are there on the family farm. So it's really, really hard."

Still, his parents must be proud. "Well, I hope they're proud of me. My brothers have done well, too." Are they working on the land? "Nah, they're working in the mines in Western Australia. They're both happy and have two healthy kids each."

What do the Fimmel brothers do when they get together? "Give each other shit, pretty much," he grins. Which means they mercilessly take the piss out of their famous brother? "Yeah, but I get in there pretty quick; I know what they're goin' to say before they say it."

He pauses for a moment and then says, "I love going home …" before deflecting again with a joke about how his old man couldn't pay him enough to keep him on the farm now. What growing up in the country taught him is how to be an inveterate hard worker and an early riser, he says. The hours are long and the income unpredictable, which is about as good a preparation for acting as you can get. It also gave him stamina and agility (he does most of his own stunts in Vikings, even if, he admits, he's got a tendency to be seasick).

When he was 17, Fimmel wanted to do a trade or work on the farm, but his parents wouldn't let him leave school. Did a career in acting ever cross his mind? "Not at all, mate." Although a self-confessed lazy student, he did well enough to be offered a place in an architecture course at RMIT University, which he took up after his football career stalled. "It was a lot easier to get in back then and I don't think I passed any subjects," he recalls. "I didn't pass for attendance, that's for sure."

After being spotted by a modelling scout while working out in a Hawthorn gym, Fimmel set off for London with a friend of his brother's. In between casual modelling gigs, he worked in pubs for a couple of years, where he became popular for pulling free beers for his mates ("That was the best time of my life, working from pub to pub, enjoying time with friends"). 

It was in one of these pubs that Fimmel met his future manager David Seltzer, who encouraged him to try his luck in Los Angeles as an actor and model. After swaggering barefoot into LA Models, Fimmel was instantly offered a modelling contract, but by the time he was spruiking Calvin Klein's Crave fragrance and its clingy underwear, he was also studying with renowned acting coach Ivana Chubbuck (who has also taught Jake Gyllenhaal, Halle Berry and Brad Pitt).

Although Fimmel has chalked up starring roles in several short-lived TV series over the past 13 years – such as Tarzan (with Lucy Lawless) in 2003 and The Beast (with Patrick Swayze) in 2009, Vikings has unquestionably been his break-out role – and biggest pay day – to date. In between some of these go-nowhere TV roles, and appearances in films including the comedy Surfer, Dude, starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, and the independent Australian horror film Needle, opposite Ben Mendelsohn and Michael Dorman, Fimmel regularly returned to the family farm as a kind of rural sedative, away from the make-believe world of acting.

But now he appears to be on such a major roll there are unlikely to be any long stints on the farm in the foreseeable future. Earlier this year he appeared in a lead role in the adventure pic Warcraft, based on the popular online game, playing a military commander battling killer orcs. This followed close on the heels of a supporting role in the rom-com Maggie's Plan, in which Fimmel played a prospective sperm donor and pickle entrepreneur opposite Greta Gerwig and Ethan Hawke. Fimmel is currently in Atlanta shooting the heist film Finding Steve McQueen with Kate Bosworth and Forest Whitaker, and he's scored the plumb role of Captain Katczinsky in Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, now in pre-production.

Does he enjoy adopting different accents? "I have enough trouble just speaking normal Australian," he says. "On Vikings we had a great vocal coach, who helped make all of us sound the same. But I'm very bad at accents, to be honest."

Who would he like to work with? "I love Mel Gibson … I'd like to ask him for a job." He admires Daniel Day-Lewis and Ben Mendelsohn. "It's funny with Ben Mendelsohn – he's done so much work over the years and the Americans have finally realised how really talented he is."

But the swanky-trashy world of Tinseltown is about the opposite of where Fimmel feels most comfortable, he says. "I've never understood how you get sucked into it, unless you're a wanker." He quickly adds, "I'm not saying I'm not a wanker, but I guess some people just enjoy the perks of the job a lot more than me."

Most Aussie actors hate living in LA, he insists. "I haven't really met an actor who wouldn't prefer to be living in Australia. You go over there to work, for the business, not because you want to live there."

Another pause, and then: "I'm not a big fan of living in any city, to be honest. The worst thing is the traffic. Just to go 15 kilometres in LA takes you 40 minutes."

So much is Fimmel still the country boy that during the shooting of Vikings in County Wicklow, Ireland, he stays in a little stone cottage on a lake, while most of the cast and crew head for the bright lights of Dublin. "It's a great place, Dublin, but when you're in such a beautiful country, I feel stupid leaving all that behind for a hotel room in the city." What's the fishing in the lake like? "Brilliant: rainbow and brown trout. I could spend all my time fishing."

He finds it rewarding that the show employs more than 600 locals – last year a call-out for 8000 bearded extras drew almost 30,000 hopeful participants – and has helped inject much-needed business into the local economy. "That's my favourite thing about acting; you get to meet so many new people, try out new skills, and learn stuff. I have so many good friends in Ireland now."

F. Scott Fitzgerald's oft-quoted remark that there are no second acts in American lives is clearly not the case with the thoroughly Australian Fimmel: his first act was Calvin Klein model, his second act TV and film star on the cusp of becoming a household name. I ask him about a possible third act, as an actor who can live on the farm of his dreams and pick and choose the odd plum role as it comes his way. "Yeah, but I wouldn't even be doing the odd role. I wouldn't miss that stuff at all."

So no clear future plans as an actor? "It's taken me a long time to get where I am, but I don't know how you can make plans in this industry. You just don't know what jobs are going to be out there."

Fimmel manages to keep his personal life just that: personal. He's not in the mood to be cunningly prompted by any questions about settling down and having a family. "Women are complicated" is all he'll say. But I love a quote that Fimmel gave to a journalist last year, endearingly saying he had a "big heart and a little brain".

As we walk towards the Shangri-La lift, our interview over, Fimmel asks me where I'm off to now. "Back to be a corporate slave," I joke.

"Oh mate, go out and enjoy the sunshine, have some lunch, give yourself a break," he says.

As I step into the shadows of Cumberland Street, I immediately head for the taxi rank and the short trip back to work. Then, spontaneously, I take a sharp right turn, towards the bright sunshine of Circular Quay.