Being on one of the most popular shows on television right now, Kristofer Hivju has a difficult time going anywhere without being recognized; his iconic orange beard never fails to signal that Tormund Giantsbane, wildling leader from HBO’s Game of Thrones, has arrived.
But this summer, the warrior chief is preparing for winter on the big screen as well, starring in the new film The Last King (Birkebeinerne). It’s based on historical events in civil war-ravaged Norway in 1204, when a rebel group known as the Birkebein fought to help the king protect the throne against the Church’s Bishopsmen who wanted to take over.
We caught up with Hivju to find out what it was like to play Birkebein warrior Torstein, tasked with escorting the then two-year-old heir to the throne, Haakon Haakonsson, across mountains and through snowstorms from Lillehammer to Osterdalen to Trondheim. And of course we inquired about Tormund and Brienne of Tarth, too.
“My beard is very talented; I don’t need to help it. It just does everything on its own. So there is no grooming. And it takes me four months and 16 days to get it this length.”
What’s it like being on one of TV’s most popular shows? People must notice you all the time.
It’s been great. And no I can’t. I can’t go anywhere without being recognized. Some of my colleagues can put on sunglasses and be cool. But I can’t hide my beard—it’s like an alarm.
We have to ask, can we expect any romance between your character and Brienne of Tarth this season?
I won’t spoil anything but on behalf of Tormund I would say I hope so. He’s dreaming about it.
Game of Thrones takes place in a fantasy world with dragons and half-dead people. What was it like being part of The Last King, a movie about real historical events?
We may have not been Norway today, because the country was at civil war. So it’s a very iconic story. A painting of the two main characters is very well known in Norway, too—it’s of the two guys skiing down the slopes. We have such a rich history and so few of our events have been made into films. So this is hopefully the beginning of us taking our history seriously and giving our old kings the glory they deserve.
You seem to take roles that only film in cold places. What’s that like? Do you like the cold? Are you used to it now?
I have very thick skin! And you know, 85 percent of any TV show or movie I’ve been in, there has been snow. So there’s just something about me and snow that attract each other very, very much. We shot The Last King in Lillehammer, where the winter Olympics were in ’94 and where the TV show Lillehammer is shot. And that’s where the actual story happened. And we did shoot everything outside so we had to rely on the weather. When there was the blizzard in the movie, there was an actual blizzard that day.
It was incredible to see skiing used as a means of travel back then. Did you know how to ski before the film? Did you have to learn to ski on those basic wooden skis?
I’ve done a lot of skiing. As a Norwegian, that’s something you have to learn when you’re very young. But when you’re skiing with all that gear, and the weapons and the baby, and on those skis, that’s a different thing. But it was our ambition. You know James Bond in the ’80s had some skiing sequences. We wanted to make it better. Our ambition was to make the best skiing action movie ever. When we pitched the movie and sold it to a bunch of countries, the pitch was Vikings on skis.
So you actually did the skiing yourself?
Most of it, because when you have a huge budget you can put a lot into the safety. But cheaper movies, the more you have to do the stunts yourself. I did some stunts I thought I wouldn’t survive, like the horse riding. Every day on that movie I was like “I’m glad I’m alive and I’m glad we can continue.” But we did it. [Laughs.]
Did you have any accidents while skiing?
I didn’t, nothing terrible. But in the hospital in Lillehammer, everyday there were extras sitting in full Viking costumes who had accidents. The main doctor in the hospital was like, ‘not again… not again.’ So yes, we had some accidents. But people were very eager to be a part of the movie, so if you got an injury, you did it with a smile on your face.
Did you have to learn how to use an axe, your weapon of choice in the movie?
Yes, definitely. The axe was a new weapon for me—very different from a sword. So I had to spend a lot of time with my axe and it’s a very different way of fighting. But when you hit someone with an axe, they definitely go out. So it’s very effective but pretty hard to work with.
We have to ask about your beard. How long did it take to grow and how do you keep it so well groomed?
My beard is very talented; I don’t need to help it. It just does everything on its own. So there is no grooming. And it takes me four months and 16 days to get it this length.
Have you ever considered getting rid of it?
If you look closely, there’s a small “R” which stands for it being owned by HBO. So for now, I can’t do it. But of course if the right part comes along, I would get rid of it in two minutes.
Catch Hivju in The Last King, out now in theaters, OnDemand, on Amazon Video and on iTunes.