The Northman, the latest movie from auteur director Robert Eggers, is a violent and metaphysical rendition of Hamlet set during the age of the Vikings. The film is a brutal revenge tale following Prince Amleth’s quest to avenge his father and save his mother after his uncle usurps the throne. You don’t have to be an expert in Norse mythology to know that if you plan on murdering your way to Valhalla, you’ll need some sick traps and abs to accomplish your goal. To prepare for the lead role in The Northman, Alexander Skarsgård worked out intensely and changed his diet to become a warrior prince hellbent on vengeance.
Alexander Skarsgård’s physical appearance has been vital in his most-seen roles
Amleth isn’t the first mythological character Alexander Skarsgård has played. His mainstream breakthrough was in the HBO series True Blood as vampire Eric Northman (no relation). Since then, many of the Swedish actor’s signature performances are variations on a theme: conventionally handsome men with more going on behind their eyes than the outside world knows, for better and worse.
In Big Little Lies, Skarsgård played Perry Wright. On the surface, his marriage with Celeste (Nicole Kidman) looks perfect, but it becomes increasingly clear he is a monster behind the scenes. In slightly smaller projects, like A Diary of a Teenage Girl and The Little Drummer Girl, Skarsgård also portrays characters with plenty of secrets. His physique also lends itself to less high-minded fare, such as when he played the titular character in 2016’s The Legend of Tarzan reboot.
Alexander Skarsgård put himself through the wringer to prepare for ‘The Northman’
Starring in The Northman is the fulfillment of a childhood dream for Skarsgård. He’d been fascinated by the stories of Viking adventures since learning about them from his grandfather in his youth.
“I had this dream of one day making a big, epic Viking movie, but based on an old Icelandic saga,” he told Vanity Fair. Once he got the chance to fulfill his fantasy, he spared no expense in preparing himself for the physical challenge of portraying a realistic Viking.
To transform into Amleth, Skarsgård turned to the same trainer he used for Tarzan — fellow Swede Magnus Lygdback. He tailored the actor’s workout routine to make the more feral elements of Skarsgård’s performance as believable as possible.
“This character, his spiritual animals were a bear and wolf. So that is exactly what we were trying to embody in terms of Alex’s build and movements,” Lygdback told Variety. “The wolf is really agile, and then you have the size of the bear in this Viking. You can just get one look at him and get scared. That was [the elevator pitch] for what we were trying to achieve [with Alex’s transformation].”
Skarsgård’s workout regimen — which Lygdback describes as “a hybrid between plyometrics training and old-school bodybuilding philosophy” — began three months before production started. They did six one-hour gym sessions a week (one a day) before reducing them to three of four after COVID-19 lockdown went into effect.
At the height of the pandemic, they worked out of a DIY training facility in Skarsgård’s garage. They focused on the actor’s shoulders, hips, and core, using tools like resistance bands, battle ropes, and throwing exercises when more traditional strength machines weren’t available. (The full list of his workouts can be found in Men’s Health.)
Lygdback also dictated Skarsgård’s diet, amounting to about 3,700 calories a day. He ate five times a day every couple of hours, incrementally building body mass by taking in more calories than he was burning. Skarsgård usually began the day with four eggs and a protein-based snack. Lunch consisted of a clean meal (Lygdback defines it as a protein, a vegetable, and a slow carb or a fat), followed by a snack and a clean dinner.
The hard work paid off in the actor’s highly praised performances
Making The Northman was an ordeal for Alexander Skarsgård. But the final product is likely to be remembered as one of the year’s best movies, and his performance is one of the main reasons.
Skarsgård embodies Amleth with all of the fury and thirst for blood that drives all of his moves throughout the film. Viking movies are surprisingly few and far between, and most are not worth watching. But after seeing The Northman, you’ll find it hard to imagine anyone else living up to the history or the legend.
The rest of the cast has also received praise, as has cinematographer Jarin Blaschke for the film’s visual style that melds the grim reality and the cosmic imagination with ease.
The Northman is ultimately a triumph of Robert Eggers’ vision, subversive storytelling choices, and ability to make movies on a bigger scale. It’s the director’s most accessible film by far, although that’s not saying much considering the niche rhythms of The Witch and The Lighthouse.
Unfortunately, that artistic success hasn’t translated into big financial returns yet. According to Box Office Mojo, The Northman has made about $52 million on a reported $90 million budget.