Ivar the Boneless has emerged as one of the most powerful characters in the Vikings cosmos, what with seizing power in Kattegat, declaring himself a god, divinely impregnating his special lady friend and so on. Throughout the series, his disability has been central to his portrayal without rendering him one-dimensional or weak. That’s an important balance, and both creator Michael Hirst and the man who plays Ivar, Alex Høgh Andersen, have spoken about the genesis and development of the character at length.
And so have the fans. Based on clues given in historical accounts, Hirst decided the Vikings incarnation of Ivar the Boneless would have brittle bone disease (AKA osteogenesis imperfecta or OI). Since that’s an actual thing that people still have today, it could have been rocky ground. But the general consensus appears to be positive – although there is some obvious concern about the portrayal of a character with a disability by an actor who doesn’t have that disability.
“Ivar is a very interesting and intriguing character, who happens to also have a disability and he has many sides to him,” said viewer-with-OI Jan J. in an interview for Disability Visibility Project. “Ivar as a child, I was glad to see him being included in play with the other children, and that he wasn’t completely shut off and hidden away from everyone due to his disability. Ivar’s reconnection with his father Ragnar was crucial and was instrumental into making him the warrior and young man that he has become at the moment. Ragnar gave Ivar the recognition and confidence that his disability does not define him!”
Co-interviewee Vilissa K. Thompson adds, “I think that allowing Ivar to be a ‘nasty’ character is good – I am so tired of seeing us portrayed as angelic, innocent, infantilised, unable to thrive as adults, and other disempowering depictions that are not true for us. I think some of the objection to Ivar is due to us not being seen as more than one-dimensional, and that goes back to the portrayals about us that are typically seen on the big and small screens. Though I have issues with the cripping up [the portrayal of a character with a disability by an actor who doesn’t have that disability] of Ivar, I do enjoy that he is very human and his humanness is well seen on the show.”
The creation of Ivar
Michael Hirst didn’t take the creation of this complex character lightly. “Having decided that he had effectively brittle bone disease, we then did research on that and met people with brittle bone disease or in the family, and their descriptions of what it was like. The whites of the eyes turn blue if they are in danger of breaking a limb. So we used that, because it’s very dramatic.”
Balancing the needs of drama with the realities of the condition also meant finding the right man for the job. Andersen wasn’t initially there to audition for the role of Ivar, but Hirst spotted something of the Boneless in this young Dane. “Before we got started Alex came in and said, ‘I’ve got one question. Is Ivar in pain?’ I said, ‘I think he’s in pain most of the time.’ When he came in we weren’t seeing the pain in his performance, so the cameraman asked him to perform to the camera and when we watched his performance back we could see the pain in his eyes. I knew then that Alex was the right person to play Ivar. He has been absolutely spectacular to watch, an amazing performer.”
Andersen tells the same story, from a different perspective: “I remember asking Michael about Ivar and who he was as a character. Michael explained, ‘Well, he’s in a lot of pain.’ And I said, ‘Has he been living with this pain for his entire life?’ And Michael said ‘I think so. I think that’s at least what the disease is like, you’re born with it.’ So in my mind I thought I should use the pain to show the character’s depth and I did that through my facial expressions, which was unlike other actors auditioning for the part.”
The development of Ivar
But it’s more than just pain, of course. Ivar has been shaped by the events of his childhood – coddled by his mother and surrounded by brothers who don’t have to pull themselves around by their arms. There’s an entire psychology here, a combination of time, place and… well, carrying the ever-determined blood of Ragnar Lothbrok in your veins.
“He’s crippled in a society and in a time where no one really comprehended what was wrong with him or had any time to help him regardless of his famous family name,” explains Andersen. “He was brought up by Floki, who was his mentor, which doesn’t add to the ‘good’, but he’s still figuring out what morality means to him.
“At the end of season four, he goes out on the road with the boys and with his dad, which is a very valuable experience for him. He fights with the brothers about taking over the army because he is always trying to prove himself, which is something that makes his character stand out. Floki also raised him to believe in the gods, so he tries to prove himself to them, as well. Ivar’s goal is getting into Valhalla. His disability sets him back physically and is a challenge in any goal he sets so he is constantly trying to overcome it.”
The performance of Ivar
It took a lot of practice to nail the physicality of Ivar. Asked about it in 2016, Andersen told Variety, “My left wrist is really complaining, but that’s about it. The costume girls have done an outstanding job giving me special gloves. I’m really only crawling for a few metres for a few takes. I won’t complain. They did give us a personal trainer when we first got here, and he literally killed us. I was crawling around the hotel room for the first few weeks.”
“And what I’m doing is not portraying a Viking – I’m portraying a human being with a disability in a society that is not okay with that. I’m trying to make him likable even though he’s a character who’s going to challenge the audience. He’s very religious and provocative, but first and foremost, he’s a vulnerable, angry and sad kid.”
And now, in season five, he’s a vulnerable, angry and sad god.
Vikings airs on Thursday nights at 9.35pm on SBS. Missed the previous episode? Stream it at SBS On Demand: