Anya Taylor-Joy and Alexander Skarsgård on making The Northman: "It's a miracle that anyone survived this"

Alexander Skarsgard and Anya-Taylor Joy in The Northman
(Image credit: Focus Features)

When Total Film meets Anya Taylor-Joy and Alexander Skarsgård, we're all warm (and surrounded by a television crew) in a London hotel room – a million miles away from the conditions under which they made The Northman.

Filmed predominantly in Ireland, with excursions to Iceland, their new Viking epic is an intense watching experience, but nothing compared to what the actors went through while making the movie. Director Robert Eggers truly put Taylor-Joy and Skarsgård through the wringer, with Skarsgård previously telling us that the "days were really long and hard, and we were out in the mud, and up on these mountaintops with the wind and the cold." 

With The Northman heading to cinemas imminently, we caught up with the film's cast to discuss the experience, with Taylor-Joy also touching on her next major movie, Mad Max: Furiosa, a prequel to Mad Max: Fury Road. Here's the Q&A, edited for length and clarity.

Total Film: With The Northman, you can feel the cold through the screen. How authentic was that experience?

Taylor-Joy: I remember literally saying to Rob [Eggers], 'If this doesn't look as cold as it actually is, I will be so angry.' We were fully in it. I had a great time. I really enjoyed it. I think it definitely adds something to the film. But everything that you're seeing is 100% real. 

Skarsgård: If you're gonna make a Viking movie, it's got to be immersive.

Taylor-Joy: You gotta jump in.

Skarsgård: Like, bury yourself in the mud, covered in blood.

Taylor-Joy: Casual.

Skarsgård: It wouldn't be right to do this on a nice, conditioned soundstage with a gorgeous green room. It had to be out in the wilderness.

I like the calming arm that Anya has put over you, Alex. Like, 'Oh, we've all gone through it. We've got PTSD.'

Taylor-Joy: That's something that I really love about these experiences, that it's so difficult to do. Everyone every morning knows that what we're going out to do is something that's very difficult. And so you bond and you have this intense fraternity with everyone around you. Because it's not like Rob's in a nice warm van watching it happen. He's in the mud. And we're all being absolutely pummelled by the wind. And then you get it at the end of the day, and you go home and you're like, I did a good job today. I survived. We did the shot, and I feel good about myself today.

Skarsgård: I like how you said the shot, because it was always one shot.

That must have been incredibly intense. It feels like a rarity to make a movie this way, and there are such good one-ers. What was the hardest one-shot for you guys on this?

Taylor-Joy: I know what my one was – sheep heads stew. Getting that one right. 

Skarsgård: The one where you drop it?

Taylor-Joy: And you're keeping watch, and I'm carrying it. It was the one time I complained on the entire film set. The ground had frozen and, for some reason, I think the smoke wasn't quite right. We were trying to get the smoke right on a windy hill. And I think we had done it twice already. We also didn't have [cinematographer] Jaron [Blaschke] that day. I just remember, I squeaked. My feet had actually frozen into the mud and I couldn't move them. I pride myself on not complaining, but I squeaked out a 'please'. I was like, 'Please, please.' And Rob was terrified! He's like, 'Okay, let's go. Let's go! Let's go!'

Skarsgård: If Anya's like, 'Please...'

Taylor-Joy: Then it's time. It's time. But [Alex] had crazy ones. I can't even. Which one is it? The raid?

Skarsgård: The raid was technically very difficult because we were both there with 40 other actors and 20 stuntmen and 300 extras and horses and chickens. It was a lot in one shot. That was technically difficult, but my character in that sequence, he's in a berserker state. It didn't demand much emotionally. He's a bear. He channeled his inner bear-wolf hybrid, his spirit animal. Now, the end fight was more challenging because it's also a long, difficult sequence. But it also demanded the emotional climax of the movie. To get that in there while remembering the choreography of the whole fight, when you're naked and cold in the morning...

Taylor-Joy: My apartment was just floor-to-ceiling windows. It was like a bird box. And I remember going outside and it was just hailing. It was around midnight. I had just sent Alex a text and I was like, 'He's naked on the base of a volcano right now for the fourth day in a row, swinging the sword like it's not.' It's not easy. It's a miracle that anyone survived this. And you nailed it. You did such a good job.

Skarsgård: It's quite a week. Quite a week...

The Northman

(Image credit: Universal)

It sounds incredibly intense. Anya, one of your upcoming projects is also notoriously from an intense franchise, Mad Max. Do you think this experience has prepared you for that?

Taylor-Joy: I remember, there was a very specific moment where I was looking out at all of the green of Ireland, if you've ever been lucky enough to visit, it's a very specific green. And I just remember looking and thinking, 'I'm not going to see green, or snow.' It will be a vista this impressive, but it will be entirely the opposite of this wet, fertile place. I'm just like, 'Wow, okay, I'm really going to experience both extremes this year.' But I'm so excited about it. Both filmmakers have a real ambition to bring fascinating images to audiences. The people that they attract to those experiences are people that share that vision so much that you're kind of ready to do anything to make it come true. Right? 

Skarsgård: I'm excited to see it.

And finally, Alex, you go full-on beast mode. You embody the bear. Was this the most intense filming experience you've had? How does it compare to what you've done before?

Skarsgård: Yeah... It was definitely the most intense experience I've ever had. But also the most rewarding...

Taylor-Joy: He doesn't complain. I love that. 

Is it good to not be eating 10 chickens a day now?

Skarsgård: It's coming out of that. [He looks lost for a second] It's almost like you're in a haze for seven months shooting it. And coming out of it, I'm still a little like, 'Oh, wow.' It was physically, mentally exhausting, but I was so incredibly excited that it was actually coming together after years of planning. To be there with Rob and these guys, the whole gang, an amazing crew there in Belfast. Unbelievable. When you're that motivated and excited about what you do, it's worth being a little cold.

The Northman in UK cinemas from April 15, and US theaters from April 22. For more, check out the most exciting upcoming movies heading your way soon.

Jack Shepherd
Freelance Journalist

Jack Shepherd is the former Senior Entertainment Editor of GamesRadar. Jack used to work at The Independent as a general culture writer before specializing in TV and film for the likes of GR+, Total Film, SFX, and others. You can now find Jack working as a freelance journalist and editor.