'Vikings': Clive Standen on How a Secret First Season Moment Paved the Way for Rollo's Return (Exclusive)

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Rollo is back on Vikingsand he's got some unfinished business to attend to. 

It's been several seasons since Clive Standen was a series regular on the History hit, but fans will see him make his big return on Wednesday's season 5B premiere -- all thanks to a secret note from the series' very first episode. 

Things left off in the 5A finale with Rollo making his way from his new home of Frankia to his old one of Kattegat, to seemingly help Ivar (Alex Høgh Andersen) and his forces. But there's something much bigger at stake for both Rollo and the actor who plays him, and it's all about family. 

"I always think that that's what Vikings is truly about. It's not about the gods and the monsters and the religion and the battles. It's really just about this nuclear family," Standen tells ET of his character's big return. "And that all started in episode one."

"Some of the scenes in the [5B premiere] are connected to the very first scene when you see Rollo and Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) and young Bjorn (Nathan O'Toole) in season one. It's something that the very first director, Johan Renck, whispered into my ear," he reveals. "He used to take actors from the set, and he would just whisper a few things into your ear. ...it was like your little secret. And something he said to me, on my very first day on set, [creator] Michael Hirst and I developed it season after season."

"It's so rewarding to see that storyline, that it happened from a whisper into an actor's ear," Standen marvels. "It's come full circle." 

But what exactly is the actor talking about? Read on to find out. 

ET: We have this great moment in the trailer where Rollo says he "missed the old place" -- did you miss Vikings

Clive Standen: I did, I did miss it. When I was still in the show prominently, when Travis Fimmel's character, Ragar Lothbrok, died, I sat down with Michael [Hirst], and Michael and I, we both kind of said, "The Rollo plot line is very intertwined with the Ragnar plot line, and what's there to do?" I don't want to stay in a show unless I can service the character and give the show a good storyline, and also, I don't want to be just chomping on the scenery and not really pushing the story forward. The show is called Vikings, it's not called Frankia, so we can't stay in France all that time, following Rollo's storyline every week. I didn't want to leave Vikings, it's one of the most fun jobs I've ever had, and he didn't want to lose me, so we just kind of thought, Maybe we'll take a season off, and when the most opportunistic time comes to bring Rollo back, he'll get in touch. So I, luckily, went straight onto another show, Takenfor NBC, so it gave me something to do. It wasn't like I was twiddling my thumbs. And then I was in Toronto, and I got this phone call from an English number, and it's Michael. He said, "I've found a moment. It's happening, are you available?" So it was great. 

You don't want to outstay your welcome on anything, and I think this was the best possible time to reintroduce Rollo, when the family it was all built around, really needs him. It was wonderful to be back. 

It had been a little while since Rollo was really in the action. What was it like stepping into Rollo's shoes again? 

Katheryn Winnick and I were the only real original cast members there, because Gustaf was still alive, but he was filming in Iceland. So it was only me and Katheryn around, and I thought what was quite interesting was my first scene was in the great hall with Alex, who plays Ivar the Boneless, and Marco Ilsø, who plays Hvitserk, Peter Franzén as Harald and myself, and it was a funny dynamic. Those boys were kind of like, "Oh, Rollo's back, Clive's been here since season one. Maybe he's going to be the adult in the scene." No one really knew who was going to take the status, or take the reigns of the scene, because it's like, their show now. They've been around, and they're in everyday, but they're still young. It was quite interesting to play that, because it's exactly what happens in the scene. Rollo walks into the Great Hall like he owns the place. They all kind of went, "Wow, you were number two on the call sheet once upon a time. You adult us!" I felt like the parent of the day. Daddy's home! It was so much fun. 

The show has changed a bit since Travis left -- did you notice that missing presence on set? 

It's interesting, because it depends what kind of scene. Travis and I always usually had very fired up scenes, which was great, I loved it. He's a great friend and he still is, and my kids call him Uncle T-bone and we would go out for a pint, and he's a completely different person to how he is playing Ragnar. So when you get on set with him, whatever you were joking about, laughing about down at the pub the night before is left behind, and you go straight back into the acting, the scene and what it's about. It was so refreshing to work with an actor like that, where it's just the dynamic changes. But the beauty of a successful show is you have to have a lot of actors like that, and Vikings, I think, is best with many actors that have got that quality. And in the first episode back, hopefully you'll see a little bit of that with Alexander Ludwig and Katheryn Winnick in the scenes I'm in. There are some very fiery stuff between Rollo and Lagertha and Bjorn. And that scene I just mention as well with Peter and Alex and Marco, that's another one. We're very lucky. I don't understand how they got so lucky with the cast of Vikings, because we're, on paper, a bunch of eclectic morons. But somehow when you put us all together, there's a spark. 

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Since the last time you were on the show, everyone's looks have changed immensely. Katheryn now has this long, gray hair, Alexander Ludwig's look is totally different. Did you recognize everyone? 

It was little bit [weird], yeah. I've been trying to track my age and Travis as well, we tried to track our age from the very beginning through the seasons, because that's half the fun for me. I got into acting to draw attention away from myself, not towards myself, and when I can truly disguise myself into a character, that's when I'm having the most fun. That's why I had such a blast playing Rollo, because usually a character like Rollo... I started off the show, Rollo was going to be 28 to 30, and by the end, I'm 66 years old. Usually in a TV show, you would cast an older actor to play the older version of Rollo, you'd skip years, and then suddenly, Viggo Mortensen's playing Rollo (Laughs). But luckily they gave the reigns to do that and transform and have that amazing character arc that doesn't come along very often for an actor, so I feel blessed. And it's been nice to be able to do that, to age up season to season and play a different age. It takes a little bit longer every morning, which you kind of regret, when you realize it was your idea in the first place. That's the reason you're coming in at 4:15 in the morning and everyone else is coming in at 5. I just added 45 minutes to my day because of prosthetic makeup! But it was funny seeing Katheryn. We all stay in touch, so Katheryn, her parents actually live in Toronto, so in between [filming], I'd see Katheryn, and she would be Katheryn Winnick with her blonde hair, a very beautiful lady, and then you'd come to set, and that was the first time I'd seen her with the gray hair and the wrinkles and things, and you're like, "Oh, so that was a shock!" But with the other guys, Alexander Ludwig, I just thought that was down to hard living, and I was like, "Wow, I've been away, you guys have been out drinking too much. You look rough as hell!" (Laughs). 

Rollo's changed a bit too. Are we going to see the same guy when he re-enters the picture? 

He is at a stage in his life where he is older, and he's starting to fight his own mortality and ask big questions about what happens in the afterlife, if there is one. He doesn't know if he's going to be accepted by Odin and the gods in Valhalla, or his new god, which he supposedly worships. Is he going to Heaven or is he going to Valhalla? Is he going to Hell? All these things, he doesn't know. So he's hedging his bets, he's trying to put right what he felt went wrong. He's going back. So first and foremost, he's now a ruler. These people have taken him on, and he's their ruler, and he has the politics involved in protecting the people of Normandy, so first and foremost, they're the reason to go back, for his own benefit and for his country's benefit. But those politics lead him to have the best possible reason to go and confront his demons and maybe open up some old wounds, and maybe put salt on some others, meaning some unsolved business with his family.

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History

I spoke with Michael Hirst about the midseason finale, and he teased that we'll see Rollo return to address some questions we had in season one, like his relationship with Lagertha and whether he might be Bjorn's father. What can you tell us about that? 

There's a scene [in the first episode] between me and Lagertha inside the room, when Ragnar goes out to relieve himself and things are said, and that was [director Johan Renck's notes]. He came up to me, and he said, "You love these kids, because one of them's yours," and that's all Johan said. It's not like he wrote the script -- it wasn't in the script! He just wanted to get something out of me, and he didn't tell Katheryn. And it stuck with me, and for me, it's been tracked season to season. There's the season when Alexander Ludwig takes over the character, when I first see him, and joke about how he still can't grow a beard, and it culminated where I really wanted to stamp my foot on that particular plot, on season three in Paris, when Bjorn falls off the battle, he's shot with a crossbow, and he's dying, and he's in the tent, unconscious. Lagertha is by his side, and Ragnar is just somewhere else. He's losing the battle, and Rollo just storms into that, tent, and takes on, for me, I tried to take on this fatherly control of the scene. And that for me, was my way of going, 'The people who are paying attention are going to see this, and they're going to see there's a difference in Rollo when he's with Bjorn. He might have just lost his son, and his son doesn't know it.' It's a very interesting arc to play, because we never knew if it was going to come to fruition, really, and luckily, like I said, I went away from the show, and Michael brought me back. 

Both you and Gustaf Skarsgård have gone on to do other shows -- him with Westworld and you with Taken. What keeps bringing you back to Vikings

I think a show that ticks all the boxes doesn't come along very often. You can have a successful show and have a miserable time. You can have a brilliant time on a show, and it can get canned after a season. You don't always have amazing actors to work with. You don't always have a great director or writing. You don't have a savant like Michael Hirst. I can't believe he's written over 80 episodes on his own, and he's such a great collaborator. Sometimes producers on the show rule with an iron whip. They wrote it, you have to say it. Michael is not one of those people at all.

He writes and he comes to set, and he takes you out to dinner, and we talk through the character. He listens to everything, and sometimes he conveniently forgets the stuff he doesn't agree with, but he doesn't really throw it back in your face. And sometimes, the script changes, and he listens to your notes, and he's adapted the script. He's very good at that. But it's great that he collaborates, and you feel like you're actually creating something together... He's very, very good at reigning it back in. He's the perfect captain of the ship. 

It definitely sounds like it. 

Yeah. But I'm really proud of the episode, and I think it's really some of my best work as Rollo. We actually laid it all out. It felt rewarding to come back and actually purge all that stuff that I had in the previous seasons. It's nice. I can't wait for people to see it. 

Vikings returns Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET/PT on History. 

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