Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

Gustaf Skarsgård Reveals How Vikings Helped Him Prepare For Cursed

If you recognize Merlin on Cursed, Netflix's new King Arthur-inspired series, don't be surprised. Cursed's take on the famous wizard might be brand-new, but the actor who plays him has been around for a while.

Before stepping into Merlin's robes, Gustaf Skarsgård played the talented-but-neurotic shipwright Floki for five seasons on History's prestige series Vikings. He also appeared on season 2 of Westworld as Karl Strand, one of Delos' villainous executives, and in movies like Evil and The Way Back. In fact, if you look to projects that have come out of Skarsgård's native Sweden, you can see the actor in films dating back to 1989, when Skarsgård was just nine years old.

Naturally, all of that experience helped Skarsgård immensely when it came to playing Merlin. As Skarsgård explained during a roundtable interview for Cursed, in which Looper participated, Floki and Merlin have a few things in common. "It's a very physical role," Skarsgård says of Merlin. "There's a lot of horseback riding and fighting and stuff that I'm happy that I came well prepared for from my previous experiences on Vikings. [...] I'd already done a lot of fighting on Vikings. Didn't have to spend too much time [training for] that."

Skarsgård's time as Floki, as well as the rest of his 31-year acting career, also helped prepare him for the immense pressure that comes with playing one of the most well-known characters in the entire world. "As an actor, you always perform under pressure. From your childhood, from your first auditions, from even getting up on stage, it's a tremendous pressure on an actor to perform under," he says. "Unless you can perform under pressure, you won't have a sustainable acting career."

"The only way I can sort of balance out that pressure is by making sure that I do my utmost [best] and come prepared. That's the same for every role," Skarsgård continues, although he does note that Merlin has been adapted and re-envisioned so many times that there's a type of freedom that comes with the part. "Merlin is an iconic character, but he's also a character that we've already seen interpreted in so many different ways. In that sense, it sort of leaves an open playing field for this very particular interpretation," he says.

The biggest difference between playing Merlin and playing Floki? According to Skarsgård, it's the weather: "It was a bit drier of a drier experience than on Vikings for me, because Merlin tended to be more indoors than Floki was. Floki spent a lot of time in muddy fields shot in Ireland in leather outfits. It was a bit drier, a bit more comfortable."

What it's like to play an iconic character like Merlin on Cursed

In a sense, Skarsgård has been preparing for the role of Merlin his entire life. As a child, he says, he was a huge fan of epic, medieval fantasy: "My parents read Lord of the Rings to me out loud for the first time when I was eight. Then I read all three books myself twice, even before becoming an adult. I was into live role-playing. [...] I loved reading David Eddings and Robert Jordan."

Skarsgård goes as far as calling himself a "fantasy nerd," and his experiences growing up certainly support that claim. "When all the kids took football lessons, I took horseback riding and fencing because I wanted to be Robin Hood," he admits. "I've always loved the escapism. I've always loved the magical aspect of fantasy."

Still, there's a difference between playing any old wizard and playing Merlin, who's arguably the most famous magician in all of literature (give or take a Gandalf or two). Thankfully, Cursed's fresh take on the character alleviated some of that pressure.

"In the beginning, he's drunk and he doesn't care about anything. That's where we first find him," Skarsgård says. "I think, for me, it was important to go all in for that, because it has a great shock value for the audience to be like, 'Whoa, that's not the Merlin we expected.'"

Skarsgård credits Cursed co-creators Frank Miller and Thomas Wheeler with creating a nuanced and more complex version of Merlin, as well as one that gave him plenty of room to play. "What I think is so funny about this take is that there are so many different archetypes at play at once," Skarsgård says. "At first, he's sort of like the joker character, the joker archetype. Then all of a sudden, he goes out on this quest and you're like, 'What's going on here?' Then he has this sort of anti-hero quality."

So, yeah, Cursed offers a pretty different spin on Merlin and the legend of King Arthur, but the fantasy fan in Skarsgård is pleased. "I've always been sort of like, 'Okay, how is this going to balance between the target groups?'" he notes. "'Is it going to be too childish for adult people or too dark for young people?'"

Skarsgård says that Cursed ended up "gorier and darker than [he] had expected," but he gives it a whole-hearted stamp of approval: "I watched the whole thing. It was great seeing the other actors' performances that I hadn't seen before. [...] I want to know what happens next. Yeah, I'm pleased."

Curious if you'll agree? Luckily for you, the entire 10-episode first season of Cursed is available to stream on Netflix now.