At the quarter point of 2019, there’s no question that the upcoming conclusion of the HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones (GOT) has been dominating the pop culture landscape, be it traditional or social media. When the series airs its last episode on May 19, fans will be bidding adieu to a slew of beloved characters who have made their way through story lines rife with Shakespearian levels of violence, intrigue and sex that have oftentimes been inspired by real-life historical events. While a number of actors including Jonathan Pryce, Peter Dinklage and Sean Bean were already well-known before landing in GOT, quite a number of cast members have enjoyed breakout success. One of the more notable examples is Kristofer Hivju, who plays Tormund Giantsbane, a leader amongst the Wildings, a group of indigenous people with no central government, at odds with various lords of the North (think of our real-life Vikings….more on that later). Hivju has quickly become a fan favorite given how profane, funny and unfiltered his Giantsbane character is. Ironically, the Norwegian-born actor wasn’t originally slated to be in GOT and his break came via old-fashioned cyber hearsay.
“I was actually auditioning for Vikings. Someone heard that rumor and mixed it up with Game of Thrones because we’re a similar period piece kind of program,” Hivju recalled. “Suddenly, this rumor started to evolve on the Internet. Fans knew that [the character] Tormund Giantsbane was entering the [story line] and the fans thought I was the perfect fit for that role. At that time, the casting director had never mentioned my name. Suddenly, there was a big thing about me and I was at the chiropractor and someone called to ask me if it was true that I was up for a role with Game of Thrones. I said, ‘No comment’ and it just kept rolling forward. My agent insisted I then send [the GOT casting director] a tape. It actually started with a false rumor.”
As someone who grew up in love with the history of Icelandic and Viking kings (the actor has been working on a documentary about the latter he hopes will get released in 2020), GOT was a natural fit for Hivju. And while exposure to the series found the actor and his wife turning the television off after viewing a snippet of the show (“We had small kids and they were sleeping beside us on the couch. After the first 10 minutes, we thought it was too emotionally challenging.”), he fell in love with the show after later watching the first two seasons. Preparation for delving into this epic world that shoots on location in remote parts of Northern Ireland, Iceland, Croatia and Spain found the 40-year-old reaching out to the series’ rabid fan base for more insight into Giantsbane. In the process, he quickly bonded with his fictional alter ego.
“People are so enthusiastic and have so much love and interest for the show. I was very aware of the fan base of the books and the show. So what I did was go through the Internet and started with the fans to find out how they perceive Tormund—what things about him they highlight and how they see him,” Hivju explained. “When I got the audition text, you get the DNA of the scene and the role. It immediately felt right. Some roles are like that. Everything feels right. That’s how we started out. Because of all the rumored stuff before I was cast, I ran around the woods with a stick and went wild for a month or two. I’m up in Norway, so I grew up with the Viking saga and I know how wild people think. I found it very easy to jump into Tormund’s way of thinking.”
Hailing from a family of actors that include both parents and his grandmother, the Oslo native didn’t originally intend to be an actor. While his earliest memories include being at a festival where his father was playing a king before 10,000 attendees while he played a boy in a crowd (“I learned how to steal attention at an early age,”), Hivju originally had his sights set on being a rock singer. That all changed after Hivju was cast as Hamlet in a school play.
“When I was cast, I was like, ‘Ugh, please.’ But then when I did it, I realized this was my thing,” Hivju said. “I could do it better than I could do music. So I quit that musical school and went to drama school. I ran up to the principal and changed schools. Then, of course, you have to fight your parents’ shadow. But that gives you drive as well. I chose to get my education at the Russian Academy of Theater Arts in Denmark. It was nice to get away from Norway for a couple of years and then come back.”
While GOT has consumed much of Hivju’s time over the past six years, he’s still managed to appear in 13 films (including 2017’s The Fate of the Furious). One of his most notable gigs was being part of a $100 million ad campaign for the Wyndham Hotel Group in which Hivju played the Wyndham Rewards Wizard whose catchphrase was, “You’ve earned this.” It’s an unusual side gig he had a blast diving into.
“For me it was a chance to do comedy, because they gave me a lot of freedom and they gave me the opportunity to stay at 8,000 hotels around the world whenever I wanted,” he laughingly said. “They gave me the freedom to do almost whatever I wanted because we created this crazy character. I don’t know how many different commercials I did, but we had a lot of fun with it. It was fun to just do a character that was so crazy. Because people are going to watch those commercials so many times, there has to be a spark, creativity and something fun, otherwise it’s not fun to the people that are going to watch it. It was a very different performance. Many people didn’t know it was the same guy who played Tormund, and that was fun as well.”
Game of Thrones airs on HBO on Sunday evenings. Check local listings.
Also see Kristofer Hivju’s Fave Actors.