Kristofer Hivju

Of Sagas and Monsters

Kristofer Hivju interview featured image

You might have seen him in major fantasy franchises like Game of Thrones and recently in the second season of The Witcher. Or if crime drama is more your cup of tea, maybe you might have seen him in the long-running Swedish series Beck, where he plays the unorthodox Norwegian criminal investigator Steinar.

Norwegian actor Kristofer Hivju has brought his particular brand of Nordic intensity to several international films and series, and he doesn’t seem to be pulling on the brakes anytime soon. With upcoming films ranging from the science fiction film Distant by director Josh Gordon and Will Speck and Elizabeth Banks’ Cocaine Bear, a gory drama-comedy about a cocaine-addicted bear going on a rampage, Kristofer is making his mark on the international film stage.

At FilmLore, we’re passionately interested in fantasy and science fiction, and for some time, I’ve wanted to talk to Kristofer to explore these parts of his career. Recently, I finally got the opportunity to sit down with him at Oslo’s Ekeberg Café for what would be my first face-to-face interview ever in this age of pandemics and online video meetings.

Viking Inspiration

Born into a family of actors, it was never any real surprise that Kristofer would perform. Although his passion was always focused on music, he found his way to the stage at an early age as a farm boy on the traditional Norwegian play about Olav Haraldsson, Stiklestadspelet.

Says Kristofer:

-I was born into a world of actors. Both my parents were actors, my grandmother and all my parents’ friends were actors. To be honest, for the longest time, I just wanted to start playing music, so it was a coincidence that I discovered that I had a talent for acting that made me go for it. But it wasn’t something I wanted to do until I was around 17, I guess.

His interest in the Nordic stories began with his role as the farm boy in Stiklestadspelet. Other kids had their cartoons and comics; Kristofer found inspiration in the Icelandic sagas. It was here he found his superheroes.

Kristofer carried these traditional sagas and Viking tales into adulthood, and they became a driving force as he entered the stage and film productions. It would form a foundation and an inspiration for characters like Tormund Giantsbane from Game of Thrones. Later, he would learn about his heritage in the Norwegian documentary Olav, exploring the life of the Norwegian king and saint Olav Haraldsson, a figure he would also get to play on stage.

But is the Nordic style and Viking-like stories here to stay, or is he exploring other narratives?

Says Kristofer:

I feel like I’ve done a lot of that stuff and that I’ve come to a saturation point. So it’s going to be a while before I can play something like that again. But I’ve had a lot of fun doing so!

hivju portrait 2

Kristofer’s passion for Norse history and culture didn’t lessen as he began to explore other roles, making a name for himself in the international film industry with The Witcher, The Thing, The Fate of the Furious, After Earth and the Swedish crime drama Beck. However, he laments Norwegians’ apparent lack of pride in their cultural heritage and Viking history.

Kristofer elaborates:

As Norwegians, I feel like we’re not as proud of our Viking heritage as our neighboring countries. In Iceland for example, you will often hear stuff like “We are the REAL Vikings!” But here in Norway, at some point, it became something we didn’t want to talk about anymore, something politically incorrect, like we didn’t want to identify with “those barbarians.”

In Norway, when institutions close down and state funding no longer goes into backing our culture, the whole country explodes! Then they make plays about our cultural heritage and icons like Haraldsson, Tryggvason and Fairhair, telling tales about our cultural heritage. Those are the tales people want to tell when no one controls anything, and the state funding for culture is closed down. Then they gather in every community, in every little town, and on every hill and mountain top to compose, create and play! That tells us something about Norway.

Playing the Game of Thrones

Kristofer’s breakthrough to the international film industry was as the wildling Tormund Giantsbane on Game of Thrones. Entering in the third season of the hit show, Kristofer’s character would stay until the end, appearing in 33 episodes, avoiding the death and dismemberment that the show was known for and becoming a favorite in the Game of Thrones fandom. Having watched every episode of the hit fantasy series, I was curious about how it felt taking on such a major production and about his best memories from those years.

Says Kristofer:

-It was a kind of flow zone that lasted eight years for most of the people involved. In a way, making something that is really good is very difficult because you plan for one thing, shoot a different thing, and when it comes to editing, it becomes something else again. It is a collaborative project that relies on all links in the chain, working together to make it so that the creators’ visions and dreams somehow end up on the screen.

My point is that it was a flow zone of great work ethics, enormous ambitions and lots of job satisfaction at every stage of the production. It got crazier and crazier with each passing year, and the budgets only went up and up, and you had night shoots and massive battles one after another.

When I got there in the third season of the show, it had already become a hit, and that “hit factor” was going to increase. It gave us confidence that, in turn, gave us the power and drive on and keep at it. Overall, the satisfaction of working on something like that is my best memory.

Kristofer Hivju as Tormund Giantsbane in Game of Thrones.

Game of Thrones would have a major impact on Kristofer’s career as an actor, as his name not only became known worldwide, but his character became one of the favorites in the fandom. Tormund Giantsbane’s obsession with taller female knight Brienne of Tarth (played by Gwendoline Christie) has inspired memes and fanfiction.

Says Kristofer:

-You can be a part of a lot, and then all of a sudden, you’re in something that’s so iconic and that had such an insanely large audience. My desire has always been to entertain and inspire people, and in a show like that, you managed to excite them to such an enormous extent. As an actor, you leave an imprint on the audience. It’s fascinating to note that people are still very tied to that universe even though it’s been three years.

For instance, when I was at Comic-Con a few years back, I met that crazy professor from Back to the Future (Christopher Lloyd). I became star-struck because these films were so important to me and had a significant impact on me as a kid. For me, it was a kind of magical world, but he was just some dude who made these movies long ago. Yet they are attached to him, and he has become the icon of these movies.

It doesn’t seem like Kristofer will be rid of his connection with Tormund Giantsbane and Game of Thrones anytime soon. And he is perfectly fine with that!

Keep Tossing Coins at The Witcher

Kristofer recently appeared in the second season of Netflix’s hit fantasy series The Witcher (you can read our review here). Although he was only there for one episode, the first of the second season called A Grain of Truth, his character Nivellen made a significant impact. No wonder, as this tragic and magically cursed nobleman is a favorite for many in The Witcher fandom.

Says Kristofer:

-I was introduced to The Witcher before Netflix released the first season, and I had little knowledge of it, and I understood it was a game, so that reference was there. But I approached it in an isolated way based only on the bits of text I received beforehand.

When I first approached and analyzed the character of Nivellen, it was as if he was a human. I didn’t realize at that point that Nivellen had been cursed to look like a half-man half-boar creature. When I read the first episode, I might have done so a bit too quickly, as I didn’t get that important fact at the beginning. When I met show creator Lauren Schmidt, I realized that he was a half-boar! But I had already attached myself to the character without realizing all the other things, and I’m glad I did. It let me start with his humanity.

Then began the discussions about how to portray him. I approached it the way I usually do when I portray a character from history or fiction. I found loads of fan art and drawings. People talked about him and had him as their favorite character in The Witcher universe. And I discovered this love, excitement and immersion in the fandom community.

With fantasy, one can read books, play games and visit online communities where people discuss and create their own stories in these fantastical settings. My daughter is a big fan of Marvel, for example, and she reads fanfiction. My point is that there is much passion for these worlds, and when I went deeper into it, we discussed how to create the character based on this.

Kristofer Hivju as Nivellen
Kristofer Hivju as the cursed Nivellen.

Fantasy and special effects nerd that I am, I had to ask about the amazing special effects that went into creating Nivellen. I have watched films and series with special makeup effects, animatronics and prosthetics for most of my life, but this is on a whole new level. How would one go about making something like that?

Says Kristofer:

-There was a lot of searching for inspiration, and you can’t ignore The Beauty and the Beast, for example. The author of The Witcher, Andrzej Sapkowski, shamelessly borrows from ancient myths, legends and stories and incorporates them into something new. It should be said that our story is far darker than Beauty and the Beast, to be sure. But for inspiration, we looked at the live-action version of Beauty and the Beast, the one that was 100% computer-generated.

But what about the technical sides of the process? I have never seen such an emotional range for a creature made with practical effects. Was there any computer-generated imagery in there somewhere?

Kristofer describes the process:

It’s interesting that you should ask that because it actually means that someone has done a great job with the character. We wanted everything on Nivellen to be practical and prosthetic, and we made a suit for me to wear.

First, they had to make a cast of my entire body and make a statue of sorts out of it. They then built a suit on the outside of this statue that would be modeled after my body and fit me perfectly, and with my nails going over into Nivellen’s claws to make it feel alive on screen. There were a lot of adjustments. I had a tiny hole in the mask and a camera so I could see my surroundings at all times and look out through Nivellen’s snout.

I also wore a bunch of tiny dots on my face to capture my expressions inside the mask, and they have incredibly detailed footage of everything I do, all the expressions. They spent enormous resources doing this because Nivellen is such an emotional character, and it is not just a beast that shouts and screams like we’re often used to seeing. The director Stephen Surjik was very concerned about this and wanted to have the character be as authentic to the lore of The Witcher universe as possible.

Nivellen is a character written in such a nuanced and emotional way. A face consists of 350 muscles, and then one can say that each muscle has a degree from one to ten in how to use them. You can express joy and shame in the same smile, for example. There are so many expressions, and if they had become one-dimensional, as is always the danger with a character like this, he wouldn’t have the same emotional impact. So it would become the mission of everyone involved to spend our resources to get my performance inside the mask to come alive on the outside of the mask itself. I was delighted with the result, as there has rarely been much effort put into such a detailed character before.

The Thing About The Thing

In the 2011 prequel of John Carpenter’s classic science fiction horror masterpiece, The Thing, Kristofer also had a smaller role. Playing the Norwegian arctic researcher/victim, Jonas was Kristofer’s first foray into major international film productions.

I have long been curious about the stories I heard about the use of special effects in the production. If rumors are to be believed, the practical effects used in the production were largely thrown out in favor of computer-generated imagery, sparking nerdy discussions among science fiction fans about what is better: practical or CGI.

Was this my opportunity to get to the truth of the matter? I asked Kristofer about the production. He describes:

-The original The Thing had a major impression on me as a kid and is one of my first really significant movie memories. And for me to be a part of this universe was a magical experience. It was my first proper film role, as I basically came straight from the theatre stage at that point.

As you might be aware, the original The Thing is itself a remake of an even older film called Who Goes There? I really got to geek out good going into it, and there were already several people on that shoot that were actually involved in John Carpenter’s original production with Kurt Russel. All involved were big fans of that film and thought it was absolutely fantastic to be a part of it.

And it is important to mention again that our film is a prequel, not a sequel or remake. If you’re going to watch our film, it is really fun to watch it back-to-back with the original 80s one. Ours is a homage to that movie, and there are many things that link up with the original. Some cinemas in the US even showed both films so that you could watch them together.

Kristofer Hivju has something on his face in The Thing (2011).

-The original idea was to create as much as possible with practical special effects, and there is still a lot of that left. But the requirements for effects only increase in time. So even if we had a lot of stuff controlled by remote controls – we had four guys with their own RC controller moving various things – it supplied the base to be enhanced later with CGI. For example, I had that hand-thing on my face in a scene, which was a practical effect. I had a lot of fun with it! It was great to be a part of that, and there were several other Norwegians in the cast. So in a way, it was a kind of film education for me right there.

Released in 1982, John Carpenter’s original The Thing was initially bashed by critics but has since inspired its own fandom with comics, novels, and video games. Much of the debates in the fandom has to do with “who-gets-turned-when” and the question of one, both or none of the remaining survivors are infected. What about Kristofer’s own experience with this universe? Any nerdy thoughts or theories, maybe?

Says Kristofer:

We had the same kind of discussions when we made our prequel. “What happens when? Who’s going to be what? Who infects who?” I had my own theories, and there were a lot of discussions about this. Also, what your character knows and what you yourself know as an actor are completely different things. But what was fun about that role was how I got to shape my character. Initially, my character Jonas was somewhat underdeveloped in the script, but I wrote a long letter to the director with ideas and details we could use. And we had reshoots that would help to reinforce these ideas. It was a great experience.

Hivju portrait

The Future

But what of the future? Kristofer talked about having reached a saturation point with playing the traditional axe-wielding warriors so that we might see him in quite different roles going forward. We already know about the upcoming 2022 science fiction film Distant, directed by Josh Gordon and Will Speck, but it was still too early to talk about that project. But there is other stuff on coming.

Says Kristofer:

-One film I want to mention is called Cocaine Bear. It’s based on a true story. That is, the premise is true, at least. It is about a bear that found a depot of cocaine and became addicted to it. But this is also one of those “what if” scenarios. What if the bear had gone berserk? It is a “monster in the mountains” kind of film, and a comedy-drama with absurd madness and excessive splatter! It’s going to be great fun!

I’ve been approached by both Marvel and DC before. I can’t say for what, as it is a sacred rule among actors that we never discuss the roles we turn down. But I’m a big Superman fan, especially of Christopher Reeve. And Batman, too, of course; I’ve seen all of that and loved it shamelessly! Also, Marvel has taken over and done a lot lately, so I’ve been following that too. Anyway, it’s a long life, and no one seems to be hitting the brakes anytime soon!

So, a completely bonkers-sounding film about a rampaging, drug-addled bear and offers coming in from both Marvel and DC? It seems that we will see much more of Kristofer Hivju on the screen in the years to come.


Photos by Kai Simon Fredriksen. Check out his Instagram for more of his work.

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