People like me, we become masters in overcorrecting. It's our specific brand of performance. With chronic pain and illness you learn to just accept the formality of acting like nothing's wrong. Sometimes for months, most times for longer. It's been a decade for me: ten years of living with a rare biliary condition that causes daily pain compared to swallowing battery acid or labor contractions.
But I'm not the only one subtly hiding wide grimaces in the act of biting hangnails, blaming exhaustion on something simple -- a migraine, lack of sleep -- rather than waxing poetic about how we feel like the physical embodiment of that lava titan from Disney's Hercules. Which is a funny analogy until you have to sit in a classroom or a crowded office and pretend everything is fine. And yet, we pretend nonetheless. This is precisely what drew me to the performance of Alex Høgh Andersen as Ivar the Boneless -- a misfortunate prince (of sorts) on History'sVikingswho suffers from the rare bone disorder Osteogenesis Imperfecta.
Andersen talked about why he was cast as Ivar during the show's panel at San-Diego Comic Con in 2017, "[Creator Michael Hirst] explained about his disease. And I was like, "Well, is he in constant pain?" And Michael replied [that] he thought he was. So, in my mind I was like, "OK, if he's in constant pain... then, he's used to it. He wouldn't show it."
Hearing this was a weightless moment for me... he understood. And more importantly, he translated that on-screen. This disease colors the character, but Andersen's performance does not let it define him. It is that subtle stroke of brilliance that speaks to the authenticity behind Ivar. To some he is a ruthless villain, to others he is a fragile boy.
His point is not to make you forget about his disability, it's to have you fear him in spite of it. The performance is filled with vulnerabilities and gems of nuance that only someone like Andersen could pull off. His strength is unparalleled, but there's this soul behind his eyes that exudes only two sentiments: "I'm going to protect you with my life," or "I will kill you where you stand." He makes Ivar the Boneless fascinating -- not because the character is so inherently evil, but because we understand why he is that way. He's two sides of a silver coin leaving heads or tails to chance per episode.
Andersen's performance will sit on your skin like a film, uncomfortable to the point where you wish to wash it off, but also so unique that you curiously continue craving the texture. It's indelible. Unpredictability proves to be his greatest weapon as he draws us in with a voice that seems like it might belong to a friend. It's light and gentle, yet also unnerving. We're so used to Vikings being portrayed as chest-voiced brutes, so to see the fiercest of them all speak as though he was whispering to a child is deeply disturbing. It leads the character to possess a wicked grace, a treacherous elegance. Andersen chooses his moments. It'd be easy to yell and scream and throw axes in every scene, but that's not the way Ivar is portrayed. If he is barbaric, it's deliberate.
Ivar represents a small group that is rarely or accurately seen. People who endure like him, we don't see a villain. Sure, the character is morally reprehensible, but he is also someone who overcame insurmountable odds to lead. To be seen as invincible. To grit through, as many of us do every day, but also to succeed. So, in a way, that brings hope above all else. Ivar, accompanied by Andersen's magnificent performance, becomes a spearhead to tell Hollywood that people with incurable conditions don't have to be confined to our novelty seat at the table. We can be strong, valiant... even vicious.
The fact that Andersen's performance has been continually overlooked each award season is honestly blasphemous at this point. There are many names that will continue to be honored because that's what they are... names. But why Alex Høgh Andersen has never been on the ballot after years of impeccable work is mind-boggling. You can give anyone armor and an axe and call them a warrior, but what Andersen is portraying is war. For nothing more than going into that battle, give the man an Emmy nomination. For coming out victorious, give him the damn statuette.
Vikings is streaming on Hulu and Amazon Prime Video. Emmy nominations will be announced Tuesday, July 16. The 71st Primetime Emmy Awards will be broadcast Sunday, Sept. 22 at 8 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. PT on Fox.