Acting coach to the stars Ivana Chubbuck talks exclusively about her work with Travis Fimmel on Vikings

Internationally acclaimed acting coach and author Ivana Chubbuck is associated with some of Hollywood’s most elite actors, but she also has a close association with Australia. She has conducted numerous Masterclasses in Australia with 16th Street Actors Studio and will hold an exclusive Actor Director Masterclass in Melbourne in January 2016. Chubbuck is also the long time acting coach of Travis Fimmel, who stars in History Channel’s Vikings and has a lead role in the upcoming fantasy film Warcraft. Fimmel’s riveting portrayal of Ragnar Lothbrok in Vikings has brought the 36-year-old actor from country Victoria international attention, praise, and a legion of fans.

“First of all he’s my friend too. I love Travis. I’m so proud of him,” Chubbuck says. “I really like the Aussies, I really think that they are amazing people, and I’ll tell you why I feel a connected force to Australians: they have a great sense of humour. I think that’s so important. In the arts people are so dark that they forget there has to be light to see in the dark.”

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Chubbuck and Fimmel in Norway, 2015. Photo courtesy of Ivana Chubbuck.

The need for humour in the arts is something Chubbuck has reiterated in her teachings. There is a place for it even in the darkest of material she has said, and making people laugh is an important aspect of being a great actor. “Yes. And that’s what me and Travis do in Vikings. Often the material is written in a way that is meant to be this kind of dark, pagan journey versus a Christian world, and what we do is we bring a lot of behaviour and a lot of humour to it, to allow people to enjoy the experience and the adventures of the Vikings. It’s also more fun for the actor to play,” she says.

On Vikings, Fimmel has brought a great amount of heart and soul to a character many could quickly dismiss as being merely barbaric and ruthless. As Fimmel has said, the Vikings did heinous things, so it’s up to him to get the audience to relate to Ragnar, and above all, be entertaining while he’s at it. Fimmel accomplishes both as the famed Viking warrior and has taken the character on a fascinating journey over the last three seasons, one that has seen him transform both physically and psychologically – a journey impossible to not be moved by as a viewer.

“He comes up with the most brilliant stuff. His mind is amazing. I’ll help him discover things, but he’ll take it ten steps further. We’re a really good team,” Chubbuck says. “Everything is about ensemble with us, so it’s my idea, it’s his idea, he has another idea, and that’s how we work. I’ve been out to work with him twice this season, but we work on the phone every other day. I was on the phone with him a half hour ago.”

Chubbuck at a Masterclass in Israel. Photo courtesy of Ivana Chubbuck Studio.
Chubbuck at a Masterclass in Israel. Photo courtesy of Ivana Chubbuck Studio.

Fimmel is always willing to take risks Chubbuck says, something she encourages actors to do. “We’ve done some crazy things. There’s one scene that we did and it was behind a curtain where you couldn’t even see his face – beyond the script – behind the curtains. The outrageous stuff that Travis is willing to do,” she laughs.

Chubbuck has worked with Fimmel not only on all three seasons of Vikings, but “everything.” She has been his only acting mentor for 14 years and Fimmel still takes lessons with her at her Hollywood studio.  “There isn’t anything we haven’t done together throughout the whole time he’s been here, whether it’s in class or working on auditions, and everything that he has learned, he has grown from it.”

Having recently re-read Chubbuck’s book The Power of the Actor and then reviewing season 3 of Vikings, it became clear to me that “The Chubbuck Technique” has greatly affected Fimmel’s work in his portrayal of Ragnar. It is most evident in his ability to convey powerful emotions with only facial expressions and behaviour.

One of the tools in Chubbuck’s phenomenally successful book is called DOINGS, in which she explains the things we “do” can have a more powerful effect than any words we could ever speak. It is there in her book in bold italics: “Words can lie. Behaviour always tells the truth.” Fimmel also brings humour to his portrayal of Ragnar, even during the most tragic of circumstances; something Chubbuck writes can help the audience to better understand a character’s anger, even pain.

I mention a particularly powerful scene from season 3 to Chubbuck to elucidate how I saw her technique come alive in Fimmel’s portrayal of Ragnar; one in which he killed an elderly, innocent man with his bare hands while his children slept nearby. It was not an act born of evil, but of desperation, and we understood this at the end of the scene, for Ragnar’s shame and regret emanated powerfully via his actions. There are many of these powerful, silent moments that Fimmel excels at in Vikings. Who can forget the Blood Eagle scene, or when Ragnar sat atop a mountain holding the sword that made him King?

“Yeah. I always say the silent moments are the ones where we have layers of thought,” Chubbuck reflects. “When we’re quiet, there’s so much going on in our heart and our head, so much more of an interesting result to watch. It’s like actors who count lines…don’t count lines. Figure out what the moments are, because the moments in between the lines are where the gold is.”

So what can aspiring actors who are fans of Fimmel learn from his portrayal of Ragnar?  “They need to look from season 1 to season 3,” Chubbuck says, “and what they need to look at is how Ragnar has grown from a young man with a lot of dreams and a lot of cockiness, into somebody who is more thought provoking and has dealt with a lot of trauma in his life. And he’s struggling to even want to stay alive.”

“At the beginning of the show, Ragnar was all about purpose and legacy and love and babies, and then we’re watching the growth of someone who is trying to get over the fact his world is breaking apart; loss of children, the loss of his wife who he loved, to the issues with his brother. When we’re young we think we’re going to get whatever we want and it’ll be easy, right? And then life happens. And that’s what we did with Ragnar. We made him this young soul with an ‘I can do anything’ and ‘I can have everything’ attitude, and we watched piece by piece, scene by scene, episode to episode, how life and travesty and trauma has affected the hopefulness of his journey, and given him doubt,” Chubbuck says.

As to how Fimmel has grown as an actor, Chubbuck says: “His layers are more deep. His exploration is more complicated. It’s like, the older you get the more experiences you have, the more things you have to figure out, and with age comes wisdom. So he is taking the stuff that he’s going through, he’s taking that information and what he needs to learn and he’s putting it into the script and into his acting so that he can be a more evolved person in life. That’s how we’ve been operating. And he’s getting so many offers for so many things that are huge,” she says.

I tell Chubbuck I hope Fimmel’s current acting achievements will cast aside the shadow of his well-known Calvin Klein campaign that first brought him to the attention of the world, something the media often fixates on. “You know he only did those Calvin Klein photos so that he could support his acting?” she says. “Yes, to pay for his classes with you,” I reply, “the things he did for you!” “For real,” she laughs.

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Ivana Chubbuck will be in Melbourne in January, 2016 to conduct a first ever Actor Director Masterclass which you can read about in Part 1 of our interview here.

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