It’s very, very difficult to have a conversation with Kristofer Hivju without talking about Tormund Giantsbane, his wildly popular supporting character in Game of Thrones. Especially since Tormund seems to be lurking just behind those green eyes, ready to burst through at any moment. Our conversation at Sundance did eventually get around to Downhill, the reimagining of 2014’s Force Majeure that played the fest this year. (Hivju is in both films.) But it also explored Tormund, his endangered beard, and even the duality of human nature.
Paste Magazine: So first of all, obviously, I love your work. You’re not only my favorite, but everybody I know’s favorite character in Game of Thrones.
Kristofer Hivju: Thank you. It went a different way than I thought.
Paste: Right? How messed up is it that he didn’t get to be with his big woman?
Hivju: No happy endings there.
Paste: It’s actually not unrelated to the first question I want to ask you. You’re on what was the biggest show in the world for a long time. Your character—I guess you could classify him as a minor character—was so wildly charismatic, but now everybody thinks of you as Tormund. It’s a blessing and a curse, right? So where does it go from here?
Hivju: It goes to projects where I’m not in the snow. I think my beard is coming off pretty soon.
Hivju: I can grow it back. But no, I haven’t felt the curse yet. The future is open, and the doors are, as well. I’m trying to figure out cool things to do. It’s exciting. I want to do more comedy. I want to do more heavy shit. And I still love that, you know, Viking shit. I grew up with it. My wife and I made a documentary (True Viking) that we just wrapped where we go into history and figure out what really happened with some of the Viking gangs. So that way of living, that way of thinking, that time period … it’s close to my heart. But acting-wise, I’m flexible ,and it’s going to be a joy to show that I’m more flexible than Tormund was. Still though, I started out on Thrones as an antagonist, you know.
Hivju: I was sure, this is going to be a bad guy, and he’s going to do horrible shit. And then, when we attacked the wall, he became a softie. And he fell in love and the friendship with John was beautiful. So in many ways I feel like even though he was a strong, tough guy, he opened up and became something else. And that’s the beauty of the show, that it went that way. I know in one of the last episodes Tormund cried, and I didn’t think he had the ability to cry. Even when Mance Rayder died—his mentor and kind of a father—even then he kept it in. And all the fascination and craziness on social media when it comes to Tormund and the big woman. I read once that “If Tormund doesn’t get Brienne, we riot.” So where are the fucking riots?
Paste: I don’t mean for this whole interview to be about Tormund, but his unabashed gusto to me is the character note that appeals to people so much. Right? He’s wide-eyed. He’s loud-voiced. We all want that kind of passion that our own lives. Tell me about learning to channel that, and learning to focus it.
Hivju: Good question. When I broke down Tormund’s situation, I didn’t start with the role. I started with, okay, what kind of situation is he in? What’s the main things in his life at that time? For Tormund, it was a life-and-death situation from the very beginning. And he knew that it’s not only life and death for him, it was life and death for mankind. In extreme situations, you have to become the extreme of yourself, and that’s the link to Downhill and to Force Majeure. People go both ways. I know America loves its hero stories and its superheroes and the stories about success and everything, but you know, that’s not who we are. We are weak, vulnerable things that get hurt a lot. And we try to fight our way through. We need those hero stories, but we also need the stories where we have to accept who we are, as flawed human beings.
Hivju: When we showed Force Majeure in the Eastern Bloc countries, very many men reacted very strongly and said, “This is not the way I want the man to be portrayed. I don’t relate to this.” It touched some things in their culture—that a man should be a man and all that. In some ways, it’s a big responsibility for a man to always be the hero who does the right thing in the right moment. But when the anxiety hits you hard, it’s—you know, the animals, either they play dead or they run. I think all human beings can do what Will Ferrell’s character does in Downhill. Anxiety can overwhelm us, [where we] make horrible, horrible choices. So it was very nice playing Tormund as very strong and confident. He wasn’t afraid of war. He enjoyed war. That was my take on it. For him, it was an extreme sport, and he was good at it.
Paste: We all have both in us. The Pope has an evil man inside him. Jeffrey Dahmer had a good man inside.
Hivju: When it comes down to the life and death, in those situations, you could say it truly tells who you are. But I don’t know. Is that true? A human being can do something very cowardly in one moment and in the next he could be the hero and do something nobody else does. We all want to be the guy, or the girl, who does the right thing, but we are who we are. It’s a difficult life.
Michael Dunaway is an award-winning filmmaker, writer, photographer, and general troublemaker. He is Paste’s Editor at Large and the host of the Paste podcast The Work. You can follow him on Patreon.