On the surface, the Vikings appear quite a primitive bunch. And in the opening few scenes of Netflix’s new drama about the era, ‘Vikings: Valhalla’, we see the typical mixture of gruesome murders and old-fashioned lust that makes this period so rich for raucous storytelling.
The show is a spin-off from the original ‘Vikings’ saga that ran from 2013 to 2020, on History channel and then Amazon Prime, earning a large and devoted following. The new series is based on real people and events, so viewers can soak up a little history lesson alongside the blood, thunder and bare torsos. We pick up the story amid the fallout from the St Brice’s Day massacre of 1002, when King Æthelred the Unready ordered the killing of all the Vikings living in England. Sam Corlett stars as Leif Erikson, the Norse explorer who becomes the leader of the Viking army seeking their revenge, and would go on to be the first European to step foot on North America (around 400 years before Christopher Columbus).
Vikings are certainly having a moment, around 1000 years after their original heyday. As well as this big-budget Netflix series, they are turning up in films including the upcoming Robert Eggers epic ‘The Northman’, while the 2020 video game ‘Assassins Creed: Valhalla’ was the best-selling installment of the long-running franchise. Unfortunately, their imagery has also been co-opted and weaponized by the alt-right, including QAnon follower Jake Angeli, who donned a horned helmet, face paint and Norse-inspired tattoos at last year’s US Capitol riot, in what became the defining image of the siege. Those trying to associate their extremism with Viking ideology have got their history very wrong, with the reality being that the Vikings traded with the Muslim world, embraced gender fluidity, and were able to survive by adapting to different cultures and environments. They didn’t wear horned helmets either. So what can we really learn from this era of men?
Leading man Sam, 25, has dived into this question for his research into the role of Leif. Sam is a deep spiritual thinker, who has meditated daily since in his teens, so as a seeker of a different variety he’s perfectly suited to bringing this famous explorer back to life. And, while being constantly surrounded by death and violence might not seem the most mindful existence, he found there is plenty of wisdom to be gleaned from how the Vikings lived. After all, when you’re watching your back for literal slings and arrows, you’re certainly not sweating the small stuff.
“Leif grew up in Greenland, in a very harsh environment,” Sam explains. “So being a survivalist was a necessary thing. And everything that was said or done was with a precise purpose.
“For Leif, steadiness was key, and being economic in his energy and expression. From him I’ve learned a sense of standing your ground and being true to who you are. He’s also very good at deciphering sincerity, and doesn’t allow bullshit. And he stayed grounded and stood up for what he felt was right for the people he loved, and that’s why he’s remembered.
“The Vikings’ very nature is quite stoic, which obviously comes from a great Western lineage, while the meditation and the avenues I’ve learned about are more Eastern. But I think they all point to the same thing.”
Central to Sam’s preparation for the role was exploring a relationship that is crucial to most young men, whether growing up 1002 or 2022. Leif was the son of Erik the Red, a fearsome warrior who founded the first settlement on Greenland, and was known for ruling with an iron fist. Leif is more honorable than his father, and finds himself having to defend himself against men who are seeking revenge for his father’s murderous actions.
Sam’s relationship with his own father, Tim, is a much simpler, and happier, one. “When I received the audition I certainly felt a pang in my heart, because my dad and I used to watch the original series together when I was younger, so I knew this would be one for dad,” he recalls.
Tim, who worked as a carpenter, taught his son about hard work and the importance of family, two pillars that have supported Sam throughout his life and career, including in finding common ground with Leif in this life-changing role. Sam speaks with warmth and great pride about his upbringing in the Australian Central Coast suburb of Matcham, with two loving parents. But he has explored some more difficult relationships in his extended family as he’s looked for common ground with Leif’s story.
He says, “Leif’s being put in positions where his decisions have great consequence, and he is responsible for a large amount of people, and that’s very new to him. Also, he’s observed his father lead in a way that he doesn’t feel is right.
“Erik the Red was one of the most violent Vikings that ever lived. So I was curious to dive into what it might be like to grow up as a son of that man, observing violence and injustice as a child when you’re on the side of the person who’s doing it. He has to learn how to defend himself without causing more harm to the family name.
“I am grateful to have a beautiful relationship with my father. But I haven’t met my grandfather on my mom’s side because of alcohol, and a little bit of anger, being involved. I’d always been aware of that kind of relationship, and observing it through my mother and my uncle, who unfortunately passed away quite young.
“Throughout my drama school years, I did a lot of deep research into PTSD and trauma. And I found that very interesting, and how one can absolve that. I feel like collectively, we’re kind of in a state of PTSD right now, there’s a lot of shit that needs to be expressed, and is being expressed. There can be moments of full-on explosions of that expression, and I think that’s necessary for healing.”
While Sam’s dad passed down the stoicism that has set him on such a solid path, his mom Kelly was an inspiration for exploring some interesting and creative alleyways. She beat cancer three times when Sam was growing up, and began studying Gestalt therapy having found great peace at a retreat that used that approach, which is a holistic form of psychotherapy that focuses on a person’s present life and challenges.
He explains, “She studied Gestalt therapy to help people going through what she was going through, and that gave her a real sense of purpose. And her studying that had a profound impact on me.
“I remember picking up her books, and reading some incredible quotes that resonated with me, like this one, ‘The human heart yearns for contact, above all it yearns for genuine dialogue. Each of us secretly and desperately yearn to be met, to be seen in our uniqueness, our fullness, and our vulnerability.’
“That’s associated with people’s patterns of behavior to achieve love and acceptance. I was pretty young when I read that, but I still remember going to school the next day and seeing everyone in their social masks that were helping them to achieve love and acceptance. But really there was just a little kid inside each of them, saying, ‘Love me.’”
This exploration of the human condition, deepened by watching his mother bravely battle cancer, was among the factors that encouraged Sam to throw himself into the craft of acting. “During chemo she would watch Netflix, and that became a bit of a friend to her,” he adds. He was also inspired by his uncle Chris, whose creativity had a profound impact on his nephew, before he passed away when Sam was 18.
“My uncle was an incredible artist, musician, and poet, and ended up studying law. But alcohol kept on dragging him back, and he ended up on the streets for a few years because he didn’t want to be a burden on our family. It was a pretty rough journey, and I only remember meeting him in person once. But since he passed away, his essence represents so much to me.
“I remember spreading his ashes at a beach near us, and I played ‘Bird on the Wire’ by Leonard Cohen for him because that’s what he wanted to be sung. I finished the last strum, and my nan was a little teary, and she said, ‘He was dealt a bad hand.’
“And that moment shifted things for me. The sense that I’d been dealt such a good hand, and I wanted to honor him by honoring all the opportunities and beautiful gifts I’d been given.”
Sam first followed those opportunities to the Western Academy of Performing Arts, in Perth, Australia, before a role in the Netflix show ‘Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’, a darker adaptation of the 1990s Archie Comics-inspired sitcom ‘Sabrina the Teenage Witch’, earned him teen heartthrob status.
His journey has created an extraordinarily thoughtful man, who seems wise beyond his years. His personal experience, and deliberate studying, of the highs and lows of the human experience has already made him a great actor, who will likely also be an extremely famous actor very soon, continuing an impressive Australian lineage of high-flying yet grounded Hollywood stars.
Mindfulness and meditation are clearly influential in every moment of Sam’s life, as opposed to just a box he ticks as part of his daily routine. And he found some overlap there with Leif’s dedication to his Pagan faith. Paganism is another element of Viking culture that has been tarnished and misrepresented by a prejudiced element of society, but most true followers of this nature-based religion promote tolerance, diversity, altruism, and sustainability.
He says, “In the Pagan religion their connection to earth and the environment was huge. There’s a Ram Dass quote, which is, ‘Treat everyone you meet like God in drag.’ And that’s very much the Pagan way. They sought out communication with the gods in animals and trees.”
And Sam — who requested using sustainable, vintage fashion in our photoshoot to align with his values — continues, “I remember the first time I meditated. I was 16, and felt a very overwhelming sense of oneness with everything. That sparked something, and it simply makes sense to meditate now.
“I think we were born in pure love, in pure wonder of the world around us. And then the constructs get placed upon us, and through those constructs, we develop behaviors, and through those behaviors, we develop an identity. I feel like meditation for me syncs straight back to being a baby again, and seeing things as they are, as opposed to as you are.”
Sam is currently practicing Vedic meditation, one of the original varieties of ancient mantra meditation which dates back more than 5000 years.
He explains, “I went to a place called Soma in Byron Bay, and worked with this guy called Gary Gorrow. I’ve never done mantra-based meditation, and I actually had a bit of hesitancy because I was reaching a place of absence of thought, at times quite deeply. And to welcome a mantra, I felt like I’d be igniting thought. But he just described it in such a way that was very effortless. And since the course I’ve been having some of the deepest meditations I’ve had in a long time.”
Then, as we discuss how more and more people are exploring mindfulness in the modern world, he adds, “I was speaking to my mates the other day about how crazy it is that in order to hear a guru speak, we used to have to travel to India or all these different places, but now every guru is in your pocket.”
Sam waves his iPhone to illustrate his point, and we’re reminded that, despite his timeless wisdom, he is a 20-something in 2022 after all.
Vikings: Valhalla is out on Netflix today.
Additional Styling by Jack Wilson.
Thank you to Wanda and Caitlin at Playclothes, Annabelle Azade at Wear the Future, Yana Kamps at Paumé, and Renee Steckermeier at Black Leaf DTLA.