Travis Fimmel: Man on a Mission
“Oh, my god, I should have thought about this,” Travis Fimmel says to himself. But the time for reconsidering has passed. He’s airborne over the Irish coast in a tiny Cessna twin-engine plane, flying solo for the first time.
On a break from playing King Ragnar Lothbrok on Vikings, the History Channel drama, the Australian actor is getting his pilot’s license, and after seven and a half hours of training over five days, his instructor simply exits the plane and tells him to go for it.
Fimmel’s damned Aussie mentality won’t allow him to back down from the challenge. To avoid chickening out, he takes off as quickly as he can.
From up in the air, the daunting task of landing the plane terrifies him—more than bungee jumping or skydiving ever did. He radios for reassurance and reminders but gets no response. He tries again. Silence.
“You prick,” says Fimmel to the instructor, certain that he’s having a laugh in the shed below.
He briefly considers setting the plane down in the ocean, thinking it will be a softer landing, but he’s not a strong swimmer and decides that his chances of survival may actually decrease in the frigid water.
Stressed, sweat cascading, he lines himself up with the landing strip. When he’s 50 feet from it, his instructor finally breaks radio silence—just to toy with him: “Uh-oh! Don’t crash!”
When the wheels touch down, Fimmel is so exhilarated that he forgets to steer with the foot pedals and drives the plane off the runway.
He recounts the story from the safety of a cushioned booth at an Irish pub in Santa Monica.
In a well-worn hoodie with a tee that spills out from underneath, he’s got a bit of a scruffy, Seattle-grunge vibe. His style is laconic, his punchlines sarcastic. But he’s serious about his desire to push his limits.
“Unless you travel or try something new or get out of your comfort zone, you just get older,” Fimmel says. “I mean, normal people can do these things. It’s not like I’m trying to be a quarterback for an NFL team. If somebody else can do it, then I always think I can, too.”
At 36, Fimmel, who grew up with his parents and two older brothers on a 5,500-acre dairy farm in small-town Lockington, Australia, is trying something that’s well out of his comfort zone.
This month the former Calvin Klein underwear model, who had a mixed bag of TV and film roles before coming into his own as the lead on Vikings in 2013, is breaking into the world of big-budget summer blockbusters with Warcraft.
He stars in the CGI-heavy fantasy epic, which is based on the wildly popular video-game franchise that boasted 12 million subscribers worldwide at its height and over 100 million accounts during the life of its most successful game, 2004’s World of Warcraft.
Fimmel is not a gamer, nor had he ever heard of Warcraft prior to signing on for the film adaptation. But he offers a simple explanation for his interest in the pressurized project, which tells the origin story of conflict between human and orc civilizations: “I needed a job,” he says with a laugh.
“To be honest, I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” Fimmel says of the green-screen experience. “It is such a different way of acting, not talking to someone sometimes. You’re actually talking to air. It’s hard. I bloody suck at it.”
Self-deprecation is a recurring theme with Fimmel, who pushes any praise for himself onto his co-stars, directors and showrunners. But it also lays bare the pressure of fashioning a career arc in the movie business.
In this sense, he’s no different from all the others out there. Only he’s got a plan to go with that humility: work harder than anyone else and keep his eye on the long game—and his return to cattle farming.
When Fimmel goes back to his one-pub town in Lockington, he falls into old routines. He helps his father, who’s in his late 60s, work the family’s farm like he did when he was a kid.
Only now, as he toils sunup to sundown, seven days a week, he claims the most physically demanding tasks for himself. His older brothers work in mines in Western Australia and he feels guilty that he’s not around to support their aging patriarch more often.
But it’s pleasure as much as responsibility that draws him back. Fimmel always contributed by choice, milking cows before and after school, working on weekends after he’d played his sports. Though the chores were never-ending, it was satisfying to complete them, and life in the wide-open country was adventurous.
When not working, he rode motorcycles or went waterskiing, wakeboarding or fishing on the nearby river, where he’d see kangaroos, birds, snakes and platypuses.
To combat boredom, the Fimmel brothers used to entertain themselves by playing “Tractor Idol,” singing the same verse of a song repeatedly for hours or making up new ones, discussing their song choices over CB radio.
That idyll is Fimmel’s long game. He plans to make enough money that he can quit acting entirely and buy a cattle farm in northern Australia while he’s young enough to work it. He wants to raise kids there and pass his love and knowledge of farming on to the next generation.
There’s no romanticizing the debt that hangs over hard-working farmers like his father; or the constant equipment breakdowns; or the early mornings and long days of what can be tedious work.
But he goes “a bit nutty” when he’s not working—and no, he’s never considered posing for photographs “work”—but exertion isn’t everything. The reward is being able to see the results of his efforts: calves pulled, engines fixed, fences erected.
“I love developing and building stuff—things that weren’t there and then you made them and now they’re there. With so many jobs, there’s nothing to prove that you did anything. Maybe there’s paperwork or whatever, but I just like to be able to walk out and say, ‘I did that.’ ”
The old friends and relatives who share this mentality never fail to take the piss out of him and his current profession. “I’d be disappointed if they didn’t,” he says. “It’s not the manliest career in the world. I have much more appreciation for some guy that can build a house.”
It’s no surprise that Fimmel’s idols in the acting world are guys like Paul Newman and Daniel Day-Lewis, craftsmen who sought out passions beyond their profession.
Day-Lewis did so in the real sense recently, announcing in 2013 that he would take a sabbatical from acting to work his farm in Wicklow, Ireland, and learn stonemasonry.
“He’s so intelligent and it comes off,” says Fimmel of Day-Lewis, whom he met while working on the romantic comedy Maggie’s Plan with the actor’s wife, writer-director Rebecca Miller. “It’s like, Jesus, this guy’s got a presence.”
There’s presence, but there’s also the hard work that comes with it. If Fimmel and his laid-back self aren’t willing to cop to the former, he certainly understands the latter.
“There’s always that thing where you see people complain about their career and you know they haven’t worked hard enough,” Fimmel says in the bar, a can of Bud Light on the table before him. “ ‘Oh, we don’t get the opportunities,’ they tell me.
I went to class with you. You didn’t stay there the whole time, you didn’t go watch extra classes. I grew up working hard and never wanted to blame anybody if I couldn’t make it work. I work hard with pride and I want to be good at whatever I do.
My passion is kind of a pride-passion. I’ll outwork anyone. For me, you have to be really good to be proud of yourself. I’m honest with myself. I don’t settle. Same with anything, I work harder. I see what I want to be, and I won’t be happy until I get there.”
There’s an urgency underscoring his casual manner. He wants success because he wants the idyll that success can provide.
And so Fimmel toils away in the shifting sands of Hollywood the only way he knows how. He takes roles and chances, his eyes searching for the opportunity that will launch him into a different stratosphere, his mind firmly on a farm in northern Australia.