NEW YORK — If there’s one thing Gabriel Byrne has learned in recent years, it’s the importance of a comfortable chair.
After a marathon 106 episodes as psychologist Paul Weston on the HBO drama “In Treatment,” Byrne stars in “Vikings,” History’s first full-length scripted series, as Earl Haraldson, a Norse chieftain with a flowing salt-and-pepper mane (all his own, thank you very much) and a taste for cruelty.
Despite the considerable differences between the shows — one set almost entirely in a shrink’s office in brownstone Brooklyn, the other in 8th century Scandinavia — they both left Byrne, well, uncomfortable.
“My biggest problem was always the chair. I would spend more time testing out the chair than anything else,” the actor says of his “In Treatment” experience. In “Vikings,” filmed in his native Ireland last summer, Byrne’s Haraldson can mostly be found perched in a regal throne, ordering his subjects on another plundering mission or condemning them to death via public beheading.
“Thinking that it wasn’t going to be anything like ‘In Treatment,’ I looked at the throne and said, ‘Yeah, it’s a throne,’” he reports. Alas, he was wrong. The throne was too big, which may account for the sinister snarl Byrne wears on his face in so many of his scenes.
Make that “wore”: In Sunday’s episode, Earl faced off in a death match with Ragnar Lothbrok, the visionary young upstart played by model-turned-actor Travis Fimmel. It didn’t turn out well for the aging despot, who was dispatched to Valhalla with a blow from Ragnar’s ax and, finally, a merciful slit of the wrist.
While it was something of a shock that “Vikings,” which has garnered an impressive 5 million viewers a week and was recently renewed for a second season, killed off its biggest star so early in the series, for Byrne, 62, the finite commitment was a major selling point.