Interview: Katheryn Winnick discusses her 'Vikings' shield maiden
'Bones' veteran plays a female warrior in History's new drama
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Regular TV viewers have definitely seen Katheryn Winnick around.
She caused a spiritual quandary for the generally skeptical doctor on "House."
She provided a temporary romantic roadblock for the show's central duo on "Bones."
She's guested on several versions of "Law & Order" and a couple shows in the "CSI" family.
The 35-year-old Canadian actress could be on the verge of a breakout role in History's "Vikings," in which she plays Lagertha, wife to Travis Fimmel's adventurous Ragnar. But this isn't a pairing in which the man goes off to explore untouched corners of the globe, while the woman stays behind and minds the kids. No, Lagertha is a Viking shield maiden and when the Norsemen ready for battle, she's another ferocious warrior on the frontline.
It's a chance for Winnick to showcase a physicality that the trained bodyguard and karate blackbelt takes quite seriously. In our conversation, she discusses which parts of the role came naturally for her, how much research she put into Viking history and the lure of working with series creator Michael Hirst.
Click through for the full conversation...
HitFix: I have to admit that when I sat down to watch this, I knew very little about the Vikings. Probably no more than a paragraph of correct information. How much did you know going in?
Katheryn Winnick: When I was auditioning for it and doing the screen-test, I tried to get as much information as I could, but as anybody knows who Googles it, there's very little information of who they were and what kind of society that they lived in. There's not that much information out there. There's the stereotype of them having these horns on their head and being these barbaric people, but what's great about this, and working with Michael Hirst and how he works with a historian and really keeps it as authentic and as accurate as possible, I learned a lot just reading the scripts. And the material that he provided that helped educate me in terms who they were and how they lived their lives was invaluable when you're working on such a historical drama.
HitFix: You're playing a real person, but how much information actually exists out there about Lagertha?
Katheryn Winnick: She is based on a real person. She is Ragnar's wife, so there's not that much information out there, but the chance to hang out and have dinner with Michael and find out more about who she is as a person to the core and how women were treated and how their role was in society was really important to get a chance to do my research fully to know who these people were. What's great about it is the fact that she is a real person and she also is a young mother and woman who has an equal relationship with her husband and they're true partners. But also, she's a warrior, she's a shield maiden, which is a female warrior in the Dark Ages who fights alongside with the other Viking men during the shield wall in the battles. Shield wall is when they have their shields and they use them to create a wall as a form of attack to defend themselves. She had a vital part of being in the front-lines and protecting her clan.
HitFix: You talked about Michael Hirst. You've done a lot of TV previously, but how does it change the process when there's only one writer on a project, when the words are all coming from a single person?
Katheryn Winnick: I think that was my biggest attraction, when I had a Skype call with Michael before I got cast in it and just talking to him about it and just knowing it's coming from one voice... I'm such a big fan of his from "The Tudors," and he wrote every episode of "Tudors," and he wrote "Elizabeth" with Cate Blanchett and it's an Oscar-winning film, so I just knew I would be able to fully trust in him where my character's going to go, because he has such pride and he's such a brilliant writer that he will write it for himself, but also tell the right story and, especially in television, you don't have that luxury of it coming from one voice. He's writing every episode and I think that's absolutely amazing.
HitFix: Does that reduce your ability, though, to give input into the character and to say things about your own preferences and what you would like to portray?
Katheryn Winnick: I don't think so. He was telling me that he's already just shaping up if we go again the next season. Who knows what's going to happen, but I couldn't trust my character with anyone else and he knows the history and the backstory and he knows her journey as Lagertha more than I would, because she is based on a real person. But he's also very open in allowing you different ways of playing with things, allowing you to try different things. I definitely feel very creatively inspired and have the freedom to stand up for what I believe Lagertha would do and who she is as a character and how she would make her choices in the scenes and the different conflicts. He has a good way of creating that journey with Lagertha, not just in life, but how she deals with different conflicts.
HitFix: What were the aspects of Lagertha's character that you thought it was important to bring out?
Katheryn Winnick: The fact that she's a very strong woman is very important for me and also for Lagertha, that she can defend herself. Lagertha is modern for her time. She's a forward-thinking woman. She fights on the front-line or on the shield-wall or in battle, but she also is a loving young mother. She also has a true partnership and equal relationship with her husband. She's a survivor and very strong and I think that's important for people to realize that women were allowed to have a strong voice and to have a strong say in that time period, in the Dark Ages. They were allowed to own houses and own property, allowed to be farmers and mothers and loving wives, but also be warriors and fight for what they believe in. I think Lagertha, I fell in love with her and I think she's such a key part of understanding how women were in that time period.
HitFix: I know you have an extensive martial arts background, but how much did that actually prepare you for Lagertha's physicality?
Katheryn Winnick: I think it did. I've been looking for a role that I can sink my teeth into as well as doing the action side of things, because of my martial arts background. I've always been hesitant just because I haven't found a role based on good written material that is so diverse and something really that is based on character. And that's why I was very excited when I got cast in this. She is a real person, but she's also a warrior and I was very attracted to that. Who she is as a shield maiden and also as a warrior says a lot about the way she deals with conflicts and her fighting quality is who she is at the core of her personality as Lagertha.
HitFix: Were there any ways, though, in which your own physicality was maybe too modern and maybe too derived from that martial arts background? Was there anything you had to change to make her move less like you, I guess?
Katheryn Winnick: Yes. The fighting style is extremely different. I have a third-degree black belt in tae kwon do, second degree in karate and I'm a trained and licensed bodyguard, so it's a very different style in terms of my background versus how they would have fought in the Dark Ages. I had to teach myself how to use a shield, which I've never picked up before, and the weight of that and how they would use it to defend themselves as well as to attack, that was very different. And swords? That's all new. But I think the spirit of combat is what's similar and I was able to understand that this is somebody who started picking up a shield and a sword probably at a young age of two or three, she would have been taught by her mother, so I think that that's really similar, to be able to understand her background and lifestyle and how she was raised. But it was different. It was challenging for me to not do any spinning back-kicks, but to use household things on the wall as weapons and how to quickly an attacker off you, just more out of fight-or-flight mode, I think that that survival instinct is important for Lagertha.
HitFix: Did any of the stuff come particularly naturally to you?
Katheryn Winnick: Yes. Definitely. Just for the first time on set being the only female with 13, 14 other Vikings. I think for me growing up and spending the majority of my time in a dojo, in a martial arts gym, and being one of the only females training in my school at that time period, I'm used to it. I grew up being a bit of a tomboy, a big-time tomboy. It reminded me of how it used to be. I could hold my own.
HitFix: How testosterone-heavy was this set? You've got a whole cast of burly, bearded guys dressed as Vikings and then how do you fit in there?
Katheryn Winnick: The way we shot it was block-shooting, so I knew I was the only girl for the first few months of shooting and then later on, we got a chance to bring in everybody else and it was so nice when I got a chance to work with Jessalyn Gilsig, who plays Siggy. That was after three months. We did one scene together and we were like, "Woo! Women on set!" Yeah, it was challenging when you're shooting in Ireland and being the only girl and having the chance to hang out with everybody, having Guinness after set and having to deal with these bearded, six-foot-four men. But I loved it. I think of myself as a guy's girl and a tomboy. I think it's who she would have been as a shield-maiden. She would have been surrounded by a majority of males and she can hold her own. She could definitely hold her own and it just helped me really understand who Lagertha was and her environment.
HitFix: There are a couple subtitled scenes in this. What language are you guys actually speaking here?
Katheryn Winnick: The Norse way of speaking, no one really knew what the Vikings sounded liked, they were Norsemen. The accent is really a combination of a Scandinavian accent, maybe with a Swedish accent and an old way of speaking. They did speak a different language and we worked with a dialect coach to try to get the right sounds and the vowels and what they would have sounded liked. We had such an international cast. Travis [Fimmel] is from Australia and we had actors from Sweden, people from England, I'm Canadian, there's such a wide variety of different accents it was important for us to have a Bible of sound that we all used to have a base or to have a start of what they sounded like. That stuff really helps get into character and to stay in character is to be able to speak and have that old way of speaking, that really helped me to dive into character and stay into character.
[A History rep adds, "The Vikings speak Old Norse. The English folk speak Anglo-Saxon (sometimes also known as Old English)."]
HitFix: I couldn't always tell when I was watching how much you guys were on locations, how much you were on sets, how much was green screen, how was was CG to be painted in later... What were you actually working with most of the time in terms of environments?
Katheryn Winnick: We did have a set where we did our interiors. Inside of the house, for example, different walls had to be taken out depending on how we were shooting, but a lot of it we did shoot on location. They would work with a digital designer to be able to create the Norway fjords, for example. A lot of it you'll see, being in Ireland, you would see that all of the mountains and the beaches, everything is pretty authentic and pretty real. Of course they were having to create Norway, so there is some different landscape, but that's what's great about shooting in Ireland is it gave us the freedom to be able to be out in the wild and in a remote area to be able to be secluded and really dive into how these Vikings, how they lived their lives. They wouldn't necessarily have their cell phones [she laughs] and they wouldn't have Starbucks. They would be out in the wild.
HitFix: As a last question, I just wanted to ask about the History Channel aspect of this. This is the first time they've done a scripted series. When you're looking at projects and at scripts, do you give any sort of consideration to where something's going to air and to what sorts of things air on that network?
Katheryn Winnick: After the success of "Hatfields and McCoys" and what they did with that, I had confidence in them doing this series. Working with Michael Hirst and the fact that it is on History Channel and the fact that they were trying to make it as historically accurate as possible, I think it's a perfect fit for people if they're interested in conflict and warfare as well as an intimate look at who the Vikings were as a society, I think they'll really appreciate that it's on this network.
"Vikings" premieres on Sunday, March 3 on History.
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