Dymon Lewis ’14 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
The History Channel’s hit historical drama Vikings is back with a second season premiere on February 27th at 10pm.
Recently, Emertainment Monthly had the opportunity to take part in a phone conference with Katheryn Winnick, the actress behind the wildy- popular Lagertha who was kind of enough to share her past experiences on the set, some backstage details and a taste of the bloody good mess of episodes to come. Spoilers are definitely ahead, so read at your own risk.
How do you think your central and powerful role in Vikings has helped with better representation with women in the media?
Katheryn Winnick: How do I think it’s helping women? You know it’s funny I don’t necessarily that. Playing a role—playing a female lead that is not only powerful at her home but she also can fight in battle is always inspiring for young girls to look up to. But it’s one of those things when you read the script that you don’t really see that often—a character that’s portrayed in that actually existed and it’s such a treat to get to play her and do my research on how vikings lived. I play Lagertha, a real shield maiden that existed in that time period in the 8th century and doing my research on it there’s very little information out there. But Michael Hirst [“Vikings” Creator] who wrote the show gave us as much information as we can on how women were portrayed in that society: that they did have a strong voice, and that they were allowed to not only be mothers and young wives and farmers, but also fight in battle, also own land, also divorce her husband and also have a strong say in the community and eventually rule. So that was exciting to play
Your character is in a pretty bad place at the end of the first season and it seems worst at the end of the first two episodes of the second season. What can you say about a potential comeback for your character and where do you think she’s going in the second season?
In the second season it pretty much starts off right behind the episode nine in season one so there’s not much of a time jump and Lagertha at the end of season one has a lot to deal with. She had to deal with a miscarriage, had to deal with her daughter Gyda dying, had to deal with a plague and dealing with losing most of her people when Ragnar is off to war so she has a lot of unresolved issues that she still has to deal with. She has to deal with Ragnar coming home and these rumors of infidelity and her identity is tested in the second season but her sense of self is something that I struggled with because in the first season she was very much Ragnar’s wife and partner-in-crime and all her scenes were pretty much with Ragnar. Now where does she go from here—does she choose to stay with him and forgive him and deal with this new baby or does she decide to leave and follow her own path? And that you’re going to have to wait and see!
Russia and France have been used as locations in the past. Is there anything you can tell me about any of the exciting new locations we might see in season 2 or any new historical figures we might see?
Oh, I would love to go to Russia! I’ve been talking to Michael Hirst (I don’t want to give out too much information) but we are going to be invading new territory so that’s for sure. I’m not sure as cast-mates if we’ll get a chance to travel there. I hope we do, I’m keeping my fingers crossed. But I know that they’re talking of building a new city right now in Dublin. That’s where we shoot, we shoot in Ireland. So I know at least the interiors and some of the exteriors will be shot in Dublin. But it is exciting because there will be new landscapes and some of it is CGI’ed. For example the fjords in Ireland are all CGI’ed in the background but the locations are absolutely stunning when you’re on set.
How much were you able to figure out yourself like research that you did your own and how much were you able to find out from the production crew?
When you walk on the set of Vikings it’s really such a playground. You can go into different departments. You can go into the costume department where they are all making your costumes by hand; hand-stitched and leather and carved. So you can talk to them in terms of what material did they use to dye their clothes and how did they dye them and how did they make their clothes. So you learn a little bit more of the lifestyle as you spend time on set. As well as if you go to the set department and talk to them in terms of how they build their houses. They used one heat source and they all lived in really one room and what tools did they use as their everyday utensils or knives and it’s really interesting and fascinating. And then if you walk into the weapons department and how did they use that and each department is very detailed and so much research goes into every single piece on the show and we work with a historian to make it as accurate as possible so there is a lot of research that goes in. So even if you are a new cast-mate and come into the show you will get a great learning curve, a quick vikings’ 101 cliff-notes when you’re there. But I got a bunch of books from Michael Hirst and he’s always such a good source of information in terms of how they lived as well before I started shooting.
In season one you were amazing in the battle scenes even with just your shield. Was there any training or preparation for you?
I have a martial arts background. I’m a third degree black belt in taekwondo, second degree black belt in karate, licensed bodyguard. I started a martial arts school when I was sixteen and I started teaching actors and actresses martial arts on movie sets before I was an actress so I had the physical training but picking up the sword and a shield was all very new to me. I got cast pretty late in the game in season one, I think I got cast a week before I had to go to Ireland, so I didn’t have that much prep time in the first season. This season was a little different because now I had the time to learn how to try different weapons and how to get more skillful in the sword and the shield as well as horseback riding. I’m actually right now prepping, even though it hasn’t been officially ordered, I’m actually working with a fight coordinator to fine tune all of my fighting just to work on some cool moves. We don’t work with a stunt double. We do all our own stunts, at least I do, and I take pride in that you kind of have to do that because it’s believable and its part of the character. That’s my favorite part.
Michael Hirst in an interview to The Huffington Post said that “Katheryn’s made a huge success. She’s just about as popular as Travis is . . .” How would you explain her popularity as a character?
Oh wow, thank you Michael Hirst for saying that. I’m not really sure. When you look at a role, I didn’t necessarily plan it any way other than trying to do the best I could and making her strong-willed. If you just play the action side of it I think you might lose a lot of people. I tried to make Lagertha as vulnerable as possible and going through her own personal struggles as well as being able to defend herself or at least try to. And it’s been overwhelming just to see the amount of fans and the fan art and the young girls that look up to her and the Lagertha Halloween costumes and the little action figures that they are kind of creating. So that’s all been really amazing to see and I know I fell in love with her character when I started researching her and it’s just so nice that other people have responded to her as well.
When you were filming the first season, when you first read the initial script did you ever imagine Lagertha in the place she is now? What was your first impression of where she would go as the series went on?
Well first of all thank you for pronouncing her name right. The first week of shooting the studio wanted me to stay La-ger-tha and I’m like “no that rhymes like Bertha, I can’t do it” so it is Lag-ertha. To answer your question I guess what’s important is just with Lagertha. When you’re walking on a TV show you only get—originally we only got the first 2 scripts so we had no idea where our characters are going to go and I still have no idea where’s she going to go. And that’s the beauty of television is that you can discover more layers of your character as the season goes on and whereas on a movie you have a beginning, middl,e and end and one journey that you tell, one story. In TV you kind of have to learn a lot about the character and you may not know where it goes and that’s kind of the fun part. What makes this show really interesting to shoot and really amazing to shoot is the fact that Michael Hirst writes every single episode. And you don’t have that luxury in television where one writer writes every single episode and doesn’t work with anyone else so there’s a lot of trust that I have in Michael in how he portrays Lagertha and her character because he really knows her and has a lot invested in her and knowing that he will portray her the right way. I don’t know what will happen next but I’m excited to find out!
*The women of Vikings are undoubtedly some of the most dynamic female characters on television today. What leadership roles can we expect for Siggy, Aslaug and Lagertha?
I’ll tell you this; everybody’s character gets more developed as season 2 unfolds. You learn a lot more about each character and their own struggles and what they go through and everybody has their own journey. Lagertha definitely has a big journey. I would say Lagertha comes into her own in season 2. When you think she’s hit a low, she hits an even further floor lower but she hopefully will come back stronger but you will have to see.
Tell us a bit about your preparation process as you get into character for each episode.
When you’re shooting in Ireland time slows down and I found that it was more of a ritual process getting ready for the day when I got on set. First of all, you get picked up sometimes at 5:30 in the morning and we drive anywhere for 45 minutes to an hour and a half just to our locations and these remote mountains sometimes to shoot. Hair first, very little makeup sometimes just dirt on your face but when you put on the costumes and everything is done by hand in terms of you have to get really sewn into it and laced into it—they had no zippers. So that sometimes getting into your own wardrobe took a good 25 minutes and having a couple people trying to squeeze you into the armor or the leather bodice. And I found that a very interesting process and a more of a transformation and more of a ritual every day to really kind of get into Lagertha. And then when you look in a mirror when you’re all done and you walk around set and you see the goats and the chickens running around and the sheep. You really lose yourself that you’re on set and part of that environment and those are your costars. Some of my costars were lambs and goats and we had to redo a couple scenes because of course they make animal noises and they don’t hit their marks but that’s the fun part of shooting this.
What are the greatest moments you’ve ever experienced on the set of Vikings with the cast and the crew that you currently work with?
The greatest moments? There are so many of them I can’t even think. You know truthfully when we’re shooting up in these mountains and dealing with the Ireland weather—which is very temperamental to say the least—we’re dealing with bright sunshine, to rain, to possibly hail, and bright sunshine all within 45 minutes. So a lot of times we’re stuck in heating tents with one heater, when all of the cast comes together and we have no cell phone reception or internet and we sit there and we just have to tell stories or play games and entertain ourselves and really get to know each other. And that’s what makes the show also really special because all the cast-mates really establish a strong bond with each other I would say we’re like family over there. We relocate in Ireland, at least I have for six months, and some of the other cast members for six months so its our extended family when we get there. We hang out as much as we can and try to enjoy each other’s company, which that’s my favorite part cause I can’t imagine being stuck in the mountains with anyone else.
How do you think viewers are going to respond to Lagertha leaving Ragnar? Do you think they’ll be proud of her for separating in defense of her honor or disappointed?
I’m not sure. I know that a lot of people have rooted for lagertha and ragnar together in terms of them being a strong, loving power couple and a kickass couple so I wonder how they’ll deal with if Lagertha and Ragnar separate. I’m not sure, I hope that they’re invested in each character, that they follow the journey and see what happens with them. Lagertha—you’ve seen some of the trailer—so she definitely feels humiliated and she feels like she had no choice but to leave at one point just because of her own self-pride. The question is how that changes that relationship if she comes back and what her own journey will be. I hope they follow her. I hope they root for her. I really do.
Do you have a strong preference for either the film or television format? Do you think you’ve had more freedom in portraying a character on Vikings as opposed to any of your film roles?
When you’re shooting on the set of Vikings it doesn’t feel like a TV show. It feels more epic and cinematic. We shoot in blocks of two and we shoot two episodes back to back at the same time because it’s such a massive show and very detailed. All the set designs, everything takes so much time and preparation and it’s very expensive to make so it does not feel like I’m doing a TV show it feels like I’m doing a long movie. I would say the difference between TV and film: one, I love my role. I feel like I’ve found a role that I’m really proud of and excited to learn more about so that I love. But the difference between film and television is film: it’s a director’s medium where you’re following the director’s vision and hopefully working with them in creating that. In television, it’s really a writers’ medium and it goes back to what I said before: the fact that Michael Hirst is the voice or really the one person on set that has the power to tell your story a certain way or kill you off. No one’s safe in the show, we’ve killed off so many people or chopped off their heads. You never know who is going to go next but it’s also the fun part of doing television when you can learn about your character as the series goes on.
Your character is based on the historical and somewhat legendary figure of the same name. How similar is the character you portray to the legend?
How similar? Well we know a few facts. We know that she was the wife of Ragnar Lothbrok. We know that she had a son with Ragnar. We know that she was a shield maiden and she eventually left her husband. That’s all in the saga so there’s stories of how they got together and there’s legends that she saved his life. That’s out there on the internet and that’s part of the stories that are told about Lagertha that she had a very strong will and a fighting spirit, that she was courageous as any man and I think that all those qualities I tried to bring in creating Lagertha on screen.
What made you want to take part in the Vikings series and how has your initial idea of what you thought the series was going to be changed?
I had no idea it was going to be as big as it is. I just read the script fell in love with the script. I put myself on tape in my living room with a camera and I heard 2 months later that they wanted to see me. So I ended up going to a Halloween store and trying to rent what I thought was a viking costume which was kind of a joke at this point. I had no idea it was what it was and of course you hear about vikings, there’s an association in your own head of a stereotype of what vikings were and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that’s not exactly the reality of it. It’s not exactly what you think—vikings did not have horns coming out of their helmets at all it wouldn’t be practical but I learned a lot about it and in a way I just feel I got lucky. I really do. I feel like I found the role of a lifetime for me and am lucky enough to be working with such an incredible group of people. Michael Hirst and the other cast-mates that are so talented. He took a chance at actors that weren’t necessarily huge stars at the beginning but he really spent time in casting actors that he felt can really live in the role and I’m forever grateful for him for that.
You talked about living in Ireland for six months. How was it adapting to that culture. Do you have any crazy experiences with locals?
I made some of the best, the most amazing friends in Ireland and I’m Canadian originally so it felt like shooting in Canada. Anywhere from the people that are driving you on set end up being your great friends to the people that make your coffee like across the street when you wake up. They’re just very humble sweet individuals and the culture’s a little different where at the end of each day sometimes we’d just meet all the other cast-mates at a bar for a pint of Guinness and it’s just that what you do. It’s really laid back, you pretty much live in Ugg boots and you know winter wear but I can’t imagine shooting this anywhere else. I really can’t. Ireland is the perfect home for it. The crew has gone back as far as Braveheart, they’ve been together for some time, some of them for over 25 years. They also worked together on Tudors so they all know each other on set and there are no egos. There are no divas on set in any department. Everyone truly wants to be there and do good work and produce a good product. You guys are all welcome to come on set. You will see it’s a really special place.
Season 2 of Vikings premieres Sunday February 27th at 10pm on The History Channel
* denotes a question asked by Emertainment Monthly