The History original drama series Vikings follows the adventures of Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel), an actual historical figure who was the greatest hero of his age. Telling the gripping sagas of Ragnar’s band of Viking brothers and his family, he rose to become a fearless warrior and King of the Viking tribes, and legend has it that he was a direct descendent of Odin, the god of war and warriors.
During this recent interview, actress Jessalyn Gilsig – who plays Siggy Haraldson, wife of Viking Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne) – talked about how exciting it is to be a part of the first original scripted series for History, what type of woman her character is, whether she sees Siggy as a bad girl, what she learned about Vikings, the biggest challenges with this role, taking on a project with so much history, and sticking pretty strictly to the script. She also talked about her upcoming episode of the CBS television drama The Good Wife, and Somewhere Slow, her first feature film as a producer. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
JESSALYN GILSIG: I think it’s really exciting. For me, it’s such a illustration of where television is at, right now. It’s such an exciting moment where there are so many platforms and viewers have been very specific about material that they respond to and there’s so much choice. It seems natural that the History Channel, seeing so many period dramas that are doing so well on other networks, would say, “Hey, we have this open audience of people who are passionate about history. Let’s marry that with scripted material and give everybody the best of both worlds.” It just seems like a good, natural evolution for television, and one that I think we all will benefit from.
How did you get this role?
GILSIG: I heard about it, as I always do, through my agent. And I heard that Gabriel Byrne was involved, and that sounded really exciting. I had actually been thinking a lot about what I wanted to do after Glee, and I had this fantasy for myself that I would get involved in a show that I really associate with cable. I thought, “Wow, this is a huge undertaking,” but we knew we were in good hands with Michael Hirst. I thought it would be scary, but that it could be life-changing to be able to participate in a show that was willing to take on the story of the Vikings, specifically for the History Channel, where we knew that people’s expectations would be very high.
How would you describe your character?
GILSIG: I play Siggy Haraldson, who is the wife of Earl Haraldson, played by Gabriel Byrne. This character is such a fantastic gift because she comes with a lot of backstory. They’ve lost their son in battle and have only a daughter. They haven’t been able to produce an heir, so she’s in an incredibly vulnerable and precarious position. The way that we conceived of her was that she has also lived a life of privilege, power and status, and it’s incredibly natural to her. It’s something that she feels she’s inherently born into. There are many, many obstacles that she encounters, as the series goes forward, but she’s driven by this really inherent belief that she’s a woman of importance, who needs to survive, and who has incredible strength and conviction. I just felt very lucky to get to play her.
Would you say that your character is a bad girl?
GILSIG: Well, she’s not a good girl, that’s for sure. She’s a survivor and she’s ambitious, which doesn’t necessarily make her a bad girl, but it will make her controversial, which I always enjoy and I think is always entertaining. I’ve played the good girl before, and I always try to work a little contradiction into my characters. I just feel like women are sometimes reduced to that Madonna/whore concept. In reality, anybody who’s a woman knows that you’ve got your good days and bad days, just like anybody else. So, I felt really lucky working with Michael, and I think that I’ve been lucky with a lot of other shows that I’ve worked on, where they are comfortable with the idea that women are not just one thing, and we can be contradiction. When you’re not playing the hero of the story, then you have to know that you’re always a foil for the good guy. I love playing that. I think that’s always an interesting place to be.
GILSIG: Absolutely! I learned so much. I had to throw out all my preconceived ideas. From the vantage point of my character, one of the resources that they gave me was about this burial site that they had found that they believed were for women who would have been in my position, as the wife of an Earl, or somebody of great importance. There’s this stereotype of Vikings as this filthy, ruthless, totally unkempt people and, in reality, we saw a lot of evidence that they practiced really good hygiene. This woman always had a change of clothes, and a woman in her position had very intricate and complex hairstyles. There was evidence that they had used very primitive make-up. So, that suggested that a woman had a public face, that there was something very deliberate about her appearance, and that she was communicating through how she chose to dress and how did her hair. That sense of there being a public self was really helpful for this role, and that all came out of artifacts that they had found in burial sites, and information that was shared with us.
What were the biggest challenges of being a chieftain’s wife?
GILSIG: There were great challenges. I felt really lucky that there’s so much that I got to do in this that I’ve never done before. It has a lot of the elements that you hope for, as an actress, like everything from the period to the accent to playing a role that doesn’t even exist in modern society. So, it was about finding a way into the character, but then also making sure that these were human beings that had all the complexities of any mother, wife and woman. I felt that was the greatest challenge. I feel like (show creator) Michael [Hirst] gave so many great markers for me to hit. The relationship with the Earl was so specific, and wasn’t just about the man on a throne and the woman who sits beside him, but more that there was a deliberateness and a specificity to what their relationship was made of. And then, they had a lot of touchstones with the character having lost her son and the vulnerability of her daughter. I love finding the balance of this culture, which was born from ours, but then the humanity, which is universal.
After doing Glee, Heroes, Nip/Tuck and more contemporary roles, what’s it like to take on a project with so much history in it, especially filming in Ireland?
GILSIG: As an actor, when you’re waiting to find out what your next move is going to be, you think about what you would like it to be. Although I never necessarily imagined Vikings, what I like so much about cable these days is that they’re building worlds that are completely seamless and so thorough, where you can’t feel the edges of the set. Vikings fulfilled that dream of mine. They built the world, and then we stepped into it. We had to go through the looking glass into a different world and a different time. There’s so much on this show that supports us, as actors. The production design is absolutely transformative, as is the wardrobe and the commitment of the hair and make-up department. As actors, we really leaned on those departments to complete that picture, and felt really lucky that we were supported that way because it was a big leap to take on a subject that has a lot of preconceived ideas. We want to carry people into an experience where they can feel transported, and then you have to bring yourself back down to reality.
GILSIG: I did not. We had the accent, which we all had to immerse ourselves in, but I didn’t have any of the physical training that a lot of the other actors had.
What was your experience like, working with this cast?
GILSIG: It is an exceptional cast. It’s always exciting when people come ready to play because then it pushes you to push yourself. Obviously, I was really lucky. I hit the jackpot because I got to sit, all day, every day, beside Gabriel Byrne, and he really came ready to collaborate. We really worked together to figure out who this couple was, and to make sure that it was very specific and very deliberate, and that we had a lot to work with. And then, it was really fascinating to sit up on our thrones in front of Travis [Fimmel] and Katheryn [Winnick], who play Ragnar and Lagertha, the next generation and new order of Vikings, who have a completely different approach to their ambitions and hopes. Everybody just brought so much that you had so much to play against. It made you feel like you could take risks because everybody around you was going for it.
Did you stick to the script pretty strictly with this?
GILSIG: It’s pretty strict. For the most part, when you’re dealing with something like this, it’s always exciting when you work on a show that’s written by one person because you know that their vision is so specific. I need to find out why this person has chosen these words to communicate this thought. So, we stayed true to what Michael had written. We knew that he was very, very deliberate, and that it was our job to meet his material.
Do you have any other upcoming projects?
GILSIG: I do! I just wrapped an episode of The Good Wife, which I really enjoyed. I’m such a big fan of that show. And there’s a film that I produced that is going to be doing the festival circuit in March, called Somewhere Slow. I’m incredibly proud of that. I was a part of it since development, and it was an amazing cast, with Robert Forster, Lindsay Crouse, Graham Patrick Martin and Wally Langham. It’s just something that’s very special to me because it’s the first time I’ve ever produced something. As an actor, you’re almost never there, from the moment of inception to the final piece. So, to be there from the very beginning, and to be a part of the edit and the mix and the composer, and all of that, I learned how much I already knew, and that was really satisfying, after having worked in the business for so many years. I’m so excited for people to see it.
Vikings airs on Sunday nights on History.