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 to promote the March 3rd premiere, actress Katheryn Winnick – who plays Lagertha, shield maiden and wife of Viking ruler Ragnar – talked about what her audition process was like, how she prepared for the physical side of the role, what it was like to be a Viking woman, working with co-stars Travis Fimmel and Gabriel Byrne, the best and most challenging aspects of this project, her favorite moments this season, playing such a strong woman, and why she thinks people will enjoy the show. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
KATHERYN WINNICK: I got the script from my agents and they told me that, since Michael Hirst was overseas in the UK, he wasn’t taking any meetings, so I had to put myself on tape in my living room. So, I did that and I was really nervous about the accent since I’ve never dealt with a Scandinavian accent before. I worked with a dialect coach to try to get something down on tape. I knew that they were focusing on casting Ragnar, so I didn’t hear from them for awhile. And then, when I was in Toronto shooting a TV show, I got a call from my agent saying that they wanted me to go in for another callback. Since it’s a Canadian/Irish co-production, I was working on the Canadian casting side of it, so I went in, in Toronto. I went to great lengths to try to do everything I could to get this role. I ended up actually going to a Halloween costume store and renting a costume to try to really embody what Vikings would wear for my screen test. And then, they flew me to Los Angeles to do a chemistry read, and for another screen test for MGM to meet Travis, who was already cast, at that point. Instantly, when I met him, he was such a great actor and so great to connect with that I felt so blessed when they called me and offered me the role.
What did you have to do to prepare for the physical side of this role?
WINNICK: Well, I started training in martial arts when I was 7 years old. I got my first black belt at 13. I started my own martial arts school at 16. And by the time I was 21, I had three different schools. So, I grew up having a very physical background. I’m a 3rd degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do and 2nd degree in karate, and I’m a licensed bodyguard. So, I’d been looking for a role where I could actually get a chance to be that physical. But, first and foremost, it’s well written and has many layers, as a character. For the physical side of it, I definitely had to learn a new craft. Tae Kwon Do and karate is based on the art of footwork and handwork, whereas a shield maiden uses her shield and sword as her weapons. That was a new art form that I had to try to master, in a short period of time. Being a shield maiden was probably passed on from her mother and her grandmother, and she probably grew up fighting. So, it was interesting to learn how to use different aspects of the shield, not only to defend myself, but also to attack. Physically, I definitely got a chance to work with a trainer and a fight coordinator to try to get it down. I had to learn how to use my sword and shield as an extension of my arms, and an extension of me as a warrior, so that was different.
WINNICK: Lagertha is a fierce shield maiden, and a shield maiden is really a female warrior in the Dark Ages, or the Viking era. She’s based on a real Viking. Her role was to fight alongside with the men, during a shield wall, and her specific role was to plug up the holes in battle when the Vikings were falling. She’s also a young mother and a loving wife, who has a true partnership and equal relationship with her husband. She’s a very strong woman, and she’s definitely modern for her time.
What was it like to work with Travis Fimmel?
WINNICK: Travis is such an amazing actor, and he’s a prankster, that’s for sure. He would always test the other cast members. Right before your close-up, he would either whisper something in the ear or pinch you, or something, and you’d have to keep a straight face. There was one time when, all of a sudden, there was screaming. I was like, “What’s going on?” He ended up putting a rooster in this guy’s car, surrounded by hay, and this poor guy had to clean it all up. He definitely kept everybody on their toes and kept it a lot of fun. And how hard he worked and prepared really inspired everybody else to work hard, as well. It wasn’t very hard to fall in love with him. He’s such an amazing person, and also very good looking. I think it’s important to have that chemistry between Lagertha and Ragnar, so hopefully you’ll see how evident it is. It’s definitely a love-match.
What has been your favorite thing about playing this role?
WINNICK: When I first got on set in Ireland, I was the only girl. I was surrounded by 14 Viking men and I remember thinking, “Wow, this sounds and feels familiar.” I grew up in a martial arts gym surrounded by men and boys, and I pretty much call myself a tomboy. So, it took a little bit of getting used to, especially because the Viking cast members are all 6-foot-5 and huge, but it really helped with the character since she is a shield maiden. In those times, women were actually allowed to fight on the frontline with their husbands and their brothers and other men, so it was nice to be able to mirror that and get a chance to hang out with these guys, see them after work and on set, catch up with a Guinness, and also get a chance to work with them. I also loved learning about the Vikings and who they were and the history of it. That’s what’s so great about this being a historical drama. You really get an intimate look at the Vikings and their family life, and how they lived their day-to-day life. It was interesting to learn about the mythology and the fact that they were pagans and the believed in many gods, and that they believed that gods walked among them. It was such a gift to be able to immerse myself in what Lagertha would have been and how she lived her life and how she spoke, with the accent and the language. It was a real treat.
WINNICK: My character goes through a lot of conflict and struggle, as the series progresses. As her husband goes off to raids, Lagertha has to deal with the community and hold the community together, and still struggle with the personal conflict of her husband being gone and the fact that their relationship is tested. She also has to deal with the village and the other Vikings and her daughter, and other tragic things that happen. For me, it was definitely very challenging. Also, we were shooting in Ireland, in the middle of nowhere. It really helped that we were shooting in this incredible landscape, and some locations had no cell phone or internet access. We really got a chance to sit still and visualize and really feel like we were real Vikings. We got covered in mud and rain and blood, in some of the war scenes. This is definitely not a pretty role. If anything, it’s very raw and authentic and real. It was such a treat to be able to not wear make-up and not be glamorized. The dirtier, the better because Vikings didn’t get a chance to take showers like we do, every day. Being able to have dirt underneath the fingernails really helped to embody who these people really were.
Do you have a favorite episode?
WINNICK: We shot in blocks, which means we shot three episodes, at the same time, just because it was such an epic series. In terms of my favorite scene, that would have to be working with my husband, Ragnar (Travis Fimmel). There was a scene where he tells me that I can’t go on the raid because I need to take care of the family and the farm because the farm was under threat of getting raided and being taken over, and my character is not one to just sit and be pretty. She definitely has a strong voice. And she shows up and really beats him up with her shield and sword. They have this lover’s quarrel and actually start punching each other and snapping at each other and fighting, in between kisses. I think that that scene specifically shows their chemistry and flirtiness, but also who they are and the fact that they’re equals and partners. She’s one to stick up for what she believes in and will fight, and she won’t stop at anything to get what she wants.
What was it like to work with Gabriel Byrne?
WINNICK: I am such a big fan of Gabriel Byrne. I grew up watching him in movies and on TV, and when I heard that he signed on to do this, I called my agents and said, “You’ve got to make sure I get this role!” He is such an incredible actor. To have him on set and to see how he approaches his craft and how he dives into his character, really raised the bar with me, and with everybody else. The other cast members all brought their A-game. I did have a few scenes with him, and it was such a pleasure to see how he delivered his lines and what he brought when the camera was rolling. In one aspect, it’s very different than when you first read the script. He had his own interpretation of his character, and found strengths and weaknesses in it. It definitely made me nervous, but it also inspired me and pushed me to really work hard to try to be able to hold my own, alongside him.
WINNICK: The major thing that attracted me to this role was the fact that Michael Hirst wrote it, and he wrote every episode. He knows how to write women, and he worked with a historian to try to get the facts. I trust in him to get who Lagertha was, as a person, and how women were portrayed in that society. Women were very strong and they held equal partnerships with their husbands. They were allowed to own land. They were allowed to divorce their husbands. They were allowed to fight alongside the other men on the frontline and be warriors, and not just young mothers. I think it will be so great for people to realize that, in the Viking era, women were celebrated and they were very empowered. I fell in love with her when I was doing my research on her. I haven’t seen a female role written that is authentic and real, in a very long time, especially for TV. I think it’s so important for people to realize that women were very strong, even in the Dark Ages, and very powerful. In history, there was a backward movement, in terms of women rights, but in that period, in the 7th century, women were fierce.
Why should people tune in to this show?
WINNICK: If people are interested in history, and they want adventure and conflict, and to see the authentic and raw side of who Vikings were, along with an intimate look of how they dealt with their day-to-day lives, they will really love the show. It’s very epic. It has action, violence chemistry. We tried to make it as authentic as possible, in terms of the set design. They worked with incredible set decorators to try to mirror the Vikings and how they lived. They really lived in one-room houses and had one center fireplace as their only central heating system. They had to make holes in the roof of the house just so the fire can actually breathe. And then, there were the costumes and the accents. There’s not that much information out there about what they sound like, so we had to work with a dialect coach to try to find what kind of sounds they made and how they spoke. The fact that they were Norsemen meant that they had a Scandinavian accent with an old Norse way of speaking. We created a bible of sounds that the cast could really tune into and use as a source of a base because we have such an international cast, from Canada, Ireland, Australia, Britain and Sweden. It was important for us to create a family of words and sounds, just so we all were part of the same village. The show is a family saga, at its core. There are a lot of stereotypes, in terms of Vikings having been these barbaric creatures that were really uncivilized people, but they were actually very sophisticated, in that time period.
Vikings airs on Sunday nights on History.