Katheryn Winnick is Lagertha in History's "Vikings"

By Jamie Ruby

Katheryn WinnickVikings, History's new drama, follows the lives and adventures of real life Vikings, not just as warriors, but also their day to day lives. The story focuses on Ragnar Lothbrok as he rises among the Vikings. The series also tells of his family life, including his wife, Lagertha, played by Katheryn Winnick, and their two children. Lagertha was not only a devoted wife, but also a powerful shield-maiden and warrior in her own right.

The actress recently talked about her role in the upcoming series, which premieres March 3rd on History.

History Conference Call
Katheryn Winnick

February 27, 2013
1:30 pm ET

Katheryn WinnickQUESTION: Can you tell me a little bit about your character?

KATHERYN WINNICK: I play Lagertha, who is a fierce shield maiden. She's based on a real person, a real Viking. And a shield maiden is really a female warrior in the dark ages, in the Viking era. 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.

And I play also a young mother and a loving wife who has a true partnership and equal relationship with her husband. And she's a very strong woman. She's definitely modern for her time.

QUESTION: Was there anything about this role that wasn't scripted for you that you added yourself?

KATHERYN WINNICK: Very good question; yes. I come from a martial arts background. And for me with trying to figure out how I can relate to her, it's for me a very different one. She's a Viking, and there's very little information out there on Vikings.

I had to do a lot of research and pick Michael Hirst's brain -- Michael Hirst created the show, he also did The Tudors and Elizabeth -- to try to figure out women and who they were in society in the Viking era. So for me, since I had the martial arts background, I wanted to be able to add the spirit of combat in who she is as a person in her day-to-day life.

The fact that she is a warrior, you can see that not only in a battlefield, but you can also see that [in] how she deals with her young children, how she deals with conflict with her husband, how she deals with the community and different struggles to survive.

And that spirit of combat was really important for me to find in Lagertha, because I think that really is the core of who she is. When I started to do my research on her, I fell in love with her. She's such a strong, fierce warrior, and definitely a forward-thinking woman for that era.

SCIFI VISION: So what has been your favorite part about the role so far?

KATHERYN WINNICK: My favorite part? Good question. 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 guys and men and boys. And I pretty much call myself a tomboy. So it was a little bit of getting used to, especially the Viking cast members are all 6-foot-5 and huge.

But I think it really helped with the character and also, who she is she would - since she is a shield maiden. And 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 and see them after work and on set and catching up with a Guinness, and also get a chance to work with them.

But I guess my favorite part, in a longwinded answer, is 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.

And it was interesting to learn about the mythology and the fact that they were pagans and the believed in many gods, and they believed that gods walked among themselves.

And for me 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 and the accent and the language. It was a real treat.

QUESTION: I was curious if you could tell us if you have a favorite episode of the first nine? And in case it's not the same one, is there a favorite episode of yours that focuses on your character specifically?

KATHERYN WINNICK: Great question. 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, must have been really working with my husband, Ragnar. 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 take care of the farm because the farm was at threat in terms of getting raided and being taken over.

Katheryn WinnickAnd my character, or Lagertha, is one not to just sit and be pretty. She definitely has a strong voice. And the scene that I'm specifically talking about is when she shows up and really beats him up with her shield and her sword. And they have this lover's quarrel, and they're in a fight.

And they actually start punching each other and snapping at each other and fighting in between kisses. And I just think that that scene specifically shows their chemistry, the flirtiness, but also who they are and the fact that they're equals and partners. And she's one to stick up for what she believes in and will fight, and won't stop at anything to get what she wants.

QUESTION: Do you hope that your character, as a strong female role, will have an influence on the female audience that is watching the show? And what kind of influence do you hope that she would have?

KATHERYN WINNICK: That's a great question. The what - the major thing that attracted me to this role was the fact that Michael Hirst wrote it, and he wrote every episode.

And the fact that he knows how to write women, and also he worked with a historian to try to get the facts. He wrote Elizabeth also too, so I trust in him in getting the right side of who Lagertha was as a person and how women were portrayed in that society.

And 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 with the other men on the frontline and to be warriors, not only young mothers, but wives, but warriors.

And I think that for me it's so important, especially in the dark ages, that women - there's not much information out there. And I think it would be so great for people to realize that in the Viking era, women were celebrated and they were very empowering.

And I know I fell in love with her when I was doing my research on her. And I haven't seen a female role written that is authentic and real like this in a very long time, especially for TV. And I think it's so important for people to realize that women were very strong, even in the dark ages. And they were very powerful.

And if you look at the society, I think in history there was a backward movement in terms of women’s rights. But in that period, in the 7th century, women were fierce.

QUESTION: I've watched the first five episodes and I'm absolutely in love. It's just fantastic. And I want to know the physical preparedness you had to go through as an actress, as an actor, to inhabit this very physical role.

QUESTION: Sure, definitely. I started training 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. And so I grew up having a very physical background anyways.

I'm a third degree black belt in tae kwon do, second degree in karate, and a licensed bodyguard. So I'd been looking for a role that I can actually get a chance to be that physical. But it's first and foremost well-written and has many layers as a character.

And 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. And it's a sport, whereas a shield maiden used her shield and her sword as her weapons. And that for me was very new and a new art form that I had to try to master in such a short period of time.

But it was great to see how they fought and how they used what they had with them in terms of little ((inaudible)) resources as weapons. And Lagertha, being a shield maiden, which was probably passed on from her mother and her grandmother and through different generations, she grew up fighting. So it was interesting to learn how to use different household products for example, or different aspects of the shield not only to defend myself but also to attack.

And physically I definitely got a chance to work with a trainer and work with a fight coordinator to try to get it down. But it was a different style of fighting that I wasn't used to, because it's not like I was able to do spinning roundhouse kicks or spinning back kicks. 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.

QUESTION: I was wondering if you could talk about what it is about this show that will make it such an interest for people to tune in.

KATHERYN WINNICK: I think if people are interested in history, if they want adventure, conflict, and to see the authentic side and the raw side of who Vikings were, the society, and to see an intimate look of how they dealt with their day-to-day lives, I think they would really love the show.

Katheryn WinnickThe show is very epic. It has the action, it has violence, it has chemistry. Everything about it, we try to make it as authentic as possible. In terms of the set design, they worked with incredible set decorators to try to mirror what the Vikings and how they lived.

And they lived in really one-room house and had one center fireplace as their only central heating system. And they had to make holes in the roof of the house just so the fire can actually breathe. And from the set design to the costumes to the accents and how they sounded, there's not that much information out there so we had to work with a dialect coach and try to find what kind of sounds they made and how they spoke.

The fact that they were Norsemen, they had a Scandinavian accent with an old Norse way of speaking. And we created a bible of sounds that the cast can really tune into and really be able to use as a source of a base because we have such an international cast from Canada, from Ireland, from Australia, from Britain, from Sweden. So it was important for us to create a family of words and sounds just so we all were part of the same village.

And I think you get a chance to see this. It's a family saga at its core. There's a lot of stereotypes in terms of Vikings were these barbaric creatures that just fought and just really were these uncivilized people. But you actually had the opposite, you see how they lived their lives and that they were very sophisticated in that time period.

SCIFI VISION: I have a fan question. They want to know how did you like working with Gabriel? Did you have any scenes with him? I believe you did in the beginning.

KATHERYN WINNICK: Yes, it's a great question. Yes, 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, I'm like, “You've got to make sure I get this role."

He is such an incredible actor. And 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 and the other cast members to really bring their A-game.

And 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 originally read the script. He had his own interpretation of his character and found strengths and weaknesses in it.

I can't speak for himself, but I know for me, it definitely made me nervous. But it also inspired me and pushed me to really work hard and try to be able to hold my own alongside with him.

QUESTION: I was wondering if you can talk about the audition process you went through to win this role, how many times you put yourself on tape, if you did, or how many callbacks you had.

KATHERYN WINNICK: Sure. I got the script from my agents and they told me that they weren't doing any - since Michael Hirst was in - I think he, where was he? He was overseas in the U.K. and he wasn't taking any meetings.

I had to put myself on tape in my living room. And so I did that, and I was really nervous about the accent since I've never dealt with a Scandinavian accent before. So I worked with a dialect coach to try to get something down on tape.

And then I know that they were focusing on casting Ragnar, so I didn't hear from them for a while. And when I was in Toronto shooting a TV show I got a call from my agent saying that they want me to go in for another callback.

And there was a casting director in Toronto that was working on - since it's a Canadian/Irish co-production, I was working on the Canadian casting side of it. And I went to great lengths to try to do everything I could to try to get this role. I ended up actually going to a Halloween costume store and I rented 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 another screen test for MGM and to meet Travis, who was already cast at that point. And we had to do it on camera and to see if we had chemistry and to screen test opposite each other. And 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 told me that they offered me the role.

QUESTION: In talking to some of your other cast mates and learning what they had to do to research their roles and what they had done, I'd be curious to know what research you had to do into Vikings and what you drew from to shape your character the most.

Katheryn WinnickKATHERYN WINNICK: Great question. Lagertha, not only is she a warrior, she's also a young mother and a wife who is madly in love with her husband. So it's coming from a really ((inaudible)) spot of who she is. And I don't think you necessarily need to do that much research on her day-to-day conflicts.

But what's most fascinating, in terms of how she lived her life and her belief system. The fact that she believed in - that was a lot. I really tried to get as much information as I possibly could on the Internet, talked to Michael. I tried to get as much facts as I could to try to understand who Vikings were and how they lived their lives.

Lagertha believed in - they were pagans, so she believed in many gods. And specifically she told stories to her young children about the mythology. And Freyja is a god that she worshipped.

And the goddess Freyja is a goddess of fertility. And as the series progress, you actually see her struggles in questioning why her life has so much conflict when she is such a religious and such a faithful worshipper.

And for me I think the research of, not only the accent of, and how they wore their clothes -- they only had one or two outfits -- and how do I make these outfits so personal. I know my warrior outfit took about half an hour to get on since it didn't have zippers. They only laced me in. and I had three people to try to lace me in for my warrior outfit. And they used different aspects of leather as armor.

And that was really interesting to see how they would use one outfit and how they would personalize it. My character really related to the bird, the raven bird. And on her warrior belt she had a raven symbol. And a raven also symbolized her relationship and her partnership with Ragnar. The raven's used a lot in this script or in this series.

I think the combination of the accent and their belief system, who they were and who Lagertha was as a woman, all that stuff really is such an amazing treat to be able to sink my teeth into and try to dissect of who Lagertha was as a person.

SCIFI VISION: You talked about everything you've had to do. And a lot of it sounds difficult. But was there one thing specifically that was the most challenging?

KATHERYN WINNICK: The most challenging? You know, my character goes through a lot of conflict and struggle as the series progresses.

And as her husband goes off to raids, Lagertha has to deal with the community and hold the community together and to have 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 other Vikings and her daughter, and to deal with other tragic things that happened. For me it was definitely very challenging.

And also just shooting in Ireland in the middle of nowhere, if anything, I think actually that really helped, the fact that we were shooting in this incredible landscape and some locations where there was no cell phone or there wasn't any access to BlackBerries or Internet.

You 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. And I think all that stuff really helped. This is definitely not a pretty role. It's, if anything, it's very raw and authentic and real.

And for me it was such a treat to be able to not wear makeup and not be glamorized. And too, the dirtier the better because Vikings, if they were lucky they only got a chance to - even though they were clean people, they didn't get a chance to take showers like we do every day.

So I think all that, and being able to have dirt underneath the fingernails, all that stuff really helped, for me at least, to feel and really try to embody of who these people really were.

Katheryn WinnickQUESTION: I was wondering if there's any amusing anecdotes or interesting stories you have about the behind the scenes, filming with Travis Fimmel?

KATHERYN WINNICK: Travis. Travis is such an amazing actor. And he's a prankster, that's for sure. He would always test all the other cast members. And right before your close-up he would either whisper something in the ear or pinch you or something. And you have to keep a straight face.

There was one time I remember where one of the other Viking cast members, they would always pull prank on each other. And all of a sudden they hear screaming. I'm like, "What's going on?" He ended up putting a rooster in his car, surrounded by hay. And this poor guy had to clean it all up.

And he definitely kept everybody on their toes and kept it a lot of fun. And also just how hard he worked and how prepared he was really inspired everybody else to work hard as well.

And he was great to work with. Obviously it wasn't very hard to fall in love with him. He's such an amazing person, and also very good looking. So I think that's important, to have that chemistry between Lagertha and Ragnar. And hopefully you'll see how evident it is. It's definitely a love-match.

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