Katheryn Winnick holds a third-degree black belt in taekwondo and a second-degree black belt in karate, so playing a sword-wielding shield maiden in History's "Vikings" was a cinch.
Well ... sorta.
"A shield maiden wouldn't necessarily do a spinning back kick or flip. The style of fighting would be very different," the Canadian actress said during a recent phone interview, not sounding at all traumatized by having to fight with a heavy wooden shield. "It was so much fun getting to dive into a different art form of attack."
Winnick stars as Lagertha Lothbrok in the nine-part series, debuting at 9 p.m. CT March 3, that explores the 8th century peoples remembered mostly as savage raiders and conquerors. Winnick thinks that like her, viewers will be surprised to learn the Vikings were much more than bearded brutes.
The actress quizzed "Vikings" creator Michael Hirst and did her own research to learn about the Vikings and her character, whom many historians say was a real person in the Dark Ages. She discovered a society made up of farmers, craftsmen, politicians and artists who were family-oriented and believed in a rich mythology and progressive gender politics.
"Women were equals in that society in the Viking era," Winnick said. "They definitely were not only just farmers. They were mothers. They were warriors. They were protectors. They were allowed to own land and divorce their husbands. They had a lot of say."
Lagertha is married to the series' main character, Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel), but because of the position of women in that society, she can hardly be classified as just "Ragnar's wife." This is one warrior woman who gives as good as she gets. She and her husband are equal partners in their marriage, Winnick said, as viewers will see when Ragnar tells her she cannot accompany him on a raid to the west of their homeland.
"They have this lover's quarrel; she beats him up with her shield and her sword as they fight in between kisses. I think that that scene shows their chemistry" and that they are equals, Winnick said. "She's not one to back down at all. She's one to fight for what she believes in as well as for her family and stick up for other women. She's strong to the core."
Although Winnick, recently seen on the big screen in opposite Al Pacino in "Stand Up Guys" and Charlie Sheen in "A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III," soaked up all the research she could about her character, she ultimately returned to her own experiences to bring out Lagertha's indomitable spirit.
"Because I have the martial arts background I was able to understand that this is someone who is a fighter in her everyday life, even if she's not in battle," she said. "And that was very similar for me to understand that spirit of combat."
Winnick and I talked more about the role, filming for six months in Ireland and the difference between red carpet styles and what the Vikings wore.
You filmed this last year. Are you excited about the debut?
Oh, I'm so excited. It's nice to see all the promos and all the hard work that History's doing and I think they have perfect balance of fun cinematic stuff as well as ... getting an idea how the Vikings really were. So, I'm excited to actually see it debut.
How was filming in Ireland?
It was really neat just to be up there in the middle of nowhere really. But being Vikings and being part of the Dark Ages ... I can't imagine another country or place to shoot that is so remote that I think it really helped us as characters to really dive into what it would be like to be in that time period. So I think that helped a lot.
You guys weren't roughing it the whole time were you?
It was a tough shoot. The climate is very tricky. They have a lot of different micro-climates. You can never tell what you're gonna get in a given day. We were laughing--you have like four different seasons in one afternoon in Ireland because it could be hailing and then it could be sunny and hot and T-shirt weather and then it's rainy. It's a little chaotic, but it's absolutely beautiful when it is.
That probably just only helps as you're getting into character and thinking about these people who lived in really rough times.
Oh, definitely. You can't worry about your hair falling out of place or makeup. You just kind of have to be. If you get rained on, you get rained on. That's what would have happened to the Vikings. And if your clothes get wet, they get wet.
They only had two sets, maybe three sets of threads. They didn't have many clothes. They stayed in one or two outfits. But I think it all helped with getting into character and really trying to understand who they were and dive into their time period.
Seeing you as Lagertha is a lot different than seeing the photos of you in that gorgeous red gown at the movie festival in Italy.
[Laughs.] Yeah, I love that stuff. That's why I'm so excited to be cast. I'm such a big fan of Michael Hirst and him doing "The Tudors" and "Elizabeth" and knowing how detailed he is in terms of writing for these characters. I think the costumes and the hair and the makeup all were such a treat and they accent to try on different shoes. And the fact that Lagertha's based on a real person and she has so many different sides of her. She's a shield maiden, which is a female warrior in the Dark Ages, who fights alongside her husband on the shield wall. But she's also a young mother and a farmer and a wife who has a strong, equal partnership with her husband. And all that stuff is obviously very different from wearing a red gown on a red carpet. [Laughs.]
What do you really like about her?
What don't I like about her? Doing my research on her and what kind of woman she was, I found her to be such a strong woman who is not only a shield maiden but she's also very modern for her time and modern for the ancient time. She's definitely a forward thinking woman ... I really fell in love with her and her strengths and her opinions and her strong voice and her beliefs.
I love her quote, "You couldn't kill me if you tried for 100 years." (See clip at top of this story.)
Michael's so brilliant at writing. Being a shield maiden, it's passed on from generation to generation--that's the history on that. Having that indomitable spirit and that strength was something that probably got passed on from her mother and from her grandmother. You couldn't kill me if you tried for 100 years--you know she grew up with a sword and a shield and she knows she can easily take these two guys who are invading her home. She can protect her family and protect what she believes in. So that was great. I'm glad Michael wrote that.
Her husband doesn't feel the need to protect her. He knows she can handle herself.
It's a partnership. It's definitely a marriage of equality. And she's able to protect her land and her kids. She doesn't need her husband. She chooses to be with her husband. And that's what's great about their relationship. It was a love match; they were true to each other or at least truly fell in love with each other--and they're equals. I think that's what's so great about seeing them together. You might find out later on at one point she saves his life or claims to save his life. It's interesting how the fact that they fought side-by-side gives them that strength that they could endure anything. They can overcome anything.
It's amazing how many people believe the Vikings were just a warrior culture that looted and pillaged and raped. But in doing a little research of my own I discovered a more developed society.
Yeah, I think what's great about it is there's not much information out there on the Viking culture and society. And I was shocked to see how civilized and how intelligent and forward thinking they were in terms of how they lived. They lived in a one-bedroom house and how there was a center fire that kept them warm and how they cooked, for example. And how they dealt with certain things and how they made their armor. It was so amazing to see how advanced they were. And [they were] without having the education or that background that gives them exposure to worldwide resources that we have today.
They were just absolutely phenomenal. But also their mythology is interesting; they were Pagans and believed in many gods. And it was really fascinating to understand that they come from a different world and they believed in certain things. During my research in terms of how they died, they were buried with their sword and shield and their prized possessions.
It's really fascinating and very interesting; I think a lot of people who are seeking the authenticity of who the Vikings were would really appreciate the show.
Katheryn, you've been really busy lately. You have a couple of movies out and this thing. What else is coming up for you?
Oh, wow. I'm fortunate enough to get a chance to work with some great actors. I just did a fun role opposite Al Pacino and Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin in "Stand Up Guys." There's a movie with Bill Murray right now called "Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III," that Roman Coppola directed. And the next one is a movie with Kurt Russell and Matt Dillon coming out and it's called "The Fix." That's a fun comedy-action heist film. So I think a lot of people will appreciate it. I love trying on different hats. Each character is completely different.
And are you up for a Season 2 of "Vikings' if it happens?
Oh, gosh. I'm so in love with the series and the writing that I really hope so. And I hope everybody enjoys it as much as I do.
Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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