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.