The History Channel’s hit show Vikings, finishing up its third season and already looking to its fourth, tells the story of the first contact between the Northmen and the Christians of Western Europe. Viking king Ragnar and his (ex-)wife Lagertha share a common passion: to ensure the prosperity of their people through exploration and settlement. Katheryn Winnick, who plays Lagertha, sat down to talk to us about this season, that passion, and the surprising power of women in what we traditionally think of as a very masculine civilization.
There has been a lot of talk about the series showing us ninth century Paris through the eyes of the Vikings, but what else is happening this season?
There are so many great things to look forward to. I would say mostly the storyline gets even more intense. The characters are going to be seen on a different level in terms of personal relationships, back story, and their own conflicts. And Lagertha (in season 2) was Jarl in her own right and now she leaves her kingdom to Kalf, but you see that she is usurped. That brings on a whole new set of conflicts: she asks Ragnar for help and how he responds to that is…interesting [chuckles]. Here (in Ragnar) you have someone who was such a big part of her life, someone that she kind of raised and groomed into his position and she has to deal with that sense of betrayal caused by his reaction to her request. And of course, there are other feelings involved, as well because of their history and you will see her in a different light than you have seen her in before.
Let’s talk about that because I have to admit that I was awestruck by the scene where your character leaves Ragnar–just her utter lack of waffling on the issue. Your performance made it clear not just how heartbroken she was but that she was not going to give up her self-respect nor was she going to argue about it or bemoan her fate. And it made us as the audience realize how rare it was to see such a thing to see a woman just make that kind of decision on-screen. What was your reaction to it when you read that script and when you were filming it?
That is a great question. I think for me, it was very understandable, especially at that time in her life. You know she has a very high sense of self and morality, and her sense of right is very strong. So she will always put her self-worth first. I feel that she was betrayed and Ragnar left her with no choice, absolutely no choice; she had to do what was right for herself. That is a very strong position a lot of women…unfortunately, even some of my friends have stayed in relationships under similar circumstances because of necessity, and I think that the example of Lagertha leaving with nothing, leaving her family, her son, leaving all of her riches and stability and community, and going off on her own to God-knows-where. I think it shows a sense of pride and how strong she is that she won’t let herself down. That sense of self-confidence and sense of self-worth is what makes her such a strong character.
So since Lagertha left Ragnar, we have seen her kill her abusive second husband, all-but-propose to a third potential husband, and now she’s been cozy with Ecbert, and we know that she wants another child. What do you feel like the future looks like for her? What does she want at this point?
I’m not sure she wants another child other than when we saw at the beginning of season three that she was trying to find out from the seer what her next step was. What her destiny is, what she is meant for, and where her identity is.
In season three, she is now a free woman and she doesn’t need a husband. She divorced her first one, killed her second one, but now she is free. I think Ecbert definitely intrigues her and she is fascinated with him, but I don’t know that she fully trusts him. But you know, she’s allowed to have fun [laughs]. I remember reading it and trying to justify it, and calling Mike [Hirst] and asking, “Are you sure? She’s a smart cookie. She would know that King Ecbert’s motives.” But she would know that she cannot totally let herself go with him. But I think that’s really powerful to play–to have her show her sexual side and her feminine side. Because we have seen her go through so much trouble. It was such a challenge to find those lighter moments, those moments where she’s happy. So the when she is in the Roman bathhouse for the first time, discovering new art and trying new wine and receiving jewels for the first time–getting wined and dined by a powerful and rich man. There’s something very empowering about being in that position where you can do both—be the warrior and have those moments.
One of the things that always blows me away is how impressive Lagertha is on the battlefield. I know you are quite an accomplished fighter, [Winnick has a third-degree Black Belt in Tae Kwon Do and a second-degree Black Belt in Karate] so it is not surprising the way you made her own the battlefield. But just the physics of it… you are a woman a fairly average height [5’6”], and many of your male co-stars are quite tall–Gustav (Floki) is almost a foot taller than you–yet in the battle scenes, you seem to take up as much space as them. Some of that is how you present yourself, but do they also try to shoot you in a certain way to make up for that? Because you look just 9 feet tall on the battlefield.
[laughs] That is something that people are always surprised at when they meet me–how small I am. They always expect a six-foot tall woman which is always funny to me. What I can say about that is that I can hold my own in the battlefield sequences obviously because of my martial arts history. And if anything, if you approach your tactics and fighting through skill and intellect, it doesn’t really matter how tall you are because we’re not playing basketball.
We’re fighting which means the lower your center of gravity, the better for you. That’s one thing I learned when I was training martial arts: being a woman you know that our center of gravity is much lower—it’s in our hips–and that gives us a lot more sturdiness and the ability to move faster. Height is not necessarily the advantage when you’re fighting. But yes, I am definitely one of the smaller people on the show. I don’t think too much about it other than sometimes, if we’re working on a mountainside I’d rather have the uphill side because I already look smaller than everyone else, you know, but I have been known to stand on a rock sometimes in a sequence is just so I don’t look so small.
You and I have actually met once, and I remember thinking “Not only is she not nine feet tall, but she’s so slender,” and that made me realize that they also use costuming to bulk you up…
You know, the bulk is also because we’re shooting in Ireland and the weather is freezing cold. You are sometimes shooting in the rain, and we have about three or four layers under those clothes. I have been known to have this scuba diving wetsuit thing underneath because it adds an inch of insulation, like a second layer of skin that we sometimes have to wear because it is freezing, or depending on the location, it may be a dry suit. So that bulk, well, that’s one of those tricks we can’t get away from; we need to have it for comfort.
One of the things that I thought was done really well in the first season was the conflict that Lagertha feels between her role as wife and mother and that as shield maiden. She obviously wanted to sail west with Ragnar but she knew someone had to keep the farm going so she stayed. Yet it was obvious that her heart was on the ship with the guys. So I was really surprised this season that she specifically chose to take over the farming colony rather than go with Ragnar and Rollo and the rest the Vikings to fight the Mercians. What do you think was behind that decision? Why did she stay behind?
That’s a good question. You know, she and Ragnar shared a dream, from early on really, to expand and to start settlements in different countries for the betterment of their people. So when the opportunity came about to start a settlement in Wessex, who better than Lagertha to run that operation? She is a farmer. Lagertha started off as a farmer, so she has the experience and knowledge to set up roots there. And I feel that she sees the importance of it, and the fighting for the Mercians is not a cause that is dear to her—it’s more of a favour to King Ecbert–while she sees the bigger picture. She knows that if she establishes the settlement, it is better for her people and so it’s very important to start off in the right way versus fighting for some other cause based on political issues. So as much as she loves fighting–and believe me, she will get a chance to do it in this season–I think she thinks that it’s a better use of her skills at this point to put down roots and start the settlement in Wessex.
The women on the show are just amazing. When I first heard that the History Channel was doing this, I figured this would be a very male show both in terms of what we see on screen and who is watching it. And I know that young men are your main demographic; you guys are doing really well with them. But every woman I know that watches the show adores it, and it is not just because of all these gorgeous bearded man–although that helps. Instead, they always end up talking about the women on the show and how well-developed they are: how they are not just appendages to the men, even if they’re in relationships with them, but that they have very much have their own stories even in what we tend to think of as a very male-dominated culture. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what Michael Hirst has told you about women in the Viking culture and how he wants to present them and what have you learned about Viking women.
Women at that time were surprisingly extremely strong and influential and empowered, more than we generally think, and especially with the Norsemen, everybody had to pitch in. They had a critical part in helping the community grow. They were not only farmers, but they were also warriors and they were also able to own their own land and divorce their husbands and run territories and be Earls. And yes, they had children during their childbearing years.
And it was an issue in that I was not as educated about the Viking culture when I got signed onto the show. And you know in the first season I was the only woman for the first three months of shooting among these big burly Viking men. It was a bit of a challenge to understand my place in it. But I really feel that Lagertha is very strong and, if anything, she is a modern woman in that time. And I admire her and I think she is definitely an incredible character. What I like about her is that you can see the vulnerabilities and the challenges she has being woman, dealing with a position of strength and authority and how to get respect because she is a woman or dealing with a husband who cheats or questioning her next chapter–if she can bear children–all those issues make her so much more believable and authentic and likable. More than if she was just a warrior. And that is the brilliance of Michael Hirst.
Katheryn Winnick, thank you very much!