Katheryn Winnick has worn many faces over Vikings’ six seasons, and as the History network drama reaches its conclusion, the actress is clearly grateful for the luck she’s had in playing such an epic role.
“Lagertha’s journey throughout the years has been a huge evolution where she was a farmer, wife, shield maiden, queen,” Winnick told Rotten Tomatoes. “She ended up struggling, losing everything, went mad. At the end of season 5, she’s in a place where she’s reevaluating her purpose in life and trying to get back to what made her most happy, and that was really the early stage of her life of being a farmer — when she was a stay-at-home mom with kids on the farm with Ragnar — so that part of it, she’s going to be re-exploring this year.”
When Vikings began in 2013, Travis Fimmel led the ensemble cast as Lagertha’s husband Ragnar, who started the series as a farmer and rose to become King of Denmark. Fimmel left in season 4, and following Ragnar’s death in the show, the character’s surviving family members — including second wife Aslaug, first wife Lagertha, and sons by both — began a lengthy and bloody contest for the throne, which Lagertha took and again lost.
Season 6 of the series, which was created and written by Michael Hirst, sees Lagertha older, fed up with the cycle of violence, and eager to return to a more peaceful existence. Her son Bjorn Ironside (Alexander Ludwig) is on the throne with the support of his half-brothers Ubbe (Jordan Patrick Smith) and Hvitserk (Marco Ilsø) after defeating their tyrannical brother Ivar the Boneless (Alex Høgh Andersen).
Rotten Tomatoes spoke with Winnick about Lagertha’s evolution, her directing debut this season on episode 608 (airing in 2020), and the “old Lagertha” makeup.
Debbie Day for Rotten Tomatoes: I wanted to talk about how Vikings has changed for you over the seasons.
Katheryn Winnick: I’m one of the only cast members that was there from day one to going into the final season … so it’s been a huge honor to be part of everyone’s journey as the evolution of the show changed from the first season. We only had one or two sound stages, and at the end we had five or six different ones. It’s crazy how much it’s just expanded, not just in terms of space, but production value. And we had more of a budget to do more of the effects and more costumes. Vikings just traveled to different countries, and that’s evident in this year’s story line, as well as the years prior. We went to Iceland, we went to Morocco, we went into — I believe this year you’ll see a new cast in Russia. So it’s been an exciting journey, not only just in terms of story lines, but also visually appealing to be able to tap into different cultures.
It seems very much like Lagertha is beginning a new journey this season. How would you characterize that?
Winnick: She’s been around the block. At the end, I think we were laughing: I’m like, “How old is Lagertha now in this season?” And we played around with different ways of aging her, added a little bit with clothes more of a weight gain. We did a limp. I ended up doing scars on her face to show the passage of time. So she wears her scars physically, and her emotional scars as well. And the gray wig, obviously, is a big part of it. And we played around also this year with prosthetics and aging her eyes and neck and hands. So hopefully that’s evident in the viewers. When we have six seasons to tell a life story, it’s important to be able to have that contrast, especially in the final season and the final chapter for Lagertha.
It does come across that you’re trying to show that aging, but to be honest, you still look really youthful in the show. I’m sure a lot happens in a short time span in a Viking’s life —
Winnick (laughs): Oh, come on! I wasted two and a half hours, three hours everyday [in makeup] … The real-life Vikings actually really only lived — I think the average age was 39.
The fans, being so loyal, literally [sent] Michael Hirst death threats if they kill Lagertha, so in the end, we needed to come up with creative ways of still keeping her storyline alive. Chronologically she’s a grandmother at this stage, with Bjorn’s children and everyone else. So it was an interesting journey as an actor to go through that final stage. You can see in the trailers that she buries her sword, that she kind of gives up being the shield maiden now. Especially since it defined who she is for so long, I struggled with how to be able to define her sense of strength and strong will even without the sword. But you will see Lagertha is definitely a force to be reckoned with. I don’t think she regrets anything. She doesn’t give up easy, and that’s definitely evident in this season.
She’s not going to go full Floki on us, is she? She does seem to have a spirituality, but —
Winnick: I’ve had many conversations with Michael Hirst about this: Out of all the other characters, Lagertha’s had a very strong sense of faith and really believed in the pagan gods, and her moral character, it doesn’t necessarily sway too much compared to the other ones, compared to Ivar or anyone else. So she’s determined to keep that faith going. This is her time to now redefine herself and give herself to the fate of the gods. She won’t go all Floki on you, if that’s what you’re asking.
Fans are going to have to wait a little while to see how it unfolds. Are you happy with this final season?
Winnick: I am very happy with the final season in many different ways. You get to explore Lagertha in a different light. There was one, or a couple episodes, depending on how they edit it together, that Lagertha — I know I was rehearsing this scene for weeks, and hopefully you’ll see and know what I’m talking about, but it was definitely very momentous for her, and hopefully it came across to the viewers, because this is really labor intensive and emotionally intense this one particular scene. I’m also extremely happy with this because I got a chance to go behind the camera for the first time.
I was going to ask about that next.
Winnick: My directorial debut was 608. It was such an honor to be asked, and being the only actor on the series after seven years to be asked to direct and go behind the cameras and work with my fellow co-stars and friends and crew members and tell a story that I’m so proud of, that was an incredible experience.
Are you in that episode?
Winnick (whispers): I can’t tell you that.
Winnick: But I will tell you this: It was definitely my highlight of working on it. I asked Michael Hirst, “I want three things out of my directorial debut: Give me a big event. Give me something epic and amazing.” You will see that is actually in the trailers right now. So there is a big event. I wanted character-driven material that I can push the actors, my fellow costars, to new levels that the audience hasn’t seen them do before. And I’m happy to say that I definitely put Alexander Ludwig through the ringer. And even Marco and Jordan — Hvitserk and Ubbe. The third thing is just coming from a martial art background and doing my own stunts and being passionate about the fight choreography, I asked him for a big fight, a big epic battle, and you will see that as well.
Now that you’re facing the the tail end of your series, what will you miss most about your time on the show?
Winnick: I don’t miss getting into the costume hair and makeup, because that was always a process. We tried to get it down at the end. That wig was a challenge because we were shooting in high definition and you only get X amount of space to glue it on. Or even the prosthetics with the latex around the eyes — I have very sensitive skin, so the process was definitely a process.
What I won’t miss: The coffee in Ireland’s not the best. I’ll tell you that. They made instant coffee. Our craft table was pretty always kind of scarce, but it kept us lean. But yeah, the instant coffee I’m not a huge fan of.
What’s coming up next for you?
Winnick: I’ve had a really busy year. Really excited to say that I’ve done three projects, three different independent movies. There’s an incredible script called Flag Day, written by Jez Butterworth (who just won the Tony for Ferryman), and Sean Penn directed and starred in. I play his wife, and our daughter is played by his real daughter, Dylan Penn. We’ve got Regina King in this, you’ve got Miles Teller, we have Josh Brolin. It was really an amazing experience on set to work with Sean, and especially becoming now a director myself — I just did a show on Netflix; I directed, Wu Assassins — but it’s nice just to see him [work]. He’s so accomplished and brilliant as a director and knows what it takes to get the performance out of you, but also aesthetically knows what is pleasing and what he wants. I wanted to really see him work and spend time with him on set and create something that hopefully people will realize how special it is, because I have a place in my heart for that as well. And to go through like three decades, we went through ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, and to have that physical change of — there’s prosthetics, there’s hair changes — It was a very interesting movie, and I’m really passionate about that one. Great experience.
I did a movie with Liam Neeson I just finished called Minuteman. I’ve been a fan of his since back in the day, obviously, Taken and Schindler’s List. He’s also from Ireland. I played his daughter. That’s coming out. And did a movie this summer also with Tommy Lee Jones and Aaron Eckhart, more of a conspiracy theory, written and directed by a female director, April Mullen, so it’s nice to be able to support a female storyteller.
Speaking of women in power, Lagertha has been such a huge influence on women because she’s such a strong character. She’s one of the most powerful women on television. How do you feel about portraying a character like that? What are some of the responses you’ve gotten about being her from women?
Winnick: I am still blown away when I meet fans that are diehard fans, and such loyal fans of Lagertha, just because it’s — not just women and girls, it’s men too that really look up to her, respect her, like her. So it’s nice that it’s reached both genders. But more importantly, it’s also around the world. I’ve been lucky enough to travel for the last few years. I was in India, I was in Brazil, I’ve been in Argentina, Canada, and all over Europe, really, and all around in different cultures people from all around the world, not only recognize her and me, I guess, but they also really feel the same way, and then really feel that there’s a part of them in Lagertha, or they look up to her, and that’s been remarkable to see.
Even in India, you can go to different villages and people, they live on their Netflix. And Philippines, people don’t even have running water, but they all have cell phones and they watch Vikings on their cellphones. It was just amazing just to see how it can inspire people everywhere.
It’s a little strange when you see somebody, when they have your face tattooed on their bodies. That’s a little surreal because I feel kind of uncomfortable with it just because it’s like, “Hey, you’re stuck with me for life.” No, but on one hand you can’t ask for a bigger compliment than to have such loyal fans.
On the flip side it’s also made it hard to find projects that I’m also as inspired, and work with writers that can write such a complex, strong, yet vulnerable character. It’s been a challenge. I’ve read a lot of scripts that I’m not wanting to sign on to because I feel that the characters aren’t — or the woman character is underwritten or their voice isn’t as multi-dimensional as I would want it to be. And I think we still have a long way to go, and hopefully we encourage more female writers, female directors, and female producers to be able to tell those stories. Have the men do the same as well.
Are you saying that Michael Hirst has ruined you for life?
Winnick: I’m just going to have be in a Michael Hirst movie for the rest of my life. How about that? Not really. Yeah. He set the bar really high, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. Especially in TV when you’re signing up for multiple months, if not years, of your life, you want to make sure there’s a character you can really sink your teeth into and be inspired.
I learned a lot from Lagertha. I really, truly did. And the truth of the matter is, if I was 100-percent honest with you, I’ve yet to really say goodbye. I actually have a hard time watching it. I haven’t been able to watch the episodes in this season. I prepared, obviously, as a director to watch certain ones, but as a whole, it’s just so close to my heart still. And now that everybody knows that this season’s finished, I think maybe next year I’ll finally get a chance to sit down and binge-watch all of them, but it’s still too fresh for me. It feels like you’re saying goodbye to a big part of yourself and life. It’s hard to say. You go through a mourning process a little bit because, as you know, the show ended.
The fans are there mourning with you, but, you know, “Valhalla.”
Winnick: To end on an up note, this season’s been amazing. It’s going to be surprising. It’s definitely going to be a bunch of shockers, and the fans will not be disappointed. They’re going to be ecstatic when they see this season.
Vikings returns for its final season on Wednesday, December 4 at 9/8C on History.