How 'Vikings' Star Katheryn Winnick Is Inspiring 'Courage and Confidence' Through Lagertha (Exclusive)
By Jennifer Drysdale
It's International Women's Day, and we're bowing down to our Viking queen, Lagertha -- and the woman who plays her.
For five seasons, Katheryn Winnick has starred as one of the most feminist characters on TV on History'sVikings, inspiring women both on and off screen to have "courage and confidence." As the Canadian actress tells ET, she saw an opportunity in her character from the beginning to make a statement about just how strong women can be. And years later, she proudly wears Lagertha's struggles as a badge of honor.
"I did ask [Vikings creator] Michael [Hirst] one thing at the beginning of the pilot. I said, 'Michael, write me a character that will challenge me. Throw me everything. I will promise you, I will prove to myself that I will be able to fulfill your wish, and I will make something special out of Lagertha,'" she recalls.
Winnick, who was already an accomplished martial artist before transitioning to acting, has definitely crafted Lagertha into something special. Over the years, fans have seen Lagertha through countless gruesome battles, her struggles as a mother, the loss of a child, the death of several lovers and an abusive relationship. It was the last on that long list that worried Winnick the most.
"I actually remember having that conversation with Michael. Like, 'Michael, you can't make me a battered housewife like this. It's just not what I stand for. She's a shieldmaiden! She's done everything!'" Winnick shares, admitting she was "nervous" to play someone who had been abused. "He explained to me why he was going to do it, and it actually, I think, a lot of people resonated with her."
"A lot of relationships of domestic abuse, especially now with the #MeToo movement, you see a lot of it coming forward," she notes. "These women are strong. They're just put in a situation where it's unfortunately based on power, and that's usually what any kind of sexual or physical abuse is. It's really a domination of power, and for [Lagertha], she always does come out stronger at the end."
Doing research and learning about the statistics surrounding women affected by abuse helped Winnick get on board with the choice for her character. "I think a lot of girls and women around the world can relate to being in a situation where their voices are not as strong," she says. "But hopefully they will have the courage and the confidence to be able to get out of the situation, and become even stronger, just as Lagertha did."
The 41-year-old actress is also helping to empower women in a more tangible way. "I have a strong need to teach women self-defense," she declares, explaining how she's used her martial arts background to support women. Since Vikings' first season in 2013, she's taught women on set a "crash course on self-defense." The actress, who, at the age of 16 established WIN KAI Martial Arts Schools in Toronto, now runs Winnick Self Defense with her brother, Adam. "I want to give women all the tools they need, based on knowledge, to get out of situations," she expresses.
And as Vikings wraps up -- the History hit is set to air its sixth and final season later this year -- Winnick has set her sights on expanding women's presence in entertainment. She recently directed an episode of season six, which she tells ET was "one of the most challenging yet most rewarding experiences of my life."
"For me, it was important to creatively test my skills outside of being in front of the camera... I've always had a desire to try to get behind the camera, and now we need more women filmmakers," she says. "I couldn't be more proud of my episode... it took a lot of time to earn the confidence from the powers at be to let me behind the camera, [but] I know I was the only cast member that has had that chance, and I'm grateful for that."
Onscreen, Winnick says fans can expect a great ending to Lagertha's dynamic story in season six of Vikings. "[Michael Hirst] wrote me, just recently, an email, and remembered that conversation [from the pilot], and it brought tears to my eyes," she reveals. "I'm just so blessed that I've had that opportunity to have a character that people worldwide recognize and look up to, especially right now, with everything that's happening with the #MeToo movement and Time's Up."
"I think right now, we need more role models like Lagertha. We need more women who speak out, and characters on TV that people look up to... someone that has substance, somebody that has true value, somebody that young girls can try to relate to and aspire to be," she continues. "I'm blessed and honored to say that I believe Lagertha has had that influence, and we need more of her out there, or characters like her out there."
Winnick notes a recent study concluding that women action heroes do actually draw viewers. "I think now it's changing with women being in front of the camera and behind the camera and more women directors, more women writers, more women producers," she says. "When I read that [study], I was like, 'Yes, finally, there's proof that we can draw an audience!'"