'Vikings' Star Katheryn Winnick on Ending an 'Era' With Her Directorial Debut (Exclusive)

vikings' katheryn winnick
History Channel


Katheryn Winnick's directorial debut is here. TheVikingsstar's beloved character, Lagertha, took her last breath on the Jan. 8 episode of the History show, but Winnick's work on the series wasn't over. 

The Canadian actress returns to Vikings on this week's episode -- but this time, as director. Winnick is the only Vikings castmember to step behind the camera on the show, in a move that took years of hard work and preparation. Her milestone directorial debut on "Valhalla Can Wait," just one episode after Lagertha's funeral, was the cherry on top of her seven years on the series.

"What a way to say goodbye," Winnick marvels to ET. "To come by, say goodbye as a director was the best gift I could ever ask for and the best goodbye I could ever ask for."

"Vikings has been definitely a momentous, if not the highlight of my career to this date, and it was an overwhelming experience to actually leave Ireland and say goodbye. But I feel that I left a completely different person," she adds. 

In a candid interview, Winnick opens up to ET about her transition to directing, saying goodbye to Vikings and what comes next. 

ET: You've been an icon for women in front of the camera, but seeing women behind it is still not as common as it should be. What did it mean for you to be able to offer that same inspiration to women on the other side of things? 

Katheryn Winnick: It was a huge honor to get a chance to direct Vikings. I'm the only cast member that did it and will ever do it, and to have that opportunity, it took six years. But finally, when I did, it was just so gratifying to be able to work with my fellow actors who I consider close friends and family at this point. And to be able to know the storylines as well as you do and know every script and know about the characters and know the tone of the show, and to be able to put your creative flair on it behind the camera was such a rewarding experience -- and the most challenging. 

It was extremely intimidating as well, to be able to command a set of hundreds of people, especially in Ireland, a male-dominating set usually. But I couldn't have asked for a better platform to be able to have a directorial debut. I had such support from my fellow actors, as well as the crew members that gave me a lot of their time and energy to really help make it a smooth, easy process, and rewarding. I couldn't have done it alone, so I'm very grateful for that. 


Are you happy you closed the book on acting on Vikings before stepping into the director's chair? 

It was definitely very calculative. I didn't want to direct myself. I felt that was too much of a challenge for my first time directing, and it was important for me to be able to just focus on it. And it's a different mindset. If you're in the acting chair, you're getting changed, when you're on set, you realize how precious time is, and to set up between shots. And as an actor, you don't really get that luxury. You don't really see what happens between takes, so much because you're preparing for your lines or getting into different costumes, switching over. But as a director, you definitely have to keep track of the clock, you need to be able to make decisions really quickly, you need to be able to be as prepared as you possibly can and realize that things might not turn out as you expected, and to choose your battles. 

It's definitely -- I feel every actor should give themselves the ability to direct and give themselves the opportunity. And I really strongly feel that women should have the opportunity as well to get behind the camera, because we definitely need more female filmmakers and more female directors. I was just at the Golden Globes, and it was unfortunate that not a single woman director got nominated. And it's time that this is going to change, and I feel that it's up to the studios, it's up to the producers, to be able to give women the opportunity to get behind the camera and create an infrastructure to be able to prepare to have their directorial debut, if it is from an actor's point of view, or if they're writers or create some sort of mentorship program to be able to shadow other directors to give them the experience. I feel it should be part of the ongoing television process, to breed more female filmmakers. 

You said it took six years to make your directorial debut. Why did it take so long for you to get behind the camera? What was the process there?

[It took that long] to really convince the studio and the producers that I could do it and to put in the time and energy -- and in all fairness, I had such a great learning curve by watching other great directors that came on set of Vikings and I shadowed them. Helen Shaver was one of the female directors I shadowed. I got a chance to spend time in the editing room, and seeing the process, which you don't really have the luxury sometimes as an actor, because you're so critical, and you don't have the opportunity to really get behind the camera. 

Would I have loved to have done it earlier? Of course. But sometimes it's give and take. They wanted me for longer [as Lagertha] and I wanted to direct and sometimes you have to negotiate for time to get that opportunity. And I was really happily surprised that they gave me such a -- it really started my directing career. I couldn't feel more blessed about having that. I would not be where I am today if I did not have their support -- History Channel, MGM and my fellow actors and [Vikings creator] Michael Hirst. 


You wrapped on Lagertha, so your last day on the Vikings set was as a director. What did you do when you were done? Was there a big, formal goodbye?

It was surreal, if I'm 100 percent honest with you. It was more of an out-of-body experience, because I had to pack up my house that I lived in in Ireland for almost seven years. And you're saying goodbye to a family, you're saying goodbye to a neighborhood.  I lived in Ireland, so it's not like I got a chance to go home and see my family and friends often. That was across the pond, across the ocean. So, it was really saying goodbye to an era for me. Vikings has been definitely a momentous, if not the highlight of my career to this date, and it was an overwhelming experience to actually leave Ireland and say goodbye. But I also felt, feeling that I left a completely different person. 

I remember when I first moved to Ireland, I got the call saying that I booked Vikings, and I had to leave in five days, to move my entire life across the world. And now, six, seven years later, to say goodbye... I think I went there as a girl and I left there as an actor who is proud of her work and such an iconic character, and also as a director. I left Ireland a more educated, evolved person. I definitely feel I had a big growth spurt in the last seven years and for that, I'm eternally grateful. 

I remember when I got the original conversation [about directing] -- and I was debating it. I remember speaking to a fellow director, actually, it was Helen Shaver, and I said, "Should I do this opportunity?" And she was like, "Well, would it make you a better person?" And I'm like, "Well yeah, it terrifies me. It scares the living sh*t out of me to be able to have that opportunity to direct." And she's like, "Great, well then, you will learn something about yourself." And that is true. I definitely learned a lot about myself and how to handle conflicts and how to make decisions quickly and how to be able to have a creative flair and work with actors. It's definitely been an invaluable experience not only as an actor but also as an artist. 

What's up next for you? More directing? 

I have been directing. I got the chance to do a Netflix show [Wu Assassins] last year, and I'm hoping for other directing opportunities this year as well. I'm trying to decide which direction I want to go in. Obviously acting I'm excited about as well. 

I have a few movies coming out next year. I have to go finish off a movie [Flag Day] with Sean Penn, which he directed and starred in with his daughter, Dylan Penn, and Josh Brolin. Miles Teller's in it. That's about to come out, it's a great project. I did a movie with Liam Neeson, [The Minuteman], as well, and one with Aaron Eckhart, [Wander]. There's some great indies this coming year. But as a director, I'm definitely looking at other projects and there's some things in the works as well. And not only television but also to produce and do movies as well. I love things based on real stories. Keep your eyes open, because you'll definitely see me again. 

Vikings airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on History. 


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