Written thousands of years ago, the Sagas tell us that when the marauding Scandinavian warriors of Viking times met their end, they went to Valhalla, to eat, drink and be merry beside the old gods. There is an exception. When Lagertha died – the pioneering warrior at the heart of Michael Hirst’s Vikings – she went to Disney+.
“I wasn’t upset when I was told I was getting written out,” says Katheryn Winnick, who played Lagertha for all six seasons of the historical thriller. “We’d been talking about it for a while. If anything, I was like: “When am I gonna go?!”
“I thought I was leaving ‘Vikings’ in season four, but they convinced me to stay”
Lagertha met her grisly end at the start of the final season, after being stabbed to death – excessively, it must be said – by stepson Hvitserk. “I thought I was going to go in season four when the show became more about Ragnar’s sons, but they convinced me to stay on with the offer of directing an episode. I really wanted to direct, and I didn’t want to be in the episode I was directing, so it was time to say goodbye. Leaving was always, always, always part of the plan.”
Created by Hirst, the British writer of rock ‘n’ roll historical dramas like The Tudors, Vikings ran from 2013 to late December last year. After a career of guesting in episodic TV staples like Bones, CSI, House and Criminal Minds, it was the show that made Winnick a star. There had been ice-cool, ass-kicking women on the box before – Xena The Warrior Princess and Battlestar Galactica’s Starbuck spring to mind – but Lagatha wasn’t just a part of the show, but often (certainly in the post-Ragnar years) the reason to tune in. After Lagertha’s demise, Winnick made her promised directorial debut, which she won the Women’s Image Award for Best Director in Film and Television. The name of the episode she directed? Fittingly, it was ‘Valhalla Can Wait’.
And while Valhalla is waiting, Winnick has made a new on-screen home for herself in Montana, USA. It’s a location that, like so much of America’s great expanses, has a beguiling, savage beauty. It serves as the backdrop for her new show Big Sky, which debuts in the UK next week on Star, Disney Plus’ new home for ‘mature’ content. Based on the 2013 novel The Highway by C. J. Box and directed by veteran hitmaker David E. Kelley (Doogie Howser, M.D., Ally McBeal, most recently Big Little Lies), it’ll be tough for the show to match Vikings‘ global success.
“I was not interested in signing on for another TV series, whatsoever,” she says. “But when David Kelley calls to offer you a role, you have to look at it seriously. I was on Vikings for seven years. It was an iconic role, and I had such a strong relationship with Michael Hirst. I didn’t imagine that anything could top that. I was going to take some time off, then focus on films and directing [crime drama Flag Day, starring Winnick and directed by Sean Penn is currently in post-production] but things quickly turned when I got that phone call. I made the decision within a few days.”
You might watch episode one of Big Sky and think: ‘Gawd, not another grim drama in which women are put through the ringer solely to give men something to fight about’ – but stick with it and you’ll discover a thriller that is both surprising and provocative. Winnick plays ex-cop and private detective Jenny Hoyt, who despite being estranged from her husband Cody [Ryan Phillippe] continues to work for his agency. She’s cast alongside fellow Canadian Kylie Bunbury, who plays the private investigator Cassie Dewell. Cassie not only co-owns said agency but is sleeping with Jenny’s husband. Disfunction ultimately follows. It’s basically Cagney & Lacey meets The Jerry Springer Show.
“The core of the entire show is really Jenny and Cassie,” says Winnick. “They’re a duo and it’s them solving cases. They’re in love with the same guy and there’s betrayal there, but they have to get past that and work together to help resolve these cases.”
“There is a lack of opportunity for women who want to direct”
As characters go, Jenny couldn’t be further from Lagertha. There’s a vulnerability to her that we never saw from the Viking shitkicker. For much of the episodes that we’ve seen, Winnick plays the cop with tears streaming and visible pain etched across her face. But if there are parallels, it’s in the show’s depiction of female characters as fully rounded, nuanced people. This shouldn’t be worthy of praise, but hey, we’ve still got some way to go.
“You don’t often see two strong female leads running a show, carrying a show or being number one on the call sheet,” says Winnick. “I’m really proud that Big Sky has that.” But representation is also important behind the camera, and Winnick is committed to developing that cause as well.
“There is a lack of opportunity for women who want to direct,” she says. “It’s that simple. I got lucky by leveraging my acting [on Vikings] so that I could have the opportunity to direct. I’m directing Big Sky [in the future] which I’m very excited about. But a lot of men get their chance much earlier. There’s not a process of grooming female writers or directors or storytellers. The infrastructure just isn’t there. I think every show should have to hire X number of female directors, to give them opportunities. If our population globally is 50% women, or somewhere very close to that, why shouldn’t we tell stories through a female lens? It’s definitely a very different dynamic on set when you have a woman behind the lens and not a man.”
Winnick made her TV debut in 1999, in the Peter Aykroyd [younger brother of Dan, who appears in the series] creation PSI Factor: Chronicles of The Paranormal – not a show we’ve seen, but one we now dearly want to. 22 years into her career, has anything changed?
“Getting women actors paid the same as their male counterparts is still a challenge”
“We are going in the right direction,” she says, after some thought. “But we do still have a long way to go. We really do. Getting women actors paid the same as their male counterparts is still a challenge. There’s always a big discrepancy. Women who are crew members normally fall into the same category on set: hair and make-up or costume. But how come you don’t see them as cinematographers or camera operators? I am so proud that six out of 10 episodes of the first season of Big Sky have been directed by women. If there’s one thing I’m passionate about, it’s about giving women opportunities.”
Asked how the Canadian American citizen has found the last four years of turmoil south of the border – Winnick splits her time between Canada and her home in California – she responds by saying, “I don’t really like to talk about politics…” Then, unprompted, she does anyway. “I do feel strongly that we’re in a challenging time politically – with the recession and the pandemic and the racial issues, it’s heart-breaking – but I’m happy to say that we have a great president on board right now, and I’m excited to see the changes happening. It’s been a long time coming. But it’s 2021. It baffles me why we can’t all unite…”
Again, she points to Big Sky as reflecting the change we need. “My co-star is an African American woman. Some of our directors were African American women. We also have a non-binary character, Jerrie [played by Jessie James Keitel], and we’re challenging issues like sex trafficking, racial issues, and Native Americans being kidnapped. There’s a lot of different issues that I think we’re tapping into. We’re trying hard to break the norms.”
In keeping with the show’s key theme of sisterhood, the relationship of Winnick and Bunbury (most notable for her appearance in Netflix’s When They See Us) is tight. “She’s great,” she says. “She’s such a fun loving, easy-going person and a great co-star. It was her birthday the other day and I surprised her by filling up her entire trailer with balloons and cupcakes.”
“I got hurt on ‘Vikings’ a lot and my body definitely has the scars”
Hmmm. Given that Winnick and Bunbury have the most visceral fight you’ll see outside of UFC in Big Sky’s first episode – Winnick began martial arts training aged 7, got her first black belt aged 13, and by 21 owned three Taekwondo schools – there might have been an ulterior motive to Winnick’s generosity…
“That was rough,” she says. “I walked away black and blue. It wasn’t properly handled in terms of shooting and of course coming off of Vikings – I’ll keep going if the cameras are rolling. I think that was mine and Kylie’s first scene! Looking back, having a brawl and bashing each other’s heads into the ground is probably not the best way to start a new relationship. But we got past that. You won’t see it in the episode, but we shot a lot more of that scene. It took us six hours of fighting, and I think you just get 15 seconds which was disappointing – but that’s TV. It sets up these two women as people who are okay with getting down and dirty and fighting for what they believe in.”
Leaving a film lot in bits isn’t a new experience for Winnick. “Many, many times I got hurt on Vikings and my body definitely has the scars [to prove it]. My fingers have been hit so many times with a sword or shield that my knuckles are definitely different than they were seven years ago before I came into Vikings. I refuse to have a stand-in, and I did all my own stunts. Every time you see Lagertha on screen, it’s me. It was an extremely tough show, but I gave it my all and I worked really hard and I don’t think I would have had it any other way. I think that’s one of the things that made it so successful.”
Valhalla is still waiting for Winnick, then, and with two films in post-production – and more Big Sky to come – it’ll be waiting for a while yet. But in line with her physical excursion on set, Winnick doesn’t do easy.
“There was some comfort in playing Lagertha,” she says. “You put your hair into braids and put on your furs and an accent and over seven years I knew who she was. I still don’t really know who Jen is. I’m trying to work it out.”
Katheryn Winnick smiles. “I’m so excited to do that though.”