Storytelling and history are no strangers to one another, the former offering audiences an opportunity to connect with the past through entertainment. For some history is interesting if only because we can’t touch it, and therein TV and film offers a means of opening up the past.
Writer and producer Michael Hirst frequents the past, preferring to stay out of the present day, telling us, “For me it is the richness and the texture, which is why I don’t like writing about what I call my contemporary life, because I don’t see the richness.” From Elizabethan and Tudor England, Hirst’s latest historical drama finds him travelling deeper into the past where he connects English history with the history of the continent to contribute a thoughtful discussion of the Vikings outside of their stereotypical image.
As the cast and crew were busily shooting series three HeyUGuys sat down on the set to gauge their thoughts on series two. In a three part feature series on set special, we look at creating the past with production designer Mark Geraghty, talk to lead actress Katheryn Winnick about stepping into the past and her thoughts on the storytelling process and discuss with the cast and crew creating a long form TV drama.
Resuming the feature actress Katheryn Winnick spoke with us about Lagertha’s complicated domesticity, as well as celebrating the behind the scenes collaboration that supports the work of the cast.
At beginning of season two when Ragnar gets home, Lagertha is not going to be too happy?
Yeah, what woman wouldn’t be pissed off? Season two picks up exactly where we left off in season one. There are a lot of things that are still up in the air – unresolved issues specifically about the fact that Ragnar cheated on her. I find out in the first episode of season two that there is a baby on the way, and so that changes everything for Lagertha as to what she is going to do, and where she is going to go.
Did you find that Ragnar’s actions changed her character completely, and was it therefore a difficult transition for you to make from season one to season two?
I don’t think it was so much of a difficult transition, because if anything Lagertha became stronger and so her identity was more defined in season two. I feel that she came into her own, and that she didn’t necessarily need a man. Yes she made decisions for Bjorn, and whilst being in other relationships, in terms of what she did it was for herself, and so she was not dependent on another man.
She does however get into a physically and emotionally abusive relationship in season two. Was it hard for you to justify her staying with him?
One hundred per cent and I actually remember calling Michael and saying to him, “Why would Lagertha do this?”
Because she is so strong in every other aspect.
Yeah, and he said, “I think it will be good so people can understand that women get into these relationships that are abusive, and they ask themselves why they are in these relationships that they never pictured themselves in.”
It’s interesting because we had to create a strong back story about why Lagertha would put herself in this situation. Maybe she didn’t know about it in the beginning, and maybe she did it for her son, but I really tried to craft something that would work for me. But she definitely gets her strength within that, and does what she has to do without giving it away.
The first season is focused on introducing the characters and the world to the audience. At the end of the first and on into the second season you don’t have to play it safe, and you are able to play around with things a little more. Is there a feeling of liberation when making that transition from the first to the second season?
Very much so, and I really do feel that. Season one established the characters, where you get to know their back stories, and you start to care about the relationship between the characters and their history. You are invested in who these people are as a family unit first, and that is the backbone of the show.
In season two we’ve expanded into new territories, where we are dealing with Wessex and King Ecbert, raiding, pillaging and exploring different worlds – the Anglo-Saxon world. So it gives you a sense of freedom knowing that’s already there, but you can explore different aspects of your personality that you didn’t necessarily explore in the first season.
What I realised in the jump from the first to the second season was how big the world can be, and how Michael is such a brilliant writer by having you care about that. It’s not just a small town in Kattegat or a small living room with Ragnar and Lagertha. It’s actually a whole world of Viking culture and time period that we don’t know about, which is really explored in season two. Just a hint but in season three it’s even beyond that.
So is it going to grow in scale?
Yeah and look around – look how many people we employ and how many people are here. It’s just getting bigger and bigger, and it’s great to see all of the same faces all the time too that are in their local villages, chopping the vegetables, selling the fish or that are in the shield wall – the other shield maidens and the other warriors. So it’s nice to see how invested they are even just by being in the background.
How important is that in a female role you get the chance to ‘kick ass’ with the guys? Some shows seem to be doing things the right way, but there are a lot of films in particular that seem to be handling the representation of women the wrong way. Do you feel any responsibility to get it right?
The main for me is as long as it’s authentic. I come from a martial arts background and I couldn’t throw spinning roundhouse kicks for Lagertha – it just wouldn’t work. So as long as I try to create and I try to make her as raw as possible because there were shield maidens that fought in the shield wall.
Lagertha was a real shield maiden that fought beside Ragna, and so it’s extremely probable, and not even probable, it’s reality; it’s what happened, although it just wasn’t told.
What’s interesting about this season or the series is that there is very little information out there about exactly how Vikings actually lived, because the Christian monks were the ones that offered their own skewed vision or interpretation. They were the only ones that were literate in that time period, and so it’s nice to have Michael Hirst tell the side of the story of how highly sophisticated, educated, though not educated in terms of education, civilised and how advanced they were. It was not just in terms of building boats, but how they worked as a society, and how women were able to be in a position of power in that time period.
So you had a crash course in Viking history as well?
Big time! Yeah, Vikings 101.
With any drama that is set in the past you are trying to create a sense of authenticity, and yet you can only create a representation of the past. Working on a show like Vikings is there that balancing act in of understanding that the drama can benefit and be hindered by fact?
I try not to think like that. Rather I try to just keep it authentic and as honest as possible. In terms of how to make it entertaining I would leave it up the editors, musicians or even Michael in terms of the sequences he writes or even the director and the way in which he wants to shoot it. But for me it’s all about playing the reality of the situation.
Ultimately everything is made for an audience, but were you ever conscious of how a scene or moment would eventually play to an audience or is that always far from your mind when performing?
It’s a combination of both. I do feel that Lagertha is a leader in her own movie in a sense, even though there are other storylines unfolding in the Vikings TV show. She has her own day to day struggles; she has her own issues to deal with what with being a woman in power, and her own issues with men. So I kind of look of it and fill in those holes even if it’s not on screen. I try to think where she is coming from; where is she going; what information do I know even though my character doesn’t know about what they did and where they raided. To understand your part is important, but more importantly it is where your character is, and you have to stick close to her for me.
The hair and the help to set the tone of the scene for the viewer. Does that physical transformation help you to get into character?
Thank you for bring that up because I think they definitely deserve a lot more credit than they have received. Joan Bergen does all of the costumes, and so much research and so much detail goes into every article and every piece of clothing. Every character from the leathers to the warrior outfits and armour, to the hair which is a whole different department are very different.
How they dye the clothes and carve the leather is what makes Lagertha different from this season to the last. How she has grown and now that she’s an Earl how does that change in terms of her status, and how do we tell the story just by one second on screen. It is told by the clothes and the hair
Even in the hair department when we sit down and read through the script they are so well prepared – okay, well this a vulnerable scene so I think Lagertha might have her hair in a softer way now or she is intimidating in battle sequences and so maybe it should be back to being stronger and also more practical to just to get it out of the way.
A lot of attention and a lot of detail go into every piece of creating this character so that you can do your work internally. But there are different departments that help you with it, and it’s really Joan who does the costumes, and Dee Corcoran and Catherine Argue does the hair. Then even the make up just for adding certain things such as adding the dirt, adding layers or darkening the eyes for a warrior is all very important in creating that look.
It’s a mutual conversation to answer your question – it’s not just one department. We sit down, we talk about it, and they’ve been kind and respectful enough as it’s our character to give us the final say.
We look at film and television where the visuals and sound are part of their language. But all these jobs that don’t get the attention they deserve forces you to consider how the language of storytelling is more complex than we often acknowledge.
Very much so, and we as actors might get the glory because we are on screen, but it really does come down to the work of so many different departments. I want to say that there are at least 400 people here today, not including the background actors. If you include those then we’re probably up to 600-700 people. The different departments from the dialect coach and the armoury – there’s a separate department that helps you with your armour or even creates certain shields, to the clothes, the hair and the lighting – specifically how to set a moodbased only on the lighting. They really deserve a lot more credit than they have received, and I hope that this publicity and other publicity is able to see that their hard work is what helps us to look good.
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Vikings Season 2 is out on Blu-ray and DVD on 3 November with interactive features only available on Blu-ray from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment