Taking charge on screen has never been a problem for Katheryn Winnick’s Lagertha on Vikings. Through five plus seasons of the History drama series, Lagertha has been a respected warrior and queen, and Winnick has been nominated for a Canadian Screen Award and Critic’s Choice Award for her performance. However, she recently had the opportunity to step behind the camera and lead things from a whole new perspective. In Vikings’ upcoming sixth season, Winnick had her first chance to direct an episode.
The Toronto native recently spoke with The TV Junkies about her experience directing Vikings as part of our Women Behind Canadian TVseries. She detailed how the opportunity came about, as well as what she learned from Helen Shaver and other great female directors who have worked on Vikings episodes in the past. Winnick also discussed the challenge of first being seen as an actor and then director, and how she’s overcome it in order to land other directing jobs like the upcoming Netflix series Wu Assassins.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The TV Junkies: You’ve had a very successful career in front of the camera as an actress, so what made you want to get behind the camera and try your hand at directing?
Katheryn Winnick: Believe it or not, I actually started off directing plays in high school before I was an actress. I’ve always had a strong fascination with storytelling, as well as just being on camera. It’s always been in the back of my head, but one of the hardest things, especially being a woman, is to get the opportunity of having someone believe in you and getting a chance to show your talent and direct.
For me, after doing Vikings and them wanting me to come back for seasons upon seasons, I then asked and told them I wanted to direct. They were very supportive of that, and there’s nothing better than being involved in the show from the very first day, to now getting to tell a story a different way behind the camera. That’s especially true for someone like me that has read every script, knows every actor, knows [creator] Michael Hirst and how he works. It was just such a rewarding experience to creatively dive into a different avenue.
TTVJ: Yes, I have to imagine it was so great having your first experience in an environment and with a crew that you’re so familiar with.
KW: It definitely was an easier transition than I would think a lot of other female directors have when they get their first break. I knew everyone well, am friends with all the cast members, and have a crew where some of them go back 20 years and worked together on Braveheart. They are family in Ireland, so when they heard I was directing, they all worked hard to make sure it went smoothly, I got everything that I wanted, and made my day. It really helped me walk away with a piece of material that I’m really proud of as a first time director.
TTVJ: Vikings has had women like Helen Shaver, a very well known and respected director, direct a few times. I saw that you shadowed her prior to your experience. What did you learn from working with her that you took forward into this?
KW: We’ve had the privilege to work with some really fantastic female directors on Vikings, and if you ask any of the other cast members, they will echo my thoughts that some of our strongest directors were women — including Helen Shaver and Kari Skogland. Helen has been there many years and we’ve established a friendship, and she’s someone who I respect so much as a director and artist. I wanted to shadow her through pre-production, on set and even in post-production in editing in Toronto to see how things are properly done. She’s been a great mentor of mine and I love her dearly.
She also comes from the same background as I do in terms of being an actress and then director. I truly feel that there’s certain dialogue and a different set of eyes when you deal with actor directors. I feel that’s one of my strengths as well because I know how to break down a script and I know the characters. Helen also has that talent and it’s amazing to see her work. I learned so much from her and I have so much more to learn. I’m so blessed that she’s been a great asset and help.
TTVJ: I spoke with Helen a few years ago as part of this series, and it was one of my favorite interviews to sit and listen to her discuss her career. She’s such a talented director and a very warm person.
KW: She’s amazing. I do think it’s hard for women to break through in this industry like she has. It truly is. I hope to inspire other young female filmmakers to get out there and get your breaks, if it’s a short film or an independent movie. I feel that it’s important to have that female voice behind the camera.
TTVJ: Vikings isn’t exactly shot all in a studio and much of it takes place outside with huge battles. How did that play into things for you as a director, and what kind of challenges does the sheer scale of a show like Vikings pose?
KW: There were a couple of things I requested from Michael Hirst as he was writing this episode. I wanted a big event where I could showcase cinematically a good story point and get the chance to raise the stakes for the episode. I also wanted a strong action sequence, as I love that coming from a Taekwondo background and doing all my own stunts. I feel that it’s one of my strengths. Lastly, I wanted just storytelling and real character drama where we get inside the head of our lead actors and giving them an opportunity to show a new color they haven’t before. For me, knowing them as friends, I had a shorthand that I could tap into, or use a personal experience of theirs that could be helpful in their acting. I am so blessed I had that opportunity.
I also just finished directing Wu Assassins and that was a very different experience. On that, I came into a new set that I had only known for a few months and had to direct. It has a strong action component as well, and I adore getting to tell the action in a different way. This was more kung-fu action style.
TTVJ: As you mentioned, you not only got the opportunity to direct Vikings, but now on Wu Assassins as well. Still, do you think being a woman affects any of the opportunities you may or may not get as a director?
KW: I do think it’s important to say that there are still challenges being a woman in this industry, and I wish I didn’t have to highlight that but there are. A lot of people see you one way, being an actor who is trying to transition as director, and there’s been some battles I have had to overcome that have only made me a stronger person. With more women transitioning to directing in years to come, we’ll hopefully have a little bit of an easier path. I wouldn’t trade mine though for the world because I just adore storytelling. Acting is a huge passion of mine, but I love directing because I feel that it’s something I can do without having the pressure of hair, makeup and looking a certain way. Instead, as a director I know I can still be fulfilled creatively for years to come.
TTVJ: Were there any parts of directing that surprised you?
KW: One of my favorite things is editing. It is so interesting to me that you can take a whole scene and change a perspective through editing, just by changing a character’s point of view or making a stylistic choice. Sometimes you have one idea in your head, or the script says one thing, but because of the schedule, or if you have rain that day on Vikings and inconsistent light patterns, you can find happy surprises or magical moments by editing.
TTVJ: Do you have any advice for young women looking to get into the industry, whether it’s in front of or behind the scenes?
KW: Fight for it. Canada does support a lot women filmmakers, but it starts with getting that opportunity. Show your reel, whether it’s a short film or something you made on your iPhone. You don’t need a huge production crew to practice telling a story. I truly believe with preparation you will be able to get the right opportunity and be ready for it when it does come.
Young girls should know though that you can be the director. You can wear that director’s hat. We need more strong female role models and strong voices because at the end of the day, 50 per cent of the population are women, and it’s important to represent them in the right away. We need more young girls to see this as a potential career. That starts too with women writers as well and having that female voice added to the script. We need to support women writers whether it’s a novel, script, screenplay or a play. It’s important to have those words written down and should encourage more young girls to write.
To go even to a third level then, to have producers and higher ups and executives giving women the opportunity to showcase their talents as a director, writer or producer. It’s important to have that support and unfortunately, there’s very few women at the top as decision makers in North America. So we need men who are in the position of power to open the doors and give women the opportunity.
TTVJ: Is there anything else you wanted to add?
KW: I would love to mention that my big passion is doing charity work and helping women arm themselves with self defense. I started a company called Win Kai Self Defense and one of my greatest moments is giving back every year. I always teach all the girls on set in Ireland a crash course for self defense. I think it’s important, and something I want to do now as a female director and being a Canadian, is help to get a program out there that allows everybody a chance to learn how to defend themselves. It does start within, and that confidence and how you carry yourself does lead to your relationships and into your work. It’s a big passion of mine so keep your eyes open.
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Vikings airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET on History. Read more from our Women Behind Canadian TV serieshere.
Editor in Chief Bridget Liszewski comes from a long line of TV Junkies who fostered her love of television from a very young age. She's channeled that passion into covering both US and Canadian television shows, and is thankful everyday for the invention of the DVR. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, she loves college football and is a fan of sports in general. Bridget is always up for talking TV and you can follow her on twitter at @BridgetOnTV.