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Canuck actresses make their medieval mark on 'Vikings,' back for a 2nd season

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DUBLIN - A couple of Canuck actresses are making their medieval mark in the Canada-Ireland co-production "Vikings," which sails back for a second season Thursday.

While Australian-born Travis Fimmel stars as Viking chieftain Ragnar Lothbrok, many of the other principal cast members are Canadian, including Katheryn Winnick who plays Ragnar's former wife and now ally-in-arms Lagertha, and Jessalyn Gilsig who plays Siggy, wife of the slain King Earl Haraldson. Donal Logue (King Horik) and Alexander Ludwig (Lagertha's grown son Bjorn) are two other prominent Canadians in the cast.

Every word of the first two seasons has been written by creator Michael Hirst, an English screenwriter best known for the feature "Elizabeth" and the series "The Tudors."

Hirst was very involved in casting and knew finding Lagertha would be a challenge.

"We got offered lots of beautiful young models, but I don't quite see that myself," says Hirst, interviewed on a fur-filled dwelling on the show's enormous sound stage. "I mean, I like them, and we might use them in the show, but not for this character."

Lagertha, a legendary figure in Viking history, had to look "kick ass" says Hirst, like she's raised two kids and killed people in battle. "A lot of these girls, they don't look like they ever did any of those things, really."

A Canadian producer suggested Winnick, mentioning that the Toronto-native was a black belt in taeKwondo.

A test, involving two scenes, was set up on Skype. "One was this kind of tender little innocent love scene thing and the other one was a speech from the throne," says Hirst, "and she totally screwed up the intimate thing. She couldn't do it at all, it was rubbish. "But when she sat on the throne," he says, "blew you away! Blew you away!"

Hirst told Winnick, "we can teach you that other stuff, but we can't teach someone to have presence.' You know, of that age, to be a queen."

Winnick is looking less-than-regal on a location at a picturesque farm north of Dublin. A scene on horseback has just been blocked by Canadian director Ken Girotti. While, as the locals say, the Irish weather changes every ten minutes, it is warm in the sunshine on this October day. Winnick is taking no chances, though, with five heat packs buried underneath multiple layers of fabric and fur.

The 36-year-old Toronto-native is also smeared with movie mud and nicked all over with faux battle scars.

"There are no mirrors on this set," she says. "You forget you have blood and dirt all over your face. I love getting dirty for this job though; it's part of the character."

Lagertha divorces Ragnar (common practice in Viking times) and becomes an Earl in Season Two. In this scene, she's part of a three alliance force and leads her own army. A hostage exchange is taking place.

"Women were very empowered back then," she says of the early medieval drama, which takes place at the beginning of the ninth century.

That suits Winnick, who really does have a third degree black belt in taekwondo as well as a second degree black belt in karate. Her whole family, including three siblings, got into martial arts when she was seven. She earned her first black belt at 13 and was operating three different martial arts schools by the time she was 21.

After training director David Cronenberg's daughter at a summer camp, Winnick started teaching martial arts on movie sets as a personal trainer. She later whipped Jennifer Jason Leigh into shape on Cronenberg's "Existenz."

So playing a Viking warrior seems about right-even if she's a little embarrassed about the name of the horse she's riding in this scene. "Sparkle," she says. "Sparkle the warrior horse."

Interviewed on a rolling green farm field that looks like it could spring from a calendar shot, Gilsig says her character, Siggy, is in "an on-and-off relationship" as Season Two begins with Ragnar's brother Rollo (played by Clive Standen).

Her wily character also schemes with others to solidify her position. Season Two, she says, "is really about me seeing if I can beat the system."

Seems she'll stop at nothing to get what she wants. "Siggy's really dirty this year," she teases. "You gotta use what you got. Am I right?"

The character has been through a lot, including the loss of her daughter, so not much intimidates her anymore. "She's unflappable," says Gilsig. "I mean, what are you gonna do? Kill her?"

In order to do "Vikings," the Montreal native has had to commit half of each year to working in Ireland, thousands of miles from her home in Los Angeles. Some would see it as disruptive, but Gilsig says there are advantages to working far from Hollywood.

In L.A., "we're asked to promote things constantly, so you're always reflecting on what you've done, which is not a great way to work. It's really good to just do it, and let it be."

She's also okay with being a little hard to reach. "It's kind of nice, because we can really immerse ourselves in the world, and I think that makes the show better."

The former "Glee" star has met with fans of the series at Comic-Con and marvelled at how knowledgeable viewers were about Viking times.

"If we had been at all inauthentic, they would have exposed us," says Gilsig, who found many viewers had read up on Norse history. "They really knew the show and knew the characters."

All that attention, she says, "makes us want to do better."

So far the attention to detail is paying off: "Vikings" finished last season as Canada's No. 1 rated specialty entertainment drama.

"Vikings" airs at 10 p.m. Thursday on History.

___

Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist. While in Ireland, he was a guest of History.

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