The One Vikings Scene Katheryn Winnick Struggled With

Vikings was an unlikely success for The History Channel. It was the first stab (so to speak) at a scripted dramatic series — historical fiction, not just documentaries — for the channel. The show debuted in 2013 and was, in the language of less academic folks, a hit.

Fans of the series have become especially devoted to Katheryn Winnick's portrayal of the shieldmaiden Lagertha, called "a potent central figure" by Darren Franich, writing for Entertainment Weekly. The character has been pivotal, with dramatic story arcs that saw her grandchild die in her arms, or killing her traitorous new husband on their wedding day. In retrospect, it's hard to imagine anyone but Winnick bringing this complicated, passionate, strong, but flawed character to life. 

However, things were not always easy for the actress, who opened up about the physical and emotional challenges of playing her character. The toughest scene in the show for Winnick had nothing to do gruesome Blood Eagle executions or murderous power grabs. It was a foe as old as time itself ... the weather

Vikings is an 'all-weather' show

In an Instagram interview with fans, when Winnick was asked what her toughest scene was to shoot, she replied: "swimming in the freezing water with pounds of armor on," according to the UK's Metro. For another scene, outdoors, in cold and wet conditions, "We had a medic on set and he was checking us [to see] if we would go into shock because your body would literally be frozen. And we'd get into this little hot box to warm up and then go back out and shoot because it was a very, very intense shoot in below zero temperature," she told TV Guide.

Period dramas are notoriously tough on actors, who must endure unwieldy costumes, animals, weaponry, and often filming conditions that are almost as primitive as the times they seek to depict. Vikings is no exception. The geographical settings are stark, and the costumes aren't something you'd necessarily pick out for back-to-school from Target. It follows then, that the cast for such a show should not only be qualified dramatic actors, but also physically prepared.

For her part, Winnick is a trained actor, but more than that — and especially helpful in becoming Lagertha — she's a highly skilled and accomplished martial artist. Vanity Fair reports that she holds a third-degree black belt in taekwondo, and a second-degree black belt in karate. Not content to simply study and excel, by the time she was 21, Winnick owned three martial arts studios, all while completing a degree in kinesiology (the study of movement) at York University, Ontario, Canada, per her fan site bio.

A degree in the martial arts

Winnick's martial arts training may have made her a decent candidate for a Bruce Lee-type role, but it made her perfect for the role of Lagertha — a powerful, independent woman capable of holding her own on the battlefield.

Like the core story of Vikings, the inspiration for the character of Lagertha was taken from Norse mythology. Specifically, she appears in the 13th Century writings of Saxo Grammaticus, says the Ancient History Encyclopedia. At least twice, according to Saxo, Lagertha is directly responsible for battlefield victories of her husband, Ragnar. Saxo wrote: "though a maiden, [she] had the courage of a man, and fought in front among the bravest with her hair loose over her shoulders. All marveled at her matchless deeds, for her locks flying down her back betrayed that she was a woman."

With real-world physical abilities far beyond most, Winnick was able to authentically embody her character's fearless, warrior attitude — even in the face of death. "Weep not, poor Hvitserk," says Lagertha in her last moments, per EW. "Tonight I'll sit with my beloved Ragnar in the halls of the gods." 

That certainly sounds more comfortable than wearing soaking chainmail in arctic conditions.

Triple threat: Martial artist, actor, and director

Given the physically demanding nature of acting on Vikings, it's no wonder Winnick became interested in directing — which she did, returning after her character's death to helm the episode "Valhalla Can Wait," according to VarietyThe return was a difficult experience in itself, as Winnick showed up on set to prep for her directorial debut at an awkward time — during the filming of Lagertha's funeral. 

"To see a prosthetic me lying there on the boat and all these hundreds of actors who are mourning over Lagertha, it was just so surreal," she told TV Guide. "I felt like I was watching my own funeral. I actually had to leave. It was too emotionally hard for me to stay for that. So it was definitely something that I'll always remember and cherish."

Vikings has remained a solid performer for History throughout its tenure, with rich storytelling that didn't flinch when it came to brutal honesty about a brutal period of European history. Battles, torture, drugs, ambition, and cultural archaeology all combined to create a sense of time and place rarely equaled in television. But all reigns must end. 

The series will wrap in 2020 after 89 episodes and a whole lot of fake blood and internal organs (at least, we hope they're fake). For those who haven't had enough, Netflix will be carrying a sequel series, Vikings: Valhalla, set 100 years after the original, according to Entertainment Weekly.