Long before she became a fiery shield maiden on the hit show Vikings, Katheryn Winnick was kindling her inner warrior in the suburbs of Toronto. At age 7, she was learning taekwondo, and by the time she was 21, she was running three martial arts schools. When she made the transition into acting a few years later, Winnick’s fighting skills occasionally popped up on her lengthy list of film and TV credits—including guest spots on nearly every network procedural (CSI, Law & Order, House, Bones, Person of Interest) in the past 15 years.
But it wasn’t until her role as Lagertha on Vikings that the 39-year-old actress found a character that truly embodied the mental and physical strength she had developed as a confident young martial artist. Now filming the show’s fifth season in Ireland, Winnick took a break to discuss why she doesn’t feel pressure in the cutthroat business that is Hollywood, her new film The Dark Tower and what it’s like to see a tattoed depiction of herself on someone’s chest.
THE RED BULLETIN: Your parents got your entire family into taekwondo—sounds like a unique way to spend time together.
KATHERYN WINNICK: It was the best thing that ever happened. It just bonded us. It’s one of those few sports that you can do at any level, and all do at the same time. Even though it’s an individual sport, you can do it based on your own personal goals, depending on your age and physical ability. I think every family should do martial arts together.
You started your first taekwondo school when you were 16. Did that entrepreneurial spirit come from your family, too?
Definitely. My dad was an entrepreneur, and he took risks. At that point in my life, taking a risk to start a business didn’t seem so risky because I knew that I had a roof over my head and I had family that would encourage me. We come from humble beginnings. I had no financial assistance whatsoever, but I did have the emotional support and my mom helped me with the accounting. I wanted to create my own reality, and the only way of doing that is to be your own business owner. I took what I knew at that time, taekwondo, and I excelled at it. No one’s going to give anything to you. You’ve got to work hard for yourself.
Acting can be an inconsistent career. How did you stay focused during the times when you weren’t working?
I always work, so it’s hard for me to answer that. Even if I’m not on camera, I’m constantly building other businesses. Right now I’m working to bring back my company Win Kai Self Defense, which focuses on teaching women how to defend themselves. I’m constantly self-generating.
Does that come from a pressure to diversify, especially in an industry that often gives women expiration dates?
I don’t feel that pressure, maybe because I have always been a firm believer that you create your own reality. No one gave me the acting job. I had to go out and learn my craft and audition and fight for it. It’s the same way with anything I spend time on and try to learn. When I realize the amount of opportunities out there, I sometimes get so excited that I can’t sleep at night. You just have to see those opportunities and reach for them. My dad instilled in me at a young age that your dreams are only as big as your vision, so why not shoot for being the best version of yourself, the highest potential you can possibly get to? Even if you don’t get there, I believe you’ll get very close.
It certainly helps to have that confidence. When do you feel at your strongest?
When I’m confident about who I am and what I want, then I feel that is the most powerful version of myself. I think a lot of people misinterpret the word “strong.” That you need to have this wall up or have a defense mechanism. There’s a lot of strength in being soft, and being a woman, and being clear in what you want and what you don’t want. There’s power in self-confidence and having femininity and not being shy about it.
I feel strongest when I wake up and I have no makeup on. I don’t need to put anything on my face and just be comfortable with who I am—in my flannel or silk pajamas. Probably silk these days because it’s warm and cold in Ireland at the same time, and silk is the best for heat [laughs].
Since you’re currently in Ireland filming Vikings, I want to ask about your dedicated fan base. Do you have a new appreciation for them?
I do. I just started “Fan Art Fridays,” where I pick my top four choices of art or tattoos or cosplay and share them on social media. I wanted to give back somehow and help get their hard work and artistic expression out there. It’s just mind-blowing that there are such die-hard fans out there—around the world, in every culture. It sometimes amazes me, especially when I see a new tattoo pop up at least once or twice a week.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen?
At Comic-Con, I saw a fan lift up his shirt and show me a full chest-plate tattoo of Lagertha in the sacrifice scene [in Season 4]. And I’m like, wow, staring at myself on someone else’s body—that’s a little crazy! But I’m not going to be the one bursting their bubble if they’re die-hard fans. It’s pretty remarkable that they would have me on their body for life.
Speaking of fans, you’re appearing in The Dark Tower, based on Stephen King’s popular fantasy series. What was it like being part of an adaptation of such a beloved book?
I didn’t realize the magnitude of this film until we were filming in Cape Town. It was a very quick casting for me, and it wasn’t until I got to South Africa that I started doing research. I’m a fan of Stephen King, but I didn’t realize the amount of fans out there that are dedicated to The Gunslinger series.
How was it working with Matthew McConaughey and Idris Elba?
It was such a delight. I believe it will bring this film to a different level, by bringing their personalities into the script and making it their own, versus bringing the novel to life. This movie has been in the making for a long time, but I think the fans won’t be disappointed.
Looking ahead, I read that you keep a vision board. What are you envisioning for your future at this moment?
If I had to make a vision board right now, I would just continue what I’m doing—working with great filmmakers, getting healthy and feeling balanced. Buy another piece of property, probably a house. You know, it’s funny because all my things on my vision boards— they always come true. I’ve been pretty lucky that I’ve reached a lot of my milestones that way in the past, so we’ll see.
The Dark Tower hits theaters August 4.