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‘Vikings’s’ Katheryn Winnick Breaks Down Directing the ‘Start of Bjorn’s Downfall’

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Valhalla Can Wait,” the eighth episode of the sixth season of “Vikings.”

When “Vikings” creator Michael Hirst came to terms with killing off the fan-favorite Lagertha character, he knew he wanted to bring portrayer Katheryn Winnick back into the creative fold at least once more — and so her directorial debut on the show was born.

“Time is so precious and we need more strong women characters on television — and it’s not just that it has to be written and acted, it comes from the producers and the studio heads and by hiring more women filmmakers and grooming more female directors,” Winnick tells Variety. “To be a minority is such a shame considering the population is 50-50. We need to be able to grow more female writers and directors and give them the opportunity to get behind the lens, and only then will there be a chance for women to be properly represented on television.”

In “Valhalla Can Wait” Winnick was faced plenty of emotional scenes to direct as Bjorn (Alexander Ludwig) came to terms with his mother’s death by finally addressing the people of Kattegat and doling out punishment to Lagertha’s killer, his half-brother Hvitserk (Marco Ilsø). Meanwhile the Rus made their first bid in Kattegat and Ubbe (Jordan Patrick Smith) and Torvi (Georgia Hirst) eyed a new life in Iceland.

Here, Winnick and Variety discuss helming the episode, some of the unforeseen challenges — including an actor who didn’t show up — and adding her own creative flair to a series six seasons in.

When did the directing bug bite?

I’ve always wanted to direct; in high school I used to direct plays and I got a scholarship for it, actually. But being on set for so many years, you always try to keep it fresh. I always treated it as a playground in terms of what else can I play, what else can I learn? It was film school 101 where instead of sitting in my trailer, I would go behind the camera and tried to talk to the crew and learn. It was always so interesting and fascinating and to have the honor to be able to direct my cast mates and to go back for that is the best goodbye ever. I don’t think I really said goodbye until that point.

Why did you choose to shadow director Helen Shaver leading up to your episode?

Helen Shaver is also an actress-turned-director and she is a dear friend of mine who is so great with working with actors and breaking them down. She was one of our favorites, always, on set to work with as actors and to see her. I definitely learned a lot from her. I’ve learned from a lot of other directors as well, but she’s been a good mentor of mine.

The episode was very emotional for Bjorn in particular, was it helpful to have that onscreen relationship and background with him?

There were many different things that I wanted to accomplish and the most important thing was really performance. It was Bjorn’s episode and really the start of his downfall, especially because he can’t cope that he’s not the king he thought he could be. And knowing Alex Ludwig for so long and not only playing his mom, but also being a dear friend, I can really sink my teeth into his character and I feel like we have this internal dialogue where I know his personality but I also know his backstory as a person. That’s only helpful. It only added to be able to bring your personal life onto the screen. I love that part of it.

The scene where the camera wraps around Bjorn’s head as he gives that monologue — was that something you brought to the episode or was it on the page?

Oh, are you kidding me? It was not written at all. That was not on the page. I wanted to have the audience go into his head and to show that, just to show his mind state and what he’s going through. And I was really pressed for time but I really want to do that scene like that. I wanted it to wrap around him, and you realize that he’s talking to himself and I’m so happy that that turned out well. Originally I was playing with maybe doing it on green screen but then I didn’t have the time because the time was really tricky and, as you know, setting up shots for green screens eats up a lot of your precious time on sat. And so we ended up doing that and we did a few different takes but the crew was really all there, the background actors and everyone. I had them all worn out! There were no special tricks or anything. Just a lot of running, quickly, and we did it. I’m so proud that I came out with it. It’s one of those things as a director and the new director you want to add a creative flair to it. I’m glad that’s something you mentioned because that was one of my favorite shots.

Were there any other scenes you got to get creative with? The episode spanned so much territory in Rus, Kattegat, and then there was also the hanging and that fight scene.

I don’t know if there’s one particular one. The opening scene with Bjorn slapping Hvitserk was very powerful. I really wanted to show Bjorn in a different light. Also the, the fight sequence that you’re talking about. God, I can’t even tell you. I was thrown for a massive curveball the night before. We had a famous person who was supposed to be in that scene and he canceled on me the night before. So I had to rewrite the entire scene and I remember trying to get ahold of Michael Hirst and I think he was at a funeral, and it was one of my last days of shooting. We spent a lot of money building this set and all of a sudden I had no actor at all. Being a new director, it was like, “How am I going to make this scene work?”

The fight for no reason doesn’t really make any sense when your lead actor doesn’t show up the night before. So it was one of the most challenging things I’ve done as a director. I ended up taking one actor who had one line or something and I made him the center point of it. And then for the young girl, I called up my costume lady, I said, “Okay, make her eight months pregnant” just to create some kind of heart in there just. They’re like, “Wait, we have a costume.” So she was originally written in for more episodes, but since the actor didn’t show up she had to be cut out. So it was a big change that nobody ever expects or wants the night before shooting. But I hope it turned out great.

Were there any other challenges?

In terms of the hardest thing, it’s really hard to say. The burning of Hvitserk was a challenge. Bjorn’s speech was a huge challenge to get that many people out there and I wanted to symbolize something to show it visually. So I had them do the passing of the torch that I wrote in. I also wanted something beautiful and to have Gunnhild [Ragga Ragnars] stand up for her man and have her really be a queen for the first time, she just did a great job.

Your brother was in this episode as well?

Yeah fun little fact. My brother [Adam Winnick] is at the end — he’s the one that comes out and finds the village completely murdered. My other brother [Markjan Winnick] actually played a king in Season 5, he was cast independently from me. To be able to share the ending of six seasons with the family was really nice.

“Vikings” airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on History.

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