This Sunday at 10/9c, the History channel embarks on a maiden voyage with Vikings, its first-ever scripted series — and it’s a big one, at that. Created by Michael Hirst (The Tudors, Elizabeth) and filmed in picturesque Ireland, the drama follows Ragnar Lothbrok (The Beast‘s Travis Fimmel), an adventurer who is determined to sail west out of Norway for the first time in the name of pillaging uncharted territories, even if it means incurring the wrath of his ruler Earl Haraldson (In Treatment‘s Gabriel Byrne).
Playing the Earl’s quietly powerful wife Siggy — who is full of (sometimes sexy) surprises — is Jessalyn Gilsig, traveling far herself from Glee‘s low-key Lima, Ohio. TVLine invited the actress to preview this epic undertaking, share Siggy’s secrets and also preview her upcoming confab with The Good Wife.
TVLINE | Vikings is visually spectacular, big and rich and lush… Did any of that somehow come across as you read the scripts for the first time?
Well, you hope. The script was so ambitious, I think all of us reading them thought, “Wow, you either have to nail it, or we’ll be in big trouble.” And I think because Michael [Hirst] and [exec producer] Morgan [O'Sullivan] had the history of having done Tudors, that we were in really good hands. But it definitely felt like an element of risk.
TVLINE | Aside from the potential for visual splendor, what about this script drew you in?
One of the things that Michael said to me when I spoke with him — and I really appreciated — was, “This is not a documentary. This is not a re-enactment. This is storytelling set in this time.” Because there are universal truths that transcend any era in history and one of them, that I think he sort of customized to me, was, “Everyone from the beginning of time and culture, of any period, loves their children.” What I took away from that was ultimately we fight for and care about the people that are close to us, and we want those we love to do well and thrive.
TVLINE | Your character, Siggy — she obviously married better than Terri Schuester…
TVLINE | …what would you say that her role is in this marriage?
The way Gabriel and I talked about it, we compared them to dictator couples. So although he’s the voice and the face of it, it’s a collaborative effort. And it had been decided that as a backstory for ourselves, Siggy was born into a family like this, so she’s completely comfortable having this status, while Gabriel’s character married into a family of power and so in many ways his belief is not as inherent as hers in that sort of God complex.
TVLINE | Siggy toggles between these overtly subservient moments and ones where I can see wheels turning.
Exactly. There’s this idle kind of contrast. Obviously she’s the woman to the man, but I like to think of her as being very alive intellectually. There are a lot of scenes where I don’t speak…
TVLINE | Yet between the look behind your eyes and the faint grin on your face, I’m like, “What does she know?”
My thought is that she knows everything, because she’s always there and she’s always listening. As an actor, you can look at the page and say, “I don’t say anything. Why am I there?” or you can say, “I don’t say anything. Why am I there? There’s a reason.” It’s my job to figure out what that reason is. As you go forward, you’re going to see that Siggy needs all this information. It is all ammunition.
TVLINE | How do you think she regards Ragnar? Or does she regard him at all?
I think she and the Earl both underestimate him in the beginning, so I don’t think she regards him as much. She believes that you are anointed by the gods into these positions, and he doesn’t look like somebody who would ever be able to [wield power] the way we do. That’s going to prove to be problematic for us, that we underestimated how effective he is.
TVLINE | Katheryn Winnick (Bones) plays another very interesting, yet very different, female character – Ragnar’s wife Lagertha. Do you by chance get any scenes with her?
It’s funny that you ask. Quite far into shooting, we found ourselves in a scene together and the effect on the company was hilarious because suddenly everyone was saying, “There are two women in a scene!” Obviously our characters don’t trust each other at all for a very long time but as this series goes forward, somebody who may be your enemy one week is suddenly your lifeline the next. So although our families are in conflict, our vulnerabilities are parallel, and so we end up actually meeting each other as the series goes forward — which is a really fantastic evolution.
TVLINE | Also this weekend, Somewhere Slow, an indie you produced and star in, is going to the Cinequest Film Festival. The character you play makes a bold life decision in the midst of a convenience store robbery.
I really love the character. She’s kind of gone numb at this point in her life, so when she kind of runs away from her reality, it’s the only active choice she’s made — probably in years. She’s been sort of allowing experiences to come to her and wash over her like a wave. Her mother is very sick and there’s a really interesting scene where her sister just says to her, “Although you seem kind of benign and not detracting from situations, your lack of participation is a drain on everybody.” And so I think that that’s just one of those moments where she just made a move. It speaks to a fantasy that we all have of, “What if I just stepped out of my life? Could I reinvent myself?”
TVLINE | And lastly, tell me about your role on The Good Wife (airing March 17). Who do you have scenes with?
I worked with Julianna Margulies and Josh Charles. I play a woman whose husband died in a car accident, and when there start to be questions about the circumstances of his death, through that investigation I learn — very similar to Juliana’s character — that my husband had been keeping secrets. Because I have to learn that information in a very public forum, and because they’re very private issues that are incredibly painful, it’s like a mirror to Alicia’s own experience. It was sort of like a reliving of what she had been through, realizing that it’s going to unfold and you can’t stop that train.
George Blagden, who plays Athelstan, an Anglo-Saxon monk, previews Vikings