Interview

Jessalyn Gilsig Interview: “Life isn’t always about being nice”

The man behind The Tudors, Michael Hirst, has created the most buzzed about new show of spring 2013: Vikings, which airs Sunday nights at 10pm on the History Channel. Take whatever you thought you knew about Vikings and get ready for a portrait of the 9th century warriors told from the point of view of the fearless fighters themselves. The series follows Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel), a Viking warrior who struggles to convince his leader, Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne), to forgo doing raids in the east to go west via ship in pursuit of conquests. The incredible and diverse cast includes Gustaf Skarsgard, Katheryn Winnick, George Blagden, Clive Standen and Canadian actress Jessalyn Gilsig, of Glee, Nip/Tuck, and Heroes fame. Gilsig plays Siggy, the strong-headed, beautiful wife of Earl Haraldson. Real Style spoke to Gilsig at the Hazelton Hotel in Toronto about channeling her inner Viking, dying her hair brown and her Canadian roots.

Related Link: Katheryn Winnick Interview On Vikings

Real Style: You studied English at McGill.

Jessalyn Gilsig: Yes, English with a minor in theatre.

RSN: Did you plan to go into TV and film?

JG: I started working when I was 12, mostly doing voice overs and commercials and things. Then I started getting into local theatre [in Montreal], like at The Centaur and Shakespeare in the Park. After high school, I went to Dawson [College] and did fine arts. I thought, “I’ll support my painting habit by acting.” Then I went to McGill and realized that I was going to make it a career. I moved to the States and went to grad school there.

RSN: You were just in our Canadians’ Guide to LA¬†[in Real Style Magazine]

JG: Yes, it was fun!

RSN: I actually didn’t recognize in Vikings because you have brown hair for the role!

JG: I actually showed up in Ireland [to film Vikings], and they said, “By the way, we’re dyeing your hair brown.”

RSN: Guys don’t think that’s a big deal, but it’s a big deal.

JG: I know. It’s funny you say that because I had to be really professional and manage my emotions. I was cool about it, and then I went back to my room and had a little cry.

RSN: But you’re keeping it?

JG: I wanted to go a little darker, so it was a little bit of an opportunity for me. It was a win, win.

RSN: Your character doesn’t have the physical strength [of Katheryn Winnick's Vikings character, Lagertha], but you’re manipulative, in a cool, powerful way.

JG: I think that’s a cool comparison. Lagertha really represents the concept, which is so exciting about Vikings, that these women really fought alongside [the men] and that they were shield maidens and they had amazing skills on the battlefield. I do think that my character is not about strength, but she comes from a very established family and she’s very politically minded and savvy. She’s playing a game of chess, and she’s moving the pieces around.

RSN: I’m thinking of you in Glee and now in this. You’re not always the most liked character.

JG:: I love it. I wouldn’t have it any other way. That’s not true. I can think of a couple of times where I’ve played more sympathetic characters. I think that [Siggy] is really born of the environment, and she’s a survivor. She’s going to do whatever she has to do. Life isn’t always about being nice. I think that’s something that’s sort of put on women — be sweet, be nice. But in reality, she has her ambition and her sense of direction, and she has to do what she has to do to stay alive in that culture.

RSN:What sort of things did you do to get in the mindset of that character?

JG: There were a few things. Obviously, we all did our research. I got a lot of information from the wardrobe department because they found a lot of research on the artifacts that were found in burial sites. I found that very helpful to find out what a woman of my position would have been buried with. One of the details that I loved was that they had found a comb. Her appearance was important, and hygiene. We always think the Vikings were filthy, but in reality, there’s lots of evidence to suggest that they had changes of clothes. This is a culture where the history has been written by others. I think as an actor, you have to know that you’re in a period piece, but you’re telling a story that is about the human condition. Everybody knows about hope and loss and betrayal. Those things transcend whether you’re talking about Glee or Vikings. Those are things that are a part of being a human being.

RSN: What’s it like filming over in Ireland? Is it a camp-like feel? Are you guys sort of isolated on set?

JG: We all sort of live in different places, but it was a fantastic set. The crew was so committed, and it was hard work. If you see a scene and we’re on the mountain, not only did I go up the mountain, but the camera went up the mountain and the gear went up the mountain. Someone carried all that stuff. I couldn’t believe the number of positions that we put the camera in throughout the day and the settings that they had to deal with. Nobody complained. I’m not exaggerating, and it was raining constantly. All you could do was give someone a cup of tea and know that you were there until you were gone. Everyone was really excited about the material and the feeling that we could do something that was unique and had never been done before and that permeated the entire set.

RSN: How did you originally get involved?

JG: I heard about it, and it spoke to something that I had wanted to do. I wanted to do a show that built a very thorough and specific world. I don’t get to make a lot of films, and one of the things that I envy about film-making is that, for the period that you’re making the film, you just completely bathe yourself in that story. The kind of television that I’ve done, which has been really interesting and exciting, has been more of a traditional work week. It has the “drive back to your house and go back to the office” kind of feeling. This had a feeling that you had to commit. That was a challenge I had been looking for. It was a joy to work with everybody. When I think of how hard Travis worked — I don’t think I’ve seen somebody carry a show like that.

Photos Courtesy of: Udo Spreitzenbarth & History Channel