The Canadian beauty above has played modern roles on the big screen (Stand Up Guys, Love & Other Drugs) and small (Bones, House, CSI). But for two years Katheryn Winnick’s been lighting up the Dark Ages, kicking ass and taking tongue-twisting names as Lagertha, the fierce shieldmaiden on History’s epic Vikings, which returns for its third season this week (Thursdays, 10/9c).

This season finds the Norse warriors settling Wessex and raiding Paris, with Lagertha—the ex-wife of Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel)—emerging as a leader to be reckoned with. It’s a fierce role that suits Winnick, a martial arts expert who does all her own stunts. (In that same butt-kicking vein, she’ll play a bounty hunter in an episode of Person of Interest next month.)

As we found out in the following conversation, this tough cookie doesn’t crumble—unless you put her in high heels.

“My body’s covered in bruises, but that’s part of the job. Vikings is not for everyone.”

What do you love most about Lagertha?
She is a strong woman. She is strong-willed, strong physically, emotionally, but she’s also authentic. She’s a real person—somebody that has flaws and that can be feminine and sexy, kick ass and be a woman as well. The combination is so rare to see on television, and it’s so special to play.

How physically challenging is the role?
It’s a very intense shoot. We don’t spend much time in the studio. We’re outside in the harsh Irish climate where it could be raining, or hailing, or hot all in the same day, and you’re dealing with a lot of background actors, and horses, and stuntmen, and you will get hurt. My body’s covered in bruises, but that’s part of the job. Vikings is not for everyone. A lot of people might not have the endurance, will or strength, or the attitude to be able to sustain this type of tough shoot, but that’s what I love about it. You’re out there in the elements and really become these characters. 

Do you like playing a badass?
I love playing a badass! I grew up training in martial arts since the age of seven. I’m a black belt. In a role like Lagertha I can use the martial arts skills that I have learned and the discipline of fighting but also find a character that is true, and real, and layered, and vulnerable.

Did the martial arts background help you get the role?
I think it definitely helped. When I was screen testing, I didn’t throw any roundhouse kicks. I think they were all shocked that I actually did martial arts. It was an added bonus.

Do men find you intimidating?
Definitely—I don’t know if they’re so much intimidated or think I can kick their ass, but one of the first comments I hear is ‘Wow, I pictured you so much taller.” I’m only 5’5”.

katheryn-winnick-vikingsMight wanna go easy on the blush there, Katheryn. What’s that, it’s blood? Ohhh…

What’s ahead for Lagertha this season?
She’s a free woman. At the end of season two, she became an earl, Earl Ingstad, and she now doesn’t necessarily need a man. She chooses one if she decides to. You see Lagertha in a different light that you haven’t seen, maybe a softer side of her.

How tricky has it been to learn lines in Old Norse?
Extremely challenging. You can’t improvise. I had this intense speech to learn for this sacrifice scene, and we had to get it in one shot because once I’m covered in blood, you can’t go back and clean me up. It would take too long, and we didn’t have an extra change of clothing. I wanted them to pour the blood over my head, not only over my shoulders, but then it might’ve been too much of a Carrie moment.

You’ve got a big movie coming out next year, Geostorm. Details?
It’s a huge blockbuster action movie—Gerard Butler is starring in it, and Andy Garcia. I play Gerard’s ex-wife, and he’s great to work with. Dean Devlin directed it. I came off Vikings and went straight to New Orleans to shoot it, and it was nice to be in a completely different time period, without putting on the braids and the armor.

What got you into acting?
I come from a very tight Ukrainian family in the suburbs of Toronto called Etobicoke and never knew anybody that was an actor or in show business. I started teaching actors and actresses martial arts on movie sets. My first experience was on David Cronenberg’s movie, Existenz, with Jennifer Jason Leigh, teaching her martial arts and keeping her endurance and flexibility up. Meanwhile I learned a lot. And I exchanged martial art classes for headshots with the set photographer. While I was working on a degree in kinesiology at York University in Toronto, I took some acting classes to figure out what makes me tick, and then I fell in love with it. I thought if used martial arts as a way in, a lot of people wouldn’t take me seriously as an actress. So I did horror movies and student films to build my credits up.

What’s on your professional and personal to-do list?
I’d love to work with top filmmakers, directors, and great actors that help me grow as an artist. When you’re on set and you work with people that are so fiercely passionate about what they do, it’s contagious, and you learn so much. I’m excited just to see where Lagertha’s going to go, and about the opportunities and the doors that are opening up because of Vikings. A personal project and a big passion of mine is to help women and empower them in self-defense. I started my first school called WIN KAI Martial Arts at the age of 16. I had three by the time I was 21. Right now people can book us through corporations or for a group, and we will come to you. I’m planning to bring it out on a more of a global scale.

Tell me something that people would be surprised to learn about you.
I’m extremely clumsy. I know you wouldn’t think that if I can hold a shield and sword properly, but I was such a tomboy growing up. I didn’t really wear my first pair of heels until my prom, and I almost fell every time. I have a heavy foot from my taekwondo training. I have elephant feet! I feel much more comfortable in sneakers than I do in heels. Lagertha does not have to wear heels, and I love that. The red carpet is still a challenge for me, but I’m getting used to it.

Lead photo by Jonathan Hession/HISTORY