By LUAINE LEE
PASADENA, Calif. — Don’t let the honey blond hair, heart-shaped face and off-the-shoulder teal dress fool you. Actress Katheryn Winnick is deadly. A champion in the martial arts, the blond hair and heart-shaped face deceived her opponents. “I have a really strong back kick,” she says, seated in a velveteen chair, her hands folded on her lap.
“It was my signature move when I would get into the ring and compete nationally. I would get into the room with these guys, and I remember my instructor told me long ago your very first move out of the gate should be your strongest. They’re intimidating, and they think I’m a girl. I remember throwing them a strong, back-piercing kick it’s called, right in the gut. And that kind of shocked them.”
No one was more shocked than Winnick when she used the discipline of her back-piercing kick to become an actress.
She began martial arts in her native Canada when she was 7. She earned her first black belt at 13 and by the time she was 16 she owned her own martial arts studio in Toronto. “I was getting a degree in kinesiology and thought I was going to be in the martial arts or at least in the fitness industry,” she says.
“But when you train at such a high level, especially since I’d been training since I was 7 years old, it’s a different type of training. I grew up in a male field where I wasn’t allowed to show emotions if I got hurt or punched in the face. And you kind of have to just suck it up and do it. So I started teaching martial arts on movie sets before I was an actress.
“And I started acting classes to discover really who I am and kind of open up and figure out what makes me tick. Because of my martial arts history and my experience, I had a hard time connecting or opening up. So for me it was a personal challenge to take acting classes.”
Winnick, 37, always reveled in personal challenges. She was running three martial arts studios in Canada, while commuting between Toronto and New York trying to be an actress.
“I remember at the beginning of my career I just did everything. I did creepy horror movies, I did student films. I’ve done a lot of stuff I wouldn’t dare to watch now, but just to get the experience and just to learn and get comfortable with the sets and lights and people and dialogue. It’s a constant struggle. I feel I have so much to learn. You learn every day something new. I’m still really in preschool,” she says.
When the role of Lagertha in the History Channel’s “Vikings,” arrived, Winnick says she knew she was meant to play it.
“When I read the script and found out that Michael Hirst is involved in writing every single episode and I would be a shield maiden and a warrior and a young mother and dealing with the struggles of being a woman in that time period, I just knew I had to do it.” She’ll be back in Lagertha’s homespun wool and animal skins when the series returns on Feb. 19.
While she was confident in the ring, Winnick felt alien on the set. She remembers acting as Jennifer Jason Leigh’s personal trainer on David Cronenberg’s film, “eXistenZ.” “It was the first time I’d ever walked on a set. . . I remember walking on set and I was mesmerized by the sets and how amazing everything was. I was like a kid in a candy store. I remember I couldn’t afford my first head-shot so I ended up getting a set photographer to shoot me in the field, and in return I gave her martial arts lessons.”
It has taken Winnick a long time to feel comfortable as an actress. “It’s in the last six years that I’ve actually accepted that this is what I love to do, and I’m not going away. This is my career. Since then, I started changing my team. I’m working with great agents and choosing projects that are more of a smarter move than necessarily for the sake of working to put food on the table and a roof over your head – just changing my way of working on a career vs. a job.”
She thinks she inherited her drive and focus from her family. “I come from a very loving Ukrainian family. They’ve always instilled in me that hard work will pay off. No one’s going to give you anything. You can’t rely on your looks. You can’t rely on who you know. You need to work hard. With the martial arts discipline of training four hours a day or training for competition or tournaments, you really have to have strong perseverance and you need to have dedication,” she says.
“No one’s going to push you unless you push yourself. I think that has translated for me as an adult in my work ethic. If I didn’t have that spirit of not giving up, I don’t know that I would’ve been able to deal with the rejection in this business as a young actor when you’re just starting out. You constantly want to push yourself in new challenges.”
Winnick says she has wanted to quit a million times. “You second-guess yourself all the time but when you’re connected, and when you have good material, it feels so good and that high, that being in the zone – you don’t always get it. You get it maybe three times a year if you’re lucky – that is the drive that keeps me going.”