By Darren Franich
Updated February 18, 2015 at 12:00 PM EST
Credit: Jonathan Hession/History Channel
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How to describe Lagertha, the matriarchal presence at the center of History’s expansionist epic Vikings? She’s a mother, a farmer, a shieldmaiden, an earl. She’s devoted to her family—but she’s no pushover. When her heroic husband Ragnar fathered a child out of wedlock, she divorced him. When her second husband physically abused her, she stabbed out his eye. You might expect a show like Vikings to be all about the plundering dudes with elaborate beards, but Lagertha leads an ensemble stuffed with powerful, passionate women.

We caught up with Kathryn Winnick, the actress who plays Lagertha and who could almost certainly kick your butt.

What initially attracted you to the role?

I have always been a bulldog in a blonde-haired little girl’s body. So I relate to Lagertha. I felt that she was such a unique character. They showed her in her home life, as a young mother and a wife. But she’s also a warrior. It reminded me of me. I started studying Tae Kwon Do when I was seven. I got my first black belt at the age of 13. I started a martial arts school at the age of 16. I had three by the time I was 21.

Did your martial arts experience help with the show’s fight scenes?

If anything, I had to tone down my martial arts experience! I couldn’t throw a roundhouse kick. We had to develop a style that was more raw, more based on survival instincts, more guttural, guerrilla.

Vikings moves so quickly through years of these characters’ lives. What’s it been like tracking her ups and down?

In the first season, she was with Ragnar. In the second season, she was in an abusive relationship. Now she’s an earl in her own right. She doesn’t need a man. She may choose to have one. Being a woman with authority, being an earl, running a territory—it’s a challenge to be a women with strength and power, especially a woman that still embraces her femininity. I had the same conflicts dealing with men, having them respect me when they came into my dojo. They would have to bow down to me, and if I told them to do fifty push-ups, they would have to.

What are Lagertha’s plans at the beginning of season 3?

She’s an ambitious woman. She knows if she starts a settlement in Wessex, she’ll be able to help her people. And then King Ecbert opens up her eyes and shows her a different world she hasn’t really seen. She leaves her territory to her second in command, Kalf, somebody she helped groom into a position of authority. She trusts him. But there’s always a struggle when you have authority.

Lagertha is an actual historical figure in Viking mythology. Did you do any research when you started working not he show?

When I first got hired for this, I went online and tried to find Lagertha. There was almost nothing: Maybe a little saga or a poem, not even a Wikipedia page. In three years, it’s changed. There are dogs named Lagertha! Kittens named Lagertha! I love it!

Was there a moment where the character really clicked for you?

In season one, there was a scene where two guys come in to her house. They want to have their way with Lagertha. She’s with her daughter at the loom. She invites them over, politely, and says: “You couldn’t kill me if you tried for a hundred years.” It really sums up her confidence in herself, her fierceness to protect her family, her fearlessness that nothing will get in her way.

Has it been gratifying to see Lagertha become such a major figure in Vikings fandom?

When I signed on to the History Channel, it was a very male driven network, with a male demographic, but the female audience has definitely grown significantly. It’s overwhelming to see fans from around the world that have taken with Lagertha. And not just the girls. I get a lot of fan mail that says: “I want a wife like you.” Or, “I want my daughter to be like Lagertha when she grows up.”

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