Jessalyn Gilsig, whose credits include roles in Boston Public, NYPD Blue, Law & Order, Nip/Tuck, Friday Night Lights, The Good Wife and Glee, plays the hauntingly beautiful, magnetic and wily Siggy on History’s acclaimed series Vikings. The drama, created by Michael Hirst (The Tudors, The Borgias), is based on the mythical life of Ragnar Lothbrok, a legendary Norse ruler. Season 2 of Vikings premieres Thursday, February 27 on History.
Playboy.com talks to Gilsig about working with Gabriel Byrne, bikini top fails and Viking men doing their own laundry.
Playboy.com: What are some of the things you’ve learned about Nordic or Viking history since doing the show?
Jessalyn Gilsig: I think the show shatters the assumption that Vikings were just barbarians for the sake of being barbarians. I think they were an ambitious people who ultimately lost in the end but were no different from anyone else who was trying to conquer and expand the land that they controlled. And something else that’s been interesting is the whole question of gender in Viking culture. As actors, we even have to fight our instincts when we work. Vikings didn’t have the same patriarchal assumptions of women that we have. And it’s such a mind leap to do a period piece where it’s not even that women were allowed to own land, but that people were allowed to own land. And people had rights. It wasn’t that the men gave women power, it was that the power was evenly distributed. It’s still such a hard concept [for us to get our heads around], even when we’re filming: we still find ourselves creeping back into these old stereotypes where the women are serving and the men are being served. But it just wasn’t like that. Viking men washed their own clothes, they would prepare their own meals. It’s still something that we’re trying to understand and manifest.
Playboy.com: It’s really interesting that this could be challenging, even though you obviously think that women are people and we shouldn’t have to be servants because of our gender.
Gilsig: To be honest, it’s been disturbing. People will watch the show and say, “The women are so interesting.” And I’ll think, “It’s 2014. Aren’t we embarrassed to have to be amazed at that fact?” But we make these assumptions that somehow this oppressed position women have been in is biological. Even if it’s completely manufactured. For the Vikings, it was very different.
Playboy.com: I sometimes wonder if the fact that the Vikings resisted the Roman Empire for so long is part of that mentality. I think the Nordic countries have a slightly different European feel as a result. We still look to the Nordic countries for their sense of social justice.
Gilsig: I think you’re right. I think there was a code. And that’s something that’s been overlooked in the telling of their history [before our show]. In the first season there’s this great scene where Gabriel Byrne [who plays Earl Haraldson] sentences a man who killed someone to be stoned to death in the street. The man says it was self-defense. And Gabriel Byrne’s character says the problem is that he didn’t report it. He says, “I understand you didn’t report it to the first house, because his neighbor would have been related to him, and you didn’t report it to the second house, because that probably would have been a relation. But you needed to report it to the third house.” And there was this idea that if this story was true, you would have found somebody to report this to. And therefore I know you’re lying. And that was the trial. And we think of the culture as not adhering to any codes, but they were actually very strict.
Playboy.com: Of course, maybe we think of it that way because of how history was told later by a Christian majority.
Playboy.com: I was very struck by the show’s aesthetic—you all look so beautiful. You’re so particularly powerful and intense and you seem almost foreign. How did you create your character’s look?
Gilsig: The job that I had before this was Glee, so I was definitely nervous beforehand that I was going to be a distraction. We were trying to create this world that had never existed before and we were trying to take people on a journey with us there. I didn’t want people saying, “I was buying it until Terri Schuester from Glee came out.” So I worked a lot with the wardrobe, hair and makeup teams. They suggested I go back to my natural hair color, which I hadn’t honestly seen since high school.
Playboy.com: It’s nice!
Gilsig: Thank you! My mom likes it! We wanted to get away from the blonde highlights and that contemporary television hair look. I just wanted to serve the story, find the language of the show and slip into it.
Playboy.com: What about your character’s resolve?
Gilsig: I like what a strong, silent character she is at the beginning. And Gabriel Byrne was such a fantastic collaborator from day one. He would say, “I think everything that I do and I say and every decision that I make, you’ve given me just before we walk through the door.” We’d talk about how Siggy came from a family of status whereas he’d married into his position and was never really as confident about it as she is. He thought Siggy was handing him these cues.
Playboy.com: I heard that the costumes were all handmade. Is that true? That seems unbelievable.
Gilsig: If you could only see all these amazing artists making this chain mail and beading. They’ve just done the most beautiful job making the costumes a window in time. It’s incredible to wear them. We feel so bad because we’re always traipsing through the mud and they get so filthy...but that’s part of the story.
Playboy.com: I love everyone’s hairdos. Those shaved sides or braided Mohawks are awesome. The Vikings look like a counterculture you might run into now. I thought it was fun to punk-slash-hipster up the look in a way that didn’t seem inauthentic but definitely made the characters cool and contemporary.
Gilsig: Well, Vikings would shave their teeth to make them look like fangs to make themselves look more frightening in battle. They were very conscious of appearance and they used those external elements to exert their power, so it’s been fun to play with it. The other thing when you’re doing a period piece—it’s so funny because it’s such a danger—you forget that you’re just playing people. We’ll be standing around and wonder, “Can we cross our arms?” And, well, I think people have been crossing their arms pretty much since the beginning of time! You realize your character is just a person from a few hundred years ago. They didn’t walk backwards. They were just people, so they probably braided their hair.
Playboy.com: I remember when I was in university having to learn war statistics and the numbers of deaths from the Industrial Revolution, I just balked. I just thought, “I can’t do it like that. I want to learn about individuals.” And that’s something you’re doing with this project: you’re all reflecting history, but as individuals, as a community. And I think that’s the best way to show history.
Gilsig: I agree. It’s a great way into a history lesson as opposed to these statistics you can’t really feel.
Playboy.com: And I think that’s something that Michael Hirst is really great at, if you look at this and his other TV shows, like The Tudors or The Borgias, they all have a similar quality of being very personal, family-based grand dramas. I once read that he loves Shakespeare and you can tell because he does these micro/macro scenes all the time. And I also really like how he slows down and shows us all these tableaux—it’s all so beautiful and well-lit—for instance, all those communal scenes in Vikings. I wonder if with your theater background if that’s something you’re finding fun, too.
Gilsig: Absolutely. And I think my theater background has been such a gift. I remember doing a play years ago called Fifth of July in New York. My character entered in the beginning of the first act and had an exchange and didn’t speak again, but never left the stage. You know the playwright has deliberately put you there so you have to be contributing to the story in some way. And that’s the same with this. We do so many group scenes and you may not be laying out the battle plan, but why are you there? And what information are you gathering? And what is your presence doing to further the story? That’s part of being in an ensemble. And I think when you have the experience of being in the theater you’re less inclined to count lines and to trust in that story.
Playboy.com: What are you allowed to tell us about where your character is going in the next season?
Gilsig: If you’ve seen the first season then you know she’s a survivor. She’s really resourceful. She’s not a shieldmaiden, but she has the brains and the information to be able to manipulate people to forward her own position. And she also has a heart. What happens is her relationship with Rollo gets very complicated because she’s torn between her ambition and her affections. And that’s how the second season unfolds.
Playboy.com: What’s your favorite food?
Gilsig: I’m embarrassed to answer this because it’s very actress-y, but I really love toast!
Playboy.com: Signature drink?
Gilsig: I like a vodka martini, dirty with olives.
Playboy.com: Most embarrassing moment?
Gilsig: When I first moved to L.A., I was supposed to go to an event and one of my friends said I had to get a spray tan. So I went to this really fancy spa in Beverly Hills and this cute girl came in and said, “Put this paper bikini on and I’ll be right back.” And there was just one piece. But she’d said “bikini” so I thought I should cover my top, I don’t know why. So I take this paper underwear and find a way to fashion it into a bra and then take the rest of my clothes off. She was like, “Oh my God, no! No!” So, by the way, a “bikini” is a bottom! I honestly think that woman was traumatized—I’d wrapped this thing around my chest in a really uncomfortable way and had no pants on.
Playboy.com: First memory of Playboy?
Gilsig: When I was in elementary school I had a best friend named Chris—we used to play Legos all the time—and I remember one weekend we went to his parents’ country house and we were just exploring. And the way I remember it, we went into this kind of crawl space under the house and we found all these Playboy magazines. The way I remember it now there were just towers of them! I’d never seen anything like that before. We just sat there and went through all the magazines. It was very formative!
Season 2 of Vikings premieres Thursday, February 27 on History.