Jessalyn Gilsig talks about being Siggy on ‘Vikings,’ the historical role of Viking women

Jessalyn Gilsig and Gabriel Byrne in "Vikings."

Jessalyn Gilsig and Gabriel Byrne in “Vikings.”

Now almost halfway through its first season, History Channel drama Vikings has been a major hit with television audiences both for its amazing attention to historical detail and for its complex characters.

Among these characters is Siggy, Earl Haraldson’s (Gabriel Byrne) beautiful and politically formidable wife, played by Jessalyn Gilsig, whose performance made the character a hit with fans, who have found themselves torn between her role as wife of the show’s antagonist and their admiration for her skill in pulling the strings behind the scenes.

While promoting Vikings, Jessalyn is also in the process of doing the film festival circuit with the film Somewhere Slow, which she both acts in and produces, an experience that she describes as being “really interesting,” and as having “given me a deeper appreciation of working at that, and how hard it may be.”

In preparation for my interview with Jessalyn, I decided to tackle the historical content of Vikings, including what makes Siggy tick, the roles of Viking women and the sheer amount of detail that went into production.

While this is only part one of the interview, and part two will include both insight about the atmosphere on set and the future of Vikings as well as thoughts on the future of her character on Glee, readers can immerse themselves in the historically rich and intricate world of Vikings.

Gabriel Byrne and Jessalyn Gilsig in "Vikings."

Gabriel Byrne and Jessalyn Gilsig in “Vikings.”

SDD: On Vikings, you play Siggy, who is one of the main female characters, and who kind of debunks a lot of what people thought Viking women were like.  What was your approach to the character, her role and her motivations?

JG: One of the ways that I feel history has been told, is that I don’t think women were not interesting, I just think that history has not been interested in women.  I think women are always as interesting as men.  What I appreciate about her [Siggy] is that being a woman in an oppressed situation, she would still be aware of that interest.  That being said, with the Vikings, things based on what we glean from what limited information there is – it’s not a patriarchal society.  Women had equal rights.  In many cases, they were skilled in battle; they had opportunities for titles. It was interesting, because you knew that you could come at your role with a presence, and that kind of title and self-importance, that maybe would not be expected in a period piece.  These were not retiring women.  They had a presence.  My role was especially interesting to me, because Gabriel Byrne was such an experienced collaborator.  We spoke a lot together about what decisions we were going to make, as we were together in a lot of scenes.  We talked about dictators, or couples, that ruled with this drive and this kind of conviction.  We talked about being this couple that collaborated and used this publicly.  He [Earl Haraldson] was really dependent on her, and what they both believed mattered.

SDD: Oh!  That definitely comes across to the viewer – all the sort of nonverbal communication.

JG: Good!  I’m glad it’s believable, because truth is, I don’t speak very much.  It’s interesting for me, because a lot of people would say to me, ‘Wow, you don’t talk very much on the show.’  I think, coming from a background in theatre – in theatre there are many times that you are in a scene where you don’t speak, but the playwright put you in the scene for a reason.  The scene is different if you aren’t there, or if you are there.  That’s why I love Gabriel so much, because he has that experience as well, and he has a lot of communication that is non-verbal.  It’s purely visual, and the fact that he saw that – while we had these conversations, we would talk about that, and how we hoped it would flesh out the characters and their relationship.

SDD: In this week’s episode [“Trial”], we got to meet Siggy’s daughter, Thyri.  Do we get to see more of their family, as the season continues?  Can you give us a little peek of what is going to be in store for Siggy and Earl Haraldson?

JG: That’s a great question.  What we come to learn is that they had two sons, and they died in battle, and he [Haraldson] was there.  There’s an open wound between them.  One of the things that Michael Hirst said to me, when I first met him, was it doesn’t matter where you land in history, there’s a common thread, which is that we all love our children.  So Gabriel and I knew from the outset that we were a couple that had once had everything. Not only opportunity, ambition, power, and wealth – we also had a family.  Both of our sons were slaughtered in war, and now Thyri is our only child.  Because the Earl can’t be intimate, we can no longer produce another heir.  That becomes more significant as we go forward, because we need to find a husband for Thyri, but we are very limited in our options.  What emerges between the Earl and myself, is we don’t agree on who that should be.

SDD: A lot of the fans are interested in the costumes, and the historical context of the costuming.  What went into that costuming, and did you have a favorite costume?

JG: My favorite was the one I wore this past week, where I had a headpiece and this dress that is made with jewelry.  It is just all jewelry that was integrated into the dress.  It was amazing.  I’m not surprised we’re talking about it.  The research was intense and thorough, and the craftsmanship was jaw-dropping.  You would see your wardrobe, and see all the hard work and all the detail.  Everything had to be hand-sewn, because everything was back then.  They needed to, so that there would be no hole in the image.  What was nerve-wracking about doing a show like this was that we were doing a Vikings show, and if it looked like we were adhering to twenty-first century fashions and vanities, we wouldn’t be honest.  We have to see the world and we have to commit to it so thoroughly.  It’s terrifying, because you don’t know how that’s going to work out.  I can honestly say, as an actress, we go in and we say, ‘Okay, there’s no make-up, and we are actually going to add sun spots and dirt to your face.’  Most of the time you have to cover up your sun spots, and now you’re piling this on, but there’s no show without that.  There’s no experience, unless you do the whole transformation.  If you look at any extras, they will never look exactly alike.  I have never seen people give so much to a single aspect of a show.  It really helped us as actors to take this risk, because everyone was taking it together.

Jessalyn Gilsig as Siggy in "Vikings."

Jessalyn Gilsig as Siggy in “Vikings.”

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4 Responses

  1. Excellent and intense interview. It is wonderful and insightful to see the show from the actors and producers perspective. To see their devotion to detail and accuracy is inspirational and definitely comes across on the screen. Would love to see a series of interviews with the other main characters!