“Vikings”: Jessalyn Gilsig goes from “Glee” to History epic

“Vikings” airs 10pm ET Sundays on History.

As Vikings continues its blockbuster run on History, one character that will continue her rise to the forefront is Siggy, the enigmatic wife of the ruthless Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne). Jessalyn Gilsig brings the same intensity to the role that she did her memorable turns as unbalanced femme fatales in Glee and Nip/Tuck. But while Siggy’s actions may be as extreme as some of those characters, she seems to be far more in control of her mental faculties than Terri or Gina.

Gilsig spoke about how she sees Siggy’s character developing, and what it was like to finally get around to doing a period piece on film (unless you count her voice-over role in 1998’s Quest for Camelot … which we won’t):


Jessalyn Gilsig as Siggy in History's "Vikings"Channel Guide Magazine: I have a feeling that Siggy’s true impact hasn’t been felt yet, that she’s really building toward something. What can you tell me about her and how she fits into the larger story?

Jessalyn Gilsig: I think that’s true, I think there’s a lot of really interesting and powerful groundwork being laid in order to motivate her to have an impact going forward. She’s the earl’s wife and pretty early on we know that the earl is vulnerable, not only because he’s older, but because we don’t have any sons, and we can’t produce any heirs. What I really like about Siggy is that she — one of the things we decided is that she has always lived this life of power and privilege — it’s something that she’s really familiar with and that she’s been anointed, that she was born to do this, that she was born to be a woman of the people. So when everything is taken away from her … there’s really this opportunity to disintegrate or to rebuild her empire.

CGM: Her relationship with the earl is interesting. Sometimes they seem more like business partners, but there are also hints of genuine emotion. How do you see their relationship?

JG: I think that’s so interesting that idea of the business partners. Gabriel and I talked about it a lot, and the decision that we had made was that it had been a great love story between them, but that the death of their sons — the circumstances of which are a little mysterious — put a wedge between them from which they’ve never recovered. One of the things I love that [creator Michael Hirst] said when I first joined the show was, “We’re doing a show about Vikings, yes, and it’s a period piece, yes, but the one thing that’s consistent through history from the beginning of time is that all parents love their children.” I think that was a good motivator for Gabriel and myself to have lost our children. We’re having trouble finding the energy and the will to continue to maintain our position and even our relationship.

CGM: Gabriel’s character does awful things to retain his power, and Siggy participates in some of them, but do you think she’s fully aware of all his actions?

JG: Absolutely. We talked about them as being how do you understand the Ceausescus, or how do you understand these dictators who feel completely not only entitled but actually can’t understand why their people don’t love them anymore. You think of Imelda Marcos, and she’s like, “Why don’t you love me? I’m your mother.” They consider themselves something on the level of gods. Every time the earl executes someone, it feels like it’s our only choice, and that surely if people could only understand what it’s like to sit in our position, they would know that this is just part of what we have to do in order to maintain the society as we see it. That’s a real justification that is airtight for us, but is horrific from the outside.

CGM: When I talked with Michael Hirst, he said he wanted to broaden the audience’s view of Vikings. What did you learn about them from doing this?

JG: One thing I thought was really interesting is that they believed in destiny, as if the gods have already written our fate. We talked about a lot amongst ourselves because some people do believe that and some people don’t, but to have an entire culture that can actually go to a seer and from that be completely convinced that the path has already been written was really something to explore. How does that work with will, and can you change your fate, and do you have any control over your destiny? Then from a simplistic point of view, it was just the scope of ambition with such limited resources. The idea of continuing to explore and take territory and obtain power, yet you’re operating under oarsmen, and you’ve got the wheel and you’ve got fire. You’ve got a lot of disease and you’re exposed to the elements, but there’s a lot of drive in the culture, it seemed, based on what we were exploring.

RELATED: History’s “Vikings” gives new perspective on Norse culture

CGM: You mentioned how you talked with Gabriel a lot about your characters, so it sounds like you had a good relationship working together on this.

JG: Yeah, I had a fantastic time working with him. He was really enthusiastic about the project, and it was so important to him that we understand the relationship, and that we’re on the same page. We had just lots of opportunities to explore scenes, and we wanted it to be more specific than, “Oh, the earl and that lady sitting beside him.” We really felt like it had to be a partnership, and that what you were seeing what he said, which would be fair for the time, that behind every man such as that is a woman who’s got her hand on his back and is guiding him through.

CGM: This appears to be your first period piece in awhile. How was that aspect for you?

JG: I don’t think I’ve ever done a period piece on film. I think I’d only ever done one onstage. It was really different. Many things, of course, are the same, but probably as a woman just letting go of some of your tricks. We really didn’t have any makeup, and we didn’t want to have anybody watching the show saying, “I just can’t get into it because her lip gloss is distracting me.” So we really had to let go of our vanities and our fears of exposing our true features and really embrace the period if it was going to sustain. Then of course the wardrobe. I mean all of it stylistically is just so different from any contemporary film or television. But it helps you as an actor because it really puts you into this world very deeply. It does a lot of the work for you.

CGM: Since you hadn’t done a period piece before, was it difficult for the casting people to see you in the role?

JG: I don’t know, you’d have to ask them. They all knew about Glee, but it didn’t scare them, which is always nice.

CGM: That’s good. I can see that role being a bit scary for people.

JG: (laughs) Well, it’s always tricky in television. I remember before I did Boston Public I couldn’t get seen for drama. Once I’d done Boston Public, I couldn’t get seen for a comedy. Then I did Glee, and I couldn’t be seen for a drama. So whatever you do, what do they say, you’re only as good as your last job. You get used to reinventing yourself.

Photo: © 2011 Credit: Kevin Lynch/History

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