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The Untold Truth Of Katheryn Winnick

Katheryn Winnick had no idea that playing the legendary shieldmaiden Lagertha in History's "Vikings" would be her big break in the industry; she only knew that she really wanted the part. She worked with a Scandinavian dialect coach before filming her audition tape, which would catch the attention of creator and showrunner Michael Hirst. "I went to great lengths to try to do everything I could to get this role," Winnick told Collider. "I ended up actually going to a Halloween costume store and renting a costume to try to really embody what Vikings would wear for my screen test." The rest is (no pun intended) history.

She gained a cult following during her time on the show (seeing tattoos of her face on strangers' bodies at Comic-Con became a regular occurrence), but Winnick is known for more than just "Vikings." Her kung-fu series "Wu Assassins" dropped on Netflix to positive reviews in 2019, though, in terms of movies, she's never fared very well with the critics: she was in the ill-fated big-screen adaptation of Stephen King's classic series "The Dark Tower," and the less said about the John Travolta-led "Speed Kills" (which scored a big fat zero on Rotten Tomatoes), the better. The Canadian actor has been misused and overlooked by the movie studios, especially when you consider her range of talents.

From her traditional childhood and unlikely rise to fame to the superhero roles she's been eyeing up, this is the untold truth of Katheryn Winnick.

Her first language is Ukrainian

Katheryn Winnick is a first-generation Canadian, born to Ukrainian immigrant parents in December 1977. She and her siblings (she has two brothers, Mark Winnick and Adam Winnick, and a sister, Daria Winnick) were all brought up speaking Ukrainian as their first language, she revealed during an appearance on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!." "We spoke Ukrainian at home, and obviously English as well," Winnick explained. "We went to Ukrainian school every Saturday, which is always a pain in the butt when you have to go every Saturday!" Despite losing half her weekend, she enjoyed learning about Ukraine's culture and traditions, and she remains fluent in the language to this day.

Winnick had a happy childhood in Toronto and often shares throwback photos of her young self, but there were times when she felt as though a career in showbiz was a "long shot," she admitted to Rose & Ivy. "I come from a very strong Ukrainian family," the actor said. "It was one of those things that even to leave Toronto was a big deal." She had to contend with people constantly telling her that Hollywood was a pipe dream, though that only added fuel to the flames. "I am glad I stuck with it and didn't believe everyone who told me 'No,'" she said. "I kept pushing myself to find a way."

She was a black belt by age 13

Katheryn Winnick always knew that she'd find a way into acting eventually, but the route she took to Hollywood was a pretty unconventional one. The Canadian developed a passion for Taekwondo and karate at a young age, and this would ultimately lead her to the screen. "I started training in martial arts when I was seven years old," she told Collider. "I got my first black belt at 13." And she didn't stop there. "I'm a 3rd-degree black belt in Taekwondo and 2nd degree in karate," she added. She got so good that she started teaching classes herself, and before long, film producers were hiring her to show their actors the ropes.

"I started in the [entertainment] field by teaching actors martial arts on movie sets," Winnick explained to Composure magazine. "I was their trainer as well as their stunt double. That's how I got a chance to see what a stunt life is like, and I realized it's amazing and I would love to be a part of it in front of the camera. That was really my journey." She still does all of her own stunts to this day, which her "Vikings" co-stars can attest to. It's something she "takes seriously," Kieran O'Reilly, who played Ivar's bodyguard White Hair on the hit History show, told Metro.

She opened her first martial arts school at 16

Katheryn Winnick's after-school martial arts classes got so popular so quickly that she sensed a business opportunity. Aged just 16, she opened her own martial arts school, and it proved to be a wise decision. "I started a school in Toronto and it expanded through word of mouth and just took off," the actor told Inc. "My dad was an entrepreneur so I had a great role model. He showed me that if you want to do something great the best way is to do it yourself." She named her school WIN KAI Martial Arts, a mixture of her name and the word kai, meaning "the art of the foot" in Korean.

By the time she was 21, Winnick was running three schools in total and was deadly serious about her role. "I was actually pretty strict," she revealed during her "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" interview. "They would come in, they would have to bow down to me at a certain angle, and if they ever misspoke, they had to do pushups — I would actually sit on their backs!" Of course, her real passion was performing, and the more time Winnick spent on movie sets training actors in combat, the more she wanted to become an actor herself. She even paid for her first headshots with Taekwondo classes, she revealed on "The View."

She was fired from her first acting job

Katheryn Winnick's first foray into acting didn't go to plan. She was 16 at the time, and — no doubt high on confidence following the overnight success of her martial arts school — she decided to try her hand at some extra work. "We had a friend that was part of casting background actors," Winnick revealed on The View. This friend invited her to the set of a movie that was being filmed in Toronto, and she was "so excited" by the opportunity. "I thought, 'Maybe this will be my chance to get discovered!' So I ended up putting on what I thought was like a mini skirt and high heels, and a push-up bra."

Winnick was delighted when she got placed right next to the action (the scene involved "a big car crash where the lead actors come out and they notice two cars colliding"), and she was determined to get noticed. "I thought, 'This is my chance!'" she said. "So, when the director calls 'Action,' I started acting, I started telling everybody, 'Call 911, do this, do that!' And I had no idea that you're not supposed to do that." To the surprise of absolutely nobody on set, she was "fired" pretty much instantly. She left in tears and waited for her mom to come and pick her up. "I promised myself [that] one day I will be a lead actor."

She did 'almost anything' to gain experience

She was a successful businesswoman when she was still a teen, but Katheryn Winnick wanted to carry on with her education. She became a student at York University, where she took kinesiology, the scientific study of human body movement. "It wasn't until my third year that I moved to New York and transferred my credits," she told Rose & Ivy. "I did some theater courses at Tisch and I wanted to pursue acting just really for me." She began working as a restaurant host to cover the bills, and, slowly but surely, she built up a resume.

"I definitely had to pay my dues," she told Inc. "I took any parts I could get just to gain experience. I did horror films, student films... I would do almost anything that came along. It was a long process and in truth is still a long process." She found herself being flown out to Los Angeles for work on a regular basis, but that breakthrough role just wasn't happening. She woke up one day and decided that she needed to put more effort in if she was ever going to make it big. "I ended up firing my manager and I tried to take it seriously as if a doctor would go to med school in a sense and take every step towards it as a step in the right direction" (via Rose & Ivy).

She had an awkward encounter with Ivana Trump after playing her onscreen

Katheryn Winnick's renewed focus on her career paid off in 2005 when she was cast as Ivana Trump, the first wife of Donald Trump. "It was my very first lead on a TV show, it was an ABC TV movie called 'Trump Unauthorized,'" she said during her appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live!. She told the late night host that she went "full method" for the part, using her Ukrainian name. "I had everybody on set call me Katerena Anna Vinitska," she revealed. "I thought that's what you do as an actor; you show up in character." She even borrowed a mink coat from her grandmother to complete the look. "I took myself way too seriously."

Years later, Winnick had an awkward encounter with Ivana Trump while on vacation. "I was in Aspen skiing and I'm at the ... hotel and I hear this voice — 'What do you mean I lost my reservations!' — and I'm like, wait a second, I know that voice, I'd recognize that voice anywhere," she told Kimmel. "I walk up to her, and I'm like, 'Ivana Trump?' And she looks at me, and she's like... 'Yes?' And I'm like, 'I'm Ivana Trump! No — I played you in a movie!'" After her confusing introduction was done, she asked Ivana if she had seen the film. "No, I have not seen yet," the famous former model replied.

She starred in a forgotten Bravo reality show

Back when Katheryn Winnick was an up-and-coming actor living in New York City, she took part in a largely forgotten reality series called "The It Factor." The Bravo show documented the lives of several would-be stars as they attempted to break into the film industry, and there was a future Avenger among them. "The show was a doc-style series that followed aspiring performers as they went on auditions, faced constant professional rejection, mopped floors, cried to their moms, etc," Vulture said in its rundown of the most obscure reality TV shows. "It was fascinating — and included a young Jeremy Renner. The first season ends on his triumphant story of getting a real agent when his indie film 'Dahmer' does well at Sundance."

It took Katheryn Winnick a little longer to hit the big time, but she impressed during her time on "The It Factor," which was filmed over a period of six months. According to TV Guide, the Canadian made it all the way to the final alongside 11 other hopefuls. Mario Macaluso ("Boardwalk Empire"), Nicole Dalton ("Cold Case"), Miranda Black ("The Perfect Catch"), Kelley Rae O'Donnell ("The Blacklist"), LisaRaye McCoy ("The Players Club"), and Stephen Anderson ("Chicago Fire") were all featured.

Vikings fans sent death threats over Lagertha's fate

Katheryn Winnick knew all along that Lagertha wouldn't see the final episode of "Vikings," and she "wasn't upset" when the moment finally came. "We'd been talking about it for a while," she told NME. "If anything, I was like: 'When am I gonna go?!' I thought I was going to go in Season 4 when the show became more about Ragnar's sons, but they convinced me to stay on with the offer of directing an episode." Lagertha was eventually killed in Season 6's "Death and the Serpent," stabbed to death in the street by a crazed Hvitserk (Marco Ilsø).

Dispatching of Lagertha in this fashion was a bold move from showrunner Michael Hirst, who, according to Winnick, received death threats over the character. Viewers seemed to really connect with Lagertha, and this popularity kept her alive longer than originally intended. "The fans, being so loyal, literally [sent] Michael Hirst death threats if they kill Lagertha, so in the end, we needed to come up with creative ways of still keeping her storyline alive," she told Rotten Tomatoes. She felt ready to say goodbye to Lagertha come Season 6, but watching the episode as it aired was still a "bittersweet" experience, she said at Comic-Con. "It was definitely harder than I thought I would go through, just personally, seeing my death."

She loves to travel

Even the thought of venturing outside of Toronto was a little daunting for Katheryn Winnick when she was a kid, but she's a passionate world traveler nowadays (she has a "Collect memories, not things" attitude to life, as she once put it), and she loves to share snaps from her adventures with her followers. She's experienced the pristine waters and picturesque villages of Spain, Italy, and Greece, and she's spent time chilling on the gorgeous islands of the Philippines. "I'm a lucky girl," she captioned one pic from the South East Asian paradise.

Winnick has also visited India, and while she fell in love with the ancient and vibrant country, it was also an "eye-opening" experience. Not wanting to ignore the suffering going on outside the proximity of the main tourist areas, Winnick arranged passage into the slums of Mumbai. "They don't allow tourists but we found a local to take us through," she explained in an Instagram post. "My experience was heartbreaking, eye-opening, and surprisingly inspiring. An estimated 6.5 million people, around 55 percent of Mumbai's total population, live in slums."

She's been to a lot of memorable cities in her time, but there's one that she keeps going back to. "I absolutely love San Francisco, it's one of my favorite cities," Winnick told SideWalks. "It's so beautiful there."

She's a licensed bodyguard

Given everything we've told you about Katheryn Winnick so far, it probably won't come as much of a surprise to learn that she's a licensed bodyguard. The actor told People magazine that she had never been "a girly girl" and is still "more of a tomboy" to this day, adding: "I absolutely love punching and kicking, and kicking the crap out of somebody." What she loves even more than that is teaching other women how to kick the crap out of somebody.

As an actor, Winnick knows all about the dangers that women often face in the workplace (in 2019 she warned people about a sleazy photographer she had worked with before she hit the big time), and she's made it her mission to make them feel more comfortable. The Taekwondo and karate expert is now running self-defense classes for women, having rebranded WIN KAI for the #MeToo era. The classes aim "to empower women of all ages with knowledge, strength, and courage using our unique self-defense methods and preventative measures," per the WIN KAI website. Promoting the course on Instagram, Winnick said: "It's time for women to fight back!"

Her brothers both appeared in Vikings

Katheryn Winnick's Lagertha went off to Valhalla in the sixth episode of "Vikings" Season 6. Two episodes later, the Canadian was back on set, though this time she was behind the camera. Speaking to Variety, Winnick revealed that she learned so much watching the talented directors that worked on the History show. "It was film school 101 where instead of sitting in my trailer, I would go behind the camera and tried to talk to the crew and learn," she told the Hollywood trade. "It was always so interesting and fascinating and to have the honor to be able to direct my castmates and to go back for that is the best goodbye ever. I don't think I really said goodbye until that point."

The icing on the cake for Winnick was the fact that her family was able to be involved: her brother, Adam Winnick, appeared in "Valhalla Can Wait," the episode that she directed. He played Rangvald, who was loyal to King Harald (Peter Franzén). "He's the one that comes out and finds the village completely murdered," Winnick explained. "My other brother [Mark Winnick] actually played a king in Season 5, he was cast independently from me. To be able to share the ending of six seasons with the family was really nice." Adam has also popped up on "Designated Survivor," while Mark is perhaps best known for the 2018 horror flick "Isabelle."

She wants to play a superhero

With her movie-star looks and her background in martial arts, Katheryn Winnick seems like the perfect candidate for a superhero role. The Canadian star has been linked with a few projects in the past, and she's made it clear that she's interested in suiting up one day. When a Twitter user asked if she would be up for playing Black Canary on the big screen in 2016 (via CBR), Winnick responded with: "Hell ya." She also shared some fan art of herself as DC's silver-tongued songstress, but it led to nothing. The character would later feature in the Margot Robbie-led team-up movie "Birds of Prey," with Jurnee Smollett taking the role.

Black Canary wasn't the first superhero part that she lobbied for. In 2015, MovieWeb asked Winnick if she would be up for playing Captain Marvel after fan artists began to imagine the "Vikings" star as the cosmic hero. "Are you kidding me? I would love to!" she answered. "I would love to do that. I'm such a big fan of those movies and comic books. It would be a dream come true, and I love kicking butt!" It still hasn't come to pass, but Winnick confirmed that she hasn't given up hope during an interview with IMDb in 2021, issuing a plea to Kevin Feige. "I would love to play a superhero," she said. "Someone badass and fierce and cool with crazy superpowers. Put your thinking cap on, Marvel. Give me a call."