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SYFY WIRE Interviews

With Netflix's Polar, Katheryn Winnick goes from viking to assassin

By Bryan Cairns

In Polar, Mads Mikkelsen plays a world-class assassin named Duncan who after decades on the job, may have met his match in Vivian, played by Vikings' Katheryn Winnick.

The Netflix movie, which premiered on January 25, follows Duncan, a 50-year-old gun-for-hire prepared to retire from the business. However, when he turns down an assignment, Duncan's past employer puts a hit out on him. He must now survive an onslaught of cold-blooded killers, equipped with state-of-the-art weaponry. That ruthless squad includes his former colleague Vivian.

Last March, SYFY WIRE and some select reporters from other outlets journeyed to Polar's frigid Toronto set. We watched a sequence unfolding on location in an empty generating station. After homing in on Duncan's phone signal, Vivian's caravan of vehicles storms an abandoned factory. Once inside, Vivian exits and approaches Duncan. The two adversaries calmly exchange words.

"I know they pay you well for this, Vivian," Duncan says. "I'm still going to give you a chance to walk out of here alive for old time's sake."

"You've become sentimental," Vivian counters.

The pointed banter continues for a moment, then Vivian turns to walk away as her goons move in for the kill. However, who the real hunter is and who is the prey remains to be seen.

Winnick settled in at her trailer to speak to press about finding Vivian's voice, playing a badass, and director Jonas Åkerlund's distinct style.

Polar Katheryn Winnick

Can you tell us a little bit about Vivian and who she is to Duncan?

Vivian is his match in a lot of ways. She's also a very skilled assassin at the top of her game. She has a history with Duncan, a really mysterious history that is not fully explained, but touched upon in this movie. She is definitely in the hierarchy of the federation, or from the organization or agency, she's in. She's definitely in a position of leadership and control. She really has one person to report to, which is [Herman] Blut, played by Matt Lucas. She's badass and savvy and skilled and a lot of fun to play.

What I love about playing her is, when I first read the script, the script can be read and taken through so many directions. It wasn't until I sat down with director Jonas Åkerlund on Skype and got a chance to speak with him about his vision of how he wants to shoot this more in a graphic novel-style and very stylized shooting, that I thought, "OK, this is something really interesting. This could be an interesting piece of art and filmmaking," because not only does it have the action elements and things based on reality with strong actors like Mads Mikkelsen, but it also has a comedic undertone to it. It has a little bit, slightly over-the-top feel of a graphic novel, with Vivian, for example, with her different wigs. Every time you see her, she's in a different look. It has been a great pleasure working with Mads and Jonas.

Can you talk about the physical aspect of this movie? How much do you get to do and was it rewarding?

It's actually not that much action. I don't do that much action. She's so high up in her skill set that she doesn't necessarily have to break a sweat. She can kill in different ways. What's great about working with Jonas and also the producers, they are very open to creative changes.

I suggested, for example, instead of shooting, she maybe throws in a pill in her next mark's glass of champagne instead of the old-fashioned way. I just thought with somebody so experienced, you don't necessarily have to resort to getting your hands dirty. The A-team will do that. To compare it to Vikings, no, I don't get to do any fun sword stuff, if that's what you are asking.

Is it refreshing to see such a character on screen, compared to other action films where women are usually a wallflower or a Bond girl or just attached to the main character?

I'm not sure refreshing is the right word. For me, truthfully, it was a bit of a challenge because I'm coming off of six years of Vikings. I literally just finished a week before I came here. So, I'm coming off of six years being attached to one character. For me, it took a while to grasp the reality and the authenticity of Vivian. Why would she have all these different wigs? Why would she have all these different outfits and be so fashionable? Once I embraced Jonas' vision and shooting it in such a stylized way, I started having a lot of fun with it.

He's a very interesting director because he does a lot more coverage than I'm used to. On a grand scheme of things, he definitely has those big, very macro-wides, but also zooming in for the micro, super-closeups, which will give him a lot of freedom and a lot of footage in the editing room to be able to stylize it, just like he did with his movie Spun. But, yes, Vivian is badass. Of course, she is.

You mentioned Vivian is Duncan's match. But there was a line where he says, "I will give you a chance to give up and live for old time's sake." Can you talk about their history together?

Well, it's what we made up in our heads. It's not really explored on screen so much. It's hinted that they definitely know each other. It was important for me, when I read the script, to add the emotional side to Vivian and the fact that she does care about Duncan.

Originally, it was kind of written that she was just an assassin. Whatever the script, I really struggled with that. I thought it was a lot more interesting if it was a woman who is truly in love with her match and hopes to be together with him until there's a point of no return and realizes he cares for someone else, whatever form that actually is. It doesn't have to be transcribed on screen, but the fact that he has feelings and would give up his life for another... I think that, for her, was a turning point and that is a scene you came in for today, to see her in that turning point and you see her real assassin mode.

What's interesting playing somebody so skilled is that you never really have to push it. You don't have to be screaming or having a gun. It's a lot more cool and collected if you really know your power and stand by it. The fact is the situation, in itself, is extremely powerful. The fact I'm surrounded by 40 armed men, in Vivian's head, she thinks she is going to win. Little does she know…

You're wearing a beret. Vivian looks very French today.

She does. She has different looks. French today. A little bit of film noir. The other day I had a big afro in a strip club. That was a lot of fun. A black, short wig. It was a lot of fun. My favorite was probably a very, short white... I wouldn't say Marilyn Monroe, but a very similar, more structured Marilyn Monroe kind of hairstyle, probably 1940 hairstyle.

She gets the chance to play with different wigs, which as an actress, of course, you have a lot of fun doing that stuff. You look in the mirror and you're like, "Oh, I'm a different person." On one hand, it's also a big challenge to ground yourself in reality and understand why she does this.

Hopefully, that would unfold if they end up doing more movies of Polar in the future. You would see a lot more of their history and backstory as well.

She sounds very Sydney Bristow.

Yeah! Fun, right?