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Vikings on History: Show’s head makeup artist and chief stylist on how historic characters were brought to life

Katheryn Winnick as Lagertha on Vikings
Vikings star Katheryn Winnick has shown off the work of hair, makeup and costuming to great effect as Lagertha, Ragnar’s first wife. Pic credit: History

Not many dramas on TV have the distinct style and quality of work behind the camera as History’s flagship scripted series Vikings.

The series, ending its run after the coming sixth season, has exceptional hair and makeup work which has underscored the power of the characters such as Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick), shown above in her shield maiden fighting role, Ivar the Boneless (Alex Høgh Andersen) and Ragnar himself, played by Travis Fimmel, whose character was killed by Saxon King Aelle in a pit of venomous serpents in Season 4.

The good news for those who love the show is that Vikings creator Michael Hirst may extend the Vikings franchise with a new series. And for fans of the overall look and dramatic interplay of the story, it means Hirst will likely be continuing his partnership with his head makeup artist, Tom McInerney, and head hair designer and stylist Dee Corcoran.

Both department heads also did exceptional work for Hirst on Camelot and The Tudors. Hopefully, his Emmy winning costume designer, Joan Bergin, will be part of this promised project in development too.

We spoke separately to both Tom and Dee — who is currently in Budapest, working with Daniel Bruhl, Dakota Fanning and Luke Evans on Season 2 of TNT’s The Alienist — about the series.

Dee Corcoran on designing the hair styles for Vikings

Monsters and Critics: Dee, you have taken Lagertha from a young shield maiden and bride of a farmer to a Norse Queen. Can you talk about that?

Dee Corcoran: She was a farm girl, but she was also a famous shield maiden in the very beginning, but she had a very plain look then. And as she changed and time changed, we gave her more intricate looks, especially for when she went to war.

She wore chain mail and braided her hair. If there was a sacrifice [scene], we would give her a more intricate look. So you can see very well over the years how she changed into a more designed look.

M&C: Katheryn had directed an episode in the season that’s going to be airing on History. Do you have any insight on that?

Dee Corcoran: She was really good. Yeah. And she had a grace, because she’d worked with all the camera crew over the years. They all supported her really well and everyone gave her support, and I think she did a great job.

M&C: How did you get direction on how to make someone look when cast on the series?

Dee Corcoran: Well, we would discuss what Michael [Hirst] really wanted, and the director, and take it from there. And then we’d always do tests when the actors would come in.

It was very easy on Vikings for the guys on the cast. The guys and the girls loved the hair. But any guy who has had short hair loves the thought of having the long hair down to the waist. Nobody objected to that, and especially Adam Copeland [Kjetill ‘Flatnose’] adored his hair, and it looked fantastic on him, and he was such a pleasure to work with.

I mean, it looked kind of organic and it came together, but it would be discussed with the director and Michael first.

From left: Kjetill Flatnose (Adam Copeland) and Ubbe (Jordan Patrick Smith) in scene, Adam normally has very short hair. Pic credit: HISTORY.
From left: Kjetill Flatnose (Adam Copeland) — who normally has very short hair — and Ubbe (Jordan Patrick Smith) in scene. Pic credit: History

M&C: Michael Hirst is one of those showrunners who keeps his creative people close to him. Has he been in touch you as far as anything that he’ll be working on in the future?

Dee Corcoran:  Yes. We’re hopefully all going to work together soon.

M&C: For this last season of Vikings, what are some of your favorite looks and certain characters, if you can just elaborate a little bit just for fans to look forward to?

Dee Corcoran: Well, I think Ivar the Boneless, he had a great look. His character you will see with a kind of cornrows, which was…well, it looked spectacular on him because Alex has such an amazing head of hair that it was so easy to work with.

Alex Høgh Andersen in Dee's chair getting one of his many distinct hairstyles as Ivar the Boneless. Pic credit: Dee Corcoran/HISTORY.
Alex Høgh Andersen in Dee’s chair getting one of his many distinct hairstyles as Ivar the Boneless. Pic credit: Dee Corcoran/History

I loved Ubbe’s [Jordan Patrick Smith] hair, I loved Ragnar’s [Travid Fimmel] hair, and I loved the look of them, and I think that casting was so amazing, because Travis and him look so alike.

And I think Bjorn [Alexander Ludwig] had his head shaved for the last season. But sure, Bjorn is so handsome, he can wear any hairstyle.

Tom McInerney on the powerful impact of The Seer’s makeup on Vikings

John Kavanagh in chair being transformed into The Seer for Vikings by Tom McInerney. Pic credit: History.
John Kavanagh being transformed into The Seer for Vikings by Tom McInerney. Pic credit: History

M&C: Tom, no other character on Vikings has had such a jarring visual impact as the Seer. Can you talk about that dramatic makeup design?

Tom McInerney: Essentially the Seer was supposed to be a mystic or a völva from Vikings culture. Johan Renck, the director of the first two episodes, had pretty specific ideas as to what he wanted, or rather didn’t want, from this character.

Being a Seer, Johan didn’t want to go down a typical route of having empty eye sockets or blind eye contacts. He wanted the Seer to be a little bit more exploratory in terms of how he would look so…we went exploring.

We went down different avenues with concepts not only to juxtapose the Vikings’ masculinity and intensity but also to lend a mythos to pagan society in the context of the world we were building and question what the Seer was or is exactly — a human that was unbound by gender, that wasn’t subject to any oppressive Christian conservatism, and that may have been feared and even revered by Viking culture, setting the Seer apart in Viking society but also in contrast making the Seer the linchpin of the entire Viking saga. They wouldn’t move without his guidance!

We inferred from the outline of the character of the Seer, that as a “völva” the Seer would use what we call psilocybins today, to enhance or to see the future. The darkness around his lips was what we thought might be staining from the food that he was consuming and that it would give a black ink blot to his lips.

So it wasn’t like a lipstick or anything like that, but the nature of his character allowed us to play it like it was a lipstick of sorts if you could call it that. But it lent the Seer just a little bit more latitude in terms of where Johan and John wanted to go with the character.

The Seer had the most dramatic of all the Vikings makeups. Pic credit: HISTORY.
The Seer had the most dramatic of all the Vikings makeups. Pic credit: History

With the Seer’s look, we removed the sockets completely in the end and instead suggested that the Seer was born without any eyes or eye sockets, that his bones had melted or never formed to make physical eyes hence giving him the ability of some other worldly strange sight.

We explored the idea that he would have alopecia, Johan liked this idea and didn’t want him to have any fingernails or ears. But as we developed the character, and moved through the years, we changed and tweaked a few things to make the make-up more comfortable and practical for John Kavanagh, the actor playing the Seer.

It was designed by a brilliantly talented colleague of mine, Bobby McGlynn, he gave us a couple of options. We showed them to Johan and Michael, once they picked their favorite, we forged ahead and created the prosthetic.

That was the direction that we took the Seer, evolving and tweaking the look over time, it’s pretty much how the character came to life. John Kavanagh as the Seer ultimately brought his brilliant interpretation of who the character was to the screen; it was John that ultimately gave life to the Seer and that became who he/she/it was in the end.

M&C: Another character whose makeup is very distinct, Floki…

Tom McInerney: Floki, I suppose, was a pagan bishop, in so far as Floki was the epitome of what it meant to be pagan and he celebrated that by expressing his commitment to their beliefs by kohling his eyes and stylizing his look, to set him apart again from a changing environment.

His [overall] look evolved over time and there were different elements of it. But Floki was the epitome of what it meant to be a pagan.

Floki, Gustaf Skarsgård was involved in his makeup application per dept. head Tom McInerney. Pic credit; HISTORY
Gustaf Skarsgård, who helped Tom McInerney with his makeup, as Floki. Pic credit: History

A lot of people call me the designer, but for Floki, Gustaf Skarsgård was as much a part of that makeup as I was. And so far as to say that I would do most of the makeup, I would set up the patina, if you’d like.

And then at the very end of the makeup, at the very end of the process, it was almost ritualistic that Gustav would do the last part of the makeup…I would set the eyeliner up and then he would draw the final strokes down his cheeks just so it became part of him. He became that character.

When is Vikings back on History?

The 20-episode sixth season will air in two parts, starting off with a two-hour premiere on Wednesday, December 4 at 9pm ET/PT, followed by eight episodes airing every Wednesday at 10pm ET/PT on History. The remaining ten episodes of season six are slated to air in 2020.

What is Vikings about?

Vikings is a fictionalized accounting of a famous Norse family led by Ragnar Lothbrok, a farmer-turned-warrior king who ruled Scandinavia and specifically Norway. Created and executive produced by Michael Hirst, who has written every episode, the televised drama made history as the network’s first foray into ongoing scripted series. It was filmed primarily in Ireland with an international crew.

The entire historical drama by Hirst is based upon the 13th century fantastical lore of King Ragnar Lothbrok. The Vikings — by historical accounts — established the city of Dublin and ruled York in England. They had a democracy in comparison to other ancient European cultures, an advanced legal system, and were ahead of the curve when it came to the respect and rights of women who fought alongside their men in bloody battles.

They also did not go gently into Christianity, which a great deal of Hirst’s televised story premise and plot concerns itself with, as England wars with Lothbrok and his sons and all the Viking forces of Kattegat on different Anglo and Franco fronts.

Historical buffs know too that many Celtic designs and symbols were actually absorbed by their ancient Viking overlords. Costume designer Joan Bergin, in a past interview with THR, said: “The cliché is that they were all savages. They were not. They were Pagans, a religion far older than Christianity. They worshipped many gods of nature and, like the American Indian, they wore the skins — fur and leather — of many animals.

“But there was so much detail and hand stitching and decoration that there was a couture quality to Viking garments…Irish women loved the Vikings because they were so clean. They always took a change of clothes on raids and they were so meticulous about their hair that combs were routinely found buried in Viking graves.”

What will be new on Vikings as it wraps this season?

Russian actor and director, Danila Kozlovsky will play Oleg, a wild card this season. Pic credit: HISTORY.
Russian actor and director, Danila Kozlovsky will play Oleg, a wild card this season. Pic credit: HISTORY.

As mentioned above, series star Katheryn Winnick will direct one episode in Season 6. One major new character, teased as a new partner in crime for Ivar the Boneless (Alex Høgh Andersen), is The Grand Prince of Rus’ [Russia] Oleg (Danila Kozlovsky), also known as Oleg the Prophet and Oleg of Novgorod, played by Russian actor and director, Danila Kozlovsky.

Ivar will be pitted against his enemy and brother Bjorn Ironside (Alexander Ludwig). Lagertha will crown Bjorn as the new rightful king, and her fate is in serious question according to teased reports.

Vikings returns for its sixth and final season with a two-hour premiere Wednesday, December 4 at 9pm ET/PT on History. The network will also air Vikings: The Saga of Floki, a one-hour special ahead of the season six premiere on Wednesday, December 4 at 8pm ET/PT, a “deeper dive” on Ivar the Boneless who has left Kattegat, on a journey to parts unknown. From History: “He encounters a stranger and is flooded with memories of his past, prompting Ivar to recount the saga of the enigmatic genius Floki.”

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April is an accredited entertainment writer, interviewer and television critic. She is a current member of the Television Critics Association (TCA), Gay and Lesbian Entertainment... read more
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