Norwegian Crown Princess Martha was born in Sweden, but Swedish actor Sofia Helin didn’t know her story until she signed on to play the quiet Royal in Atlantic Crossing. But after coming on board the miniseries, Helin helped shape the story of the little-known Princess, bringing a surprising light to her powerful story. Helin talks royalty, FDR, and Saga Noren of Broen in a new interview.
Jace Lacob: I’m Jace Lacob, and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio.
World War II is underway, and Europe is on fire. A German invasion of Norway has splintered the Royal Family, with the King and Crown Prince hiding in Norway, while Crown Princess Märtha and her children flee to Sweden.
Märtha But this is Swedish territory…
Florence Märtha, until a few days ago, no one really believed that Norway or Denmark would be attacked. You must leave.
Jace But Märtha’s homeland is no safer than the country she left behind: the Crown Princess’ Swedish Family refuses to shelter her, leaving her with little choice but to look to America.
Florence The passenger ship is anchored in the bay, so a small boat will take us out there. The Lunder family. Now I’ve heard there are many Norwegian fishermen here. Better keep your head down, so you don’t get recognized. We don’t want the Germans to know you’re on board
Märtha: I never thought that if I ever did another Atlantic crossing, it would be as a refugee.
Jace As a group of Norwegian fisherman proudly salute their future King, Prince Harald, Märtha and her children board a ship for their own Atlantic Crossing — and head into the next chapter of their lives, and the war.
As the Crown Princess Märtha, Swedish actor Sofia Helin is uniquely suited for the little-known story of this quiet leader, and Helin joins us to discuss finding her own voice in the wake of the Swedish #MeToo movement, the relationship between Märtha and FDR, and her star-making turn as Detective Saga Noren in the international hit The Bridge.
Jace And we are joined this week by Atlantic Crossing star Sofia Helin. Welcome.
Sofia Thank you.
Jace The central figure in Atlantic Crossing is the Crown Princess Märtha, who is not a figure known to most Americans. As she was originally from Sweden, were you aware at all of her story before coming on board the project?
Sofia No, I had never heard of her, even though she was Swedish and all the things she did and everything, I’d never heard of her before.
Jace You joined Atlantic Crossing early on during the screenwriting process, in fact. How involved were you in terms of working with the screenwriters to shape the narrative or Märtha’s character arc?
Sofia Yeah, what you know, the writers, they went to America to find out more about her personal life and about her romantic relationship, maybe to Roosevelt, but what they found was more evidence of her political life and actions. So when we had those facts, we have to try to get closer to her as a person and try to find out her main struggle as a human being. So that’s something that we discussed a lot. And they found somewhere where she said about speaking in public that that she really hated that she said, You know, ‘I’d rather make a surgery again than speak in public again.’ So she really hated talking before many people and before camera. So so that was like a piece of the puzzle to to get to to make a human being out of her because royalty, they never shared their letters or personal memories from the relatives, from someone outside the family. So we couldn’t get to know her intimate parts of her personal personality. So we had to makemake that up a bit. But we knew some things about her like that. She was a very mild and sympathetic person. So up from that we built up her story and her struggle.
Jace You mentioned the fact that she didn’t like to speak in public. We’ve seen many World War II dramas, but Atlantic Crossing takes a very different approach. This is the story of a woman finding her voice, in both a literal and figurative way. How important to you was it to see this woman as being truly groundbreaking, a princess turned refugee, finding the strength to speak up for what she needed?
Sofia Yeah, of course, I wanted this story to be about all women and about all women in history who are forgotten even though they did achieve great things. So to find that piece of the puzzle where she actually said she had said that she’s so afraid of speaking in public and made it easier to to to develop that journey and to to help her to come out of her comfort zone and dare to do things that she normally wouldn’t do in in honor of her country and in the sake of peace and democracy.
Jace You’ve had to do that in reality, as well, with your role in the Swedish #MeToo movement. How did that experience help shape your journey to finding your own voice and speaking up?
Sofia Yeah, it’s very strange that these two projects, or if I can call #MeToo a project were simultaneously and it is absolutely about finding your own voice. And I think that’s what’s happening with many women around the world. I just learned that #MeToo has changed things in over 100 countries for women. And so that was like a magical synchronicity that this happened at the same time.
Jace How challenging was it to construct the character of Märtha, and was the process similar or different to what you did to construct the character of Saga Noren on Brone?
Sofia I’m always trying to find the struggle within the character, I’m going to do. So with Saga Noren, it was like the opposite, that that she didn’t know how to behave around people and how to read people, and so on. With Märtha, it’s the other way around. She’s very good at reading people and adapting to situations and so on. And she’s more put in a shape from the beginning of her life. I live in Stockholm and she grew up here at the Royal Castle, and she went to school in the Royal Castle. And the way she were taught to be as young princess, is I don’t think that’s the very big space to move in. I think you have to behave in a very certain way and to move your body in a certain way. So I worked with, you know, trying to always have the S curve in my body and try to be very pleasant all the time, because I think that’s what she’s been trained for, to be — pleasant. So it was surprisingly challenging to have these glamorous clothes and to be in this nice shape all the time. I got thoughts about crazy things I wanted to do because I felt trapped in that shape, you know, and that made me think about many women in the past who have been stuck in a shape or have tried to be something that they naturally aren’t.
Jace Märtha helped to shift public opinion about the war and even stood by FDR’s side when he delivered his famous “Look to Norway” speech. Why do you think that Märtha has, until now, remained a forgotten female war hero? Why didn’t she end up in history books the way her male counterparts during the war did?
Sofia I answer with a question — who writes the history? I had to look it up. I mean, how many professors do we have in the university? In the Nordic countries, it’s still like 70 percent, just male professors. And so it still is a problem. But we are getting better. But of course, I don’t think it might have even occurred to her that she her story would be famous or that she would be thanked in any way, because I don’t think that’s the female part of that time. That’s not the expectation. But I know that one ambassador in Washington, just after the war said, about Märtha, he said ‘What Märtha did and achieved during the war is something that the world is going to talk a lot about in the future, and especially Norway,’ then he meant, but it but that didn’t happen. And that’s interesting.
Jace You’re a native speaker of Swedish. Alexander Eik told us that you had to learn Norwegian for this role among many other things. Was that was that challenging on top of building a character?
Sofia I like languages and I I’m doing it like for fun also, so it’s not that I studied, it’s more like I, I just try to do it. So I had a Norwegian teacher and we talked on the phone for one hour every day for months. And so I said, ‘OK, hi, I’m going to go shopping now. So can you come with me. I will talk Norwegian on the way so then you can correct me when I say things wrong.’ So that’s the way I learned and it was very fun. And also it’s not like if you would learn Norwegian, because Swedish and Norwegian are similar.
Jace Yes, it would be far more challenging, I think, coming from English than another Scandinavian language. Märtha and Olav’s early goodwill tour takes them to the White House, where they meet Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, before the war. Given how integral Franklin would become to Märtha’s life, what do you think she made of FDR on their first meeting?
Sofia What I’ve learned is that that was like the most romantic trip they’d had in their lives and that it was a great success on every level and that they became friends with Roosevelt. So obviously, they must have been very impressed by by him and by America and and. As you are when you are on a very good place, you’re in a good place and you feel like you love everything around you, I guess that’s the that’s what it must have been like. I mean, there were photos while they were in riding horses and, you know, meeting all kinds of different things in America that must have been very exotic to them and. And and also the King Olav he said that that was maybe the happiest time of their lives.
Jace Even as Olav tries to shield Märtha and his children, Märtha realizes that war is on her doorstep, going so far as to ask the American ambassador, Florence Harriman, about what’s actually going on.
Märtha: Madame Ambassador.
Florence Your highness.
Märtha I need to ask you…have you received any reports from the American intelligence? I mean, regarding a threat of a German invasion. Olav fears it could happen, but our government seems to be more concerned about a British invasion.
Florence Oh believe me, your Highness. No one hopes more than I that Norway is spared from this war.
Märtha Please, if there is anything you know — anything…
Florence Well, in times of war, steel is more precious than gold, so as long as most of Germany’s iron has to pass through Norway, yes there’s a risk of invasion.
Märtha Please, Madame Ambassador — is it imminent?
Florence Prepare for the worst.
Jace Even at this rather formal and elegant event that she’s at, how attuned is Märtha to what’s happening around her?
Sofia In our version, she’s not aware of everything that is happening, and I guess it was more like that, that the men and the government were only men and the king and the prince were men. So I guess she got to learn everything from of. By then, but but no one knew what what was going to happen. It was even though the threat was there, no one knew that it would really happen, that the Germans would invade them. And how how? Yeah, it was a complete shock for them.
Jace Before this next question, a brief word from our sponsors…
Jace Märtha and the Norwegian royal family began a rather risky escape rather than remaining behind in Norway. Do you feel that they escaped certain death by going into exile, by removing themselves from the country?
Sofia Probably, or they would have been in prison, but I don’t know, because it depends on I think in in Denmark, for instance, they they gave up much, much easier and their king or their royalties didn’t get it killed. So. But, of course, there was if they would have made resistance, yeah. Their lives would definitely be threatened.
Jace There’s intense tension, I’ll say, to these escape scenes on the train and elsewhere. How challenging were these escape scenes to film, given the danger that the royals and the children were in?
Sofia It’s hard to even imagine to be in a train, and they also had to separate the family in order to insure that everyone is going to be killed if the bomb would hit the train. So to just imagine to not be with your kids when you know that there are bombs falling on the ground around you, I can’t imagine, it’s an absolute horror.
Jace Märtha’s determination to get to her own homeland of Sweden means she won’t stop for anyone, as she says to her driver to drive through the barricade at the border of Sweden. There’s a real grimness to her in this moment that is surprising from what we’ve seen of her thus far. What did this scene reveal about her true inner nature to you?
Sofia In my view, it’s her survival and spirit comes forward, and I think you don’t survive those circumstances. If you don’t have a very big fighting spirit within you, because I imagine many people would have been just shocked. And I don’t know if I would have been able to think or do anything. Just, you know, you can freeze by shock or fear, so. And it’s to me, it also is the moment where you because she’s so well-behaved and so nice all the time, so soft and pleasant, but that’s the moment where the animal comes out in her.
Jace Märtha hopes to find safety in Sweden under the protection of her uncle, King Gustav, but Gustav’s is in his own precarious position with Germany and he tries to convince Märtha to return to Norway. Is he trying to save his own skin by sacrificing his niece and her children? What’s his sort of game here?
Sofia Yeah, it’s very known in Sweden and in Norway that he was quite friendly with the Germans because his wife was also German, even though I know he went down to Hitler in the ‘30s and said to Hitler in Berlin that ‘You mustn’t treat the Jews like you are treating them. This isn’t right.’ But even though he did that, he was very German friendly and. I think that. He was so afraid of the Bolsheviks that he was just focusing on that threat and didn’t see the scale of his betrayal at that time, I guess. I mean, unless he was a psychopath. But of course many people in Norway are still very disappointed with that behavior.
Jace FDR, of course, proposes sending a ship for Märtha and the children to take them to the states and out of harm’s way in Europe. What does America represent Märtha at this point?
Sofia It must have been a relief to get to go to a free country, but it must have been so scary to go overseas at that time. I mean, the sea was full of submarines and mines and so on. So I think when once she got to America, it must have been a great relief, but also it must have been very hard to leave the family to leave her mother, her brother, father, relatives. And no, she didn’t know if she would ever come back and see them again.
Jace Märtha delivers my favorite line of this episode, she says, ‘It’s more important for a country to protect its soul than to protect the peace.’ What do you feel she means by this, and how significant is this a statement for her?
Sofia We know that within the Swedish Royal Family, there were very different opinions on how to treat the Germans so that Märtha’s father, mother and father, they were very anti-Germany, whilst Gustav wasn’t so this is a point where she she actually stands up for her point, what her opinion is.
Jace And to me, this is sort of the first step she’s taken towards finding her sense of self, you know, this is this decision that she’s going to sail to America. Did you see this as a major turning point for Märtha as a character that she makes this statement that she has? I says, I have made my decision.
Sofia Yes, it is the first step of her own journey where she understands that I can’t just rely on what other people want me to do or feel or think, I have to make my own decisions and go for it. So that’s where it starts. But I don’t think at all she is picturing herself doing all the things she later did, at that point. But it’s a start.
Jace I want to talk about my favorite scene from the episode — Florence Harriman warns Märtha to keep a low profile, as she’ll be recognized by Norwegian fishermen as she leaves. But instead, she proudly and tearfully shows off Prince Harald to his countrymen as the fishermen sing the Norwegian anthem.
Fisherman (In Norwegian) It’s the Prince!
Raghnild: (In Norwegian) Look, mommy! Norwegian flags!
Fishermen: (In Norwegian) Yes, we love this blessed country…
Jace What did you make of this very emotional scene and what was it like to film it?
Sofia What is interesting to know is that Norway and its Royal House were at that point a democracy. The Royal House was chosen by the people. So for me, it stands not for the Prince and King-to-be, but it also stands for what the people wanted. So when she raises Harald in front of these seamen, it’s more showing that I’m with you. This is not me running away from you, I’m with you. So that that was an important gesture from her, and we know that she really, she did that.
Jace Is it true you wanted to be a doctor when you grew up? What made you start acting instead?
Sofia Yeah, I wanted to be a doctor when I was a child. I spent a lot of a lot of time in hospital because I was and I suffered from severe asthma. So I think that was one of the reasons I wanted to become a doctor. But I, in my artistic side took over like when I when I got older. So it wasn’t a choice for me. When I was a teenager, I was not focusing on being a doctor anymore.
Jace You played the incredible Saga Norén, ran on Broen, The Bridge, one of my favorite All-Time shows for four incredible seasons. When you first signed on for that first series, did you anticipate the enormous response that Saga would receive from the audience?
Sofia No, not at all. I actually turned it down because it was just what when when, you know, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was so big and that was also a female hero with kind of Asperger’s symptom. And so I thought, ‘What, another crime series about this kind of female hero?’ But then I got to know the script better and the people who worked with it. And that persuaded me so. And I was also my my children were so small at that time. So I, I, I was totally unprepared. So I remember I went to London to deliver a prize at some gala and I was just surprised for being invited. But I went and then I got into the room and everybody just starts talking to me about The Bridge, and I was completely surprised.
Jace Saga opened the door for a new type of portrayal of characters on TV, particularly characters with Asperger’s syndrome, but also characters that can be seen in a sort of deeply feminist lens. Did you see her as being revolutionary, in that respect, once you had signed on?
Sofia Yeah, I always have the feminist lens. I cannot take it off. So any part I do, I see through those eyes and of course, also with Soga. But what I didn’t know before I started being her, I didn’t know how liberating it would be to just say what you think all the time. And also, I got to you know, there was a scene where she’s just staying by the by the coffee table at work that, ‘You know, I had my period this morning.’ And that’s something that came up in the moment and I asked the director, ‘Can I say that?’ ‘Sure! Say it!’ So it was very liberating, yeah.
Jace How closely did you work with Charlotte Sieling to come up with the overall look and style of Saga Noren’s iconic costuming — those leather trousers or the military coat? How closely did you work with Charlotte?
Sofia We just kept on trying things. And I remember that when we because I came in clogs to the rehearsal. And she just like, ‘That! She’s gotta have a heel like that.’ So we found shoes with that heel. And quite early on we found the leather trousers. But then he was actually out of sort of a mistake that he had the same clothes over and over again. It was like like someone in the costume department forgot to change my t-shirt. Then we decided, but she has the same t-shirt. So we said we put her T-shirts like that in her drawer and and just keep it there so she can change at work. That’s, for instance, something that me and Charlotte came up together with in the moment. And that was so wonderful with that collaboration with Charlotte and also with the writers that that they were so open to the impulses since the and since they were open, we enjoyed it and we had a lot of fun with it.
Jace How did playing Saga change you as an actor and as a person?
Sofia And as I said, it’s a B that I have done Saga has left traces within my personality that I can hear what she would say in a situation where I just am polite and, you know, adapting to to people and so on. So that in that sense, she’s affected me. But of course, it’s also given me opportunities, workplace and a lot. But it also helps me understanding people who I previously just said, “Oh, that’s an idiot. I don’t want to talk to him or her.’ I now realize, ‘Maybe she or he doesn’t know how to understand what I’m doing,’ because I remember when I got into the part Astorga, it was like going behind a glass wall. I remember I found that out when I stood before a glass wall and I started knocking and I realized, that’s what it must be to just trying to get through. But you see, but you can’t get through. So I guess I maybe I understand that a little bit better now.
Jace This podcast episode is coming out after episode two of Atlantic Crossing, what can you tease about what’s coming up?
Sofia You’re going to get to know another side of FDR when Märtha finally reaches the White House and you’re also going to get to know the more private meetings between FDR and Märtha and you’re also going to follow her journey, to find her voice and to her journey to dare to tell people her opinion and raise her voice.
Jace Sofia Helin, tack så mycket!
Sofia Yeah, tack så mycket!
Jace Just like the Crown Princess, we’re looking to FDR for help —— that is, for our next episode.
FDR You make me relax, my dear. And I appreciate that.
FDR If there is anything you need to make this easier on you and the children, don’t hesitate to ask.
Jace Kyle MacLachlan plays the powerful American President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and he joins us here on the podcast on April 25.
MASTERPIECE Studio is hosted by me, Jace Lacob, and produced by Nick Andersen. Elisheba Ittoop is our editor. The executive producer of MASTERPIECE is Susanne Simpson.
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