PBS’ ‘Atlantic Crossing’ Tells a World War II Story from a Woman’s Perspective

Kyle MacLachlan plays Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Sofia Helin stars as Crown Princess Marta in the series.
Sofia Helin as Crown Princess Martha and Kyle MacLachlan as President Franklin D. RooseveltCourtesy of MASTERPIECEPhotographer: Julie Vrabelova
“Atlantic Crossing”
Julie Vrabelova

According to Susanne Simpson, executive producer of the long-running PBS staple “Masterpiece Theatre,” this year’s slate of miniseries might look different than in years past because of the global pandemic. At PBS’s Winter TCA Press Tour on Thursday, she said there were five delayed productions due to COVID, and that compelled Simpson to look farther afield for new project to air.

“I don’t think anybody knew how long lockdowns were going to happen,” Simpson said. “Atlantic Crossing” was something she’d known about for six months prior to the outbreak, but she’d never pursued it because it was a Norwegian production. “Once I was able to see the show it wasn’t a very hard decision,” she said. “Atlantic Crossing” tells the story of the relationship between Crown Princess Marta (Sofia Helin) of Sweden and Norway and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Kyle MacLachlan).

“The overall picture back then, 80 years [ago], wasn’t as black-and-white or as easy as we might think today,” series director Alexander Eik said. He feels World War II resonates with America, especially in the wake of the America First movement, economic decline, and political polarization. Norway had virtually no defenses and that is mimicked today, according to series screenwriter Linda May Kallestein. “No one thought it would be threatened then, so we shouldn’t get complacent today,” she said.

Actor Sofia Helin was drawn to how women of that time weren’t involved in politics, especially in Norway. Marta was really more of a figurehead. “She had to become a political person and politically active,” she said. Helin, who is Swedish, says it’s fascinating that she’d never heard of this story considering Marta was originally from her country. She believed it has to do with the fact that the story has been told through the male perspective, and she instantly knew she needed to tell it. “Heroes don’t take any credit for what they do,” Helin said. “The character instantly came to me. But no one in Sweden knew about her. In Norway she’s more famous.”

Kallestein and Eik spent eight years researching, off and on. Kallestein said the crew looked at the FDR archives where they found letters between the President and the Crown Princess of Norway. They pieced together the story from there. The Crown Princess died in the 1950s, so her war work was forgotten. “It was a huge task,” said Eik. World War II is the story of men “so it was really hard for us to find information on Marta,” he said. They found a lot of information on her husband but “we really had to search high and low,” said Eik. “It was kind of detective work.” “She was Norway’s secret weapon,” Kallestein said.

“As an actor it’s always about the challenge,” said MacLachlan. “The idea of playing Roosevelt was pretty monumental … he stands tall among American history and among American presidents.” MacLachlan did a lot of research: “I really focused on making the person a whole person. The script gives him some latitude; he was very playful.” “I was very impressed when I first met [MacLachlan] to see how well-prepared you were,” Eik said. “We didn’t start from zero, we were already in the process from day one.”

Eik and Kallestein made a big effort to achieve historical credibility. “It’s a fictionalized drama inspired by true events,” Eik said. The overall story is true with regards to Marta having the most access to Roosevelt, next to his advisors, up until his death, and she used that to help Norway during the war. “We do dramatize and have to cram five years of war history into an 8-hour drama,” he said, so there are simplifications — but they used as many accurate events as possible.

What happened in private, intimate settings are imagined. “Nobody knows how intimate they were or how romantic their relationship was,” Eik said. They did find plenty of sources confirming Roosevelt was infatuated, and possibly in love, with her. “We have little clues about what she felt about him,” he noted.

“Atlantic Crossing” premieres Sunday, April 4 at 9 p.m. ET on PBS.

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