PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre turns 50 this year. Since its premiere in 1971, it has won 83 Primetime Emmy Awards. And one of their newest offerings might add to their trophies.
Atlantic Crossing tells an unknown but true story of the wartime friendship between President Roosevelt and Norwegian Princess Martha. During World War II Norway fought for survival as Nazi Germany invaded their country. Crown Princess Martha urged Roosevelt to help Norway but, at that time, the US was still officially neutral. This forced Princess Martha to play the roles of statesman and confidante, anxiously watching a war that could destroy her country.
Kyle MacLachlan (Twin Peaks, Sex and the City) portrays President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Swedish star Sofia Helin (The Bridge) plays Crown Princess Martha, who steals the heart of the president. Both talked with the TV Critics Association about their new eight part series, which premieres on PBS on April 4th, 2021.
Sofia, I was really surprised that this is a story I knew absolutely nothing about. Since you are from that part of the world, how much of the story had you heard?
Sofia Helin: That’s so fascinating that I had never heard of her, even though she’s Swedish. I guess that’s a result of telling the story from the male perspective for 80 years.
Now it’s time to tell another perspective. When Alexander Eik (creator, writer and director) pitched this to me, I knew instantly that I needed to tell this story about this woman. Heroes who don’t take credit for what they do (are) the most interesting. The character instantly came to me and I wanted to do it.
No one in Sweden knew about her either. In Norway she’s more famous.
Kyle, you’re certainly not the first person to play President Roosevelt. Were there any performances that you particularly admire?
Kyle MacLachlan: I didn’t really look at any previous performances or performers, which is strange for me. Usually the first thing I do is find out what everybody else has done.
What research did you do?
Kyle: I relied heavily on the Ken Burns documentary, and also on the Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book about the Roosevelts.
I think the challenge is to get inside the person; to figure out the psychology and the ‘Why.’ That was for me illuminated by both of those sources really well. Even as simple as just having footage of Roosevelt moving through space; how he carried himself in front of a crowd told me a lot about who he was as a person.
I focused on making him a whole person. I was helped by the fact that the script gives him some latitude. (Roosevelt) was very playful and loved a good joke. He loved to be, I won’t say ‘class clown,’ but he wanted all the attention on him. And (Alexander) let me run with that a little bit, which was a lot of fun.
Sofia: Excuse me for interrupting. To see (Kyle) coming to Prague, in a couple of days (he) turned into FDR in front of our eyes. I just kept on staring. How (did he) do that, and to embrace that with (his) body (in) the wheelchair? It was an honor.
Sofia, what is the journey that your character goes on over these eight episodes?
Sofia: I have been thinking a lot about women of that age, how they were not in the center of politics. How she was as royalty not a political person. And how she had to become politically active; and do things that she (wasn’t) allowed to do, in order to save her country.
Another interesting thing is royalties are not necessarily (democratically) chosen. But this royal family was. So, she is forcing America to join the fight against the Nazis for democracy. That’s why I find this story so relevant and important today.
Sucking it up
Kyle, you were talking about how you enjoy the challenge of your job. But what do you do if you’re offered a part that you really don’t think you can play?
Kyle: Well, you just suck it up. You have to have people around you that can support that journey. I come back to Alexander and Sofia. They were very aware of the challenges that I had for the character, my attention to detail; my desire to gather as much truth as I could about the man. I remember asking Alex a lot about, ‘Do you see my legs? How do they look?’ (I was) being very conscious of trying to recreate the reality of that. You have to have really good eyes looking at you, and gratefully I had that in both of them.
A new Dune is on the horizon, and Sex and the City is about to continue. Can you talk about finding new challenges, like playing Roosevelt, when so much of your earlier work is being revisited?
Kyle: It all has to do with the gray hair. To be honest, I’m just grateful to still be in the game. To have wonderful opportunities like playing Roosevelt in Atlantic Crossing with such amazing people guiding me.
As an actor, I think it’s always about the challenge. In some ways the uncertainty as to the ability to pull something off; I love that fear. It drives me. And the idea of playing Roosevelt was a pretty monumental consideration. He stands tall certainly in American history and among all American presidents. And he’s this amazing personality.
I vaguely remember the period of time when I first started. It’s humbling and, at the same time, feels really like I’m in a place where I need to be. I’m very grateful to be still working.