Coffee with Linda May Kallestein 

The making of Atlantic Crossing as a dramatic historical drama

Linda May Kallestein

Photo courtesy of Linda May Kallestein
Linda May Kallestein is the Norwegian-American co-writer of the hit PBS Masterpiece series Atlantic Crossing.

LORI ANN REINHALL
Editor-in-chief
The Norwegian American

I have to admit that the first thing I think about in the morning is a good cup of coffee. It’s part of my routine, as I set out to peruse through my emails and the headlines of select newspapers.

But it’s not every day that starts with coffee with the screenwriter of a major international film production. I’ve always said I’m lucky, and that is how I felt when I got to talk to Linda May Kallestein, the Oslo-based writer, who co-wrote with Alexander Eik the script for the hit PBS Masterpiece series Atlantic Crossing

In our conversation, Linda talked about the creative process when dealing with historical events, as well as some special inside information about the production itself. She shared some inside personal stories from the production and of her first meeting with lead actor Kyle MacLachlan. Of course, we took up the question that plagues so many readers and viewers of the series: What was the true nature of the relationship between FDR and Norway’s Crown Princess Märtha?

This interview transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Lori Ann Reinhall: Good morning/afternoon, Linda. First, I want to ask about your own journey to Atlantic Crossing? Tell me a little about your background. I assume that you’re a Norwegian American; is that correct?

Linda May Kallestein: That’s correct. I was born in the United States to Norwegians. My parents immigrated to the States in the ’50s. And then, toward the end of the ’70s, for various reasons, they decided to come back to Norway. I was 11 at the time. We were supposed to stay here for a short time, but it ended up being permanent. So, I’ve spent the better part of my life here in Norway, but my folks had a house in Arizona up until recently. I’m back in United States as often as possible. So, yes, I’m a good mix of both.

LAR: So perfect for this project. Did your parents go through the war or were they children then?

LMK: My dad was born in 36 and my mom in 38. So, dad has some vague memories of the war, but they both have pretty good memories of what it was like growing up then—from a child’s perspective. And my mother has a few memories of being grabbed up on my grandfather’s arm running to what probably was a bomb shelter.

LAR: I know a lot of Americans who watched Atlantic Crossing and thought it was great that it wasn’t dubbed into English. They felt that having them speak the Scandinavian languages gave it a lot of authenticity. 

LMK: We were a little concerned because there is not a long tradition of reading subtitles in America. And, as you know, after the first two episodes and we got Märtha out of Sweden, at least 50% of each episode was in English. And then, the pandemic was on our side, because a lot of people had sort of gone through, you know, the whole entire catalogs on Netflix, Hulu, and HBO, and had started watching more European and Asian productions, because there was nothing new left that that was American or British.

atlantic crossing

Photo: Julie Vrabelová / PBS Masterpiece
Atlantic Crossing is not only the story of the Norwegian royal family during World War II, it is the story of a woman who finds her voice.

LAR: They were lucky then to find Atlantic Crossing. And I thought the cast was brilliant. The Swedish actress Sofia Helin as Crown Princess Märtha, and then Kyle MacLachlan did such a good job as FDR.

LMK: He’s such a sweetheart, the perfect gentlemen. There’s just something so sweet about him. The entire cast was so down to earth, all of them. But it was my first time working so close up with stars on Kyle’s level, and even Harriet, who played Eleanor. I was starstruck the first time I saw them on set. You know, you do your pleasantries when you meet somebody in that setting, and there are things you should say. Then Kyle said, “Oh, I love the script.” He paid homage to us as writers, and my role would have been to say, “Thank you” and to express how wonderful it was to have him there and to work with him, but all I could say was, “Yep.” And I didn’t say anything about how wonderful it was for him to join the team … Oh, my goodness … So, I approached him on a break later on the day, I said, “I’m so sorry. I was so starstruck.”

LAR: He did such a good job capturing Roosevelt’s demeanor. And I understand that he studied the role by watching old footage. He watched the Ken Burns’ documentary and read as many books as possible.

LMK: Yes, you noticed when he was in role and when he was out of it; you could see that sort of transition. It was amazing to see when he went into FDR—he was FDR—there was no doubt about it. He brought a lot to his role, as did Sofia with Märtha. I was very pleased with the cast.

LAR: It was great, but funny in way, too, because some of us associate Kyle with a lot of his earlier quirkier films, like Blue Velvet.

LMK: Oh, yes, and there’s certainly a difference between the college student in Blue Velvet and FDR in Atlantic Crossing. It’s like they just couldn’t be more different.

LAR: So, that’s a testimony to his skills as an actor. It’s also my understanding that you and Alexander first intended to write a feature film script, but you realized how large the project was. You had to decide what to include and what to leave out. Is there something that you wish you could have included that you just couldn’t?

LMK: Oh, man—well, how much time do you have? We actually had other storylines that ran parallel to the main story. We did have some with Ragni and Nikolai, you know, with their little family story. We had more about that originally. And then, in the last episode when Olav goes to that young widow, to present her with this medal, we had created a huge storyline that had to be left out. There were several of those sorts of parallel storylines, which would have given more to the story. We wanted to show more of what was going on around Märtha and the core story. 

But all that had to go out. Alexander once counted up how many pages we had written, because the series was about eight hours, each episode about 55 minutes each. So, roughly, that’s about 800 pages of script. Originally, I think there were about 3,000 pages or something. We saw that it was too much for a movie, so one of us figured out—I can’t remember which one of us—that we had at least enough material for eight episodes. And we sort of laid it out just like bullet points, what these episodes could be and what would be in them. We had more than enough for eight episodes, for sure. 

LAR: I can imagine there was a lot cut because of cost considerations as well.

LMK: Oh yes, we were even cutting back on locations, even when they were in the middle of shooting. I would get a phone call, saying, “Okay, we have to cut back on this or this.” So many locations were cut; it was like we couldn’t cut back more. Sometime, there’s just no way to know where to cut. And then Alexander and I would then have to go back to the drawing board. And that’s why, when it comes to some people and events, they were inspired by true events, but things might not have taken place exactly where we place them in the series or not at the same time or in the same fashion. But still, what we tried to do is to say that they were important. So, we had to sort of meld things together. 

But when it comes to the characters—and this is very common when you’re working with this type of material—there are true events that people have lived, and sometimes you have one character in your script that might’ve been three or four. The characters are melded together. In Atlantic Crossing, there is one governess, but in reality, there were two more. Crown Princess Märtha had one chambermaid, but there actually was another, and there was a nanny and a driver. And then there was the chamberlain. In real life, Märtha had quite a big entourage with her in America. That was there from the moment they fled Oslo, but we couldn’t just bring everybody in. It would have been too complicated, too messy. It would have been just a lot of people hanging around that you couldn’t get a feeling for. When you’re in a book, it’s easier; you can follow up on the sidelines, but with film, you have to compress a lot— you are always compressing, compressing, compressing—and at some point, you have to ask yourself how far you can go.

But we still maintain that at the core of each scene, there’s something true at the core of every scene. And some scenes are more one-to-one with what we know. And then some scenes are made up; we did stretch it a little bit. We did put a little extra creative license into it at times. But then again, there were reasons behind these decisions, because they served to illustrate some elements that we couldn’t have brought on without doing it in that way. The children were in danger while they were in the United States—this is well-documented—so we created a scene to illustrate this. And it also has to be visual. Film is a visual medium, and you can’t just be dealing paperwork all the time. You have to sort of bring it to life. And then sometimes you have to sort of turn up the temperature. There has to be some excitement.

LAR: So, in other words, the historical framework was accurate, but you artistically augmented it.

LMK: Yes, and you can say that the foundation of the story is true. We have the overall concept of Märtha all of a sudden becoming an informal lobbyist on the world stage and having an influence on Roosevelt—that’s documented, even though there are some male historians who tend to disagree with us on that—but it is very well-documented. 

I’m actually writing a documentary book about that now. I continued researching even after we had to pull the plug and couldn’t do any more research. We had enough material for the series. At every turn, the issue was that every time we went deeper down one lane, we had to stop, because we would have to cut out so much. But I continued; I couldn’t help myself. So, I continued, and now it’s going to come out in a nonfiction book. But for the core story of Atlantic Crossing, there was more than enough documentation. We know that somehow Märtha whispered into the president’s ear—there is no doubt about that.

LAR: And we know that they met so many times …

LMK:  Yes, that’s well-documented. I mean, I don’t know if you’ve read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book [No Ordinary Times.] She writes a big chunk about … you know, she is a presidential historian. When we started our research, we started with books like that, going into what others had researched. We had to get an overview by going into other people’s research as we started doing our own. And then we went deeper into what we could have find … but yes, as in the case of Goodwin’s work, there’s no doubt about the influence that Märtha had on FDR at least in private settings. But we found some documentation that it was more than just that. They spent a lot of time together, and they must have spoken about a lot of things.

LAR: Of course, they did, or they wouldn’t have spent so much time together.

LMK: And if you want to take away the political aspects of the political influence, you’re left a very, very deep personal connection. I think they had a mixture of both. But there was some controversy about the series in Norway, with the criticism surrounding her political influence. People were a bit up in arms. They weren’t so concerned about all those rumors about an affair (and there were a lot of rumors about that, both during the war and after). No, it was interesting because that it was more taboo to see her working on Norway’s behalf during the war as a political person. In 2020/2021, in some people’s minds it’s more taboo that a woman could have political influence than to have an affair with the president.

LAR: Our website has been pounded with queries around this. Did they have an affair? I think what’s masterful is how you wrote the script so that it’s never really said one way or the other. Obviously, there was a strong affection between the two of them, but beyond that …

LMK: We spent lot of time trying to figure that out and how we would go about dealing with it in terms of the story. Only two people who knew for sure if there was anything more than a very, very close friendship, President Roosevelt, and Crown Princess Märtha, and they’re long gone. And to be honest, it’s nobody’s business—at least that’s what we felt. 

There’s no doubt that there was a very, very close friendship between the two of them. There was a lot of affection, and there seem to be indications that he felt even more than that for her. Roosevelt’s sons have mentioned this in their books, and they suspect that their father did love her deeply. I think it was James Roosevelt who wrote a book that she was probably the last love of his life.

And then there are other references that she was the greatest love of his life. For us, it was more important to capture that aspect of their love without it having to show an explicitly romantic or sexual relationship. I mean, she is the mother of our king. We could have been more speculative about their relationship—we’re writers, right? There were indications that there was something more, and that’s where we started. With the rumors of their affair. But early on, we decided we couldn’t just speculate. As we got into our research, it didn’t take long before we saw that there was a far more interesting story than any about a physical relationship between the two of them.

King Olav

Photo: NTB archives
King Olav spent much of World War II separated from his family, but here they are pictured together at their home in exile at Pooks Hill, outside of Washington, D.C.

LAR: Yes, I think it’s also the story about her finding her own voice.

LMK: Yes, that was the important story—amen to this. She grew into a role she wasn’t looking for.

LAR: Yes, and for me, a real high point was the magnificent speech she gave at Madison Square Garden that Eleanor coached her for. I thought, wow, she’s really found herself. But back to the love story, it is known that the Roosevelt couple had a strained relationship, that they lived in a marriage of convenience and that FDR had affairs.

LMK: And both Franklin and Eleanor had affairs. We know that Eleanor had affairs with women as well. There was a female journalist living in the White House for at least a year and a half, if not longer. And they were supposedly romantically involved. So, the Roosevelts had their arrangements going on. But then again, what is love? I mean, there are so many levels of love. And as far as the princess and the president, I guess they probably found theirs, but it doesn’t mean that’s why we expressed it the way we did. We sort of left it there. What we do know is that he had very strong feelings for her—and we wanted him to express it somehow.

We wanted Märtha to appear very, very conflicted in her feeling in the given situation. The president was there, and her husband was across the ocean. He put in the time, right? We have to fathom the whole idea is that the family was split by a war, that Olav could have been killed any moment during the bombings. And then, we could have lost the war. Märtha must have wondered what future there was for her in America. What must have gone on in her mind and in her heart—we can’t even start to imagine. But we did try to imagine. We spent a lot of heartfelt time on pondering and discussing these things—and the result was Atlantic Crossing.

Alas, my conversation with Linda did not end here—we continued to talk for hours about other characters and episodes in the drama—and we probably could have gone on even longer. 

By the time I finished transcribing the interview, I realized I found myself in a situation not so dissimilar to where she found herself with her research. I had gone through nearly 13,000 words of very interesting, useful information, and I would now have to determine what would stay in my article and what would have to go. I decided to stay with Linda’s own words to convey her message, but a good deal was left for future article and presentations. 

Since talking to Linda, I have appeared at events, both in person and online, to talk about Crown Princess Märtha and Atlantic Crossing. Personally, I gained a new interest for the series and the historical events, and I plan to watch it again this fall—for the third time—and I encourage you to join me. It’s not only good entertainment, but it provides great food for thought about the history of Norway and the United States at time when it is important to look back on history to understand the present.

Are you interested in having Editor-in-chief Lori Ann Reinhall present a program about Crown Princess Märtha and Atlantic Crossing to your club or organization? Email her at loriann@na-weekly.com to get it on her schedule.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 17, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Lori Ann Reinhall

Lori Ann Reinhall, editor-in-chief of The Norwegian American, is a multilingual journalist and cultural ambassador based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.

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