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Frida Gustavsson: 'Valhalla' brings Viking women out of the shadows

Frida Gustavsson stars in "Vikings: Valhalla." Photo courtesy of Netflix
1 of 4 | Frida Gustavsson stars in "Vikings: Valhalla." Photo courtesy of Netflix

NEW YORK, Jan. 12 (UPI) -- Frida Gustavsson says she deeply researched the lives of 11th-century women to add dimension and authenticity to her portrayal of the Norse heroine, Freydis Eiríksdóttir, in the Netflix series, Vikings: Valhalla.

Season 2 of the Vikings sequel premieres Thursday. It follows the epic, globe-trotting adventures of sibling explorers Freydis and Leif Erikson (Sam Corlett,) and Nordic Prince Harald Sigurdsson (Leo Suter).

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"I'm Swedish, so we learned a lot about Vikings in school, but I quickly realized that we only learned about the men. All of the Viking women were lurking in the shadows," Gustavsson told UPI in a recent Zoom interview.

"So, for me, I got into reading and seeing more of the everyday life of the Viking women. The very few in the sagas are all queens, and it's all about people who lived these very extravagant lives," she said.

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"It really blew me away to see the incredible opportunities and liberties that Viking women had. They could marry and own property and divorce and have multiple sexual partners and travel. That was something that influenced me in many ways in how to create Freydis."

Freydis is deals with some major challenges in Season 2.

"We pick up in a place where she is struggling to cope with the decisions she made toward the end of the first season, to leave the believers in the old ways, all of her pagan friends, behind and escape into the mountains with Harald," Gustavsson said.

"Season 2 is a very emotional and vulnerable journey for her to finally accept and fulfill her destiny as the leader of the pagans."

The actress relished the physical demands of the job, especially the training she underwent for her many battle scenes.

"We knew we were going to really work and do these incredible fights together with some of the best stunt performers in the world," she said.

"The physical aspect of it is one of the things that really drew me to the part, especially as a woman. You don't usually get to play a character that can be so big and so loud."

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The new episodes show Leif still moving through his grief and rage after his girlfriend, Liv (Lujza Richter), is killed at the end of Season 1.

"He's learning to alchemize that pain and put it into purpose, and it's proving more difficult than he thought. It's almost like we need to see the man fall apart before he puts the pieces together and becomes the Leif Erikson we know," Corlett said.

Suter said Season 2 shows what happens to Harald after he was injured and exiled from Scandinavia, and how these experiences made him the stuff of legends.

"He spent some time with his uncle and then realized he had to get to Constantinople because that's where things were happening, so I had a bit of a historical background from doing some research," Suter said.

"I knew where we were headed, but what I think [showrunner] Jeb [Stuart] does so brilliantly is taking sort of factual history and filling it in with wonderful characters and emotional storytelling. That's what's fun bringing the past into the present."

Suter said the positive viewer response to the show is overwhelming.

"These characters were amazing people who did amazing things and we're lucky to play them, but it is obvious in talking to fans that they mean a lot to these people," he said.

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"Some of the fan reaction has been really touching and heartwarming. It's nice to be a part of a show that people feel invested and care about."

Though some might find it daunting, Stuart said he loves storytelling on the massive scale that Vikings requires.

"We had aspirations to do movie quality on a TV budget, and the only way you can do that is to work with really good actors and crew and lots and lots of good communication and this feeling of let's go make something pretty special," Stuart said.

The writer and producer said he wants the series to be both dramatically compelling and historically accurate.

He said he learned how to balance these aspects by watching multiple interviews with a World War II veteran who recounted the same story slightly differently every 10 years.

"That changed my whole perception about telling history. The facts remain the same, but some of the details, the areas that were in the gray parts of history, were different," Stuart said.

"I'm telling a character-based history story. What these characters are going through in my imagination doesn't alter some of the bigger elements of history, but how we got there, why they made the decision to go right instead of left. History doesn't tell us, so that is what the story is about."

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For Season 2, Stuart said he was most excited to see the show's main characters travel outside of their native Scandinavia.

"I wanted to take them into the broader world. One of the fun things about our show is that we are dealing with really great young characters who have lots of expectations they put on themselves and that the world has put onto them," he said.

"Then, at the end of Season 1, we kind of blow that world up. There are all sorts of setbacks in the lives of great people and we are telling the story of two of the greatest Vikings of all time, so these are the setbacks and these are the challenges they have and to embrace those challenges.

"That was one of our big goals in Season 2 -- to take the stories and make them much more personal."

The cast members rose to every challenge placed in front of them, Stuart said.

"They embody the fun aspects of the show, the deepness of the show. They work in unbelievable conditions," he said.

"They practice their stunts, so we don't have to shoot with stunt people in their place. They get all bruised and banged and deal with all the elements and nobody complains about it. They are just good people to be around."

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Both seasons of the show were filmed during the coronavirus pandemic.

While most of the world had opened back up by the time Season 2 started shooting, there were still strict COVID-19 rules in place.

"We could be a little more social than we were before, but our restrictions on [the] set were the same, if not a little more draconian. Our testing was just unbelievable," Stuart said.

"We had to test 700 people every day of the week for Season 2 and double-mask on set. When you're doing action scenes with 200 people, that is a lot of masks out there."

That said, the cast and crew had gotten one season under their belts and that made the production run a little more smoothly the second time around.

"It was very different from the original Vikings. It's faster. There are bigger set pieces. And we had done it," Stuart said. "We just had to make it better than Season 1, which was a challenge in itself."

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