‘Vikings: Valhalla’ Star Frida Gustavsson Chose Runestones and Reading Lines Over Walking Runways

Former Victoria's Secret Angel Frida Gustavsson talks about the huge responsibility of joining the "Vikings" universe and Netflix family.

Vikings Valhalla

Frida Gustavsson has walked the runway for the likes of Valentino, Chanel, Lanvin, Carolina Herrera, Fendi, Oscar de la Renta, Versace, Christian Dior and has even donned a pair of wings for Victoria’s Secret. However, her most revealing walk in recent years, she told Variety, was a runestone walk she took with her father in her native Swedish hometown to do some extracurricular research for her leading role as Freydís Eiríksdóttir in “Vikings: Valhalla.”

“I went for a runestone walk with my father, who is a history buff. The Vikings left all of these wonderful runestones — they had erected stones with carved letters in the Elder Futhark alphabet, which is the 1000-year-old alphabet from Sweden,” she explained to Variety. “They are little remnants of a time long gone, but they are still scattered all over the area where I live and tell little messages of what it was like to live there and come back after traveling to England and returning home with gold.”

As soon as Gustavsson landed the part of Freydís, she knew she had to make good to both the fans and her Scandinavian roots and learn all she could about Viking women. She opened her old schoolbooks, she went to all of the museums, but not even the runes she saw with her father told her much — or anything at all — about the type of woman she would need to portray onscreen. That’s when she knew the stakes for accuracy were high.

Jeb Stuart’s “Vikings: Valhalla,” a 100-year jump from its “Vikings” predecessor created by Michael Hirst for the History Channel, dropped all eight of its episodes on Netflix on Feb. 25. The results — four consecutive weeks on Netflix’s Top 10 chart for English-language television and two consecutive weeks on Nielsen’s Top 10 SVOD charts in the original and regular programming categories — proved that loyal fanbases were ready to put their Viksø helmets on once again and dive into gritty, Old Nordic lore.

For Gustavsson, the attention to “Vikings: Valhalla” has been “incredibly overwhelming” and out of her wildest imagination. “The most special thing was to see young women all over the world watch the show and send me little notes responding to my character. That has meant the world to me,” she said. The actor spoke with Variety about the rigorous research and stunt study she had to do in order to ace the role, rediscovering her Scandinavian heritage in a whole new light and way, and the cute, idyllic camping trips she took with the cast in remote Ireland in between takes.

A lot of people recognize your name from Victoria’s Secret and other modeling campaigns. You’ve made an interesting pivot from the runway to the historical biopic space. Tell me a little bit about the decision behind pursuing this role and how casting worked.

I used to work as a model. It was never really something that I had planned or set out to do. My goal ever since I was little was to work with a film or theater company. I was scouted kind of by accident and was thrown into the whirlwind of the fashion industry, but I always knew it wasn’t my end destination. I have always wanted to do acting properly. I moved back to Sweden in 2015-2016 and went to a drama school in my own language. Casting opened up for me after I did a little part on “The Witcher,” where I got to play alongside the wonderful Henry Cavill. In that sense, I was already a little bit inside of “The Netflix Universe,” when I heard about this project. I was a huge fan of “Vikings” because I am Scandinavian, so I am pretty inclined to like it and be drawn to the pagan world. The prospect of diving into my Scandinavian history and culture in this way and further in this genre really tickled me. The thought of being a part of something that was so hugely popular is a double-edged sword because I wanted to live up to the standard of the “Vikings” franchise and make the fans of the original show incredibly happy, but at the same time, I wanted to “leave my own stamp in the sand,” as we say in Sweden.

The casting process was pretty intense and included a lot of self-tapes. I was flown out to Ireland to the studios where we primarily film the show and it was inspiring to be taken through the corridors and see pieces of costumes and sets from the original show. I remember sitting there with Sam (Corlett) and Leo (Suter), and just looking at each other like, “Wow, this could potentially change the course of all of our lives.” Then we all ended up getting cast together.

There’s a lot of action in this show. You not only had to memorize lines, but you probably had to also memorize moves. What was that like?

I am very grateful that, as an actor and as a person in general, I am very physical and active. I love the aspect of working with my body and knowing that Freydís was going to become a very accomplished warrior. It made me tick. I had the opportunity to train for a couple of months with a personal trainer before arriving in Ireland, where we then went through a pretty extensive bootcamp with the stunt crew. We soon realized that all three of us (myself, Leo and Sam) could handle our own stunts. We started out with knives, and then with axes and spears, and then we built up the choreography as the sequences got bigger and longer and more complex. It was rigorous but, I was glad to have had the confidence of Richard Ryan and the other wonderful choreographers on our stunt team. I did everything but one stunt on the show.

I know you are Scandinavian, but even I can admit as an American that I don’t know every single moment in our history. What history was new to you, based on your research for the show? What was something that stood out about your character while reading?

I opened my own schoolbooks very soon into the process. I realized that at the forefront of our history, what I’ve learned is mostly about all of these men — Olaf II Haraldsson, Leif Erickson, and the like. There was all this empty space where women should be. It took a bit of research for me to learn about Viking women. Finally, a book came to me from the heavens called “Women in the Viking Age” by Judith Jesch. And then all the women stepped out of the shadows and demanded space in Viking history. In the book, she chronicles the life of a Viking woman from the cradle to the grave with incredible detail. All of her research is based on literature, archaeology, history and language.

The time where the show takes place is at the breaking point of paganism right where Christianity is coming in. It is brutally quenching the pagan lifestyle and the pagan way of life, and you can start to see the differences in the roles of women in Christian society versus the pagan society. I wanted to approach it like a sociologist or an anthropologist, and really understand the world of Freydís and what it was like to be a woman at the time, and the class perspective of womanhood. Of course, it helps that for Freydís, her father was a leader which enabled her to go on this journey of revenge. She had a certain status at the time.

What was your favorite aspect of your character’s arc in Season 1? How do you think that Freydís evolved?

When you meet Freydís, she’s been almost radicalized in her sense of beliefs. Everything for her is either black or white. It’s either pagan or Christian, good or evil, right or wrong. She’s very closed off in her way of thinking and comes from an isolated place with few human interactions. She is also the survivor of a horrific rape. She’s funneled every fiber of her being into revenge, and she has not planned anything for herself beyond accomplishing that. She approaches it almost as a kamikaze pilot. By Episode 1, she’s already done that. I found it incredibly interesting as an actor to explore what happens when all of these things culminate and she has to ask herself, “What now?” She’s thrust upon a spiritual, emotionally complex journey where she is forced to break out of her shell and become more accepting of love — until she is betrayed by Harald.

There are a bunch of scenes where you have to pray in or recite lines in Old Norse. How did you make sure your inflection was correct and were there dialect coaches helping you? Did it help to be fluent in Swedish?

Old Norse is a language that resonates with certain dialects of my own language. There are still Swedes today speaking a version of Old Norse, so some of the sounds are quite familiar to me. I think languages are fascinating and they are another kind of piece of armor for our characters. Old Norse took me on a road into Freydís and her spirituality and her way of communicating not only with herself but with her belief system. We had two wonderful dialect coaches that worked very closely with us and with ancient language experts. They broke them down phonetically in Swedish, because the bridge is shorter between Swedish and Old Norse than going through the roots of English, and it made it make way more sense in my head.

You’ve already filmed Season 2. What has it been like to film two seasons already for this enormous production? What was something you didn’t know before that you’ve learned while on the job?

To work on a production of this scale has been wonderful and at the same time, incredibly terrifying. I think, after spending the last five or six years working in Sweden, it was a shocking experience to step onto a set with Netflix. It makes it so much easier as an actor but at the same time, you feel so hugely responsible to every single person on the team that has put their love and their hearts into working on and building something so magnificent. Something new for me was the collaborative experience of this show. It cemented the idea on-set that this workplace was one where we worked together. Jeb Stuart, our showrunner, deserves a big thanks for that. He is incredibly intelligent and empathic, and he was generous with his time and his creativity. He really invited me, Sam and Leo to be creative partners on this job and we were invited to voice our thoughts and concerns on the table about our characters and the storyline. I felt like a true creative partner. I hope that is something that I can bring to other productions in the future.

When you weren’t busy filming, what were you doing?

Ireland was mostly in lockdown because of the coronavirus. We were completely shut off from the real world, more or less, especially for Season 1. Me, Sam, Leo, and Jóhannes lived together in a tiny fishing village very close to set and shut off from the outside. We all got to know each other very well. We cooked a lot of food and hung out at each other’s places and we became a family for each other. We would help each other debrief and chat and when weather permitted go for a little swim and try to be there for each other and create a sense of normality in this life-changing project for all of us. We played lots of tennis together and went on little camping trips. We loved exploring the mountains of Ireland and the beaches, so we would usually take a car or two and stuff it with things and drive to a remote place for a barbecue. We’ve all had a special, unique time together.

This interview has been condensed for length and clarity.