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Arts & Culture

'Atlantic Crossing' Explores Little Known Relationship During World War II

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Kyle MacLachlan is known for playing characters who are a little strange. He was Special Agent Dale Cooper in "Twin Peaks," a mysterious dentist in "Desperate Housewives" and the mayor of Portland, Ore., in the sketch comedy show "Portlandia."

Well, now he's playing another political leader in a very different kind of show. The miniseries "Atlantic Crossing" is a historical drama based on true events during World War II. MacLachlan plays U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ATLANTIC CROSSING")

KYLE MACLACHLAN: (As President Franklin Delano Roosevelt) I'm going to introduce a new bill to Congress.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Point of order - what happened to the no politics during cocktail hour bill? (Laughter).

MACLACHLAN: (As President Franklin Delano Roosevelt) Well, I will use my presidential authority to grant an exemption to that rule but only for me.

SHAPIRO: The story centers on the relationship between FDR and Norway's Crown Princess Martha. She took refuge in the U.S. and lobbied FDR to enter the war. Kyle MacLachlan told me he'd never heard about this chapter in U.S. history.

MACLACHLAN: I've seen many, many different stories and perspectives on World War II, of course, but never this one. And it's told from the Norwegian - I mean, this is a Norwegian company. And so it's - it really focuses on the crown prince and princess and that world, and FDR is more of a supporting player in it. But I had no idea. I had no idea that she came, and she lobbied the president, you know, so much and that he was also incredibly supportive of her efforts, which, I think, was interesting.

SHAPIRO: Some have suggested that their relationship might not have been strictly strategic, strictly platonic. That's a question that this miniseries does not explicitly answer. Did you feel like...

MACLACHLAN: Not explicitly (laughter).

SHAPIRO: ...You had to answer it for yourself to play those scenes?

MACLACHLAN: You know, first and foremost, we all decided that there was certainly a very strong emotional attachment. They enjoyed each other's company. They enjoyed the banter or the conversation. That was, you know, one of FDR's stock and trades. I mean, this guy loved to hold court with people around him, and she loved to participate in that. You know, rumors are that he was fond of the - you know, the opposite sex. And I think he was definitely a very flirtatious, larger-than-life person.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ATLANTIC CROSSING")

MACLACHLAN: (As President Franklin Delano Roosevelt) I feel like a rematch. You want to race?

SOFIA HELIN: (As Crown Princess Martha) No.

MACLACHLAN: (As President Franklin Delano Roosevelt) Can I tempt you with a lollipop? (Laughter) They're very good.

MACLACHLAN: I think that there's - potentially something, you know, could have happened, but we intentionally did not go down that road. You know, I think we - there were hints at it, I think, really out of respect, more than anything else, for the royal family. I think it was the right choice. I don't think it's necessarily that important to the story. I think the most important is that they were just incredibly fond of each other. They were definitely connected emotionally, and they spent a great deal of time together.

SHAPIRO: For you as an actor, I mean, your career has been defined by these roles that are kind of quirky and eccentric and strange. And now you're playing this towering figure from American history in this very realistic historical drama. How did you approach it? I mean, was it a challenge for you?

MACLACHLAN: It was a challenge and very exciting. Early on when I read the script, I loved the point of view that our director spoke to me about, which was really concentrating on the details and really focusing on the family and how the war impacted the family, not - and so when I speak of family, not only the royal family but also the family of nations, the family of the world. And I just thought it was a really nice take on things. And I approached it with a great deal of respect and, you know, some trepidation, of course - did a lot of research, which turned out to be really fun. And then the physicality was a big challenge as well. And I was very interested in that and recreating that and getting that accurate.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. In real life, FDR worked so hard to avoid the public seeing him in his wheelchair. And this show portrays, in great detail, his leg braces, people assisting him to stand up, the physical pain he feels. Why was that important to you to depict? Why do you think that was important for this show?

MACLACHLAN: I think understanding what he had to deal with on a day-to-day basis and yet, he was - how he was able to maintain his sense of humor and his focus. I think in some ways it helped him to focus because he was never out of pain. He just had a great stamina and a zest for life.

SHAPIRO: Your FDR often seems trapped. I mean, he's caught in a global conflict that he would rather the U.S. not be a part of - or at least he's under pressure not to get the U.S. involved in it.

MACLACHLAN: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: He's expected to run for reelection when he says he would prefer not to. I mean, this FDR is not just a leader. He's someone who's dragged along by forces beyond his control.

MACLACHLAN: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ATLANTIC CROSSING")

HELIN: (As Crown Princess Martha) So it's not the war itself that holds you back. It's your sense of duty.

MACLACHLAN: (As President Franklin Delano Roosevelt) I truly don't want this, Martha. Eight years is more than enough.

SHAPIRO: Did it change your view of the U.S. presidency to see him in this light?

MACLACHLAN: These are issues - huge issues - that presidents and people in power have to wrestle with, you know? And I think he was, I believe, the right man at the right time. And he served and sacrificed a great deal of his - a great portion of his life. He served three full terms and a very small portion of the fourth. He was elected four times. I think he recognized that he and he alone - and maybe his hubris, I don't know - but he and he alone had the ability to bring America through not one but really two really dark periods of the history - the Depression, of course, and World War II. And he said, oh - he just, you know, said, OK. And he shouldered it and said, we're going to go forward, and I'm going to handle this. And I believe he had many dark hours. And I think that's, in some ways, why the escape was so essential, you know? There's a lot of scenes when we - I sort of pick up the crown princess, you know, like I'm a teenager, and we jump in the car and off we go. And I think those were really important for him to just escape, you know, and just let the - get out from under the weight of what was happening in the world.

SHAPIRO: I know you're here to talk about "Atlantic Crossing," but our listeners would kill me if I didn't ask. The 2017 revival of "Twin Peaks" was so acclaimed for both its story and your performance. Are there any plans to bring it back for another season?

MACLACHLAN: That lies completely within the mind of David Lynch.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

MACLACHLAN: And so we all - I'm, you know, with the audience. I would love to go back, as would the fans, I'm sure. But it's completely with David. And I've learned over the years to not badger him with questions about it (laughter). So I just...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Your fate is in his hands.

MACLACHLAN: It is. I have to sit on my hands and just wait for him to either - you know, he's either a thumbs up - or wait for the color of the smoke, I guess, is what they say. So we'll see what happens. As of yet, nothing. But what a great ride that was and what a great thing to be able to go back in such a different and unusual way. I had a lovely time and very challenging series of characters to play in that as well.

SHAPIRO: That's Kyle MacLachlan. He plays President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the new Masterpiece production "Atlantic Crossing," which airs on PBS.

Thank you so much.

MACLACHLAN: Great pleasure speaking with you, Ari. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANGELO BADALAMENTI'S "AUDREY'S DANCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.