Norwegian actors Amund Harboe and Malene Wadel discuss taking on their first major roles in Lykkeland (State of Happiness), which dramatises the oil boom in Stavanger in the 1960s and 70s.
For the young cast of Norwegian drama Lykkeland (State of Happiness), appearing in the series proved to be as much a coming-of-age experience for them as it was for their characters and the town at the centre of the story.
The eight-part show, which premiered on Norwegian pubcaster NRK in 2018 and is currently playing on BBC4 in the UK, dramatises the true story of the small coastal town in south-west Norway and how it and its inhabitants change after Phillips Petroleum strikes oil nearby.
Set in the summer of 1969, the story begins as Stavanger’s reliance on fishing is being hampered by rapidly dwindling supplies in the North Sea, leading to crisis.
While oil companies have been test-drilling off the coast for years, nothing has been found. But contracted to drill a final hole, Phillips subsequently uncovers the largest sub-sea oil basin ever found, bringing new wealth to Norway.
Lykkeland principally follows four young people growing up in a place that transforms from a small fishing nation to a leading oil country – Norwegian teenagers Anna Hellevik (Anne Regine Ellingsæte), Christian Nyman (Amund Harboe) and Toril Torstensen (Malene Wadel) plus young American lawyer Jonathan Kay (Bart Edwards).
Christian’s dad, Fredrik (Per Kjerstad), is the owner and managing director of one of Stavanger’s biggest companies; Toril comes from from a religious family; and Christian’s girlfriend, Anna, grew up on a small farm in the countryside and becomes a secretary at the town hall. As their lives are indelibly changed by the oil strike, the series also confronts themes of welfare, equal rights, immigration and prosperity.
Produced by Maipo Film and distributed by DR Sales, Lykkeland is directed by Petter Næss and Pål Jackman, with Mette M Bølstad as the head writer.
The series marks the first acting jobs for young stars Harboe and Wadel, with Harboe’s Christian becoming a diver for the oil company and Wadel’s Toril getting pregnant by an American oil worker, with whom she decides to leave, going against her religious upbringing.
“This was kind of our breakthrough,” Wadel tells DQ. “I remember the first audition, reading the script, and I really felt a connection with Toril and thought she was really interesting. The drama is sewn together really well.”
“The script was what drew me to it,” says Harboe, who was studying musical drama before accepting the role. “It was just really well written. I was intrigued by the characters – my character in particular, of course – but everyone involved. It was really a weird decision to make because I’d never considered the option of acting. So when the news broke to me, I was like, ‘Can I do this?’
“I was really stressed about it prior to the screening in Norway. But when it came out, I’d stressed about it so much beforehand that I didn’t have anything left. We finished shooting back in December 2017 and it didn’t screen until October the next year, so we both had time just stressing about it. But when it initially came out, the response was really good.”
Their first days on set were particularly memorable, with Wadel arriving a few days after Harboe. “Amund and Anne, who plays Anna, both started on the first day, so they got the official introduction to the film set,” Wadel recalls. “I came in three days later and everyone was doing their thing and everyone was so concentrated – I felt so misplaced and didn’t know where to put myself or what to do. But it was really interesting to see how it all worked. We had a lot of help from the professional actors in the show. They were really nice.”
“Pia [Tjelta] and Per, who play my parents, were so welcoming,” Harboe says. “They really set the bar for being more relaxed on set. My first day on set was a nightmare because in the first scene we shot, I was supposed to be drunk, having just come home from a car accident. So it was really bizarre just coming on set and, five minutes later, going into that.
“I was so nervous, but Pia and Per and the director, Petter, was just like, ‘We’ve got this. We have all the time in the world to get the shot right.’ I went up to him after every take, asking him, ‘Was that OK? Do I look nervous?’ People were really nice about it.”
For his role as Christian, Harboe obtained a scuba diving certification before filming underwater scenes in a swimming pool. “It’s not really my comfort zone at all. I can’t really say I’m a good scuba diver, but at least I could perform the shots that were necessary to complete the scenes,” he says.
Both actors also originally hail from Stavanger, which ensured they had dialect needed for their parts. “My granddad on my mother’s side and my grandmother on my father’s side grew up during the time and it was really a contrast to what it’s now,” Harboe says.
“The fishing industry was hitting a low point. That didn’t really affect their lives, but then when the oil came, things started getting better and they could see the contrast from how their life was before.”
With a second season on the way – filming is due to resume in September ahead of a planned airing on NRK in the first half of 2022 – Lykkeland’s period and genre helps it stand out among the many series from the region that now draw an international following. “It’s refreshing for us to be involved in a Scandinavian series that isn’t necessarily a crime thriller,” Harboe adds.
“When we’ve been describing it to friends and family and they say, ‘What is the show like?’ I say, ‘It’s like Downton Abbey with oil.’ I hope it will sit well with audiences.”