YOUNG ROYALS: Interview with Headwriter, Lisa Ambjörn

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Young Royals debuted this evening. It’s six episode pilot season tells the coming of age tale of Prince Wilhelm who is sent to boarding school due to his rebellious ways. Worlds collide at Hillerska which sets the foundation of struggle between transformation and obligation. ..

For headwriter, Lisa Ambjörn, Young Royals is a tame departure from her usual sassy style, previously penning dramatic-comedies, Sommaren 85 and Sjukt. This time around, her principal cast centres around the mechanics of the royal institution shone through an LGBT lense. You only have to scan through your Netflix recommendations and see shows that have fared popularly appearing in the weekly Top 10 lists. From the dramas of The Crown or The Tudors, the satirical comedy of The Windsors, and countless other documentaries, our fascination with royal intrigue is perpetual. Young Royals is the modern addition to that guilty pleasure as we get a deeper insight to the world Lisa Ambjörn creates:

In recent times, with the controversial and failed attempt of Prince Manvendra’s (India) family trying to disinherit him after coming out as a gay man, the cousin of Queen Elizabeth (United Kingdom) marrying his male partner with the support of the royal family, and the general fascination of the general public with the lives of ‘blue bloods’ (eg. Princess Diana, Megxit), why did you choose to tell this story in this setting?

Ambjörn: I think it’s because the royal family represents a kind of constant in an ever changing world, our history acted out in front of us within one family, generation after generation. And as series Conceptual Director, Rojda, said in several interviews, because it is not transparent, it becomes more interesting. We want to imagine what goes on behind those closed doors.

When it comes to the conservative point of view, August (front) played by Malte Gårdinger who does a great job in making us hate and sympathise with his character, especially after that episode where he sets the wheels in motion for the very public outing of his cousin and heir to the throne, Wilhelm!

Lisa’s previous work portrays strong lead character women. She says that the key message and ideas that were presented in the pilot season would have transcended gender regardless, adding

“…in a way it’s a story about what happens when someone starts challenging a power structure with a long history, and males having been on top of that power [historically], it felt like the right choice to centre it around masculinity. You can almost say it’s a triangle drama between Wilhelm, Simon and August in the sense that August and Simon compete for Wilhelms attention, pushing and pulling him in different directions.”

In the opening sequence, Wilhem’s character seems to evoke classic UK wild-child Prince Harry, but by the season finale, it’s almost as though he transforms overnight into his older brother Erik. In your opinion, did Wilhelm feel lost in the shadow of his brother, having no real purpose in terms of his royal responsibilities as ‘the spare’?

Everyone loves Prince Erik (Ivar Forsling, right), the beloved heir to the monarch, even cousin August (Malte Gårdinger, centre) seems to have a better relationship with him. Simon seems to struggle to understand his younger cousin Wilhelm whom the royal family has charged him with to ensure he behaves after being sent to boarding school, Hillerska, after a very public scandal.

Ambjörn: Wilhelm’s strength is also his weakness. He’s very impulsive and acts on his feelings. Which for his role as a representative of the royal family is a huge problem. And his role as the spare of course has affected him more then he probably knows, I don’t want to spoil anything but the transition to being more like Erik for him I think comes more from his deep affection for his brother. He feels like his brother is perfect and that there must be something wrong with himself for not being able to just keep it together and conform. I think a lot of people experience they are younger that they’re trying on different roles, trying to find out where they fit in, Wilhelm just does it within the extremes due to his royal duties.

Generally speaking, are there situations or parts of any social community where characteristics outside of the hetero-normative experience might still be viewed as scandalous or taboo?

Being an Australian, our perception of Sweden and the region of Scandinavia where Young Royals is set, is that of being one of the most LGBT-friendly regions in the world, particularly with Norwegian King Harald’s speech in support of refugees and the LGBT community that went viral. Are the views of the Nordic aristocrats you’ve scribed, like August and Queen Kristina when it comes to LGBT or other minority groups, a general reflection of how everyday Scandinavians or the Swedes view social minorities?

Ambjörn: A Swedish critic wrote that they didn’t understand what was at stake because ”Sweden is no longer super homophobic” which made me laugh, low standards much?

My friends then joked about the fact that the only way straight people can enjoy a queer story and understand why it’s hard to come out or live how you wanna live in this world is if the characters life is being threatened.

Sweden is in many way a progressive society and love to be perceived that way, but you can’t forget that we’re still a monarchy, and for example we were the last country in Europe to stop the special treatment of nobles when it comes to the laws of inheritance (called a medieval law called ”fideikommiss”). And you can just look at the statistics to confirm that people are still being subject to discrimination and hate crimes.

I want people to start questioning these things on a philosophical level – can we call ourself a democracy if we have a royal family? Are we equal as long as we do? I mean it’s literally about breeding new heirs to the thrown, should the royals house have to take a stand in questions regarding surrogacy or adoption I think it would affect their future.

Simon (Omar Rudberg) and Prince Wilhelm (Edvin Ryding) come from two different worlds. What’s interesting about this dynamic are the commonalities when titles are stripped down to just raw emotion. The idea that one experience can mean different things or have different consequences based on the circles we move in. Despite a generally tolerable modern world, is this still a big deal in certain corners of our society? Certain sports codes we play? Various levels of everyday corporate life?

One of the ongoing themes that carries through in much of the first season, is that of social class divisions between the ‘haves and the have-nots’, rich and poor, locals vs immigrants, and of course – orientation. As a result, there are presumptions and perceptions both positive and negative that the characters have about each other, that layers the underlying love story between Wilhelm and Simon. Do you think it is easier for some people to live their truth more than others?

Ambjörn: Neither of them are free – but for very different reasons. On an individual level they can have very similar experiences and that’s what we show, but on a structural level in society, Sara and Simon have less power and means than the rest of them. So that’s why Simon can be open about his sexuality, because let’s face it – less people care, and Wilhelm feels he can’t. In the same way they can all have prejudices against each other, but what Simon thinks of the nobles won’t affect him in the same way as how Wilhelm [and others around him suggest will] be affected by them.

Quite a pickle these three are in. Wilhelm likes Simon, August likes Felice and Felice likes Wilhelm!

What are the challenges youths today face as they evolve into their adult sense of self?  For youths struggling with their identity like Wilhelm, Simon, Felice and Sara, what is one thing you want to impart to other young people going through a similar coming of age inner conflict?

Ambjörn: Everything that happens in the series I would say [smiles]. And what I would wanna impart to people relating to that is:  You are allowed to be a whole human being, the full spectra – you don’t have to choose, and you are allowed to change. 

In terms of family, Wilhelm and Simon’s mothers seem to be more prominent and have more of an influence on their lives than their fathers.  Can you discuss the dynamics that play here in more detail and how this might shape the next season?

Pernilla August brings to life the regal Queen Kristina who plays a stern balance of preserving the monarchy with the interests of her son the heir and her son the boy.

Ambjörn: There is alot of mirroring happening storywise in the portrayal of the parents and their relationship towards their kids. What might seem like a very classic way to portray the royals and upperclass as cold and stiff and the working class like warm and loving actually is more layered if one would break it down.  

Carmen Gloria Perez plays Simon’s mother bringing a sense of relateability to everyday life in the mirroring sequences that contrast Wilhelm’s home life with Queen Kristina.

Simon’s mother might be showing more affection while the queen seams harsher, but we can’t know how they would have treated them if roles were reversed. Ultimately they are just trying to protect their children with different, sometimes good and sometimes bad, methods and failing. 

Felice and Sara are complete opposites, yet by the end of the season a mutual trust emerges between them.   It would have been so easy to turn these two into rivals for the affection of August, yet by the end they join forces to expose his deviousness.  In an odd way, on some level, there’s a familiarity and comfort they both find from each other as friends, can you shed light on this story arc?  

Class divisions are set early on in the series, but somehow, Simon’s sister, Sara (Frida Argento) and August’s girlfriend, Felice (Nikita Uggla) find common ground, and not for the love of horses.

Ambjörn: They’re both in a way, in great need of one another, Felice who is struggling with being put on a pedestal by her parents and friends, and Sara has never experienced true friendship. Sara enables Felice to start exploring what she actually wants instead of what she thinks she wants, and Felice gives Sara the keys to. 

It was important for me to show, when we researched these schools in Sweden, alot of the pupils – even the ones who hadn’t been able for example to be open about their sexuality during their time in school still would often speak about their time there with great affection. That’s how complex these things are.

And I could relate to that in the sense that I’m from and spent my time growing up in areas in Stockholm with a bad reputation, the places sometimes referred to as no-go zones which is not true obviously, and that while there was huge problems due to poverty and inequality – if someone from outside would come and point fingers we would all unite ands speak about everything we loved about our neighborhood. 

For a person like Sara, Hillerska with its clear rules and structure, where no one pretends that their isn’t a hierarchical order between students themselves or students and teachers and so on, it makes her more comfortable and she can flourish. While Simon has the opposite experience. 

When casting the roles of Wilhelm, Simon, August, Felice and Sara, what was it about these actors qualities that you could envision them bringing to life this interesting bunch of characters?  What was a typical day for you like on set?

Ambjörn: Rojda and I hade the same vision for the cast, to focus on finding layers within the characters from the actors themselves. I mean the tension from just the first casting with Edvin & Omar who plays Wilhelm and Simon was just amazing and so pure, or Malte who plays August, he has a complete opposite energy in real life, but I think that’s what shines through and makes it interesting. Nikita and Frida helped shape their roles in a way that made them less predictable and more relatable. And all the smaller roles, I mean, it’s just such a treat to get to watch them shape every little last detail and make it their own interpretation. 

The school Hillerska is Kaggeholm slott, situated outside of Stockholm and the royal castle is filmed at Stora Sundby castle, in Eskilstuna. 

As we were shooting during corona I wasn’t on set much unfortunately, I was making rewrites offset and would have late night calls from directors Rojda or Erika in regards to sudden changes. There were a lot of challenges, short of time and during covid but I’m so very proud and thankful of everyone who pulled through and made this show what it is. Everyone’s hard works shines through. 

Much of season one focuses on life at Hillerska, how will the story evolve and what kind of challenges might viewers expect for Wilhelm back in palace life which he was originally exiled from at the beginning of the season?

Ambjörn: There are alot of storylines that were cut short in season 1, as is always the, and I’m a writer that has a problem with trying to squeeze to much in anyway. So I feel like we haven’t even begun touching on some of the themes and character developments, so there is a lot to unpack still. 

Young Royals began streaming this evening, add it to your MYLIST:

Photo Credits: Johan Paulin / Netflix

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