Growing up in a suburb of Stockholm, Frida Gustavsson went to Ikea most weekends. On one visit in 2006, when she was 12 years old, she was eating Swedish meatballs with her father at the in-store restaurant when a woman approached her to ask, “Have you ever thought about being a model?”

“It had never crossed my mind,” says Gustavsson, now 29. As a runner, a hurdler, and a long jumper, she wanted to compete in the Olympics, but a knee injury at age 14 thwarted her athletic ambitions. After giving modeling a chance, “it just snowballed over the next decade,” she says. “It took me a while to jump off that train.”

On the runway at Jean Paul Gaultier Couture, left, and Hermès.

French fashion houses aren’t allowed to hire models younger than 16. So on June 7, 2009, the day after Gustavsson’s 16th birthday, she went to Paris. Pierpaolo Piccioli and Maria Grazia Chiuri had recently taken over as creative directors of Valentino, and the duo was about to stage their first fashion show for the label, during couture week in July. They booked Gustavsson for the runway, and she opened the show in a black lace minidress, her hair pulled back and cheeks heavily blushed.

For the next five years Gustavsson walked for every designer with a store on Madison Avenue—Chanel, Versace, Fendi, Dior, Calvin Klein, Prada, among many others—and appeared in every major edition of Vogue. But Gustavsson never intended to be a supermodel. Toward the end of her modeling career, around 2013, she booked campaigns for a Nina Ricci fragrance and for Maybelline. Shooting video campaigns, rather than posing for photos, inspired a change of direction.“I don’t want to be a projecting board for other people’s creativity,” she says. “I want to be the person who can be in charge and make these decisions.”

One of Gustavsson’s breakout roles was in Mans Marlind’s 2019 film, Swoon.

The path from model to actress is well traveled and full of sinkholes. “I had to fight a lot in the beginning of my career to be taken seriously,” she explains. “I think people look at me and think, ‘Oh, well, maybe you can play the hot girlfriend.’” She started small, earning roles in Swedish television shows such as Arne Dahl, Dröm, and De Utvalda.

In the fall of 2019, while working in Romania, one of Gustavsson’s castmates mentioned that Netflix was making a sequel to Vikings, the History channel’s historical drama about the brutal raids at the beginning of the Viking Age.

Gustavsson grew up reading Viking folklore, so she was immediately interested in the project. She was ultimately cast as Freydis, Leif Erikson’s sister. In the first season, which premiered last February, Freydis killed the man who raped her. Season Two, which is streaming now, begins in the aftermath of Freydis’s murder trial.

In her element as warrior Freydis Eriksdotter in Vikings: Valhalla.

To train for the role of an 11th-century warrior who could row a boat between continents, Gustavsson decamped to her cabin, in the Far North of Sweden. In the forest near her house, she lifted logs and rocks and ran up and down muddy hills. To channel her character’s isolation, Gustavsson embarked on a solo hiking trip in rural Sweden, north of the Arctic Circle.

Gustavsson’s favorite day on set was shooting the most physically grueling scene: giving birth. “Hearing these sounds come out of myself that I didn’t know existed—it was very cathartic for myself as an actor,” she says. “And for the character.”

Jensen Davis is an Associate Editor for AIR MAIL