Casting producer Joan O'Connor was very purposeful in choosing the Mall of America as a stop in a tour to find talent for a reality show -- aired in Norway.
"Because it's Minnesota," she said. "Definitely because it's Minnesota."
In auditions next month, O'Connor is searching for Minnesotans to participate in "Alt for Norge" (All for Norway), a reality show that literally transports 12 Norwegian-Americans back to the mother country to explore what they know -- and what they don't know -- about their own heritage. It's a personal journey for each of them, and the process is incredible, O'Connor said.
"I have had the opportunity to learn all about the Norwegian-American culture, as well as the actual Norwegian culture, which actually is a little bit different," she said. "Norwegian-Americans are so passionate about their heritage, and they practice so many of the traditions that have been handed down generation to generation."
Going into its fourth season, the show already has featured six Minnesotans: a pastor, a professor, a security officer, an insurance agent, a performance artist and a day-care provider.
The latter is Amy Hesteness, 25, of Moorhead, who went to last year's audition at the MOA with a friend. She is one-quarter Norwegian, on her mother's side, along with Swedish and German, and African-American on her father's side.
Surprise gave way to jitters when she learned she was chosen to participate.
"I'm not extremely competitive, not extremely athletic," she said. "I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I just knew I was in for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I had to jump on board."
She wasn't disappointed. During two months last spring, she survived challenges including alpine skiing (she hadn't tried it since she was little) and street performing (she'd only performed onstage with a captive audience). She finally was eliminated after a competition that required her to memorize and properly choose between five Norwegian dialects to deliver a message.
But she discovered two new families, between her fellow challengers and the Norwegian cousins she's found on Facebook.
"I can't tell you how many people said when I got home, 'Amy, you've changed. You're more confident, more self-assured and you seem more relaxed,'" she said. "I didn't even realize it was happening until I got home and had a week to get readjusted back into my everyday life. I am different, things are different and that's the best thing that happened, that I learned more about myself and became more confident. That was great."
She was struck by what was familiar, and by what she wished was more common in the United States.
"Living in Minnesota, there are quite a few Scandinavians here, and it was kind of funny to see what we've held onto from when people first moved here and what we haven't," she said. "They still did eat lutefisk, which is still disgusting. They're very much into fish, they have the sweaters and the rosemaling [Norwegian decorative painting] is very, very similar. Those are the things that stand out. But I think some of the things we're missing is the essence of Norway, which is complete acceptance. ... It's a wonderful community. It's not strictly in one spot, but the community of Norway, and I wish that was something we had here."
Participants must be at least 18, and U.S. citizens of Norwegian descent -- even a little bit -- who never have traveled to Norway.
According to O'Connor, they'll be looking for people with "a passion for their Norwegian heritage and a sense of adventure, people who are curious, people who like to have fun and try new things."
She said working on the show is the highlight of her year.
"If I were Norwegian, I'd be the first person on the show," she said.
Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409