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On Thursday evening, the 50th annual Chicago International Film Festival will kick off with the U.S. premiere of Miss Julie, the latest film from the legendary Liv Ullmann, who made her name as an actress in the great films of Ingmar Bergman and Jan Troell, and who has since become a first-rate filmmaker in her own right.
At the recent Toronto International Film Festival, where Miss Julie — the latest adaptation of August Strindberg‘s 1888 upstairs-downstairs dramatic play — had its world premiere, I had the rare opportunity to sit down with the 75-year-old for an hour-long interview about her remarkable life, career and latest project. It did not disappoint.
As you can see in the video at the top of this post or read below, Ullmann and I had a wide-ranging and emotional conversation, discussing, among other things, how she met and fell in love with the much older Bergman; saw her life and career change after the success of Persona (1966) and their other collaborations that followed; came to resent being isolated on Faro, the island they shared; experienced her greatest fulfillment as an actress on the set of Troell’s diptych, The Emigrants (1971) and The New Land Land (1972); and experienced failure after trying her luck in Hollywood but success — including two Tony noms — after moving to Broadway.
We also discussed her transition, as she reached middle-age, away from acting and towards directing, which has become her great passion. She shares how: writing a script led to an offer to direct; Bergman encouraged her; her directorial style was influenced by Bergman and Troell; she has moved between directing theater (among other acclaimed projects, she directed Cate Blanchett in A Streetcar Named Desire) and film; and why she was drawn to making Miss Julie and casting in it the Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain and Colin Farrell, who both give fantastic performances. (The film will be released this December in select theaters in the U.S. by Wrekin Hill Entertainment and in Canada by Pacific Northwest Pictures.)
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Did you go to the movies as a kid? And, if so, were any films or people particular favorites or influences?
That’s a good question because it’s true, I loved the movies. In the little town where I grew up, you had to stand in line, and it was very important that you got in because it was always full—this was a long time ago—and it was then that I decided I wanted to be an actress. And my favorite movies—I saw them again and again, and later as a grownup I rented them and then, of course, they were different because I was different. All three of them—I didn’t know at that time, all three of them were Vittorio de Sica—were Bicycle Thieves, Miracolo a Milano and Umberto D. Somehow, I think if I hadn’t seen those movies, and again and again them being part of my life, I know that, in certain ways, I would have been different. I still believe that, in a way: certain movies can somehow change your life or your understanding of life and where you would like to be and what you want to care about. I loved those movies. And when I saw Miracolo a Milano years later, “Oh, was this the one?” I didn’t see them as a child anymore. It was different. But still, I would always say that. And later Limelight by Chaplin, again as a child.
When did you first try acting yourself, even if it was just something silly around the house? And then was there a moment—apart from watching those early films—when you knew you were on the right path, trying to be an actress?
Yes. I can say yes to that, too. I was very shy and I wasn’t looking great—I was thin and scrawny—but I knew I had a thing. I read Hans Christian Anderson fairy tales a lot, and one of the fairy tales was about a little girl, and she was freezing to death at Christmas. She was a street girl, and she was walking around and nobody let her in, and then she sits down and she has one match left to warm herself, and she does the match and there comes a beautiful light, and then comes her grandmother down [from Heaven]. Now, I did that, with some text from me which is in all my movies now—Schumann’s “Traumerei,” playing that—and when I did that for my mother’s grownup friends, they cried, they saw me, “Oh, Liv, you are lovely!” So I knew a way of, “Hello, here I am.” I did that for years until I was too old, eleven or twelve. I couldn’t do it anymore. But yes, Hans Christian Anderson and Schumann’s “Traumerei.”
Years before Persona brought you to the attention of the world, you were already acting on the stage and in films. Can you talk about that period of your life, before the world discovered you?
Yeah. I started when I was 17. The first thing I did was The Diary of Anne Frank, and, you know, you can’t fail if you’re somewhat talented, and it was a great success. This was at the provincial theater; I tried to get into the theater school, but it didn’t work. I did Juliet in Romeo and Juliet when she drinks poison, and it was wonderful, but while I was drinking poison—you know, I was going to fall down, and look incredible and do a lot of things—then I heard from down where the jury was sitting, “Thank you, that’s enough.” [laughs] And when they put up the list of the people, I stood there, and I wasn’t on that list, and it was horrible, and I went to my grandmother and I cried. But then one in the jury liked me, and he was the head of the theater in a little town in Norway, and he asked me to come, and I did Anne Frank and I was an immediate success. Because what she says any young girl does understand: “Deep down, all human beings are really good.” Which also became a thing for me. And from then on, I did a lot of big performances there—I was the only girl—and then I got film offers. In the first I played a kind of Norwegian whore, and I was still eighteen, I was still a virgin. The director said, “Well, you’re not a virgin, are you?” “No! No, no, no, no, no!” So I played this thing, and I showed a little [Norwegian word]—behind—and it was a scandal because our family was so highbrow.
Was that Fools in the Mountain?
No, it was called Ung Flukt—Young Escape—and they all tried to stop it. My uncle went down to the head of the cinemas, “Please, don’t show it! Don’t show it!” And they showed it. And my whole family—all of them except my mother—never talked to me again. They wrote my mother letters saying, “It’s very good that her father’s dead! First she’s an actress and then she does this?!” There were confirmation parties and weddings—I was never invited. I was horrible. And then they started to like me a little because I became so successful doing other films. And then I was married—and then I divorced and they didn’t like me anymore. So I wasn’t popular in my family for a long time!
You referred to becoming successful, so let’s talk about that. How did you and Bergman first cross paths, almost exactly 50 years ago? And what was going on in your lives at the time?
I had done a movie with Bibi Andersson, my best friend in the world, and I went to Stockholm after that and we were soul mates. And on the street we met Ingmar—it was incredible, it was like in books—and they talked, and then he looked at me and he said, “Well, I heard about you. Would you like to be in a movie that I’m writing now?” I thought he was lying, but it was the truth and I got the script—which was never made, but, at that time, he was going to do it with Bibi and me in a tiny little part. I was so proud—all of the newspapers interviewed me in Norway, “You’re the first foreigner!” I couldn’t believe it. And then, just before we were to start, we got this letter: “He’s sick. He’s in the hospital.” And then Bibi and I went to Poland and then we went to Czechoslovakia and, you know, cried and everything. And then the embassy got hold of us and said, “He’s suddenly well again! He’s been in the hospital, but he’s written a new script in 14 days—Persona it is called!” Because, according to him—but he lies sometimes, you know [laughs]—he said there were two pictures of us—but why would he have pictures of us when he was so sick he was in the hospital—and he said, “Oh, what a likeness! What a likeness!” And then he literally wrote that movie and a month after we were in the studio. That didn’t work so well; he wanted to go to this island, and we went to the island and we made Persona. And it’s written on a picture of the three of us—Bibi, Ingmar and me—“The Three Playmates, So Happy.” And that’s what I remember from that. That became a sensation. And it changed, obviously, my career, too.
When you and Bergman first met, I believe you were 26 and he was 46—
No, I was 25.
25 and 46. So he was almost twice your age. On a professional level, I’m sure it was exciting to work together. But, on a personal level, you two also hit it off. What was it about him that most appealed to you? And what do you think it was about you that most appealed to him?
I do not know. Obviously, what appealed to me were the movies I had seen—I had incredible admiration. When we were in the beginning of the movie, I was very shy—I didn’t talk—so it was good that in Persona I played somebody who absolutely didn’t talk. And sometimes I would read, waiting for my time, and I would look up, and I would look at the camera and there he was, just looking at me. Can you imagine? You are 25 years old, and this man is looking at me? And he had a brown leather jacket—and my one memory of my father, before he died, is he had a brown leather jacket. So I was 25 and I was romantic. To be true, I couldn’t describe Persona intellectually at that time—I didn’t even understand it. Neither did Bibi. But somehow we were inspired and our heads didn’t take over. I knew, “This is really Ingmar.” I just knew that. And the more I got to know him, the more I was watching him and seeing him, I knew, “This is about him.” And I know what he saw: he saw that I understood that. And if that hadn’t worked that way, that I understood it—he gave me trust, like he always gave the actors trust, and he saw what I was doing in the close-ups—he would have continued writing the movies that came for Max von Sydow, for a man, for Erland Josephson, for a man. I didn’t take over for Bibi or any of the girls; I took over for the men, and I knew that. We never talked about that, but I knew that. And I know that he knew that I saw him. And, you know, sometimes I wasn’t looking at an old intellectual soul mate sitting there; sometimes you are happy you have a dog, and the dog is looking at you, and you know that dog recognizes you and knows you, and I think it was something like that. I think we recognized each other. We were very different, but we recognized each other, and that means so much. And then we fell in love.
To prepare for this interview, I read a lot of other interviews that you’ve given over the years, and it seems to me that there may have been a specific moment when you realized that you were in love. Is that right?
I think it was twice that I knew something was happening. The first time, Bibi was saying, “Liv, don’t do this, please, please, you mustn’t,” you know? We were playing cards on a table, a roundtable, and everybody had their finger on a card, and then the card starts to move on some numbers, and then you are given messages, and all the time the messages were, “Ingmar, be careful!” Or “Leave! Leave!” “Even the spirits are saying this,” I thought! And Bibi said, “It’s him—look at his finger! He is just doing that; don’t fall for that!” I fell a little. But then, I really fell, because I had started to feel— [chokes up] I really loved him, and to look up there, and to be able to act and do this thing? And he never criticized it, you know? “You could take something down” or “up.” And so I really felt I was seen, seeing that face looking at me as if I meant something in life. And then we were walking on the beach at this island—where he later built a house for the two of us the next year, and we moved there—and we sat down at some stones, and we were looking at the ocean and then he said, “You know, I had a strange dream, this night, that you and I, we are painfully connected.” So I knew, and I knew that he felt the same. And there, at that stone, he built that house. And I’m very happy that I experienced that. And, you know, that’s what I feel as a director, too: sometimes, when people really open up, there is this connection between the camera and that person and you feel everything you really feel. You want to give. Like, if we were lovers at that moment, we could look at each other and feel so wonderful. And that’s what happened between us, and that’s what happened for me working in his films long after we didn’t live together anymore, when we became, really, the very best of friends, and creative in very different ways and had a child together.
So that people know a little bit more about the island that you’re talking about—I always mispronounce it, but it’s Faro?[pronounced Four-er]
Can you talk a little about what that became and why it was so special to you guys? I know that, during the five years you and Bergman were together, that was your base of operations and the site of both a lot of happy times and a lot of tough times…
I think, for him, it was wonderful because he finally found a home that appealed to him—“This is how I want to live, in isolation.” And, for me, it was to live with him, and that he wanted me to be there and that we were together. After a while, it became fearful for me. Isolation is what he wanted and he built, the next year, a big stone wall because it became known that he was there and tourists would find his place—although it’s kind of hidden, they would come there, and he didn’t to be seen, nor did he want us to be seen—and so I was living behind that wall. I was now 26 and that was not how I had pictured my future. [laughs] And then he didn’t want me to go home to Norway and visit my mother and my friends—I had friends, and I was Norwegian—and so, after a while, it became more and more difficult for me and more and more good for him. But what was good for him was so very much the island with this woman; maybe, after a while, it would have been better without me.
One of the more poignant things that I learned from watching Liv & Ingmar, an interesting documentary about you two, was about the door to his home office on Faro. For people who haven’t seen that, can you talk about what that was?
Oh, yes! You know, a book has come out about this door! It’s a poet; he has photographed this door—I’ll tell you about the door—and it’s incredible, and now I know even more about the door. Each day, whatever the day had been, on this white door, which is in his working room, we would make a sign—a heart, or a black heart, or an eye with a tear, or even a cross and all kinds of things—and we did that in all of the five years and it was amazing. At that time, that’s what we did. But the beauty of that story, for me, is— I left the island, we continued to work all the time together, and he remarried and I married, but the door never left his working room. And that’s big honors to his wife; I mean, if I had been the wife, I would have taken it out! [laughs] That door is still there. And each year, when spring came, he painted over it. He made the hearts as red— When the sun had been there during the year, the colors changed and bleached—do you say “bleached”?
And he changed it back. I mean, when I know that, that is incredible. And then when I came back to do that documentary, in his last years not only did he paint and make it fresh again, but he changed it, too; he put some express mail that you have on letters over some of the signs—I don’t even remember what was under the signs—and he would change something with the dates, and I don’t know what that was about because I never asked him. But that door was very important. And the sad thing about it is now there is no one there to do that, and so now it’s almost bleached out, and soon, in a couple of years, three or four years, the door will be white again. But now this man has made a book, so it’s still existing.
So Persona comes out and you are suddenly an international star. How did that impact your life? And were you ready for that?
Yeah, I think I was ready because by the time I also became known in the United States and other places, I had already done two more films while we lived together on the island, and then I did a movie— Because it wasn’t really Ingmar’s movies that took me to Hollywood; it was a director, a genius, Jan Troell, who is still living—incredible—who made a picture about emigrants—two pictures in one year—and that brought me to Hollywood. By then I had matured. If I had been twenty-five years old, God knows what would have happened, but I was getting closer to thirty, and it was fun. And I knew that whatever happened in Hollywood, I had the best of luggage; I had Ingmar’s—at least three or four films—as my luggage. And, you know, in Hollywood they gave me everything, and my agent said yes to everything, and he shouldn’t have done that and I shouldn’t have done that. In a year I think I closed down two studios, you know? It was a disaster! But I have to be honest: I was relieved. I went back to Sweden and did Scenes from a Marriage; I started to write books; I did things on Broadway. It came when I was older, and I never became changed, I think, because it happened somewhat late in life, and because— It was Ingmar. He was watching me. I wasn’t going to change, either, because as much as he was a love, he was also a father, you know? I was not going to change and I didn’t.
You said something in another interview that I read that really surprised me: “I can see today that I was beautiful, but I never felt so at the time.” The whole world was telling you that you were beautiful, so how was that possible?
I do not understand, and my daughter is saying, “Oh, there was no trouble for you because you were so beautiful.” No! I was this scrawny girl who, you know, had to be the little girl with the matches dying on Christmas Eve because nobody cared about me—that’s how I see myself. But now I see pictures—I had no idea! Richard Avendon, all of them, [Viktor] Skrebneski, I don’t remember all the names. I am incredible! But no, it wasn’t me, I never saw myself that way, and in Ingmar’s movies I don’t look like that because he aged me—I wasn’t allowed to makeup. And so that’s who I was: that little girl who wasn’t very attractive. But yes, I was beautiful! But it didn’t effect me, luckily, because then I may have done facelifts to keep it. [laughs] So that wasn’t part of my life.
This may sound like a weird question, but did you like Bergman more when you were married and working together or after you were no longer together but working together still?
After. Of course, in the beginning, I mean, during those five years in Faro— But after a while there— I had more tenderness, love, understanding, everything after I had moved away. Because we shared everything, and even directing his scripts. So no, forever, I was very happy.
I do want to ask you about the two movies that you did with Jan Troell because The Emigrants and The New Land are both terrific. You got an Oscar nomination, for the first time, for The Emigrants and, as you say, it brought you to Hollywood eventually. My sense, from everything that I’ve read, is that those feature, in some ways, the work of which you are proudest…
What was it like making them? And what do you think when you see them?
Well, when I see them— I really don’t sit and watch myself, and the truth is if I’m clicking or whatever on the TV and I see there’s a movie of mine, I don’t stop there because it is boring. But there have been festivals where I see pieces of it, and then it’s more interesting to see Bibi—“That’s what she looked like then!”—and I remember things. Jan Troell, when I see parts of that, it’s [the character is] everything that I wanted, first of all, for my life to be. One man, one hand, always. And the children. And the life of her—she was such a good woman, Kristina. And I really got to live the life of a very good, and gentle and fine woman. And it went over such a long time—from when she was very young until she dies! What I feel, then, is that it was a year of my life, making two movies with a very small troupe, and some of the actors also were electric men. We were, like, eleven people; we were very close. That was the best year, almost, of my professional life. And that’s when it ended for Ingmar and me because I wasn’t staying there. I came home when I was free, but mostly I did the movie—went to the United States, to the Mississippi River and continued the movie—and when it was finished, it was over. I left Faro. Whoever ended it, I don’t know; maybe he first and then I afterwards. It took me, like, two years to make sure that I was leaving, too. So even though it was over, I know I knocked on his door—we were doing another film—one night and I said, “I want you to know, it’s over with us.” And I think he was very surprised and I even heard him— He didn’t want me to come in—he had jumped out of the window, because he hears, you know, this woman who’s been over for two years, and now she’s going to confront him and say, “It’s over.” [laughs] So, anyway, it was over, and we had a great time ’til he died.
A quick question about the Oscars. You had first a nomination for The Emigrants and then for Face to Face a few years later. I know that in the grand scheme of things it may seem like a trivial thing to focus on, but I’m very interested: I know that, at the time, your publicist was John Springer—it’s now Gary Springer—and I want to ask you about the way that you and he approached the Oscars. These days it has gotten crazy, but there was campaigning even in those days, and even before it, so, just out of curiosity, do you remember what your campaigns involved in those days?
You did a lot of interviews. Of course, there was a red carpet, but it wasn’t about how you were dressed and all that; I mean, that is so different. But, you know, I was lucky because my agent was Robbie Lantz, and he was like a father, and, although he said yes to all those movies, he was basically protecting me. And John Springer, who was the publicist, I loved him, I adored him, and the way he made me understand what wouldn’t have been good for me; he was so protective and whatever bad happened I didn’t really know it was something bad. So even not winning an Oscar—I think John told me, “Aren’t you lucky? You don’t know what happens then!” And I had my “sewing circle” there. I have been very lucky in my life because I have been surrounded for most of my life with people that were older than me, and that knew more than me and that cared for me. And that’s the only sad thing, really—not the only, but one of the things—is that now that I’m older than anyone, I don’t have those people anymore, because who is older than me, you know? [laughs] But they were fantastic. I really did close down, more or less, two studios, but I never felt that. To me, it was a fun story to tell.
This presents a good opportunity to ask you about another person who was older and, from what I’ve gathered, very helpful to you when you came to Hollywood, and that is Signe Hasso, right?
Yes! She was incredible.
For people who don’t know, who was she?
She was a great, great star, as big as Greta Garbo. She came to Hollywood at the same as Greta Garbo and, for some reason, Greta Garbo was built up even more. Signe Hasso was from Sweden, the same place as Greta Garbo, but she didn’t have those people, I think, protecting her and allowing her to grow. If she did, she would have been Greta Garbo—and, for sure, she was a better actress. She was a great theater actress, as well. But when I came to Hollywood, you know, they didn’t ask for her the same way, and it has to do with age, and she was now over a certain age. But I know what she did to me: she was there, and she was protective and she explained things for me—I was so lucky—and she was beautiful and older. And I had one more, and that was Rock Hudson—and I have no idea how that happened! When I was in Hollywood, John Springer, my publicist, was in New York—he wasn’t there—so the publicist for all these American movies in that one year was Tom Clark, and he was the boyfriend of Rock, and so I got to know him [Rock] and he was fantastic. When my sewing circle came from Norway to visit me, he would invite them for breakfast and he took them to Disneyland. Stars were nothing for me because I had Rock Hudson—but he wasn’t a star, he was just somebody there. And when I fell in love with somebody who had not the best of reputations with women or alcohol or anything, Rock said, “Don’t go there. This is not the man for you.” So I didn’t tell him, but I went there, and one day I was ringing on the door of this man—I will make him nameless because he was very famous then—and outside is Rock Hudson. He said, “I’m coming to get Liv.” And he came to Norway and we did a record together—it was for a boat that was going to go to refugees—and we were there with some other famous people from Hollywood, but Rock was there and we made a record, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” He couldn’t sing, neither could I, but this record sold enormously, this tiny little record. He was fantastic. Signe Hasso and Rock Hudson. I was lucky. And the producers I had, also, were good. Everybody was good.
After all of your adventures apart from Bergman, what was it like to go back and do Cries and Whispers and then, even more personally, Scenes from a Marriage—
I know! I went back, yes, to do Scenes from a Marriage after what happened in Hollywood. And one of my big things in Hollywood—I have to tell that because that’s the truth— You know, when I was in Hollywood, I had my year of that, and in this house and with this swimming pool—it’s very different from the way we live in Norway and Scandinavia—and the big thing was in the bathroom, the toilet—it really was, like, you know, where kings sit, it was a throne, because stars must know that they’re doing these things! [laughs] And so, when it was all over and I went back to Sweden, I was going to do Scenes from a Marriage, which became maybe Donner’s [Jorn Donner was Managing Director of the Swedish Film Institute between 1978 and 1982, but it’s unclear what his role was with Scenes from a Marriage] most public movie, apart from Fanny and Alexander. We were again on the island—now I didn’t live with Ingmar, I lived with the troupe—and we didn’t have toilets, we had outdoor toilets, you know, with holes in them. And I know, sitting there, I didn’t miss the throne or anything. I felt, “Yes, I am so lucky! Yes, yes, yes!” [laughs] And that has been my blessing in my life, that, you know, I didn’t stay too long where it was no good for me.
But now, making movies again with this person who you now had a very different relationship with than the one that you had when you first worked together, and telling stories that were in some ways very about your own experiences together, what was that like? Was that tough?
You know, this man who made the documentary Liv & Ingmar— I was surprised when I saw it first, “How can he say that Ingmar’s movies are about us?” First of all, he was never violent—never, never—but he was angry. So the violence he shows in his movies he shows by hitting things, but he’s really talking about the violence we feel inside, which is horrible. And then I got to thinking, “No, of course it’s not about Liv and Ingmar.” But Ingmar made movies about people, about the things in people that they don’t talk about—what they feel, what is their anguish, what is their hope, what is their dark side. But it has to do with everyone. And people say, “He’s so difficult and problematic!” But he really isn’t, he really isn’t. It’s how, in his anxious way, very often feels, “This is what it is to be a human being. It’s not a harmonic state.” It’s not about us; it’s about the way he feels we are living, how difficult it is, and that we never really tell each other what we are feeling, that we are kind of isolated. So these movies are not about us—but also are about us.
I believe you got a kick out of the fact that, on Autumn Sonata, Ingrid Bergman questioned Ingmar Bergman—
Because that is not something that you would necessarily have done…
No, we never did that. But, you see, we didn’t have to do that so much because—this is what he felt—he wrote the script, he gave it to us and we had to understand it because he wasn’t saying what we were thinking and feelings; “That’s up to you, you’re the actor.” But Ingrid, she said, “Why did you write that? I don’t like this sentence. What do you mean here?” He hated it, he really hated it.
I want to ask you about your period of transition away from acting and towards directing because it happened, it seems to me, in a kind of interesting way. You went Broadway during the mid-seventies and early eighties and were a great success, with two Tony nominations. You then turn down the last Bergman movie, Fanny and Alexander—
Yes. It was crazy. And it’s not a lie—he wrote about it in his own books: “Liv turned me down.” And I don’t know why I did it. I wanted to be my own person. It was no reason—I was my own person. I turned it down, and he phoned me and he said, “You have given up your first-born rights,” and that sounds really scary; I don’t know what he meant. We didn’t speak for a year, and then I came to Stockholm and I saw the movie before the premiere with him and I cried and I cried. I don’t know why I did that. And I’ve seen his script—it belongs to a museum in Stockholm—where, at some of the monologues, he says, “Hell to you, Liv!” She was wonderful, the one who did that part [Ewa Froling], but he had to rewrite it because she’s younger, and he still, when he was doing it, was angry at me and wrote me letters in his scripts, and those scripts exist, so I’m proud! [laughs]
But you continued to work, even into the beginning of middle-age, and were doing great work, in Gaby: A True Story, The Rose Garden and all sorts of things. And yet, at some point, I guess you made a decision to set acting aside and focus on directing. Was that brought on more by not wanting to act anymore or more by wanting badly to direct?
Well, I never planned it. I did a short film, which I loved, about love, with no dialogue, just beautiful music—like I did when I was a child, I used “Traumerei”—and it was about old people loving each other and how we don’t know how incredible they are when we see them, but they are full of love. But I was asked to write a script for a feature film in Denmark, and I did that, and the producers in Denmark loved it and they said, “Why don’t you direct?” And I hadn’t even thought about that. I called Ingmar again, from the airport: “They’re asking me to direct it. Do you think I can direct?” “Oh, yes, you can direct.” And actually, after that very simple answer from him, I told them, “Yes,” and suddenly my life changed again because, while I was doing that movie, I felt, “This is maybe my school.” I know so much of what a director should do, to give allowing and trust to the actors, and I knew what a director should not do, and that is going in and stamping on their fantasy, and it has given me, I think, in certain ways, more pleasure than acting because I don’t have to think about me and what do I look like—“Oh, God, no, I’m having that face again, I’ve used that before!” No, it’s someone else, and I can sit there and I can watch, and I’m not telling them what to do, but I’m giving them the words, and I’m giving them the opportunity, and if they feel I trust them, it is then like you are in love, when suddenly somebody is seeing you and you feel free to be really who you are. You can get incredible performances, not because I do it but because they do it and they have that trust. That’s why I think I’ve been lucky. I get incredible performances from the actors—no, I don’t get them; it happens because they take over.
When you started directing, wasn’t there something of a pact that had been made between you, Erland Josephson, Max von Sydow and Sven Nykvist, that you would each work on any movies that the others made?
Yeah. We talked. Actually I appeared in one of Sven’s; it was not my best. [laughs] But we worked together, yeah.
Do you find that your approach as a director is influenced by Jan Troell or Ingmar Bergman or other people by whom you have been directed? It seems that you like the close-up, as Bergman did, and that you like to tell stories about families, as Troell did. Who do you think has influenced you the most as a director?
I think both of them, Jan Troell and Ingmar Bergman. And when I say, “Yeah, we promised each other we’d work together, I said wrong, because it really was that I wanted them in my movies and I wanted Sven Nykvist to be the cinematographer of my movies. I think it may be very much Ingmar. The stories I want to tell are Jan Troell stories; the way of doing it is very much the way of doing is very much the way Ingmar did it—the close-up. And also, for me, because I’m a theater actress and I belong to the theater, I love theater and what happens when everything is alive, the audience and the actors. I want to bring theater into a movie, actually like Vittorio de Sica did—Miracolo a Milano—because that is theater but it’s also film. I want to take the best from theater and I want to take the best from the camera. I want that eye to come very, very close to the actors as a duality so you see the big things and the elegant things from the theater and then that eye goes in and it shows you—maybe—what that person was really thinking when that person said that. It’s mostly maybe Ingmar, but it’s Jan Troell, too.
Miss Julie obviously had a life on the stage and has been made into films before, but the way that you did it is so interesting and the people you did it with are terrific. Why did you decide to make that film, out of all of the projects you could have done after taking a few years of not directing—
I did direct a lot of theater.
Of course, A Streetcar Named Desire, with Cate Blanchett, and other projects. But, for this film, you decided to go with Jessica Chastain, who I think is as good as it gets as an actress—and I also think she looks very similar to the way you looked at the same stage in life. So why did you decide to do Miss Julie and why did you decide to cast Jessica Chastain?
Because the producers, who were English-speaking, wanted it to be an English-language movie, said, “Can you make something about a femme fatale?” And I didn’t know what it would be, and then suddenly I thought, “Miss Julie?” And they said, “Yes.” And then I adapted it. Of course I knew the Swedish version, and because I know Swedish I had his script, and a lot of English translations, and I adapted it. And it was during that time that, yes, hat I was thinking of Jessica Chastain, because I’d seen so many movies and they were all different. “Who is this person?!” And then I met her, I heard everything she knew, she talked like a theater actress and she works like a film actress. So she was so right for this. And Colin Farrell? A lot of people wondered, “Why did you take Colin Farrell?” I just think he is incredible. And to make that part, which most people do like a big macho—that’s not what that person is at all! That’s what he gave us, a man with all down hair and a man who wants to leave where he is and become something else by trying to look like somebody else without changing who he really is.
My last few questions are just a random assortment. To begin with, where in the world do you live today?
I live in myself because I am Norwegian, and while I understand that, from now on, I may still in this bed, I want to be in Norway and I want to be buried in Norway. I am Norwegian, but I live more in the United States and I’m very happy to do that, but I cannot give you an address because I have addresses everywhere. So I can only say that I live as close as I can to my friends and my daughter. I don’t know how to say one word—I say “in myself.”
Do you watch a lot of current film? And, if so, what are some recent movies and people that you like a lot?
I like many. If I mention some, I will be so upset when I get out of where and realize, “I forgot that person.” I love movies that make me walk out and see what an interesting thing it is to be a human being and when there’s something to talk about.
When you think back to the last time you saw Bergman, what do you think about?
I was in Norway. I just felt he may be going and I rented a plane—I’d never done that in my life—and I went to the island, and he was in bed and I don’t know if he heard me because he was on his way. I didn’t know that before I came, but he was on his way. In the last movie I did that he wrote, I had come to visit Erland Josephson, who was my husband, and we had been divorced for a long time, and Erland says, “Why did you come here?” And I answer in the movie, “I thought you called me.” And while I was sitting at his [Ingmar’s] bed in the afternoon, I just said, “I felt you were calling me.” And I don’t know if he heard it, but he was there, and I held his hand, and he had a picture of Erland of me from the film there and it was afternoon. But I don’t know if he knew. And that night he died, but unfortunately he was all alone, so nobody knows; my daughter was there, but at that time she wasn’t allowed into the room—I don’t know why, very strange.
I’m sure he knew…
I think he knew.
If someone could only see one movie in which you acted and one movie that you directed, which would you want them to be?
Well, The Emigrants and The New Land for acting. And, obviously I have to say, because it’s my last, Miss Julie, because it’s where I am today.
And finally, many years from now, when we’re all gone, how would you like to be thought of and remembered?
I don’t think so many will—that doesn’t mean something. But those who knew me and those who saw my movies? I really wanted to say that we are individuals, that beauty exists and that it’s important to be human being—we are not numbers, we are individuals—and that we connect. I’m trying to say how important it is that we connect. You are forgotten quickly, but the best of you is somewhere around, and it doesn’t have to have a name but it can be a good thing in your life, somehow.
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