Max Von Sydow


AWARDS: 1997 Guldbagge Awards Best Actor for "Hamsun." 1988 Guldbagge Awards Best Actor for "Pelle the Conqueror." CURRENT CREDIT: The Swede Max von Sydow covered the high-art/low-art spectrum in 2007, playing Papinou, the father of Mathieu Amalric's paralyzed magazine editor in Miramax's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" -- and he also had a very different sort of role in New Line's "Rush Hour 3." MEMBERSHIPS: Screen Actors Guild. Academy member since 1962.

The Hollywood Reporter: You don't take very many roles nowadays. Is that a deliberate choice?
Max Von Sydow: Of course, I wish there were more good scripts. But also I have reached a certain age where the characters of my age -- they are not that interesting most of the time. And if they are there at all, it is small parts. Very often the same kind of parts: grandfathers and old fathers. They are not always as interesting as Papinou.

THR: When actors reach a certain age, it sometimes seems as if every character they play is at death's door.
Von Sydow: Yes. That is very boring. It's depressing.
THR: So what was different about "Diving Bell"?
Von Sydow: I read quite a few scripts, and unfortunately, most of them are not interesting. Too many of them are really very boring. But this was a wonderful screenplay, and I was very taken by it from the first page. So there was no hesitation: "This I want to do." The trouble was, when I sat down to prepare myself to go through this text a couple of weeks ahead of my day of shooting, I had difficulties because I was so moved personally by the scenes I couldn't really work with it. It took a while. I really had to force myself to back away from the part, back away from my personal engagement, just to see it clearly. Of course I did that, finally. But it's not the actor who should be moved, it's the audience.
THR: Does being emotional yourself get in the way of crafting an emotional performance?
Von Sydow: It shouldn't. It's wonderful to be moved by something you read. But before you appear and interpret the part in question, you have to get rid of those emotions. You have to understand what happens with this guy, know him as well as possible, and then you have to figure out what he wants. What he feels, that's less important. That will come. And characterization will also come. But it is a matter of finding out what the character wants to do.

THR: You've acted in Swedish, English and French. Is it harder to act in a language other than the one you grew up speaking?
Von Sydow: Of course. Swedish I know with my spinal cord. I don't have to think; it comes. I can act in it, no problem. But you have to be free from all the formalities of the language. When you say something, you have to say it from your heart, without thinking how it should be pronounced or which words you should use or what is the correct way of saying it. I've done it so much in English, and still it's difficult for me. But French is more difficult. I haven't spoken it that much, and it is a difficult language.

THR: I watched 1957's "The Seventh Seal" with an audience recently, and many of them were surprised at how funny it can be at times. Do people overlook that aspect of Bergman's movies?
Von Sydow: The cliche image of (director) Ingmar Bergman is somebody awfully serious and awfully philosophical or religious or hurt by life. He was serious, but he was not that serious. He had a very fresh sense of humor also, and he was a great joker. While working, he was serious. And very concentrated. On the film set, he was totally concentrated, and he did not tolerate any form of disturbance or any form of distraction. But when it was all done and he felt that he got what he needed or wanted, then he was joking freely. He had a very drastic sense of humor.

THR: How do you mean, "drastic"?
Von Sydow: It was maybe not all the time above the belt, if you see what I mean.
THR: Do you ever watch the movies you and he made together?   
Von Sydow: That's a tricky question, watching old films. Soon after you have been in a film, it is often difficult to really see it. You think of things that happened when you shot that scene and that scene. It's kind of leafing through a family album. When time goes by and you have forgotten all these details, then you can see them as real films, so to speak. Today, of course, I see the Bergman films without too many disturbing private memories. But normally, I don't watch my old films. They pop up sometimes at film festivals, or if my friends have young children who haven't seen any Bergman films, I might watch one with them. But otherwise I don't go back to them.
THR: In the 1980s, you were frequently cast as the iconic villain, from Ming the Merciless in 1980's "Flash Gordon" to Bond nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld (in 1983's "Never Say Never Again"). Was that enjoyable at the time?
Von Sydow: Well, it was to a certain extent. As a foreign actor, you are very often cast, naturally, as the foreigner. And who are the foreigners in films? Very often the villains, or the doctors, the psychiatrists, the artists, or maybe the priests. I would have loved to do other things. It would have been nice to do a regular guy. But the producers, they are not very courageous.

THR: You have one Oscar nomination -- for "Pelle the Conqueror." What did that kind of recognition mean to you?
Von Sydow: Awards are something that happens, and if they happen, they are very welcome. But I don't work for awards. A nomination in a way is better than getting the award because the nomination is given to you by your peers, by your colleagues. The awards you get from all the rest.

THR: "Diving Bell" director Julian Schnabel fosters a larger-than-life image of himself. What is he like in the flesh?
Von Sydow: He is a very warm, very generous person as a director. I am very impressed with what he has done with this film. Hearing in a few words what this film is about, it sounds so terribly depressing. But it's not a depressing film; it's a positive film. A film full of hope and courage, with a man who has the intelligence and the strength to really achieve in spite of the terrible odds which are against him. It's amazing how there's so many laughs in the audience, which I didn't expect when I saw it the first time.