MAX VON HELL IN HEL-LA?!
Exclusive Interview by Quendrith Johnson, Archive
* birth name: Carl Adolf von Sydow
* birth date: April 10, 1929
* birth place: Lund, Sweden
* marital status: re-married 1997
* surname: pronounced sew-dove or sue-doff
THIS INTERVIEW FIRST APPEARED IN “VENICE” MAGAZINE AS A COVER STORY BY QUENDRITH JOHNSON.
“He’s in Room 652,” the Concierge at The Beverly Regent whispers, “go right on up,.” This unnecessary whispering highlights the fact that Max von Sydow carries with him a certain stately presence…
He is, after all, playing the devil lately–in the form of Leland Gaunt, an apparently benign antique dealer in the film version of Stephen King’s Needful Things, due to be unleashed on August 11.
Chances are Old Scratch has never had such a debonair impersonator.
But how does old adage go? Anyone (even Satan) can become respectable if they stay around long enough.
Some don’t have to wait as long as others.
Von Sydow as actor won repectability immediately; at the Royal Academy in Stockholm, Sweden, his star was on the rise the moment his aristocratic profile was enhanced by the footlights.
Revered Director Ingmar Bergman wrung a series of stunning performances out of him: on stage in Peer Gynt, The Misanthrope and as the fallen sports hero Brick in Tennessee WiIliams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. (One can only imagine what the Swedes in Malmo thought of Williams’ Southern Gothic).
Then there were the Bergman films. Von Sydow starred in the classic with Death. “The void is a mirror,” his character tells Death, “I see myself and feel fear and loathing.”
Equally as compelling are his roles in The Virgin Spring (1960) and The Magician (1958), in which he portrays a thaumaturge running low on magic.
Slowly he and Bergman parted ways (which von Sydow mentioned briefly when we met up at his hotel).
In all the actor’s career has spanned eighty films, foreign and domestic. American films followed the departure from Bergman. Von Sydow shined in The Exorcist, built up the tension in Three Days of the Condor, and added some contour to Voyage of the Damned.
A pre-scandal Woody Allen made use of the Swede’s artistic side as the pained painter in Hannah and Her Sisters.
But the Academy Award nomination came for the actor’s brilliant filmic moments in the Danish screen gem Pelle the Conqueror (1988). A Swedish laborer working in Denmark , von Sydow’s character is father to Pelle, a boy who ultimately conquers servitude and discovers America.
Best Intentions, which won last year’s Palme d’Or award at Cannes, was another memorable trip around the reel.
For von Sydow, forty years on stage and screen have taken this player through his paces–a knight, a mystic, a priest, an implacable hero. Now a demon.
Sitting with crossed hands in his airy hotel suite he does look fiendish. It’s not something you notice right away: it’s a peripheral phenomenon.
It’s not just the “von”; it’s something more sinister–a momentary flash of indignation in his almost-lapis irises. Or it might manifest in a casual hand gesture that is both welcoming and forbidding. (Thank god his real-life fingernails don’t resemble the ones he sports in Needful Things).
On this particular afternoon, the Devil wears Reeboks. He has just endured a lengthy interview perpetrated by a newspaper reporter, who kneels on the pristine carpet and winds up the cords sprouting from his recording equipment.
Then it’s showtime again.
A towering man, von Sydow stands and extends his hand; he has just been cast to play himself in yet another interview.
“Where would you like to sit?” he asks.
“It’s up to you.”
Max von Sydow, like Leland Gaunt in Needful Things, takes great pleasure in watching someone make a choice–for there is always something cast aside when a choice is made, which begs the question: what consequences will follow?
When Fraser Heston–directed film opens next month, audiences will know what choices the residents of Castle Rock, Maine have made in the presence of Gaunt.
But these people are Maniacs; the rest of us wouldn’t succumb to the weathered charm of von Sydow.
Or would we?
Quendrith Johnson: You actually approached Ingmar Bergman in 1948 for a role as a policeman didn’t you?
Max von Sydow: It was probably ’48 or ’49. He was not internationally known at all, but he was creating excitement and doing films which were interesting. So every young actor (in Sweden) wanted to work with him. I was a student in Stockholm; somebody told me he was shooting a film and the cast was not complete.
According to the rumor, there was still a couple of policeman missing–extras. (laughs)
I tried to call him. Strangely enough I got him on the phone. I gave him my message and he said ‘no’.
So I never met him then. A few years later I was at another municipal theatre, that town was not too far away from the town where he was working, and he frequently came up to see whatever we did. Then he asked me to come over to his theatre. Of course that was very exciting. His theatre in Malmo was a very important theatre at the time. He was not the president of the theatre, in fact he clashed with the president many times. But they created a very interesting atmosphere. This was fall 1955.
That summer, 1956, he shot Seventh Seal. That was the first time I worked with him on a film.
That was an incredible role to begin with; how did he describe the character of the knight to you?
He told me he was going to do a film based on a play that he directed a couple of years earlier. It was a simple little play called Wood Painting and it dealt with about the same characters in the Seventh Seal–but there was no drama in it, really. It was just these characters telling their stories. The knight and squire has returned from the Crusades in the play. But the knight had had bad luck–had cut out his tongue so he couldn’t speak. (The knight) just said strange guttural noises. That was the part.
So (Bergman) came to me and said he didn’t want me to play that part, the knight. He said ‘I think I would like you to do one of the jugglers.’
He said he happened to leaf through a book with paintings by Picasso. There were photographs of his early circus pictures, circus clowns–
Yes. Kind of bluish paintings. And there is one of a clown family, which is very beautiful–I can see it in my mind’s eye.
(Bergman) said ‘I’m going to develop the character, the clown, the actor in the play, and I would like you to do it.’ I was very taken, very excited.
Then some time went by; he came to me and said ‘I changed my mind; I want you to do the knight.’ I was very disappointed because it was just someone who was going to utter strange noises.
With his tongue cut out…
But he said, ‘no, no, no I’ve changed it.’
The film, when it was shot, was considered some kind of small, experimental art film–which he apparently had difficulties to finance. The producer was not at all happy.
But there are such beautiful lines; I think you had one that read ‘what will become of us; those who want to believe but can’t?’
Of course, but the producer didn’t see this. He said ‘this is not a comedy; this will not bring a lot of people to the theater.’
But then Bergman had a great success with his previous film which was Smiles of a Summer Night (Sommarnatees Leende, 1955), and that made the producer more friendly.
I think the budget was $40,000 for the entire film, The Seventh Seal; of course we had no idea it was going to become a film classic.
It was certainly the start of a series of face cards that you’ve played–the knight, the magician, the joker. How do those roles come to you, or do you feel uniquely suited to them?
I don’t know, I don’t know (long pause). It is always a problem for me; it’s always difficult to talk about acting.
Because of the emotion?
Yes, you can not pin-point it; you don’t really know. You want to know, but you can’t.
Is it the chemistry of the moment?
Can be. And it’s the chemistry of whatever your partner does. You don’t know what the partner is going to do.
Suddenly you respond, and you don’t know why you respond. There is something spontaneous; you have not figured this out. You just do it–later, you say: ‘what did I do? Where did I get that from: That was brilliant.’
And then there are all the opposites: ‘damn it! why didn’t they tell me before; I could have done that, or this.’
When you say ‘spontaneous’, that’s an interesting word, because the dialogue is a boundary for you.
Yes, but there might be a new reading, or a new nuance, that you haven’t noticed before, that can inspire or create something.
You don’t know what kind of hidden secrets that you kind of dig up inside yourself.
There is always the subconscious process that is going on that you have no control of. It can affect you in the most violent ways.
This is beyond the encroachment of your personal world?
Yes, it can be wonderful and it can be a shock.
From an acting point of view, if I had to choose between theatre and film, I would choose the stage because that’s where I am in total control.
No one comes in and edits me afterward; on the stage I deliver directly. And if the conditions are right, everybody is doing their best and the audience is really attentive, you can establish a relationship there that is indescribable, but wonderful.
That’s where you really feel that whatever you do, whatever little movement you do, whatever little pause you do in the dialogue, you can manipulate the audience–you work together somehow.
It is as if gravity doesn’t exist anymore, as if you kind of fly together. It doesn’t happen every night, but when it happens it is glorious.
But it’s so ephemeral, don’t you feel a sense of loss when it’s over?
Of coures, well, yes. When it’s over, it’s over, and it might never come back. But the memory is still there.
It’s very irrational.
The characters you’ve portrayed on film, you can revisit those.
Watching a film–if they are not too distant in time–you look at if as if leafing through a picture album.
You can get disgusted and think ‘that’s the day we shot this, 26 takes.’ When it’s been a long time, you can’t remember being there.
Now you’re playing the ultimate face card in Needful Things.
Yes, yes. I’ve always been lucky, of course.
You look for a good story. I also look for different things. I don’t want to do the same thing twice. I don’t want to play a similar character.
Pelle the Conqueror, the film you were recognized by the Academy for, did you feel that was the one you should have gotten nominated for?
I’m very, very happy for it. That is the film that has meant extremely much to me from the very beginning, because it’s such wonderful material. Extraordinary material.
It was just so fortunate that everything kind of cooperated in such a positive way. It was a great novel on which a good writer wrote a good screenplay. The same man directed it; he was a great director.
The production in itself was a very harmonious production. We had time; there was no rush. The weather, the locations–everything was very perfect.
It somehow has changed the way people look at me as an actor, at least in this country–not in Sweden because they know me better.
If I judge from the offers I got before Pelle the Conqueror and the offers I got after Pelle the Conqueror–they are totally different.
Going from the direction of someone like a Bergman, who made the character ‘feel his way’, how was it working with other directors?
Bergman is very sparse in his directions. He suggests it; he gives you a rhythm. He gives you one or two details and lets you use that as a starting point for something. He doesn’t tell you exactly what to do–which is good–he gives you freedom. He makes you feel that you still have a piece of initiative.
It’s very boring to be told exactly; I hate that. I think every actor hates that.
You can be so trapped by that.
Yes, you have to very insecure to accept that really.
How did the transition work, leaving Bergman?
In the mid-70’s, I got more and more work abroad. I moved to Italy. And got a lot of work in Italy to begin with, then moved to Paris. I was away from Sweden for 14 years, more or less.
Bergman had a bout with the tax authorities about that time, and he moved to Germany. So it didn’t really work out. I was busy; he was busy.
With others, did you find it was too much direction?
Sometimes it is. Sometimes, yes, but rarely, I would say.
These characters you portray seem to have some kind of power within them. Of course, all characters should have that, but in your case it seems to be more than usual. In Needful Things you are the great dark power.
You have walked on both sides, the dark and the light. What has the journey been like on both sides of that line?
What should I say to that? It is very exciting to try all kinds of things–to explore.
In this business you can never say ‘now I know everything; my education is completed; you can’t teach me anything more.’
If you want to be honest with yourself as an actor, you are supposed to reflect the world around you. As the world is changing you have also to understand the changes.
With every new character you get to portray, there aren’t two people on this earth who are absolutely indentical. So every task is a new task, you always have to learn new things about mankind, about your fellow human beings. This is very exciting.
If you fortunate enough to get interesting big parts, then you can never be bored. I’m very grateful for that.
When you are in character, although you say it is never the same experience, these characters have had similar struggles. So is it that you find in yourself some new way to surmount these struggles?
I’m trying to. At least I’m always trying. Maybe I won’t always succeed..
Coming to Needful Things, did Frasers Heston (son of Charlton) really fly to Sweden to meet you?
Well, yes, but I knew he was coming.
How did Fraser describe Leland to you?
We were very much in agreement.
What kind of things did you bring to the character from the novel?
I think I found things in the novel that were not in the screenplay that I could use. I can’t remember anything offhand.
That’s a rather dark card to play, that part: the evil inclination. How did you pull it together?
[Leland Gaunt] is very graphically described in the book. And what is so nice about him is that he is such a nice character, such a sweet and nice character. You have to watch out for him.
I like a villain who doesn’t appear as a villain. And that makes him so much more dangerous. Also [Gaunt] has a great sense of humor. He is a practical joker in a bad, cruel way. He is a villain of surprises; he manipulates people.
People are inclined to stay away from those who take things from them, but people who give things as you do in Needful Things–that’s far more dangerous.
Yes. Very seducing, a good salesman.
Did you think he was an appropriate demon for the post-modern world we’re living in?
In a way, I think this story deals with the danger of being possessed by your possessions–kind of blinding yourself of your judgment, being obsessed by, of course, needful things.
As far as location, were there weather problems?
We were in Vancouver. There was lots of rain. Fraser used the rain.
There were long sequences shot in the rain. I think it should work very well.
Does Leland Gaunt get his in the end?
You cannot really top the Devil; he always has another card somewhere that he might pull when you are least expecting.
And he threatens with something in the future.
(Rare interview first appeared in Venice Magazine 1993; copyright 2016 SCREENMANCER All Rights Reserved.)