Max The factor
His roles in and many more earned Max Von Sydow a place in cinema history, and at 82, he has no intention of retiring, he tells Donald Clarke
WHAT A STRANGE business it is to stand before Max Von Sydow. It’s not just that one is in the presence of a walking legend: the knight from The Seventh Seal, Father Merrin from The Exorcist, the vengeful parent in The Virgin Spring. What’s really peculiar is that the Swedish actor, now 82, seems almost entirely unchanged by the passing decades. The archetypal Ingmar Bergman protagonist does not have much in common with the recently mourned David Kelly. But both men – exact contemporaries – seem to have played oldish men throughout their careers.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying he looks pretty much as you’d expect. The brow is high. The grey hair is thick. Dressed in a tweed jacket and neat slacks, he rests slightly uncomfortably into a straight-backed chair and issues a rare complaint.
“I was hit by the back of a lift door and broke three ribs,” he says. He still looks very trim. “Oh I am terribly trim. Ha, ha, ha! But I can’t laugh, cough or sneeze.
“Getting into of bed is painful. Getting out of bed is really painful. And those things are hard to avoid.”
It hardly needs to be said that Max Von Sydow is not at home to recreational slapstick. But he’s definitely a funny guy. A wry smile is never too far away from his lips. He very much enjoys a touch of self-deprecation. One can thus understand why he was drawn by the part of “the renter” in Stephen Daldry’s current adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. The character never speaks and communicates by writing hurriedly on scraps of paper. He is damaged, but defiantly mischievous. “It’s more interesting that he doesn’t speak,” he says.
“I didn’t know anything about the story. I got the script and was moved. I read the book and got more information. It’s a real windfall to get a character who has such mystique. You gradually learn things about him. But gradually.” The performance has earned Von Sydow only his second Oscar nomination. This seems faintly astonishing. No, he did not get a supporting nod for The Exorcist.
None of his 11 collaborations with Ingmar Bergman gained Von Sydow a mention. His only previous short-listing was as best actor for Bille August’s Pelle the Conqueror in 1987. He and Christopher Plummer (the hot favourite) are, this year, competing to become the oldest actors ever to take an Oscar.
“I know,” he says. “I have worked with him quite a few times and have been trying to contact him for the last few weeks. He is a wonderful man.”
Von Sydow has done all right for himself. But, like a lot of actors from middle-class families, he had to fight against parental resistance. His father was a distinguished lecturer at the University of Lund in the south of Sweden (an expert on Irish folklore, interestingly). Both parents were from solid Lutheran backgrounds and hoped their son would do something respectable with his life. Following national service, however, he elected to study at the Royal Dramatic Theatre.
“This thing with theatre was not their thing,” he says with a mordant laugh.
“I remember when I discussed this with my mother. ‘Do you really need to become an actor?’ she said. ‘It’s all very wild and there might be many . . .’ She paused. She didn’t go into details.”
Was she referring to the acting profession’s friendliness towards, ahem, alternative lifestyles? “Oh, probably, probably.” At any rate, Von Sydow quickly found a place for himself in the Swedish theatre and soon began knocking on Ingmar Bergman’s door. At that point, the great man was best known as a director of plays. Eventually, Bergman warmed to the young fellow and cast him as the troubled Knight in his 1957 medieval allegory The Seventh Seal. We think of Bergman as an austere figure. Is that how Von Sydow remembers him? “No, no, no. That is not right at all,” he says. “In reality he was a great enthusiast with a head full of imagination. He was always going against the traditions. But he was a wonderful teacher and a great leader of actors. And he worked all the time. He’d work in the Municipal Theatre, then write a script in the winter and then shoot it in the summer. He was always working.”
Now that highbrow cinema has retreated to its ghetto, it is difficult to imagine the impact of Bergman’s early films. Harshly beautiful, echoing with those gentle, worried voices, films such as The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries and Through a Glass Darkly (all of which featured Von Sydow) became as essential to the well-cultured individual as was the latest Samuel Beckett play or Albert Camus novel. The most unshakable image remains Max playing chess with death at the beginning of The Seventh Seal.
“We had no idea it would have that