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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Film -

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.