Encounter with a towering genius

Memories of an interview with Max von Sydow

by Richard Mowe

Intacto Photo: © 2002 - Lions Gate Films - All Rights Reserved
Max Von Sydow: 'I used to work all the time,' he recalled once rather ruefully, 'and now I don’t want to do that'
Max Von Sydow: 'I used to work all the time,' he recalled once rather ruefully, 'and now I don’t want to do that' Photo: Unifrance
At one point he was Hollywood’s favourite Scandinavian - his towering frame stalking through a land of Biblical epics and villainy. Even in his later years Max von Sydow, who has died, aged 90, still stood tall and proud.

Everyone looked up to the star, not just because of his stature (6ft 3in) but also because he commanded attention and respect without even making an utterance. There was an aura about him that made you hang on his every lilting accented word.

I met him a few years ago in the high bright Riviera sun on a hotel terrace in Cannes just along the coast from his adopted home in Nice, where he lived with his French wife Catherine. It felt as if he was holding court - a regal audience only given to the privileged few.

Having well surpassed his three score years and ten, the actor made a few concessions to the passing years. “I used to work all the time,” he recalled rather ruefully, “and now I don’t want to do that. I think today I am probably more difficult to seduce, if you see what I mean. I think there was a time when I was too easy to seduce for one reason or another which I regret very much. Perhaps I should have stayed in Sweden and only done theatre! I get offered plenty of villains which is fine because the devil always has the best lines. The only parts I turned down categorically are the religious ones.”

I asked him which he prefers - a Hollywood blockbuster or a smaller-scale film - and he replied that his contribution remained the same. “The difference is the magnitude of the machinery and the budget and the number of people involved. In a way, it is more pleasant on a smaller production like Intacto because you have a better chance to have a personal relationship with the people involved. In a million dollar project you barely know the names of those at the end of the production line."

Did he think he had had a charmed life? “I have had had good luck on occasions even if I don’t really believe in luck. Sometimes you happen to be in the right spot at the right time and meet the right people. I think a lot of what you might think of as luck is really what you have to work for.

“I have never really thought of myself as a lucky man but a few years ago, I was offered a job on a French film. I turned down the part but they insisted until I agreed. Due to numerous delays we thought the film would never be finished, but the best thing to come out of it all was that I met my wife during the shoot - and she’s brought happiness in to my life. So that was very lucky indeed, so perhaps I’ve become a believer after all.” Catherine who was sitting close by during the interview gave him an adoring glance.

Von Sydow admitted that he liked directors who did not give orders, but rather inspired their actors, gave suggestions and allowed the actors the possibility to work things out by themselves. "It should be mutual give and take, and that is the sort of relationship I always want to establish.”

He learned from the master himself. Ingmar Bergman saw him on stage just after he had graduated from Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theatre acting school and offered him the part of the knight in The Seventh Seal during which one of the key scenes was his chess game on the beach with the grim reaper.

He used to keep in touch with Bergman through phone calls. Von Sydow loved doing theatre, but recently ruled it out because he would have to be stuck somewhere for six months at a time. The last time he worked on stage was almost 20 years ago. How did he become drawn in to the theatre world in the first place? He reflected, then suggested it was probably because his father, who was a specialist in Irish and Scandinavian folklore, was a great raconteur and he was caught up in the dream world of legends and fairy stories from an impressionable age. Then when he was in high school he and a few friends started their own theatre club.

The young Max Von Sydow: 'Because I was brought up in the Swedish municipal theatre system I had the chance to do big parts, small parts, tragedies and comedies and classics - anything I wanted'
The young Max Von Sydow: 'Because I was brought up in the Swedish municipal theatre system I had the chance to do big parts, small parts, tragedies and comedies and classics - anything I wanted' Photo: Unifrance
His Bergman years, he conceded, were the most important element in bringing him to attention on the international stage and lead to offers from abroad. His first job outside Sweden was playing Christ in The Greatest Story Ever Told, George Stevens’ Biblical epic. “Playing Jesus,” he said, “was an almost impossible task. I remember having to wade in to the river to be baptised by Charlton Heston as John the Baptist. Most of the extras seemed to be true believers, which I wasn’t. I was professionally dedicated but that was all.”

It was followed by Hawaii. Since then, his career was full of eclectic choices, from Emperor Ming in Flash Gordon through the artist Frederick in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters to the elderly cleric Father Merrin in The Exorcist and its immediate sequel. His career stretched back over more than half a century playing assassins, Nazis, artists, priests, magicians and therapists. Before Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, Hollywood came knocking with Snow Falling On Cedars, from the David Guterson novel, playing a ravaged defence lawyer, and as the Traveller in the celestial saccharine of What Dreams May Come.

He remained philosophical about the variation in quality. “Sometimes I have been right, and something goes disastrously wrong and it becomes a disaster so you feel you have wasted your time, and you wish you had done something else.

“Because I was brought up in the Swedish municipal theatre system which was a wonderful training ground for actors, I had the chance to do big parts, small parts, tragedies and comedies and classics - anything I wanted. This is what I think an actor’s life should be like. You should not just do one thing all your life - you should try many different things.”

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