Liv Ullmann on Ingmar Bergman, Her Top Films, Having Empathy

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Legendary actor-director-writer Liv Ullmann, the first Norwegian to receive an Honorary Oscar, is being celebrated on home turf, as part of the golden jubilee of Haugesund’s Norwegian Film Festival, for which she is honorary president.

The festival which runs Aug. 20-26, is also screening her 2000 Palme d’or entry “Faithless,” penned by Ingmar Bergman, who made her a household name, and Erik Poppe’s “The Emigrants,” a modern version of Jan Troell’s classic which earned her an Oscar nomination in 1973.

The luminary stage and screen actor-director, featured in Viaplay’s upcoming English-language three-part series “Liv Ullmann – The Road Less Travelled,” spoke to Variety ahead of the Liv Ullmann symposium and tribute in Haugesund on Aug. 22.

Haugesund is celebrating its 50th anniversary with you as central keynote. How seriously do you take your role as the festival’s honorary president?

It is lovely that the festival is celebrating 50 years. I have a lot of great wonderful memories, meeting lots of people from all over the world in Haugesund, long before [festival director] Tonje Hardersen was there, when the festival was under the helm of Gunnar Johan Løvvik. We had so much fun together, the same sense of humour. When people came, they would forget it is a film festival, relax, with the ocean in front of their hotel. And what was good is that big stars would come on the red carpet, despite Haugesund being so small and Norway a small nation. It was very important for our country and very inspiring.

You were recently handed out an Honorary Oscar for your career. What did it mean to you, having been Oscar nominated both for “The Emigrants” and “Face to Face”?

It meant a lot to me. Perhaps what meant more is the way it happened. The phone rang and the president of the Academy said: We are doing this tribute – his is why we chose you. You’ve had a good life, an extraordinary career, so come and share with us. It was beautiful and loving. Hearing it that way, expressed as if it was something totally normal, was extraordinary. I was so proud.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science paid tribute to your “bravery and emotional transparency that has gifted audiences with deeply affecting screen portrayals.” Do you agree with this definition of your contribution to film as an art form? Your aura has led some of the greatest directors – including Ingmar Bergma  to create unforgettable roles for you….

I liked that wording from the Academy, but I don’t think Ingmar created roles because of my aura; he created what he wanted to express. We had a wonderful working relationship and he would say: ‘Oh, I think Liv could do this! He simply wanted to work with me.

I was in most of his movies. He actually wrote a part for me in “Fanny & Alexander” but I turned it down. Ingmar was so mad at me. For one year he wrote me letters, calling me ‘Mrs Ullmann’. Then his resentment died down. I eventually saw the movie that is so beautiful. I cried. I’ve always regretted saying ‘no’ to it.

Looking back at my career, I’ve been lucky to meet extraordinary directors.  When I came to the U.S. [in the mid 1970s] and started to work on stage, I met the wonderful director José Quintero, who wanted me to play in Eugene O’Neill’s “Anna Christie.” We loved to work together and he came to Norway just to do that. This was also the case with another mentor of mine –. Peter Palitzsch who was close to Bertolt Brecht and with whom I did the play “Caucasian Chalk Circle”

I’m not exceptional. It’s the chemistry between two people – the director, the actor, that creates the magic.

I would give anything to collaborate again with Cate Blanchett. The experience of working with her on stage [Ullmann directed her in the play “A Streetcar Named Desire”] was incredible!

You met Ingmar Bergman in 1966 who gave you your first major screen role in “Persona” Do you have a favourite film among the 10 film gems you did together?

It is probably “Scenes from a Marriage”. We did it all on Fårö Island, in six weeks, as a film and TV series in six parts. I knew everybody, we had so much fun and Ingmar was happy. We would wake up early, at 4am, to work on the text. And I liked what it is about– a woman who grows, who makes choices. She finds out who she is, what she wants, stops making choices for others and makes them for herself.

Have you seen HBO’s remake from showrunner Hagai Levi?

Yes, although it wasn’t Ingmar’s version. The story was altered as in the HBO version Marianne [played by Jessica Chastain] is the adulterer, whereas in Ingmar’s version, it is Johan. They also talk in a more intellectual way. But Johan and Marianne have the same understanding of each other in the two versions. Those are different kind of movies, but with the same tone.

I know “Scenes from a Marriage” is being reprogrammed on many global channels and I hope it is being shown in the original language. I have dubbed all my movies except “Scenes from a Marriage.” The voice is so important for capturing the truthfulness, the essence of a character.

You’ve played Kristina in Jan Troell’s classic “The Emigrants”. What do you make of Erik Poppe’s version?

That is my favourite movie of all. I was invited to a private screening of Erik’s remake and was quite nervous to have to sit next to him. But the magic happened. The movie started. It was incredible. After 10 minutes, I got up from my chair and said thank you!

It’s a different movie, about emigrants, the way it’s happening now, people who have to leave behind what they love the most because it’s unsafe for them to stay.

Lisa Carlehed who plays Kristina was so genuine and true to so many refugees I’ve encountered in my life, the way she looks, and walks, which is so different from my Kristina, but so wonderful. I also loved the use of black & white and colour. Erik Poppe deserves the biggest recognitions for his achievement.

What brought you to directing, and what do you think you learned from working with Bergman?

You see, I was never thinking really of directing. I started to write scripts and wrote the one for “Sofie” [1992] that I submitted to Nordisk Film in Denmark. They said they loved it and asked if I wanted to direct it! That came as a shock, just like with the Academy honor I did call Ingmar and I said: ‘Do you think I can direct?’ Ingmar said: ‘You can direct!’

The most important thing I learnt from him is trust. But I have another advantage– I am an actor myself. I know how irritating it is when a director talks and talks and tries to explain my inner feeling and has no clue. I’m an actor, I know what to say and not to say, which is as important.

What advice would you give aspiring actors?

Acting is a wonderful craft. I would say: Don’t sell yourself short. It is better to say ‘no’ if you do sell yourself short. You are not chosen out of the blue. You have the ability to express what it is to be a human being. Use yourself, everything in you, the invisible. And while living your life, don’t’ be the one talking. Be a listener. You will learn so much more. Have empathy.

Your empathy has led to your life-long charity work, notably to help refugees displaced by conflicts, and you co-founded Women’s Refugee Commission. What are your views on war in Ukraine?

It is horrible what happening in Ukraine but it’s not the first time that such atrocities are being perpetrated. Just look back at the Holocaust. In 1942, there was the Wannsee conference in Poland, and important men came together and discussed how to kill millions and millions of people. We should remember it more than ever and learn the lessons of history.

Besides the plight of refugees, you fought against anti-gay U.S. Christian fundamentalist in the ‘80s, and for women’s rights. But extremism is back with anti-abortion laws in the US. How do you feel about it, being based there?

It is tragic. It’s hard to see and understand how in the name of God, people do things. I value life and its wonders, but when a woman has a very good reason to end a life, and this is the only solution for her, I believe it is a choice, and if you are a Christian, God has given us the ability to make our own choices.

Do you have trust in humanity?

Yes, because we want it so much and believe in goodness. One of my favourite stories of my life is when I met a leper in Macau. At the beginning, I didn’t want to touch her. Suddenly I looked at her differently, I held her, and she started to cry. She had a smell which was just like my grandmother’s whom I loved more than anyone. We are here all of us on earth at the same time. The respect we feel for our grandmother, a child, anyone, is a respect we should have for each other. Look how happy people are when you say something nice to them!”

Liv Ullmann on Ingmar Bergman, Her Top Films, Having Empathy

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