An Exclusive Interview with Max von Sydow


It’s not often that you get the chance to talk to a living legend, let alone one who is still pertinent in his work, so when had a chance to sit down with actor Max von Sydow to talk about his role in Julian Schnabel’s masterpiece The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, it was an opportunity not to be missed.

Besides originating the role of Father Merin in The Exorcist 34 years ago and making eleven movies with Ingmar Bergman (take that Scorsese and De Niro!), Mr. Von Sydow continues to appear in summer blockbusters like Spielberg’s Minority Report and the recent Rush Hour 3 as he approaches his 80th birthday and 60th (!) year as an actor.

While the actor only appears in two scenes in Schnabel’s adaptation of the memoir of “French Elle” editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, they are pivotal moments that elevate the film, giving us a clear idea how helpless Bauby has become after his sudden stroke, something we see through the eyes of his elderly father, who is now trapped in his own apartment without having his son for help. Von Sydow’s emotional performance exudes a vulnerability we haven’t seen from the actor in recent years, because he still is often cast as powerful leaders or bad guys. sat down with Mr. Von Sydow and his wife, director Cathrine Brelet, at Cafe Pierre just off Central Park for a lovely conversation, but first we had to get it out of the way how exactly one should pronounce his surname.

Max von Sydow: It’s strange because even people who see it don’t know how to pronounce it or (those who) hear it don’t know how to write it, so I’m lost. (chuckles) It’s really only two syllables and vowels so it shouldn’t be so hard. So it’s pronounced “von see-doh” then.
Max von Sydow: It’s even difficult in Sweden because it’s not a Swedish name. My people came from Germany way back 200 years ago, but it’s not even a German name. I think it is very much Eastern German, maybe Slavic.

CS: It’s been a very interesting year for you in that you have this beautiful, artistic film from Julian Schnabel… and then you have “Rush Hour 3” both of them shot in France.
Von Sydow: Sort of different, yes.

CS: Yes, but it’s nice seeing you in two such prominent movies. How did Julian Schnabel approach you to play Jean-Do’s father in “Diving Bell”?
Von Sydow: I think I got a call, not from Julian but from Kathleen Kennedy, the producer, who I know, and who sent me the script which I immediately fell in love with. I was very taken by this script and by the part they offered me. Scripts are not always terribly good unfortunately, so when you get a good one, you’re very grateful. I did something which I never have done before. I wrote a note to Ron Harwood to thank him, to congratulate him. I’d never done that. I like to write letters, but I’ve never written a letter to a (screenwriter) before. I’d never met him until now in Los Angeles, I met him, when the film opened, we were in Los Angeles for publicity, so that was the first time I met him. Have you met him?

CS: Yes, I met him when he did interviews for Roman Polanski’s “Oliver Twist.” Are you friends with Roman? You both live in France and appeared in “Rush Hour 3” and there’s lots of connections to him in this movie.
Von Sydow: No, no, no, I didn’t know him before. I knew of him mainly from “The Dresser,” his play. I was once offered to do it but unfortunately, it was not possible. Quite a while ago.

CS: Did you know Julian before making the movie?
Von Sydow: No, no, I hadn’t met him either. I just knew him, not as a film director but as an artist, but do you know him?

CS: No, I’ve seen this movie twice but haven’t had the opportunity. Do you know why he thought of you for this part? I think most of us know you for playing these really powerful, often bad guys, but I’m not sure we’ve ever seen you this vulnerable.
Von Sydow: No, maybe not on film. No, I don’t know.

CS: Is that what interested you about playing the part, doing something different?
Von Sydow: No, no, it’s just a wonderful part, also because it is two scenes, so it shows two sides of the relationship in that there is (one) where he is still up and about and they are joking with each other and kind of teasing each other, but it’s a very loving teasing. It’s a scene full of tenderness, then afterwards, it’s the despair of knowing he will never hear the voice of his son anymore. He won’t ever meet him, so I’m very happy and pleased that I got the chance to do this.

CS: A lot of what people have loved about this movie is the father-son relationship between you and Mathieu Amalric. You only have two scenes with him and only one where you are together, and that was the shaving scene, which is so memorable. Did the two of you have any preparation for that? How much trust was involved with having him shave you?
Von Sydow: No… (chuckles) I was doing a film in Canada called “Emotional Arithmetic” and in the middle of that production, my day for “The Diving Bell” came up and I had to go back to Paris to shoot the scene and I only had three days in between. I wanted to have some stubble for the shaving scene, but I couldn’t because in that film, I was clean-shaven so I had only three days to let it loose. But anyway, I arrived on the set with little stubble and then I thought, “Let us shoot the second scene first” so if somebody notices it, they would see that I’m alone without somebody shaving me. So we shot that first, and then after that, we shot the first scene where he shaves me… And he does really shave me, so it’s totally authentic.

CS: I’m not sure I’d trust a barber to shave me, let alone an actor, especially one as lively as Mathieu.
Von Sydow: It wasn’t… I don’t know what they call it in English (a straight razor), but not the old fashioned one, that would make me a little bit nervous.

CS: It’s very rare when you’re doing a phone scene with someone to have the other actor talking on the other line and in this case, the other person can’t even talk or communicate, so what was involved with creating that moment? Did Julian just put you in a room with a phone and you had to imagine everything else going on?
Von Sydow: When we shot that scene, I just had the other girl, the nurse talk, but it started in a funny way, because they shot the scene with the girl and with my son about two weeks before I was called. We were at the time, not in Paris but in the South of France somewhere, and I got a phone call and it was Julian Schnabel saying, “We are shooting the scene with Mathieu and we’re when you call, we’re shooting her scene and she would love to hear your voice instead of having someone else just give her the lines. So here’s a phone number. Could you please call us in 15 minutes?” (laughs) So I did that…

CS: So that was well before you’d even shot your scene.
Von Sydow: Oh, yes, two weeks ahead.

CS: Did Julian show you any of the footage he had shot before you had to film your side of that scene?
Von Sydow: No, no. I hadn’t seen anything. I was way out in the south of the country, and then of course, when my day came, that’s when they recorded my lines, so on the phone, it was just for her.

CS: You were nominated for an Oscar for “Pelle the Conqueror” about 20 years ago. There’s obviously a lot of awards buzz surrounding this movie, so how important are awards to you at this point in your career?
Von Sydow: Well, it’s always of course wonderful that there’s encouragement. Awards are lovely and always welcome. I never work with awards in mind, no, no, you work because you like to do whatever it is, but you don’t think, “I’m going to do this so damn good that I’ll have an Oscar.”

CS: That’s a sure way to shoot yourself in the foot if you’re doing it just for awards, but if you got nominated for this, it would be nice, considering it was just one day’s work.
Von Sydow: No, I was very moved for “Pelle the Conqueror.” In a way, a nomination is nicer than the award if you get one, because it’s just your colleagues who vote for your nomination, your fellow actors and actresses nominate you. All the rest, they come in afterwards, but it is your colleagues who nominate you for something, and I think that is wonderful.

CS: I’m always surprised by how active you’ve remained in recent years. People in life who aren’t actors will work a job until they turn 65 or so and then they retire, and yet actors rarely do that, so is that something you ever think about?
Von Sydow: No, well this is one of the wonderful things with acting. Okay, you can retire if you want to, but there will always be a need for elderly actors in films or in theatre, so you might have a chance to continue up until your old age (chuckles) if you can keep healthy.

CS: Well, I can tell you that as a film fan, I’m thankful to see such great actors as yourself continuing to work and getting even better roles. I just spoke to Frank Langella who has been getting some fantastic roles, including in this new movie he’s in, “Starting Out in the Evening,” plus he’s amazing as Nixon, too.
Von Sydow: Oh, yes, he’s fantastic but I haven’t seen that. He’s a very good actor. He’s a very good actor. I saw him on Broadway, when he did “Dracula” and he was very good.

CS: Now as far as other films, you have a role in “Solomon Kane” which is more of a pulp fiction hero type thing?
Von Sydow: I don’t know if this will happen. No, I don’t know. It’s not set. We shall see.

CS: And “Emotional Arithmetic” has already come out?
Von Sydow: Not in this country yet, but I think it will be released early next year, but that’s an interesting story and I think it’s a good film. It’s a great cast with Susan Sarandon and Christopher Plummer and Gabriel Byrne.

CS: Christopher Plummer’s also in a new movie which comes out next week I think.
Von Sydow: Yeah, yeah, he’s a wonderful actor. Have you met him?

CS: No, I haven’t. Do you have a lot of scenes with him in this movie?
Von Sydow: Oh, yes. I’ve worked with him before, and this is an interesting story, because it’s a reunion with three people who met when two of them were just children, ten years old, and the third maybe 20 years old. They were all during the war arrested or picked up by the Nazis, and put in a camp just outside Paris for further transport to the camps, but the children never get to the camps because the war ended, but the older boy got to the camp but he survived but he disappeared somewhere in Russia and had a hell of a difficult life. But the film is how these people meet again, and it’s about what has happened to them and how this early experience has shaped their lives. It’s a very good film.

CS: Who directed it?
Von Sydow: Paulo Barzman, he did a wonderful film called “Time is Money.” No, I don’t think it was shown in this country. That was shot close to Montreal.

CS: You yourself directed a movie twenty years ago, so do you have any interest in doing that again?
Von Sydow: No, it was a wonderful experience. Had I been younger, I’m sure I would have done it again but to commit yourself, if you’re not really used to it, for a project which might take two years or more, I don’t want to do that. I want to be able to move about a little bit. I’m an actor, I’m not a director.

CS: You’ve had such an amazing career, which is still going on, so what would you consider your crowning achievement—you have a lot of them obviously—but something that you can say “I’m so glad I did that” years later.
Von Sydow: Well, no doubt, the most important thing in my career was my time with Mr. Bergmann with whom I worked in so many films and also in so many stage productions, so it was a continuous working relationship, and also a friendship of course, that lasted for so many years. I was in 11 films with him, and I can’t find a role that’s more important than others, because it’s one piece of work to me. Of course, it was very important also when I was offered to work in this country with all that has led up to or actually, to work not just here but in so many other countries also and so many films of various nationalities. It has been very stimulating and very important to me. One film that has meant very much to me was “Pelle the Conqueror” for which I was nominated, because it’s a wonderful film I think, and it was a great part, because it’s rare that you are offered to play a character who appears in so many different situations, which means that you were able to show so many different sides of the character. It was very interesting and very stimulating; I’m very fond of that film.

CS: Would you still consider “The Exorcist” your breakout?
Von Sydow: A very important part. I’m sure that “The Exorcist” is still the film that I’ve been in that has reached the most people, so if people stop me on the street, most of them (will be for that).

CS: You must have been happy they got a Swedish actor to play your part in the prequel. So is there anything else you’d still like to do or anyone else you’d still like to work with?
Von Sydow: Oh, I’d love to do anything that may be interesting. You see the trouble is when you get up in age, the parts you’re offered are not always very interesting. So is the elderly man in the film? He’s a grandfather who has one or two scenes and most of them are not that interesting. This is a wonderful piece, but most of the times, it’s the same… elderly father or elderly grandfather who is in bad shape in the beginning of the film and who dies on page 35 and that’s it. Maybe it could be interesting, but most of the times, it’s very much the same still.

CS: Well, it’s great that you were able to get into this movie, because so many people are loving it and loving you in it.
Von Sydow: I’m very pleased.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is now playing in New York and Los Angeles and will open in more cities over the course of the next month.