Max von Sydow: Charmed, I'm sure

Max von Sydow has suffered some major disappointments in his life: he tried to get parts in 'Harry Potter' and 'The Lord of the Rings', and was turned down flat. On the other hand, he's in love. He tells Charlotte O'Sullivan why he's keeping his fingers crossed

Friday 11 April 2003 00:00 BST

Max von Sydow has a few pre-interview requests. First: that the meeting point be changed, from Paris to Cannes (he lives in Paris, but refuses to say where). Second: that his wife sit in on the interview. Third: that I address him as Mr von Sydow. Oh yes, and there's something he'd like me to read.

This turns out to be a Q&A with another journalist. In it, the 74-year-old Swedish actor talks about his current project, Intacto, with hilarious obstreperousness, responding to questions such as: "What will you say to people to make them see the film?" with "That is your job, not mine."

The film, as it happens, is an elaborate, genuinely moving treatise on luck and loss). And what Von Sydow is prepared to divulge is that his wife, who shoots "making of" documentaries, is his lucky charm, or "kraftwerk". While he's on set it's very important that she's there, "at all times".

By the time I reach his hotel, there's yet another bit of paper to peruse. In this, he goes into even more detail about his relationship, pointing out that he and Catherine Brelet met on a production based in the South of France. From the dates, this must have been Time Is Money, filmed in 1993 (some time before his 1996 divorce from first wife, Christina Olin, but he doesn't go into that). What he says is that Catherine has brought him "luck ever since, and happiness".

Waiting to be ushered into his room, I have to admit that I feel somewhat cast down. This is the man who played chess with Death in The Seventh Seal; hoovered up a demon in The Exorcist; and played Tom Cruise's corrupt father-figure in Minority Report. He's a legend. But right now I'm expecting a pompous old codger, with more than a hint of Lennon in his Yoko phase. As in: take a look at this amazing woman, who can't take her eyes off me. Catherine opens the door and says they're ready. Oh joy.

The pair make the room look like a grotto – he a weary, silver-haired giant, she a vital, if vaguely wizened, blonde fairy. Von Sydow leans forward, and she points at my tape recorder and gabbles something in a thick French accent about the chair being too squeaky. He swaps it for another ("this is a silent chair") and looks at her with an adoring smile. Astonishingly, I don't want to puke.

Maybe it's that her mile-wide grin is actually very warm. And that he seems so very earnest. He lurches into his favourite topic – the luck that Catherine has brought him. "A film actor's life, many, many times it is very lonely," (big sigh), "and I have been very lonely." He stares at me hard, to make sure I've got the point. "And it's very nice not to be." I ask if she's the luckiest thing that's ever happened to him, and vice versa, and both say yes. Then a look of alarm: "No, no, now we sound like we're making love!"

OK, so this is an odd set-up. Catherine basically works on all Von Sydow's films – shooting footage that often doesn't see the light of day. She filmed 28 hours' worth for Minority Report – four minutes made it on to the DVD. She says the producers worry that she gives too much away – that she shows Spielberg spending hours on a shot and then not having a clue what to do. There's another possibility: maybe there were just too many close-ups of Max.

And yes, her life does revolve around her husband. I ask if she'd ever like to direct a feature film with him and she says she'd love to, then frowns, "But, of course, when you direct a film, there are so many things to do..." She counts them off on her hands. "I think", she turns to Von Sydow, "I would not have enough time for you alone! So I don't know if that would work..." Von Sydow points out that, on set, they can communicate with each other at all times, because she wears earphones. Then admits, "At least, I can talk to her. She can't talk back..."

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Today, on the other hand, she talks back all the time, often interrupting him mid-sonorous flow. Von Sydow, for example, describes himself as a shy, lonely, only child. But then Catherine reminds him that he has a half-brother (from his father's first marriage). "Yes, yes, yes," he replies sternly, "but he was 22 years older, so he was no playmate." His focus is on isolation; she helps fill out the picture.

It's the same when I bring up his old collaborator, Bergman. I ask if they'll ever make another film together, and he quickly goes into a woebegone chant, the gist of which is that Bergman will never make another film again. But, points out Catherine, he has made another film, which he's showing at Cannes this year. Looking just the slightest bit peeved, Von Sydow agrees that yes, this is indeed the case – that it's a sequel to Scenes From A Marriage. Forcing a chuckle, he says that maybe they could do a sequel to The Seventh Seal, with a new Death ("Death has died," he says, referring to the passing away of actor Bengt Ekerot). But then, when Catherine starts giggling madly ("Ah yes, more chess!") he frowns. "No, no, no!" he bellows, like an adult trying to restore order at a children's party, "no sequels!"

I realise that Catherine is doing a much better job of interviewing him than me. I ask another question (are there any parts in the last few years that he has coveted?), and sure enough his answer ("Hmm... no, I don't think so") is quickly unravelled by his wife. "The Harry Potter film," she says, "you saw that first, didn't you, Max, and you rang your agent, because you wanted a part." Another sigh from Von Sydow. "Yes, that is true." It turns out that, well before the hype, he read an article in Time magazine about Harry, and, rather perspicaciously, rang up his British agent to ask if there would be a part for an older wizard. She had not heard of the book, said she would make inquiries, but didn't ring back. He rang her again a few months later, and she told him all the parts were going to British actors.

"And the same thing happened with The Lord of the Rings," he notes sadly, "I rang my agent, but they had to be British actors." It does seem unfair that the Brits have such a monopoly on old-geezer parts (I have a mental image of Von Sydow ringing to inquire about an Ingmar Bergman biopic, set in the wild archipelagos of Sweden, and being told, "Oh, bad luck, Mr Von Sydow. It's just gone to Michael Caine...") But what really puzzles me is that both parts he lusted after were in films that are basically fairy tales.

He looks shocked. "But I have always loved legends, especially British ones. I love Tolkien. My father was a professor, and he studied them at the university. He especially loved Irish ones, and went over there and taught himself Gaelic and translated these stories – stories that no one else in the world knew about – and would read them to me at night."

Did he have a favourite? He shrugs, and fiddles with his cardigan button. "No, my father had favourites that he'd like to tell. Whenever we went to parties, the children would gather round 'Uncle Wilhelm' and he would tell them his favourites. So those I got to hear over and over again."

Von Sydow has a gift for letting a sweet anecdote dribble into a sour one. And I can't help thinking of AA Milne's mournful anti-hero, Eeyore. Where others might relish the opportunity to bring themselves into the story, Von Sydow seems to enjoy making himself sound peripheral, overlooked.

This is truest of all in relation to his work. He and his wife moved to LA with their two young sons in 1965, so that he could have "an international career". And, according to Von Sydow, what this involved was being asked to play the "foreign baddie" (Nazis etc) over and over again.

In fact, it's a little more complicated than that. While going through Von Sydow's cuttings, I discover an article from way back the Sixties, in which an industry insider gushes that he could be the most "exciting screen hero" since Brando. All he needs to do, according to this guy, is stop popping home. "He's a lotta man and women can smell that kind of virility... But where is he? Not in Beverly Hills, sunning his ego. He's in Sweden, for the love of Mike, 6,000 miles away behind some lousy ice curtain." An interview with Von Sydow follows, in which he admits, "If I had decided to stay there, become an American as they wished, it may have been simpler." But he felt the need to flee, he says, because he couldn't cope with being a "box-office lure".

You see, I say, they wanted you to be a hero, and you turned them down. He laughs nervously. "No, I don't know why you say that. Are you serious? I never played that sort of..." He frowns as he thinks it over. "Well," he decides finally, "I did do Hawaii, in which I was sort of a hero in a romantic Western... but," suddenly looking relieved, "very quickly they gave me other types of characters..." But that was plan B. Obviously plan A was to turn him into a Viking heart-throb. It makes sense. He was tall, he had blonde hair and blue eyes. Von Sydow looks at me, somewhat dazed. "Well," he says, "well, well, well," sounding more puzzled each time. Then he shakes his head and comes to a halt with, "That's tragic."

I think he may be enjoying himself, ever so slightly. We get round, finally, to the subject of Intacto, and he notes that his character, the concentration-camp survivor Samuel Berg, is "manipulative, but not evil, enjoys having magic power in the way that certain people – maybe film directors and other kinds of artists, do". I ask if he'd describe himself as manipulative, and he starts. "Me? I don't think I've thought of that. Am I?" He suddenly grins, "No, no, I have been manipulated all through my life. I am the victim!"

We move on to the subject of the future, the world's and his. Re: the world, he thinks there are too many of us in it ("In 20 years, there won't be water enough for us to drink! Scary!") Re: him, he writes quite a lot ("No typewriter," he says, as if the latter were the most new-fangled of machines, "just a pen and paper"), and might publish something one day. He bashes the table leg for luck, "I hope it's not too late." He's adamant that he'll never do theatre again – "No, finito, basta!" He can't act in Paris, he says (he doesn't feel secure enough about his French), and doesn't want to be "stuck" in London or Stockholm for months.

I imagine it's a problem, too, that Catherine wouldn't have an obvious excuse to be around. He won't work without her by his side. "And I don't work either," she adds, "if somebody says 'Can you do a "making-of" film and Max is not involved.' " She looks heartbreakingly solemn as she says this. When he first started acting, Von Sydow thought he needed to be lonely "to concentrate". Not any more. "Thank God," he sings out, "I'm not lonely any more!"

This is a man used to thinking of himself as unfortunate, boasting of a rare success. The only thing I don't understand is why he's so keen now, in 2003, to share his love for Catherine with the world at large. It's almost as if he's decided to tempt fate. He's a tyrant; he's a little boy lost. Against all the odds, I find myself hoping his luck holds.

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