Liv Ullmann: ‘I ran after Greta Garbo in the street. She outpaced me’ – The Guardian

The reader interview

The actor and director answers your questions on how Ingmar Bergman changed her life, her feelings at receiving an honorary Oscar, and holidaying at a leper colony in Japan

When you were working with Ingmar Bergman, were you aware that you were creating some of the greatest films in history, or did that realisation only happen with time? PaulMarnier

When I met him, I had been an actor for seven years and knew he was looked on as a genius. That’s what I thought, too. So when he said he would really like to have me in a film, and wrote Persona for Bibi Andersson and me, I was aware I was to work with an incredible man. But I never knew it would mean I would be in 11 of his movies and direct some of his scripts. I had no idea it would mean a big change in my life.

How did you and Bibi Andersson prepare for your roles in Persona? TheBigBadWolf

If I really feel the role inside, even if it’s very different from me, I will allow it to become a part of me. I’m very happy to work with great directors because they give you the words and the circumstances and then allow you to find the person within yourself. That’s how I work.

What do you think brings people back to Persona after all these years? For all the ways society and expression have expanded, this is still one of the most compelling and truthful portraits of intimacy between women I have seen on-screen (speaking as a gay woman in her 30s) rnsinsf

‘The love we felt was very easy to find’ … Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann in Persona. Photograph: United Artists/Allstar

At that time – and maybe even today – it was a new kind of movie. Bibi and I were the best of friends and so free towards each other, and the love we felt was very easy to find. I believe I was speaking in the film for Bergman. I was 25, and he was 21 years older, but I believe so much had happened in his life that he used a young woman to present what he was thinking and feeling. Perhaps a woman is not so scared of showing the truth.

Then he fell in love with one of the actresses making the movie [Bergman and Ullmann were together for five years and had a daughter, Linn, who is now 55]. I think that love was part of it. He was in despair and suddenly he saw a new beginning. Not through me, but he experienced what happened between these two women – who looked as if they were quarrelling but who reached each other tremendously – as a solution. He ended his former life after that movie.

I think the film does reflect how society’s perception of gender and identity has changed if we look for it. If we allow that to happen. But I think in many ways today we are closing our ears to other people’s moods and despair. But also this terrible war [in Ukraine] has woken people up. And once awakened they want to be a part of it, they want to help. They feel empathy for all the people who are suffering so much. It’s a terrible war, but good things happen in people; they understand things better. We are not alone. We are part of everything. We are not witnesses.

As you are a co-founder of the Women’s Refugee Commission, will the organisation assist in the crisis in Ukraine? BobStageVoices

They are very much involved, as they were with women and children in Afghanistan not so long ago. They are trying to make people in the US open their homes and take an active part in helping them. When we founded the organisation more than 30 years ago with four people, I didn’t know we would grow so big. I’ve also been part of the International Rescue Committee for 45 years. It is an incredible organisation founded by Einstein after the second world war to help Jewish people escape Germany. They thought they would only be needed for a short time.

When you went to the US, how did you handle working in another language in a different culture? BobStageVoices

I’m very Norwegian. I’ve had a green card for many years but I think in Norwegian and have my morals and very often react inside as a Norwegian. There are things I admire tremendously in the US but there are also things that make me happy I am Norwegian. I have to be very careful because many Norwegians have been brought up differently and not everything I say and feel is the right thing.

Something I react to with horror now is that it’s so strict for Ukrainians who want to come to the US. There should be a law that people in such horror don’t have to have all their papers and agree to leave immediately. I get very shocked by that. To be honest, I know that the same thing will happen in Norway. But at least I can fight it more easily because I belong to that country. I don’t belong to the US. But I can say what I mean.

‘I’m very Norwegian’ … Ullmann pictured with daughter Linn in 1971. Photograph: Classic Picture Library/Alamy

You spent the first two years of your life in Tokyo so do you ever have any feelings of belonging towards Japan? Do you ever visit Japan? Haigin88

About 40 years ago I took my mother back as I said I always would once I had money. It was so different and she couldn’t find her old home, so she lost the connection.

But when I was 80, three years ago, I wondered what to do for my birthday and made up my mind to go to Oshima, an island where people with leprosy were sent before the second world war. They were told they could never go home or contact their parents.

It was an incredible experience. There were about 250 people left; now I think there’s 29. I said to one woman: “You have to write a book about your life here and being never allowed to leave.” She said: “I don’t need to write a book because I’m so happy with my life and everything that has happened to me.” One man, who is now dead, took me to a tree which was blooming. We danced around it as he played the harmonica. He said: “We do this to celebrate life which is beautiful and to remind ourselves life is short but it gives us hope that beautiful things will happen.”

So do I belong to Japan? Yes I do! There was a reason I was born there. I learned so much from those people who never had a choice and made themselves such a fulfilling life.

You’ve chosen to perform in and make quality films – and have rightly received critical acclaim for them. Do you ever wish you had chosen popular movies for the money and fame and sod the critics? Troy_McClure

It was never a question for me. I was once in two very popular films. When I was cast in 40 Carats, Zsa Zsa Gabor was very upset and wrote in the papers and Elizabeth Taylor, who I knew, was upset and didn’t know why I’d got the part – and was probably right. I wasn’t from New York as the character was supposed to be. I had a heavy Norwegian accent and wasn’t known to be a comedian. I danced with Gene Kelly and didn’t know how to dance. I was meant to be 40 and the man I was in love with was meant to be 20 but we were both 35. It made no sense. That may be one of the reasons that when Superman came along I wasn’t the first choice.

Why oh why did you make Lost Horizon? I am genuinely curious. DuncanT

Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson in Scenes from a Marriage. Photograph: ScreenProd/Photononstop/Alamy

I don’t know. I was nominated for an Oscar. I did four things in one year and then I went back to Sweden and did Scenes from a Marriage. I was tremendously happy I could go back to the island, sit on an outdoor toilet and look out. I was on the cover of Time magazine and they called me “The new Greta Garbo”, but I was happy that it really didn’t happen.

When I was doing Anna Christie on Broadway I saw Garbo in the street and ran after her. I thought: “She has to know I’m doing Anna Christie!” As if that was of interest to her! She saw this woman coming running and she started to run. I ran after her and in the end she disappeared into Central Park. Yes, she outpaced me. But when she turned and looked so frightened I gave up and didn’t follow her. I was younger; I could have made it, but I didn’t.

In your career which film roles would you say were the most personal to you? MattN89

The Emigrants and The New Land. Beautiful love stories to those who understand that to stay at home is of greater danger to their children and themselves than to find a new place to live. I experienced everything I hadn’t experienced myself – to have many children and be the best friend of the one man in my life.

I loved Miss Julie. Jessica Chastain and Colin Farrell were great in it, and Samantha Morton is always excellent. Are there any other mainstream actors you would be interested in working with? keithchris

Colin Farrell and Jessica Chastain in Miss Julie, written and directed by Ullmann. Photograph: Egor Kirpichev/Allstar

Well I worked with one I loved, Cate Blanchett, in the theatre when I directed A Streetcar Named Desire. It was incredible. We found each other. We did it in the US and the critics said we needed an Australian and a Norwegian to show us what Tennessee Williams was all about. I was going to direct a film of A Doll’s House with Kate Winslet. She waited two years for me to raise money and in the end we didn’t.

I’m not going to direct any more, unfortunately. After Christmas I will just talk about my life as an actor, about refugees and meeting people. I should know when to stop. For many years I wanted to write a book called The Blue Hour about when you are 70-80 years old. Just before it goes dark outside, it’s blue and hopeful and everything is still possible. But after turning 80, it’s not blue light any more. Now it’s something else. It’s not darkness.

Maybe it’s the thing the man around the tree in Japan said – we celebrate the beauty of life and that it’s short. Most of all we celebrate the hope that each individual, every day, can allow God or the higher power or something that is much more extraordinary than we are, to do something.

Sometimes those women spoke to me in Japanese and I spoke to them in Norwegian and we bonded still and held hands. I got notes from them and sent them some. They have a story to tell but are not going to write it. I would like to. I would like to write about old age in a different way.

How do you choose a movie to watch? AlexHD

By who made them, what it’s about and what I’ve read about it. I don’t do Netflix or any of those things as I’m not technically educated but I get a lot of DVDs because I vote for the awards. This year I liked the one Jane Campion did [The Power of the Dog] and the one about deaf people [Coda]. I’m very bad with names. I grew up being educated by movies from the age of 11. Everything my mother told me wasn’t so! It was what Orson Welles or Chaplin told me.

How are things? Granadapanda

I’m very proud of my honorary Oscar. I wish my mother and father were here [to see it], that would be nice. It’s nice but on the other hand it has to be. I used to say that life is very unfair. That I should be happy and think what a wonderful thing, while people are losing their lives because of evil or no commitment from others. It’s very hard to be happy that you have a reason to be happy. Because we are all together in this short life and it’s very unfair.

• The BFI’s Liv Ullmann season runs from 28 March until 30 April. Ullmann will receive an Oscar at the Governors awards on 25 March.

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