Max von Sydow's career speaks volumes

Reporting from New York City--There are a number of reasons why director Stephen Daldry could have wanted Max von Sydow to play the role of the Renter in "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close."

He needed only one. "Because he's Max von bloody Sydow!" Daldry says, laughing.

He certainly wasn't hiring the veteran Swedish actor for his stentorian, grittily warm voice, which Von Sydow has put to effective use for decades in such varied roles as Jesus Christ and Sigmund Freud, a knight who plays chess with Death and the devil himself. That's because the Renter has no spoken lines.

"Well, Max has an extraordinary face," Daldry says. "He relies on that extraordinary face to communicate the most complicated of feelings."

With a film career that stretches from 1949 (and stage experience that predates that), Von Sydow is a commanding presence wherever he appears; at 82, he still stands tall at several inches over 6 feet, and if he has to lean in to hear everything clearly these days, well, it hardly matters: His wife, Catherine, is usually at his side to clarify the questions, sometimes speaking English, more often French. His role in "Extremely Loud" may not be extensive, but it is being lauded by critics as one of the highlights of the film; in it, light and dark play across his features with equal ease, and the audience is, without effort, plugged into his thoughts.

That makes him an ideal center for the film, which is not easy to watch. It focuses on a young boy, Oskar, whose beloved father was killed on 9/11. Oskar searches for meaning in his father's death, stumbling on a key that leads him all around the city trying to find its lock. At one point, he enlists his grandmother's tenant, played by Von Sydow, to come along, and the journey the two take together provides both gravitas and rare levity.

"It was a wonderful script, and it was not just extremely moving but also a good part," Von Sydow says. "This was certainly not something I had done before, and it was a wonderful character in a moving story. I do speak, you know — I just don't speak audibly [in the film]. I speak by writing. People have asked me, 'Have you seen "The Artist"?' and this is nothing like silent films."

Another thing Von Sydow liked about playing the Renter is that it was fresh. "My problem is that too often casting directors or producers ask me to do roles I've done before, and that is boring. I can't imagine how many priests and saints and popes I've played; not only that, Jewish refugees and Nazi officers, etc. And now at my age, what parts are there in the scripts? They're all grandfather roles. Old roles. They die, usually."

With such a long résumé, undoubtedly Von Sydow knows, having made at least one film per year — with rare exceptions — since the middle of last century. He got his start in Swedish municipal theater, and says that trained him early on to appreciate the variety of roles: "Big parts, small parts, classical, modern, comedy, tragedy, anything. Always something new, which was a wonderful school for a young actor. I was, in a way, very spoiled."

It was also where he famously met Ingmar Bergman, who would go on to direct Von Sydow in more than 10 movies on the big and small screens, including "The Seventh Seal" and "Wild Strawberries." "I am sure I would not be here today if it was not for him," Von Sydow says. "Bergman was courageous in choosing people to do things that they themselves might not expect to play. Life was exciting."

Sans Bergman, Von Sydow took any number of roles, not often as a leading man but either in strong support or character positions and made them indelible — whether the film warranted that kind of performance or not. He's played Ming the Terrible in "Flash Gordon" and Father Merrin in both "The Exorcist" and "Exorcist II: The Heretic." And while he has one Oscar nomination for "Pelle the Conqueror," he's also put his name on such lesser films as "Rush Hour 3" and the recently released video game The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

"I don't have a philosophy for choosing roles," he says. "Sometimes, it's just, 'This might be interesting, that might be fun to do.' There might be interesting actors or directors in the project, even if the part is not important. And then sometimes, you need the money." He says with a chuckle.

These days, Von Sydow is separated from much of his Swedish past: He has lived in Paris for 30 years, and married Catherine when he was 68, surrendering his citizenship to become a French national in 2002. Yet what he misses most about his home country, aside from friends, is the ability to express himself accurately. "I could never learn to be totally fluent in any other language," he says, admitting he still dreams in Swedish from time to time. "Which means that the Swedish language is my best tool. I have desperately tried to get English and French, but I'm never happy with the results. I just feel I'm not free."

Which may make "Extremely Loud" one of Von Sydow's most liberating roles in years. Yes, in the film, he writes, but he doesn't need any language to convey his meaning. As for what his ambition is now, it seems clear that Von Sydow is happy taking the interesting parts as they roll in. Retirement passes through his mind once in a while but, he says, "as long as you are in command of your physical and mental abilities, why not continue? My wife has promised to tell me when to stop."

What he would like, however — awards or not, in Swedish or not — is to be remembered "as a competent actor. What will probably stick are the films, unfortunately; people who have been to the [live] theater have memories of things that are not visible, and only in the memories of the audience. I just hope they remember something I've done — whatever it is — that something I've done has meant something."

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