Liv Ullman’s Mouth

by Thomas Beller


W 81st St & Central Park W, New York, NY 10024

Neighborhood: Upper West Side

Thomas Beller: You once said that one of your roles, Nora of Doll’s House, helped you find out where you stood as a woman today. What did you mean by that?

Liv Ullman: I don’t believe that one single play will teach you what you are. I think that every time you work on something, whether it is a play or something in life, you learn something different about who you are. I think what I meant, in that instance, was that I had done that play three different times and the choices I made, as to how to present this woman, told me that I understood certain things about being a woman that I hadn’t understood before. I am fifty before Christmas and I don’t understand it because I feel extremely young, and at the same time I feel an enormous pleasure of maturity, security, tolerance–I feel very, very fulfilled. So much has been given me and I feel I have so much to give.

TB: When you said tolerance, what do you mean?

LU: Tolerant that everyone doesn’t think the way that I do. That everybody doesn’t want the same thing from life that I do. Tolerant about, maybe love.

TB: Do you think that the person you’re with can’t know you as well as yourself? Or see you as you see yourself?

LU: No, I can see anybody the way they see themselves, which doesn’t mean that I don’t see a real picture of them. But we are different to different people. Obviously what I present to the world is not entirely who I am, and what I think of myself is not entirely who I am.

TB: When you said that some people’s expectations of life might be different from your own, tell me what differences you think might exist.

LU: I don’t think they exist, I know they do. I believe that we can make changes, I believe that real individuals can do really big things in the world. Not necessarily headline things, but they can, by the way they are with other people, really make beautiful things happen around them. A lot of people don’t think that way. Some people have fun doing a lot of things which I think now are completely boring.

TB: What types of things?

LU: Going to cocktail parties, being part of certain discussions that I don’t find interesting. Before, I would take part in these things because I thought, I have to do this to be in, or to be part of, friendships. I know I don’t have to do that. At the same time I can still like those people though I don’t join in all their activities. The same goes with the person that I’m married to. I don’t have to think that real estate is the most challenging or interesting thing in the world. As a matter of fact there are a lot of things I don’t like and criticize.

TB: At this point in your career, you certainly don’t have to make an effort to be on the scene. You just have to be. How has the relationship with your success affected your work and changed with time?

LU: Because I have something to show for myself I can have the luxury of saying, “Listen, I don’t have to prove myself by doing the ‘in thing,'” Of course it’s harder for someone who can’t show a past. It’s harder for a single woman sometimes to get her dignity in certain places because she doesn’t have that guardian, a man, at her side.

TB: For many actors and actresses, life is fodder for work. You have played so many roles with such verisimilitude… has your work, or have specific roles, turned around and informed your life?

LU: The way that roles have affected my life involves the work surrounding them. Maybe in researching a part I read certain books that interested me in previously undiscovered things. Suddenly I got, perhaps, a new interest. I learned more; I started to question certain things more. The role itself is like typing an article. The typing itself isn’t what changes your life, but the research for the article, maybe that as an effect.

TB: How do you feel about Hollywood?

LU: It’s good for some. There have been some lovely pictures made there.

TB: How about your relationship specifically?

LU: Well, when I had the biggest chances and opportunities for working there, my agent and I made some wrong choices about roles. I made a musical called Forty Carats that I wasn’t really right for. Maybe if I had a different agent, or if I had more patience and waited for the right things, I would have had a more creative time in Hollywood. On the other hand, I’m not sure I would have been happy if I had been a great Hollywood star because I don’t picture myself living on those quiet, sterile streets. I came there when I was thirty and in the twenty years since, I have experienced incredible things. To think that I wouldn’t have experienced them because I would have been running around Beverly Hills, I can’t imagine it. I’ve done English-speaking pictures I’m very proud of. And I can also switch to Europe. I’ve never been in a situation where, because I had to protect my stardom, I had to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to certain films. I had to protect my standard as an actress, but I didn’t have to limit all my activities to big, box office things. So I got to do more than I would have otherwise.

TB: Certainly some of the movies you’ve been in with Ingmar Bergman are amongst the greatest movies ever made.

L: I’ve done nine or ten movies with him and most of them have been really great movies. Most actresses don’t even get to do ten great movies, or ten great parts and I’ve gotten to do many more than that.

TB: Could you talk a little about working with Ingmar Bergman.

LU: That is always a great joy because he is a great listener, a great truster, he picks people he works with because he respects them, because he believes in their abilities and their qualities, so he uses those things. A bad director, you can always recognize, by him wanting to give you everything or thinking he can give you everything and coming with his homework, trying to push it down your throat and never listening to you or wanting to know what you have to deliver. Thus a bad director never really gets anything but a kind of photocopy of himself. Ingmar is like being with a wonderful person who is really so interested in what you are about. And if someone is really so interested in what you are about, you start to bloom. It’s like children. When you really play with them and listen, they get rosy cheeks. They just can’t wait to show you more. That is what working with Ingmar is, you can’t wait to show him more.

TB: There is some inherent tension between an actor and his or her director. Was that tension complicated because you had a relationship with him?

LU: Yes it was, of course, because we had to go home together. We made one film before we lived together and five after we lived together. But those three that we made while we lived together, they were tougher. We had the everyday quarrels of people who might live together. We had mornings together. And then we had to take all that to the studio.

TB: What were the three movies you made while living together?

LU: Shame, The Passion of Anna, and Hour of the Wolf. So apart from Shame, which I think is a great movie, I think one of the best movies we did, we didn’t live together. But we still knew and know each other so well that sometimes he sees through me and he knows when I’m bullshitting, and I see through him and know what he does. I would sometimes let him know and of course he would let me know and that of course can lead to some terrific fights. So every movie would always have one big, you know, match together. But that’s fine because it clears the air. I’ve never been in movies I enjoyed as much as his. The makeup girl was always the same, the script, the photographers, the actors. And they’re all my best friends.

TB: The camera gets very close to your face, especially in Bergman films. Your face sometimes fills the entire screen and is available for total scrutiny. Do you prepare for these close-ups? Can you?

LU: No specific preparation. But the life you live, that is what the camera sees. You prepare all your life for when people get close to you. That’s why I’m against face-lifts. Because what is the fun of your life’s preparation if people can’t come close to you and see who you were, what you did, what you were about. I happen to like close-ups. Of course, now there are more shocks because you don’t realize the amount of age signs. But if you’re really doing a part, if you really feel that is there is something your role is thinking, and if by getting so close to the camera that the thoughts will really come through, then it’s only fun and you don’t think about the wrinkles. You think about the truth that the camera allows you to give. Unfortunately, they don’t do close-ups in America as much as they do in Europe.

TB: Can you talk a little about what you are doing now and projects you have planned?

LU: Last year I did three pictures. One was a picture about a Jewish refusenick, her name was Eda Neudel. She was denied a visa for many years from the Soviet Union. This was a film about her. Three months after it opened she was let out. I did a picture called Time of Indifference. It was from the decadent time of Italy just when Mussolini was rearing his ugly head. It was all done very stylishly. It’s coming out very soon in Europe. It is very different from everything I have ever done. I was an indolent, spoiled, indifferent woman who could only think about love. I loved a man who was absolutely terrible and who was after my daughter. My part was so indolent and elegant, I loved it. And then I just did a German picture, filmed in Argentina, about the mothers whose children were abducted during the military regime in Argentina. It was about one of those mothers and her best friend who was an actress and who had to leave the country during the military occupation. It’s a picture about friendship, and a picture about politics. It is called Las Amigas in Spanish, in English, “The Friends.” It is going to have that name in every country it’s played. It’s not about lesbian love, it’s about human love between two women.

TB: This is a personal question, but I want to ask it. So many of your films have to do with love on adult terms. I wanted to know about your first love.

LU: I don’t know. My very first kiss, I remember, I was dreading. We were holding hands. We were sixteen, were much more innocent then. It was a small town in Norway. He insisted that we walk through this park and I knew there was no way that I could…

TB: Escape the park.

LU: Escape the park and what it means! I think my great fear was that he would know that I hadn’t kissed before and I didn’t know how to kiss. At that time, those were our problems. He probably knew I hadn’t kissed before because he never called again. When we got home, my mother was in her usual place in the window, so fortunately I didn’t have to do it again. But that wasn’t love. I more or less married my first love, a young doctor from Norway who I married when I was twenty years old. We were lucky because we had our youth together and we were in love. We got married and tried it, but didn’t make it. Actually, after we were divorced, we became much better friends. He was at my second wedding. In fact, some gossip columnist had written that I was going to get married because I had been seen around town with this man. He and I were about two hours outside of Olso in a little cottage I had–this man whom I later married and me. It was late at night and suddenly we heard outside the cottage “Liv! Liv!” And it was my first husband. He had seen the newspaper… It was really so sweet. He said, “I want to see you now,” because he sometimes thought that I had bad taste in men. He thought if I was going to get married he wanted to meet Donald, the man who I was going to get married to. He stayed all night and talked with us, and when Donald left the room he said, “He’s really okay. I’m very happy.” I feel very lucky because I think few people have such a good friend who also happens to be a first husband. I said, “What would you have done if this had been a bad guy?” He said, “I would never have let you do it. I would have showed you what was wrong.” He came to our wedding with his wife.

TB: Ingmar Bergman once said that to really know how you are feeling one should look at your mouth, that is the most expressive part of your face.

LU: Well…

TB: I’m scrutinizing your face right now. It shows ambivalence.

LU: Really? How can you read a mouth? They say you have to be a mouth reader. I know Ingmar has a thing about mouths, not only mine. He used to, still does I’m sure, judge people by their mouths. It’s strange because his own mouth, I feel, I feel is not really descriptive of who he is because he is a very warm, very vulnerable man. He can also be very generous. But his mouth is very thin, very set, almost scared. I don’t think Ingmar’s mouth is the most telling or the most beautiful part of him. I think his body is, the way he moves. I look more at the way people move. But he looks at mouths.

TB: Well, yours is a very nice one.

LU: Well, thank you. You have a nice mouth yourself.

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