Without a Mask: Liv Ullmann in Conversation

By Jone Karres Azurmendi

liv-ullmann.jpgLiv Ullmann

San Sebastian 2007

Ingmar Bergman's muse, collaborator and lover, Liv Ullmann became the emblem of arthouse cinema throughout the 1960s and ’70s. In recent years she has moved behind the camera, directing two of Bergman´s scripts, the drama Faithless and in 2003 Saraband, Bergman’s final telemovie. She is also a committed UNICEF goodwill ambassador and has travelled widely for the organization. At the 2007 International Film Festival in San Sebastian, she was honoured with the “Donostia” Prize for her life achievement.

Jone Karres Azurmendi: How do you feel about your life achievement? Maybe about your age?

Liv Ullmann: My age is wonderful. I am 68. I´ve had a rich life, a wonderful life. I hope it will continue. A life achievement award, it does happen to people of my age, but it doesn´t happen if you fool around and do nothing. It happens if you have delivered something. The only thing I would wish with age is that I don’t feel it’s over. Every day is a new beginning and I have a lot of strength, a lot of ‘street-smartness’. I think it is ok to be 68, but sometimes sad though (pause). When I look at myself in the mirror and I realise that I am not as young as I thought I was. (laughs).

JKA: You used to be very shy as a girl...

LU: I am still shy. I hate to go to receptions, but it is part of it. And I feel sorry that they find out I don´t have much to say and do. I feel that what I can say and do is with my closest friend and in my work. Usually not in groups. I am shy but it’s strange because, if you put a camera or a microphone there, I am not so shy. If you and I went out for lunch together and you didn’t speak, I would be quiet too. I wouldn’t know how to start the conversation.

JKA: But you seem to be a very good listener. I guess as a film director you have reached the right profession.

LU: Yes. I think you are absolutely right. It means something to me and I feel I can see also what is not said. And I think because I am a good listener I kept my friends. I don’t talk too much, they can talk to me.

JKA: If you say you have delivered something, how would you describe that?

LU: I take my work seriously because I have very privileged work. I am doing what I used to do as a child: to write things and to act. Even directing people to make them do what I want. But I take it seriously, I am a professional and I have met incredible people in my work. Most of them I kept as friends.

JKA: Could you describe this achievement in one word?

LU: I think I have reached a certain kind of dignity. It could have been easier to go another way. But very much also because after seven or eight years, I met Ingmar Bergman. I didn’t dare to lose my dignity, you know. And I went for one or two years to Hollywood, but that wasn’t so successful. I was lucky, because I could go right back to Ingmar and do another film. So our ‘luggage’ has been good. I have worked with good directors, especially in the theatre. But working with Ingmar was special. He allowed me to use everything creative within me, as much as I know about my craft. There are no secrets left, that haven’t been challenged. He was there just as an inspiration.

JKA: How did you hear about his death, and when was the last time you saw him?

LU: I saw him a few hours before he died. I went to the island. There was a line in there. You know, in Saraband, this woman I play, she comes to her man and he doesn’t want her to come. I don’t know if Ingmar wanted me to come or not. In the film he asked her, “why did you come?” and she answers, “I felt you called for me.” And one day in Norway, I felt the same: Ingmar had called for me. So I hired a plane and I went. And if I hadn’t hired the plane, I would have been too late. He was there, and I thanked him for everything he had given me... (stops with tears in her eyes...)

JKA: Could you describe somehow the way he has influenced your life?

LU: Well, it has been 40 years. He is the father of my child. He was my best friend, and we shared so much, because I was his actress. And after all, I was directing some of his scripts. We had a lot of fun together, we laughed a lot. As I said, because he always took his work seriously, he made it possible for all of us who worked with him to take the work seriously too. It wasn’t for money, but commitment. It was important to be in this profession. And it is good to know, because it is fond of itself, so maybe you think it is a luxury to act, but it is not in the world we live in. It is actually more important than ever.

JKA: There are a lot of reasons to become an actress. One might be to hide behind a mask. This mask is an obstacle to getting to know the real person behind. Is it important for you that other people recognise the ‘real’ Liv Ullmann?

LU: I think there are different kind of actors. I am someone without a mask, because I feel the closer you get the more naked you must be, because you don’t have to do very much and your thinking will come through. Other actors can be splendid putting a mask on and do incredible things. We are different, actors are all different. That’s the way I am, and obviously on the stage it is Liv doing her movements.

JKA: How do you take criticism?

LU: Today it doesn’t bother me. I used to have difficulties. Today I feel pretty good with what I have done and why. I don’t like criticism from those who are close, if they misunderstand who I am. But apart from them I can take it.

JKA: Your life is the history of emancipation. What have you learned from your own life?

LU: Yes, I think that has been important for me because I have been given so much and I have a lot to give back. And I also got the chance to meet people who had a terrible life and I can speak for them. It’s been about important things, because you hear, how many are dying in the Iraq war, and I think of the women who die, who lose their children or are being raped. It is so unfair the way the media is showing off in this or other wars. I think the most innocent victims are the women, mothers and children who never thought of starting this war in the first place.

Jone Karres Azurmendi is a writer and critic based in San Sebastian.

Image of Liv Ullmann by Ingrid Karres