You Get to Live a Lot of Life: An Interview with Liv Ullmann

Liv Ullman | artwork by Tony Stella
illustration by Tony Stella

“One of the things I like about my profession, and that I find healthy,” Liv Ullmann writes in her 1979 memoir Changing, “is that one constantly has to break oneself to pieces.” In her six-decade career, Ullmann’s playacted panic attacks, psychic breaks, domestic abuse, and death. But throughout it all, she’s maintained a remarkably sunny, secure, and clear-eyed perspective on her life and work. In her memoirs (Changing and 1983’s Choices), she processed her life and her work (both as an actress and a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador) in public, letting readers in on the feelings that she’s worked through in her roles and her relationships.

You could call Ullmann a “raw nerve” and mean it as a compliment. She’s an Olympic-level feeler, an athlete of emotion, physically in tune with the finest quiverings of the psyche. Her skills were a perfect match for the scripts of Ingmar Bergman, who first worked with her on 1966’s Persona. The two promptly fell in love, moved to the remote island of Fårö where Persona was shot, had a child, and made three more films together. Long after they dissolved their romantic partnership in 1970, Ullmann continued healthily breaking herself to pieces with Bergman—she acted in his films and television specials through the 80s, directed two of of his scripts in the 90s, and gave a performance in Bergman’s last filmed work, Saraband, in 2003. Ullmann has directed five feature films, many plays, and acted for many other directors. “I’ve done a lot of other things,” she told me, “But when I look back on my work… [my work with Bergman was] probably what gave me most life. Because I was so alive, and I was trusted so much.”

The day before we spoke in her Boston office, I had the opportunity to see a 35mm print of Autumn Sonata at Boston’s Coolidge Corner theater, after which Ullmann answered questions. Autumn Sonata tells the story of a timid woman in her early forties, Eva (Ullmann), who finally confronts her mother Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman) for years of neglect due to Charlotte’s absorption in her music career. Ullmann expressed at the Coolidge that she feels differently about Eva now than she did when she played her—that there are moments where she spoke Eva’s lines with utter conviction that Ullmann now suspects are less than fully truthful.

She told a related story about a monologue that she performed in Bergman’s 1969 film The Passion of Anna: at the time, Ullmann was so sympathetic to her character that she was unwilling to believe that Anna could be lying in a monologue about the happiness of her previous marriage—despite the fact that Bergman had told Ullmann the character was lying. It wasn’t until she actually saw the closeup in film that she believed his version.

LAUREN: I thought it was fascinating the way that you talked yesterday, about how you can believe something about your character that you change your mind about when you actually see your acting in the film.

LIV: Yes—in that closeup that I talked about yesterday, in The Passion of Anna, I really didn’t believe Ingmar, that I was lying. I really thought my character had a bruised heart because she had a happy marriage before. I wanted again to argue that my character doesn’t lie—I don’t like lies! I get so scared with lies. Not only about my character, but about myself. And I tried to speak those words as if they were the true, but when I saw the closeup, I saw I was flustered, in the way my chin moved, I saw it! But that’s because his words are so, so real.

Liv Ullmann in The Passion of Anna (1969) | Bright Wall/Dark Room
Liv Ullmann in The Passion of Anna (1969), written and directed by Ingmar Bergman

So it was in the writing—there was no getting around the truth of the words?

Yes. If it’s a good writer.

Because you personally don’t like lying, do you find it difficult to lie in character? Is it hard for you to play the role of a dishonest person?

Yes. [Pause.] No! If she really was dishonest—mostly I’ve played these neurotic characters—but I’ve played two or three really evil people, and that I like. When I can be really evil, and hide it, that’s fun. But if it’s a person that I really care about… and this woman in The Passion of Anna, I really cared about her. And actually, Ingmar wrote afterwards that he cared about her, too. Maybe even more than I did. But I couldn’t see that she was a liar. I understand it now. I think she was so unhappy, and the only explanation she could come up with was to say that, “I used to be happy. It’s not my fault that we are so unhappy.”

Well, and I think that’s an important psychological tool—for actors, but even just for people—to realize that lying is often not intentional. That you can be dishonest without consciously being dishonest.

Exactly. And we all do it, and sometimes it’s out of need that we do that. And that isn’t really lying. Lying is…

When you want to intentionally deceive somebody.

Yeah. That, I hate.

But I think that it does relate to the acting point, in that there are a lot of scenes where people are telling the version of the story that they think puts them in the best light—the story that they themselves would like to believe.

Yes. If you as an actor believe you’re a good person, sometimes you only see the good in your character.

Yes, and I think it relates to what you were saying about Autumn Sonata yesterday, wondering whether your character was lying—

I know! And I never thought about it at the time, and I’m not sure Ingmar… I don’t think that monologue was written as a lie, I really don’t, but seeing it again… I just wonder.

Liv Ullmann in Autumn Sonata (1978)
Liv Ullmann in Autumn Sonata (1978), written and directed by Ingmar Bergman

Well, and for me, as a viewer, having just seen it, I certainly don’t think I would use the word “lying” about what your character does, but we hear two sides of the story, I guess. From her experience and from the mother’s experience. And I think that that’s how so many memories of childhood are, or a relationship, even—that we have a side of the story that we have experienced so deeply, and maybe haven’t shared with that other person, and so when it all comes pouring out, it sounds very distraught and intense…

And that there was only one bad person. And one victim.

And there’s a combination of victim and victimizer in lots of situations. There was an interview where you talked about having never played Hedda Gabler, but you talked about the idea of playing Hedda Gabler—

Because she can be so mean!

She’s sort of a villain—

She’s a real villain. And I would have loved it, because in the end you also have to feel sorry for her. Her life is over. She is a real villain, because she’s so hurt, and destroyed. I think that is an incredible role.

And I think that it may not be the director’s point of view or the audience’s point of view that Hedda is a victim in any way, necessarily. But in order to give life to her as an actor, you have to find that, I think.

Oh, you have to find it! Because you have to understand her, too. You have to see it. It’s no fun to see just a murderer for a whole evening…

Like a cartoon, sort of…

I mean, that’s not interesting. It’s interesting to find out what makes people do what they are doing, and when do they make the wrong choice.

Right. And I sense that in your interpretations of characters, both as an actor and as a director, if you’re trying to explain why a character behaves badly, often it comes down to something they’ve suffered. I’m thinking of your Miss Julie. Those characters are nasty to each other in the script—more so than in your film, I feel. Were you concerned about finding the pain in their experiences?

There is no villain, in that movie. And that couple maybe could even have made it, if they listened more to each other. [Interviewer’s note: this is actually a pretty radical reading of Strindberg’s play.] I heard afterwards that Jessica Chastain was actually like Miss Julie privately, to Colin Farrell—

Almost sort of a Method approach?

—she was cold. And she was aloof, somehow, with me, but wonderful; she listened and understood. But I thought, “Jessica’s not warm, we can’t sit in the evenings and talk and so on.” But that isn’t her! I met her afterwards in Toronto, and she says, [Liv brightens, extending out her arms, almost singing] “Oh, Liv! How nice! Oh, Liv, I have so many feelings…” I never saw this person before!

And then Colin told me that [the cold persona] was how she was with him all the time. She once did say, in a scene, when he started to cry, “You cannot cry. Men of that time did not cry.” That wasn’t Jessica. That was Miss Julie! But it came out of Jessica. And hurtful, of course, to Colin [laughs], because his crying is somehow never going to be the same, because now he knows both Jessica and Miss Julie are watching him.

So she has a very different way of acting. I thought we were similar, but we are not. And she is so surprising. Because there is a shot where she reacts to the bird that was killed, and that face… I could never have directed that, what she was going to look like, or the fear. I could have ruined it, by saying, “Remember when you see the bird, you must do this or that… maybe some tears will come, and maybe you will make some sounds…” But I didn’t say anything, because I knew she would… I never got such a shock, you know. It was like she had lost it. But the one who lost it was Miss Julie, not Jessica. But I thought, “Jessica, she’s lost it, I have to be so good to her afterwards.” [laughs]

Jessica Chastain in Miss Julie (2014)
Jessica Chastain in Miss Julie (2014), adapted and directed by Liv Ullmann from the play by August Strindberg

Did you use the first take?

Absolutely the first take. Because she is that kind of actress—I’m not sure it would have been the same, and maybe she would have “acted” it after that.

I had almost the opposite experience with an incredible actress in a movie that Ingmar wrote the script for, Faithless, where Lena Endre played the woman. She had a long monologue where she sits in the window and tells the story of talking to her little daughter, to say “Mama is going to live with another man, and in the beginning we will live alone, and you are not coming with us.” I mean, they’re horrible words. We did a ten minute take or more, and she tells the story, and it was incredible. The whole technical staff applauded.

In most ways it couldn’t be better, but I knew there was something of Lena that we didn’t get, that she would understand. And the only thing that I said was, “It’s fantastic what you did. But do it again, and just know,”—because she had just been divorced herself, Lena—“just know, for the rest of your life, you’re going to see your daughter’s little back, with those thin little shoulders, walking out of the room, and turning in despair. That’s going to be the rest of your life.” And she did it again—now, even, my hairs are going up [Liv points to the visible goosebumps on her arms]—because I’m thinking, it was so quiet, it was so… fantastic. It was Lena who took over.

Lena Endre in Faithless (2000)
Lena Endre in Faithless (2000), written by Ingmar Bergman, directed by Liv Ullmann

I remember that from the film, because that’s the moment where she really breaks down. She actually keeps her composure through a lot of the stories she tells, so that really did crack something open there. You talking about the actor using her own experience is very interesting, because you’ve talked at different times about how in theater acting, you don’t want to use your own emotions, because you can’t reproduce that night after night.

Yes, you can.

Your own emotions? Like, about your own life?

You can. But you don’t use memories from your own life—I used to think of my grandmother, who I loved so much, she was dying, so I could use that for three evenings, but you can’t keep using it. That, you are right on. But you can recognize that emotion, what it does to you. Cate Blanchett did that [as Blanche in Ullmann’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire]. And it’s not then that you’re thinking of a person—you can do it in film, of course, think of your daughter, and it will happen once, like it did with Lena—

Because you only need one perfect take.

Yes. In theater, it has to be an image, that each time you, as an actor, see that image, it happens to you.

I told Cate, “When you start to feel that you are unwanted here… I really don’t know how you are, but I had a very strange experience with a friend of mine, my best friend, David. He was going to die, and one day I visited him in the hospital. When I came into the hospital room, he was hiding under a blanket. He talked to me like normal, but under the blanket. And he never explained why—was it that he knew he was on his way? Was it…?”

But it did something to me. It’s affected me in a way that I will always have. And I told that story to Cate, and at the next rehearsal, when she was going to talk to Stanley—she was sitting under a blanket, in her bed. And something happened to her—whatever it was, it was nothing she had experienced—but whatever it was she thought my friend was doing under that blanket opened up something inside of her.

That story I told her was just to awaken something—not that you have to think of the specific, real people every night, because you can’t, that doesn’t last. But what it does to you—I swear to you… [Liv pauses, considers.] No, it’s not like an orgasm, but it could be! [laughs] You know? It happens without anyone doing something special, just—there it is again! It’s something that happens, not down there, but in your soul… I’m just making this up now. [laughs] But I believe in it too! Because I know that this happens, because it always happened with me with Ingmar.

I’ve been reading this book by Vilgot Sjöman about the production of Winter Light, and he’s talking very specifically about how Bergman is directing Ingrid Thulin and Gunnar Björnstrand, and how Bergman will sometimes use tricks—say, if he knows that one of the actors probably didn’t get their best take, Bergman will say, “We need another take because there was a technical thing wrong, there was something with the light. But while we’re having another one, maybe try one where you put your hand on his knee, or pick up your cup of coffee before you say this”—he’ll slip in one extra bit of direction, but that way the actor isn’t self-conscious about it.

Oh, but that’s wonderful. And that is the truth, because he would do those things. It was never your fault, really, but something else happened that means we’ll do another take. And what you said—“Put your hand on your lap,” you’d get something physical to do—

“Put your hand in your pocket for this take.”

Yes. But something happens when you go from this [puts her arm on the desk] to putting the hand in the pocket. And it’s…

Maybe also something to distract you from whatever you were worrying about?

Yes. It’s fantastic. And he would never tell you what to think. You see, a bad director will tell you the wrong things about your character, say when your heart starts to pound—and you are so open, if you are a good actor, that those words go in too, and once you start doing the scene, whether it’s in theater or on film, you have those irritating words! And with Ingmar, that never happened. He feels that, “I give you a script, I know who you are, you were probably in my mind when I wrote it,” and he is also very anxious to know, what did you find in the script?

What he does do, he gives blocking. That he does in advance. You know, “I’d like you to sit in the beginning, and then go to the window, and then sit down in a chair.” And it’s always very, very good blocking. And again you don’t ask him, “Why do I go sit in the chair?” You try to find out why.

So you sort of accept what’s given and decide how to make that real for you underneath that?

Yes, yeah.

One of the things that resonated with me in your books is the experiences you’ve had with bad directors who sort of under-directed you. You’ve written about… well, I’ll just say this as a personal thing that we have in common, that I was also in a production of the musical I Remember Mama

[Liv does a double take. She has recounted her regrettable experience in the 1979 Richard Rogers musical on Broadway in her book Choices.]

[Laughs] I performed in it as Katrin, the young writer—

Oh, you did!

But my experience of that play, at least according to your writing, was actually not unlike yours, in that I felt like I wasn’t told what to do. It was just: “Let’s get it on its feet!” “Let’s have you try it your way,” and the director would just kind of sit back. That felt very difficult.

But that was a different thing, and that’s bad, if the director has no clear meaning. And another one I did on Broadway, Ibsen’s Ghosts, the director there had no clear meaning either. He wanted us to do his work for him, improvising—

To sort of direct yourself—

Yes, to the degree that in the rehearsals for Ghosts, we were switching roles—I was playing the Pastor, and the Pastor was playing my role, and that went on for almost three weeks.

As sort of an exercise?

Whatever it was, it was terrible. No, that is bad, too, when they haven’t done their homework, and that is very clear. It’s the directors that have done a lot of homework, then, but bad homework, who say, “So now when you sit down…” and they start to say what’s happening in your inner life. So there are two kinds of bad directors.

But Ingmar is the best kind. They don’t talk exactly about what you are going to do, but they will share inspiration—they will say what music they listened to when they were writing this, they’ll tell stories. But they’ll let you have private things. And you know, if you are an actress at least, and somebody’s seen you on stage, if they say, “You are so fantastic, and specifically each time you’re thinking you do this—” [Liv strikes a particularly pensive look, puts her face in her hand] “And the way you do it is so fantastic…” You can never do it again!

Because it’s been observed, plucked out, and you’re over-conscious of it.

Exactly. And so Ingmar would never never do that. He would say, “Maybe it’s too fast, or too slow…”

And that’s kind of a technical note, about tempo, or…

Yeah, exactly.

I recently watched the making of Saraband documentary, and in that, and almost all the footage I’ve seen of Ingmar directing, he seems surprisingly “up”? He’s not tortured when he’s on the set.

No—

He’s friendly, and seems to be in a pretty good mood. Another thing that comes up for me whenever I’m watching him, is that I think that sometimes when we talk about directors today, and particularly male directors, there can be a sense of machismo around directing technique: “Oh, they need to do 30 takes, that’s why their films are so perfect. They’re going to shoot a million feet of footage,” and so on. And I was surprised to find out that Bergman, who’s thought of as a perfectionist, would pretty often use the first take, and generally expected to get it on the second or third. And have everyone take a break sometimes, or break for the day early… that it wasn’t so strenuous, maybe.

It was play. Because he really had fun doing it, also in Saraband. The one thing is, when you see the behind-the-scenes films—he’s also being macho, but in a different way. Because [getting up from the desk to demonstrate] he kind of comes over, and [adopting a deep, sonorous voice, and moving her arms as if moving invisible bodies around a set] “Come here, now. Now we go here, and you stand there.”

He touches the actors’ hands a lot, I’ve noticed.

Well, that can be nice, touching the hand. But it’s the way someone shows you how to walk [walks a few paces very deliberately], and… he’s a little macho, in being the person who walks you through it. But the touching your hand, that’s beautiful.

It seems like he always has a hand on someone’s back, or some other kind of encouraging physical action—like he wants the actors to feel good.

Yes. And he wants to feel good himself. … I am really very, very full of respect for him. He knew he was a genius, he knew he was special, but he would say, “I am not special on my own. I could not do it without the cinematographer again and again, and the electrician again and again, and the actors again and again, I could never do this alone.” But he was the commander.

Just thinking about cinematography, watching Autumn Sonata yesterday, we had the realization that a lot of what seems beautiful about that film cinematographically has as much or more to do with the blocking. I think critics can get this backward sometimes—the camera movements in these scenes feel astonishing, but it’s not like he decided first thing that he’d be panning a certain way, and then had you to stay in the frame. The blocking comes first, and after he’s figured out the dramatically-right way for these characters to move in relation to each other in the room, then he creates the shots that are going to show that off and add something extra to it.

Exactly. And that is so interesting because he did the blocking without talking about the feelings, or what he wanted it to mean. He never told us why we had to go over here, or sit, and so on. But it was always incredible blocking, and somehow in that blocking, [the scene] became true for us when we did it. He was a master at blocking. Or, on the contrary, at not blocking—in Face to Face, I was to commit suicide, did you see…?

I love that film. I’m actually sad that it’s not often seen or talked about in the US anymore.

No. I loved it. It was incredible. But I was to commit suicide, in my old bedroom—I think I visited my mother—and it says in the script that she has pills, and she takes them and commits suicide, and we are going to do the scene: no blocking. The camera is there [points across the room]…

So he really just left that up to you.

Yes, because there wasn’t blocking! You sit on the bed, and the camera is there, and then you take your pills, and you’re going to die. And he didn’t say much more than that. The only thing he said, to a props person: “You did take out the sleeping pills and put sugar pills in?”

He knew I heard it, and that’s why he said it. And the guy said, “Yeah.” I’m sitting on the bed, and suddenly the awful thought comes. “God,”—I allowed myself to think it—“Maybe those are the sleeping pills. What am I doing?” [laughs]

And I hate taking pills, so I took one or two first. [Demonstrates shaking pills into her hand, with a tremor.] My hands have always shaken, not only now because I’m old. And I looked at my shaking hand, and I thought, “Oh, that’s good, she’s nervous, she’s shivering.” [laughs] And my hand shivered more! And I took quite a lot, because I had to take all these pills. And I took them, and I was amazed by myself [Lauren laughs], and I was dying, and I finished with the pills. No stopping, no new blocking. And then I lie down on the bed, because, well, this is where I will die, down on the bed. He never said stop. And then there was the wallpaper, and which I remembered from being a child, because this was my room that I knew. Beautiful little flowers and butterflies in it. And I was so amazed with my shivering hand [laughs], because it wasn’t shivering so much anymore, and I followed all the flowers and all the butterflies in the wallpaper, and I was very moved, so I think some tears came [laughs]—and he never stopped. And then I really felt so tired, and I didn’t know what to do, and then it occurred to me that I had to look at what time I was going to die. So I looked at my watch to see what time I was going to die. And suddenly I know the time—the reality has hit me—and I just fell down.

And he said, “Thank you.” The only thing he said afterwards was, “Well, I don’t have to commit suicide myself now.” He never really thanked me, or said he thought it was good. But his blocking there was fantastic—because he could have been blocking that beat-by-beat, saying, “You take the pills and then you get scared, wonder if you should you go and find your mother, you go to the door and come back, you are like Juliet, and then you fall on the floor.” His blocking was nothing.

Liv Ullmann in Face to Face (1976)
Liv Ullmann in Face to Face (1976), written and directed by Ingmar Bergman

The way that you described your acting in that scene is that there are sort of two streams. There’s the you that is Jenny, the character, and then there is the you that is Liv Ullmann, watching yourself do it at the same time.

And Liv is always part of it. And that’s why actors are so different—and one isn’t better than the other one—but I can see when there is an actress that is the same as me. For example, I think Jennifer Lawrence is a little like I was when I was younger. Meryl Streep is not. She will do these incredibly thought-out, technical things…

Well, it seems like your approach isn’t tied to a particular school of acting—that it’s the result of a lot of practice, and that you’ve developed your own method. But there’s a place in your writing where you describe that you’re annoyed when an actor is sort of absorbed in, say, “feeling cold,” and they want to show the audience that they’re really fully experiencing being cold, using the Method—that they’ve really gone there. You’re concerned with how they play off you as a scene partner, and they’re doing something too interior—

And that can be so irritating. I did Nora in A Doll’s House on Broadway, and Kristine, the friend, she was played by an Actor’s Studio actress. And it was so difficult for me! [Lauren laughs] And my maid in A Doll’s House was also from the Actor’s Studio. There was a scene where there’s a ring of the doorbell, and the set is such that I’m sitting in the living room, and the entrance is on the other side of this wall, and I can’t see it from where I am. So I hear the door bell ring, but Kristine never comes in to talk to me, and neither does the maid—because these Actor’s Studio actresses, they open the door, and they need to express that they had known each other before, so the maid goes “Ohh!,” and they have to hug and so on, and meanwhile I had nothing to do, because they were doing the Actor’s Studio over there, showing you how cold the outside air is. And a lot of things happen when you are cold, which is rightly observed, but we don’t have time to show all that!

Your brain can’t hold all of that at once.

No! It’s not what the scene’s about. I was there in that scene thinking, “Why aren’t you coming?” [laughs]

It doesn’t seem like anybody in the Bergman group of actors is that way.

Oh, no, he could never work with a Method actor. He could not work with that, or with somebody who was late, or didn’t know their lines.

Footage from behind the scenes of Cries and Whispers
Footage from behind the scenes of Cries and Whispers (1972)

I saw a some footage from behind the scenes of Cries and Whispers, and there’s something so funny about watching the four of you [Ullmann, Ingrid Thulin, Harriet Andersson, and Kari Sylwan] bouncing on a bed and giggling—people probably don’t picture that with that cast.

We were so happy. And we stayed in a sort of castle where we did most of the movie, and Ingmar didn’t want us to be up at night—he was kind of jealous! But the girls wanted to be together, so he said, you know, “You have to go early to bed, each in your room, and so on.” And the moment we knew he had gone into his room, in his office, we were out, and we were terrible! We drank…

[Lauren laughs]

For example, Harriet Andersson, who plays the sick woman—and I think that’s one of the best performances I’ve ever seen, truly an honest death on the screen. But the whole night before, we four girls partied—we had such fun, with the makeup girl and everything—and Harriet not the least. I think around 6 AM, we had to go to makeup. And Harriet had to lie on the floor and be made up. And then the rest of us come into the room where this scene is going to be shot, and Harriet—whatever is real in her became that woman. And she did that scene—and maybe she needed to have partied the night before, I don’t know. I just know: I have never, never seen anything like Harriet in that movie. And Ingmar had so much respect for the way the actors were choosing to do things.

Harriet Andersson in Cries and Whispers (1972)
Harriet Andersson in Cries and Whispers (1972), written and directed by Ingmar Bergman

And the three of us, we were so different. Ingrid Thulin, she’s a tougher kind of actress. The fourth one [Kari Sylwan] is a dancer, and she didn’t understand—“What are they doing?” [laughs] She was a beautiful, wonderful dancer. But the three of us actresses had all been in many Ingmar Bergman films, but there was never jealousy, you know, no talk about who’s getting roles, it didn’t happen.

And then, one night: [claps] “Okay, now we’re going to tell Ingmar the truth about what we think about him!” That was me, then, I think. And they followed me to his door, and I banged the door, and I said, “Ingmar! I want to talk serious with you now!”

Were you drunk?

Well—uh, yeah, I was drunk. We were all drunk! Kind of. [Wobbles her hand in a “so-so” gesture.] Swedish drunk. [laughs] And Ingmar and I weren’t together anymore. He never came to the door, but he told us the next day that he had jumped out of the window and had found somewhere else to sleep. [laughs] But we in that cast were so close—we were so different, as actresses, and he brought us together. And I did something so different from what I usually do. And the one thing he told me about the character I was playing: “She never closes a door behind her.” She just walks right through.

That reminds me of what you said a while ago about images, that it’s good to give an actor an image to hold onto. But it’s incredible to hear about your suicide scene in Face to Face, and Harriet’s death in this film, or Ingrid Thulin’s mutilation scene—that you would do these scenes that are tremendously emotionally demanding, but that you were able to sort of snap out of it…

Completely. I mean, none of us would have come to set, “Oh, we were drunk last night.” It’s just [claps hands in a “down to business” way], you do the acting, you are snapped in. But it’s the same when you’ve done the acting. You don’t go home and have to lie in bed and it’s still there. The moment he says camera, it’s there; cut, it’s over. It’s so wonderful, you get to do storytelling, to feel the blood in your cheeks in those moments. And you get all kinds of parts. Mostly mine were so neurotic—but you get to live a lot of life.

In one of your books, you say something about how you think that it’s tremendously healthy that you get all of these things out, and that there’s no time for wounds to fester, and you get to know yourself emotionally by doing this work all the time.

It really is. And sometimes… I once used it privately, with Ingmar. Because since we did Saraband, he lived many, many years on his island, and he never came back to Stockholm after Saraband. When it was over, he stood in the studio and we were planning a big dinner and so on, and he just said, “Hej då.” It means “bye-bye.” And he went to Fårö, and his wife was dead, and he lived there alone for many, many years, and he never came back. I visited him, and I talked to him on the phone. Very few people visited him, but he talked to a lot of people on the phone.

But when in the movie Saraband, when my character goes to visit her ex-husband after many years, he asks “Why did you come?”

“I heard you call me.”

“You called for me.” Did you hear the rest of the story?

That you got to say the same thing to Ingmar when you came to Fårö at the end of his life, yes.

And it wasn’t false, because it was… it wasn’t only me. It was for all of us who have been so close to him. But he was alone. He had these women who took care of him, but now he was alone, and he died that night. And it was only because I had this feeling that I came. And it wasn’t me, it was on behalf of Ingrid, and Harriet, and all of us, who acted and got drunk together and changed our lives… you called upon us. He lived a tremendously rich life. I’ve done a lot of other things, but when I look back on my work… that’s probably what gave me most life.

Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson in Saraband (2003)
Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson in Saraband (2003), written and directed by Ingmar Bergman

In your set diary from Face to Face, you write about a conversation where he told you how terribly anxious he was about the movie, how he would stay up all night not being able to sleep thinking about how it was going, and how it would be received. And what came through to me in reading your writing about him, and reading his own writing about himself in The Magic Lantern, is his anxiety—his experience of anxiety throughout his life. That he was able to have fun with you on the set, but that there was usually something that kept him up at night, something that never really went away.

I don’t think I understood so well as I do today about his anxiety, his not sleeping at night, because at that time, you know, I slept. And today I understand what it means. And he had this tremendous responsibility, and also to keep up who he was.

Well, and something that’s been remarkable to me, as a woman watching these films, and as a person who has dealt with some of my own issues around mental illness, is that he’s able to write about mental illness in female characters in a way that I’ve rarely ever seen anybody be able to do. You’ve talked about how you thought that Face to Face was somewhat personal for him.

I didn’t ask, the way I was never asked, and I think maybe his anxiety which you talk about… because he managed to do his films all the time

He worked constantly.

He worked constantly. And maybe that’s how… not how he healed himself, but how he could keep—he calls them “demons,” and I don’t take them so seriously because I’m so sure I’m not that way, and why do you have to talk about demons all the time? But maybe they really were demons. Maybe that’s another word for what he was feeling.

You’ve mentioned that you don’t ask questions about the script, as far as how close it is to his own experience, but reading his autobiography, certainly some things are. It’s a thing I think about with him.

I think you can think that, honestly. He once said, as a joke, he met a psychiatrist and the psychiatrist said, “Yeah, I’ve seen your films, that’s why I don’t have to see you.” And I think there is some truth there. I lived with him for some years… but we were always working, then, too.

And he in his own words describes the times that he’s working as his most functional, when he’s at his best.

Exactly. That I understand, also, from someone like me. That’s when I’m alive. But can you imagine what his last years must have been, then? Because he wasn’t working. He was phoning, and he had very few visitors, and I think that’s when he gave up some of his… He became a very lonely man. But he wanted it himself.

I know several directors, and it’s not uncommon, maybe, to like to be alone when they’re not working. Most of the ones I know love to be with people when the time comes to make something together, and that’s a social context that feels good. But other than that, being alone feels the best for some of them.

But there’s another reason, a more macho reason, for the men: because they don’t want to be found out, that they also are normal. I was there when he met Woody Allen—they did not talk. Not one sentence. People say I exaggerate, but I don’t. And both Ingmar and Woody thanked me afterwards, that I had made that happen because I was in New York, and Ingmar was in New York to see me: “Thank you, Liv.” They did not talk that whole dinner.

And Ang Lee, he was there in Gotland, and he went with somebody who knew Ingmar to his house—Ang Lee adored Ingmar—and Ingmar, of course, adored Ang Lee’s films. They knocked on Ingmar’s door, and he came and stood in the doorway and took his hand, greeted him, and that was it. Less than ten minutes. Ingmar was furious later at that woman who surprised him. And Ang Lee has said after that it was an incredible meeting, but it wasn’t. It was a sad meeting. And the Russian man, Tarkovsky—he did a movie there on Fårö, with Ingmar’s people, the cinematographer [Sven Nykvist], Erland Josephson, and Tarkovsky wanted to meet Ingmar. Ingmar was there, and would not meet him. There are reasons, but there’s also the reason that they don’t want to be found out, because they think something is expected of them, to be… I don’t know.

I mean, to me, that sounds like a version of social anxiety.

What did you call it?

Social anxiety, just being nervous around people. And social anxiety does have to do with what you think somebody will think of you. But I’ve read that he didn’t like parties, or…

Oh, no. We had a month in Italy, when we had pretty recently had our baby, and everybody wanted to meet him. And he would meet them individually, but if he was invited home somewhere, and there was a party, we would turn toward the door, and he would leave. He would be rude! I was so shocked. And I got it—I didn’t know I had it, but I think I got it from him, this social anxiety. I don’t want to meet people, either.  

You mentioned that he maybe saw a therapist—

No, he didn’t! No, that was at some event. No, he never did.

I guess I’m similarly introverted about parties, and I have anxiety, so to me that’s not so foreign. And I hear what you’re saying about being rude, that’s its own thing. [laughs] But I guess, I don’t know, in making a study of Ingmar’s life, the contrast between how functional and friendly he could be on set and how anxious or lonely he could be away from a set or a rehearsal environment, it seems like that may have to do with just the way he is. The way he was born, or something.

Exactly, yeah.

And that there’s something about… I don’t know, that maybe somebody who has the kind of brain that can plumb the depths of the stuff his scripts get into is the same kind of brain that might go haywire around 300 people.

That’s a great description.

I have two more small, just-for-fun things. There’s a part in the Face to Face set diary where you talk about Ingmar eating a bowl of sour cream. Do you remember that at all?

Yes, at lunch he always had sparkling water and something like yogurt or sour cream, and biscuits. Always. In all the years I’ve know him. He takes 45 minutes, and he will eat that, and then he will sleep a little in a chair, and then it’s over. But I have respect for that, because you can’t eat a lot and then go in and be up on your feet…

I wondered if it was some kind of “set life” trick, not having too big or exciting of a meal so he didn’t get weighed down, or something. But the idea of eating a bowl of sour cream is very shocking, I think, to an American—I don’t know if you eat bowls of sour cream in Sweden normally…

Maybe it was some kind of yogurt?

In the book, you say sour cream.

Well, then it was sour cream, because the translator would have known.

I also wanted to ask if you’ve watched any movies you’ve loved lately.

Oh, I loved Phantom Thread. Did you love it too?

Yes!

[bewildered] There are people who don’t love it!

When I saw it, when the credits rolled, I said, “I think this is my favorite movie.”

Me too! Me too. The details, and the way they act, and this wonderful actress—they have to use her…

Vicky Krieps, yes. She’s not known in the US at all, but…

Why don’t they do more with her? I would like to say that that’s the kind of actress which I think is incredible.

Well, I’ll tell you that—at least it’s been announced, I don’t know what stage it’s at, but Mia Hansen-Löve is making a film set on Fårö, and it’s about a couple who visit Bergman’s home to try to write a film script together, and Vicky Krieps has been cast in it.

Oh, oh!

So I hope that happens.

Oh, I hope it will happen. I just think she’s sensational. The details… I mean, when she’s leaving his table, and he’s ordered in his way, and she’s blushing, and she doesn’t do anything big…[sighs]

The scene where they’re having the asparagus, the dinner that she’s so lovingly prepared and he hates it—there’s a scene where she’s getting angry when they’re fighting, and tears start bursting out of her eyes, but she’s still angry. She hasn’t worked herself up to crying; you can tell that it’s just been one long take where she’s frustrated, and she’s crying frustrated tears. I’ve seen that so seldom on film.

But you’ve felt it yourself.

Absolutely.

Vicky Krieps in Phantom Thread (2017)
Vicky Krieps in Phantom Thread (2017), written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

All three—the sister, also, was very good—but I think what Vicky gave Daniel to work with was so delicious for him. I mean, without her, he wouldn’t have been so good. And when we finally know what they are doing… I mean, it’s so fantastic! I don’t understand why it didn’t get all the Oscars.

That omelet scene is paced so deliberately…

And he knows what’s going to happen…

Paul Thomas Anderson has said, a little jokingly, that it’s inspired by his own marriage to Maya Rudolph, that he was very sick one time, and he noticed that she was kind of enjoying her role taking care of him. But it’s just such an interesting portrayal of a relationship between a kind of genius-artist type and the person who loves that person, and the things you have to work out between yourselves.

And you can’t talk about it. [laughs] It’s a genius script.

One of those scenes that I found to be such good writing for a female character is when he’s designing the wedding dress for the princess, and Alma is a little jealous of her because she’s so glamorous, and there’s a scene where she sort of marches over to the princess and says—

I know!

“I live here.”

And that is also so surprising, because you’d think she’s too strange and mysterious to do that, but suddenly she’s so declarative. “I live here.” [laughs]

And the fact that the line is “I live here” and not, “He’s my lover” or anything. It’s a funny way to say it.

I know! And it’s so different from what you expect.

But I felt in that moment that it was honest. That I’ve done stupid things like that to try to assert my territory, or let someone know that I was there.

Yes. “I live here.” And the princess is thinking, and you are? [laughs] Oh, I want to see it again.

Well, let’s each go home and watch Phantom Thread.

Yes. I have it. Do you have it?

I do. Hopefully Criterion puts it out with fancy extras someday.

I’m sure they will.