Divine Direction: A conversation with Liv Ullmann
Liv Ullmann, the Norwegian actress and film director, has led a life of extraordinary creativity. Best known for her work with the director Ingmar Bergman, in whose films she often starred, Ms. Ullmann is the winner of many international film awards, including the Golden Globe; she received two Academy Award nominations for best actress and one nomination for the Palme d’Or as director. She has also written several screenplays and two books of autobiographical reflections, Changing and Choices. For years Ms. Ullmann represented both Unicef and the International Rescue Committee, for which she visited many developing countries. Currently, she is directing “A Streetcar Named Desire,” a play by Tennessee Williams, starring Cate Blanchett. It will premiere in Australia from Sept. 4 to Oct. 10, then move to the Kennedy Center in Washington and on to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York. This interview took place on June 3.
Why is it that many of the great plays and films of the last century have dealt with the silence or absence of God?
A lot of playwrights, and other people, try to connect with God because they feel this silence of God in their lives. They look at the bottomless black hole they feel inside themselves and, since there is such silence, they feel lonely with other people, and they question the strange world they live in—with violence and all those things—and they don’t see that God exists. I believe that people who feel so deeply the silence of God are very, very close to finding God.
How has your religious faith influenced your work with Ingmar Bergman, whose films often dramatized the silence of God?
We didn’t talk about how we influenced one another; nor did we discuss that sometimes he would write something and I could say it in a way that seemed the opposite and he would not mind. As an example, he wrote the movie “Private Confessions,” which I directed. That film was very close to saying “I do believe.” The film is not about the silence of God.
So I asked him, “Why did you ask me to direct that?” because he could have still done it, and he had other people who could have done it.
He answered, “Because you are the only one I know who has a close connection to God, and you have to have a close connection to God to do this movie.”
He did not mind at all that I elaborated several scenes. For example, the scene when the dying priest is getting Communion: In the script, there were just two lines, indicating that he is getting Communion, but I made it into many, many minutes—it was really long—the whole ritual of the eyes and the people looking at one another and the other priests who came to give this dying priest the bread and the wine. I thought that when he saw the rough cut he would say, “This has to go.” But he never mentioned it. Later, when he talked about the movie— it was one of his three favorite movies—he just said, “I watch again and again when he is getting the Communion. I just love it.”
In directing the play “Break of Noon,” by Paul Claudel, a devout Catholic, was it difficult for you to communicate the religious dimension to the actors?
It was very difficult. Though the lead actor had a close connection to God and talked about it, he said, “Please, can’t you stop talking about God?” I had that difficulty with all of them. They somehow did not like it too much; if you do that play, though, you have to be with people who have a sense of God or at least of mystery.
Although this lead actor struggled, at one of the rehearsals it was like a miracle: he did it. I know that God was with him. He did it and I shivered; and my assistant director, we shivered together; the hair was rising on my arms because he did it. He had to struggle with God, and then he found God, and it happened right in front of us. We asked him, “Do you know how incredible this was?”
Later he wrote me a letter—although he fought with me often and kept saying “Stop talking about God”—to say that this was the most important time of his life in the theater.
Arguably, Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset, is the greatest Catholic novel ever written. In writing the screenplay and directing the film (1995), you created a beautiful work of art.
Well, I did a lot of research. And, you know, God was very much a part of Kristin’s life. I filmed mostly the first book of Kristin Lavransdatter, which was three books, but I took a little bit from the second book. If I were going to make another movie, I would take the last part, where she had a choice between sexual passion and human love on the one hand, and God; and she chose God.
My favorite moment in the play you are directing, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” is when Mitch and Blanche see they need each other and she says, “Sometimes—there’s God—so quickly!”
Oh, that is rather important. She hears him and she sees him; he hears her and he sees her. He takes the candlelight and puts it in front of her and even holds an arm around her and says he will take care of her. That is when she says, “Sometimes—there’s God—so quickly!”
If it hadn’t been for other people, I think that maybe the two of them would have had a wonderful life together. That, of course, is the opposite of what happens in the end, when she feels that everyone turns against her and that they don’t want her anymore.
When she goes with the doctor, she looks at the people who should have been close to her—who should have seen her—and she says to the doctor, “Whoever you are I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” She is right: she couldn’t depend on the kindness of the people around her. And perhaps if God is not part of your experience, then God is a stranger. Perhaps if you turn to God and discover he is not a stranger, you can say, “I have always depended on the kindness of God and God seeing us.” It is something that I want to make clear; but it all depends on which way the actors choose to go, too.
Would you say that your own experience of God is tied up with your creativity as an actress, author and director?
Yes, in my work I have found God. It is a help that I am an artist because it is all so real—because God is bigger in life and in death than I would have ever been aware of. Doing art, reading other people, connecting to the audience, I know that we live in a higher dimension, and not just at the best of moments. Absolutely.
Has being a goodwill ambassador for Unicef and visiting developing countries for the International Rescue Committee made you a more spiritual person?
When I met people who had nothing, but who still had more to give me than I could give them, then I felt that the human being is so much greater than we realize. They were adequate; I was inadequate. As I was giving, I learned what it meant to give, and I learned how to receive too. I felt serenity with God when I stopped asking God for things I needed or that my fear would go away. It was only when I said, “Thy will happen,” that I felt peaceful, because there is a higher power, and his will will happen. And I always know that his will is for the best.