Friday, October 17, 2008
Harriet Andersson, 76, is one of the greats of world cinema, part of a small group of actresses who appeared regularly in the films of Ingmar Bergman. Dark-haired and of average height, she was not the prototypical tall, reserved Scandinavian actress, but someone impulsive and physical, full of life force and overt sexual energy. She became famous throughout Europe at 20 years old, as the star of "Summer With Monika" (1953), about a sexually free teenage girl. And her performances as the vibrant but mentally disturbed heroine of "Through a Glass Darkly" (1961) and as the dying sister in "Cries and Whispers" (1972) are classics.
Andersson, as earthy and laughing in person as you could ever hope her to be, was in town last week for a tribute at the Mill Valley Film Festival.
Q: Well, what an honor to meet you.
A: (laughs) You don't know yet.
Q: How did you come to make "Monika," and is it true that Ingmar Bergman discovered you when you were operating an elevator in Stockholm?
A: In an elevator! Ha, that's a new one for me. No. I did operate an elevator, but that was when I was 14 1/2! Ingmar did not discover me. I was discovered in 1949 in theater school. Before "Monika," I had many small parts. Most of them were a little like Monika. I looked that way. I looked like a bad girl. But I wasn't a bad girl, really. I was a very nice little girl, until I found out what life was.
I was a little afraid (to audition for "Monika") because we had heard so much about Ingmar, that he was an angry man and a demon, that he hated actors - all lies. So I went out, and we made the test. We started, and there on the floor was a basin with water in it, standing on the floor. And when I was running around and so on, I put my foot into it. And for a millionth part of a second, I thought, "Shall I stop?" But I didn't - I just kicked it away. And afterwards, Ingmar told me, "That's why you got the part."
Q: And then you lived with him. At one point did you realize you were living with a genius?
A: I don't know when I learned it. It was many years after. Of course, I knew it was nice to work with him, and he gave me nice parts and all that. First we lived together in a small, small apartment, one room and a kitchenette. He had left his wife. And then in '53, we moved down to Malmo, and there we had three rooms, and that was a little better. He didn't get a lot of money, and he had a lot of other wives to support. He was a poor man - but he did it to himself. ... I'm still very surprised sometimes, thinking, I was living and loving a genius, a world-famous genius. I don't look at him that way when I think of him. But he was never a genius director in Sweden, you know. He's not so famous in Sweden as he is in other parts of the world. I think he was a little sad for that.
Q: Can you talk a little about making "Through a Glass Darkly," particularly the breakdown scene at the climax?
A: It was fun to do those things. I loved it. I'd moved to the south of Sweden. I was married down there. I was sitting on a farm, and really I was very sad. And then Ingmar called me and said, "I'm going to send you a script." I read the script, and I called him back. I said, "Ingmar, it's a fantastic script, but I can't do it." "Why?" "Because I think it's too difficult for me." "Don't talk s-!" Once we started, I was almost flying by myself up to Stockholm. And coming back to the studio, seeing all my old friends, I never felt so good or happy or well in a film, before or after. (For the climactic breakdown scene) we did two, maybe three takes. I don't like to do more takes, because I'm best in the first. When the camera starts, I move. I don't want to be like, 'Oh, it's so easy for me,' but it's the way I work. I don't think too much. I'm not that kind of actor. I work on instinct.
Q: Your death scene in "Cries and Whispers" is one of the most harrowing on film. How did it come about?
A: That's the death of my father. He was very, very sick. He died in '56 or '57. He had stomach cancer. He was lying in the hospital, and it was a very hot summer. I was there for 1 1/2 days. And he's the only person I've ever seen die. And they were very strict with the morphine in those days. So you know I was sitting there, and he was sleeping, and then suddenly he would start with the (labored and gasping) breathing. Then very, very quietly, he was dead. After all that, he died like she does. Death is coming so quick sometimes. So I called the nurse. I said, "I think he's dead." You know what she did? They didn't have machines and monitors in those days. She came back with a mirror.
Q: How did you like playing opposite James Mason in "The Deadly Affair" (1966)?
A: He was such a sweet man. And oh, his lips. I played his wife, so he had the right to kiss me.
Q: You were his nymphomaniac wife.
A: That's why they made her Swedish.
E-mail Mick LaSalle at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page E - 9 of the San Francisco Chronicle