Liv Ullmann: "It's still so difficult to be a woman in society"

The Scandinavian legend talks about her new adaptation of Strindberg's troubled classic, and its incendiary star

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published December 9, 2014 11:59PM (EST)

Liv Ullmann          (AP/Evan Agostini)
Liv Ullmann (AP/Evan Agostini)

You either switch out of normal gear and adjust to the pace, the language and the emotional intensity of Liv Ullmann’s new film version of “Miss Julie” or you don’t. This is not a movie that apologizes for itself, or tries to make nice. It’s an adaptation of an especially unforgiving psychological drama by the infamous misogynist August Strindberg, a swirling but uneasy erotic triangle involving a bored daughter of the aristocracy, her valet with dreams of grandeur and the humble housemaid the valet has promised to marry. And it was adapted and directed by the legendary Scandinavian actress, the former lover and longtime collaborator of the late Ingmar Bergman, who more than anyone else was Strindberg’s cinematic heir (minus the misogyny, or perhaps with the misogyny inverted). I’m sure there many people these days who have no idea who Ullmann is, or for that matter who Bergman was, beyond some severe caricature in black-and-white. All I can say is that they changed my life, and are still capable of changing yours.

Ullmann has transferred the setting of Strindberg’s play from Sweden to rural Ireland in the 1890s – where the class and gender issues were, if anything, even more intense – so she could make the film in English, with Jessica Chastain in the title role and Colin Farrell as John, the ambitious valet who becomes her lover. But she sticks pretty closely to Strindberg’s elevated theatrical discourse, which often feels as if we were hearing people’s thoughts as well as their words. If you can make the adjustment to this overtly non-naturalistic mode, Ullmann’s “Miss Julie” is a compelling and sometimes savage emotional roller-coaster ride, powered by an intense physical chemistry between Farrell and Chastain, neither of whom has ever been better in anything. (Samantha Morton plays the plain, long-suffering maid.)

Ullmann will turn 76 this month, and while she lacks the artificial youthfulness of too many American celebrities, in person she has the same radiant intensity she displayed decades ago in classic Bergman films like “Persona” or “Cries & Whispers.” Over coffee in the anonymous setting of a Manhattan hotel bar, she was intimate, even confessional. Several times she interrupted her train of thought to ask me what I thought – about the future of culture, or about relations between men and women – once seizing me by the wrist to make sure I answered. A conversation with her was like being in a movie with Liv Ullmann, by which I mean something more open, more emotionally honest, more filled with possibility and more difficult to bear than ordinary life. I’m immensely grateful for the experience.

I tried to read everything I could find about your career in the theater. But I still don’t know whether you ever played this role.

I never did it. That was never my dream. I barely even knew about it. The way I came to direct this film was quite different. I worked some years ago on Tennessee Williams' “Streetcar Named Desire,” directing it in the theater with Cate Blanchett. And Tennessee Williams was so inspired by “Miss Julie” that I started to read about it, and so when I got the offer to do a film and make the script, I said, “What about me adapting ‘Miss Julie’?” They said, fine. And that's how it happened. Not because it was my dream.

I haven’t seen the play in years. But watching it again, I see the influence of that play so much, in film and theater and TV, everywhere.

Yes. Tennessee Williams said so himself. And it was his favorite dramatist, Strindberg. And Strindberg much more than Ibsen, although we all say Ibsen is so fantastic, and so did I because I'm Norwegian. But Eugene O'Neill, when he won his Nobel Prize, he thanked Strindberg, Bernard Shaw made translations of Strindberg. Writers love him. Not only for his words and his plays, but I think what they could read about themselves within his plays. He isn't like Ibsen, with realistic situations and what is happening in your world, but really what's going on inside of a human being. So I wish I'd known about him before, because I would have liked to do “Miss Julie.”

Well, I thought of you when I watched Jessica Chastain do the role. I couldn’t help it. Not that she looks much like you, but she has a similar purity and intensity in this role. I imagined that was how you would have done it.

Well, I must say that when I met Jessica Chastain … I mean, I know I would never have been able to do such a performance as she did. Mine would have been different, and I'm a good actress, but I think she went to places where -- I wouldn't believe such a young girl could do that.

It is an amazing performance. You must have seen her work before you cast her.

Yes, I saw her and that's why I cast her. I saw most of her work before I went to meet her, and she was so different in all those roles, and so real. But I didn't know her and then I met her two times in Los Angeles before we did the movie, and she was delightful and wonderful, a stage actress. When we started on “Miss Julie,” I saw the woman who was then so full of “Miss Julie.” So the real Jessica Chastain, I feel like I just met her now in Toronto -- and she's so young! I think if I met that person, I wouldn’t think she has the maturity to do that performance.

So when she met you, she was already auditioning for the role in some sense. I mean, she was meeting Liv Ullmann. That’s not nothing.

No, maybe she was more or less than this young girl that she really is, but I found her so interesting, and I didn’t think she was auditioning, I just wanted to talk to her and see if we felt the same and we felt very much the same, not about who Miss Julie is, because you don't tell an actor who they are, but about how great the play is. I gave her my theory, that I later hope she would forget. I said I had the theory that Miss Julie really wants to die. She goes with this non-existence within her, and she finds the two people that maybe can help her to do that because they are so impossible in every way. So the murderer comes into the room with those two people and makes it happen. And I thought she might think I'm crazy, but I also think nobody has said that before about the play, that this is her plan.

I never mentioned it again, but when we met again in Toronto, long after the movie was finished, she said, “I will never forget what you said there.” And that is part of her performance, like when she comes into the room for the first time and she stands there. She’s not a young girl, it's a tormented girl who has just maybe one wish in her head: I have to get out of this one way or another. So she remembered it.

Well, and the way that you photographed that moment, I had the sensation that she was almost a ghost. She's in shadow, she's haunting the house.

I love that you say that. And I know that Jessica herself, she was shocked when she saw it. “I don't want to be seen like that!” I said to her, Jessica, that's the thing. So many people do Miss Julie by going from this charming young thing or whatever, and she never went that way. But I don't think she even knew exactly what was described in that door, I don't think she knew that impression that she would give, which was absolutely right. It starts there. In the script, we see her first by her little brook, sitting with her flowers and so on, and that is not in the movie.

Strindberg had these ideas about the play that are very much a product of that era: It was about Darwinism, it was about survival of the fittest, it was about class warfare. You can’t miss the class element in the story, for sure, but I am guessing you don’t see it primarily in those terms.

No, I feel it's a movie about people really not seeing each other, listening to each other. I see the class issue in a different way, it's maybe class as we have it today. We are very indifferent to those that have a different life than us. When Ebola happened, that's my best example -- when people do not want sick people into their own country. Don't go there and heal them because you may be a danger for us. And I feel that is what class is, that wherever we are in life, we are scared of mixing. I do not think Miss Julie is thinking of class, I don't think she can adapt to any kind of man or woman, I think it's long past that.

I think that Strindberg wrote horrible things about women. What he says about Miss Julie [outside the play] is not nice. I'm not happy for that, and he's not a woman, so I feel the woman's voice had to come in, so it's an adaptation and that's why my voice came in. But Darwinism, no. I don’t think so. It's about people, it's about people then and it's more so about people now.

Many people have tried to understand “Miss Julie” from a feminist perspective, and despite Strindberg’s obvious problems with women, the play paints a vivid portrait of her predicament. Does she feel trapped by the social role of women in that time? Is that why she wants to die? She’s obviously a person of privilege, she’s wealthy, but she is also very limited by her gender.

Well, what does privilege and money mean when your inner self cannot adapt to the world you are living in? I don't think she can make choices, because if you see the two others, when they make choices, whatever choice they make, living is part of it. If she were to make choices, I don't think living would be part of that. Money doesn't help, to live upstairs doesn't help, if you feel that you are nonexistent. To say it simply, like she does and like I do in the movie, I feel that “I am no one.” And that is a very difficult way to continue living, to feel that you are no one. And if you have an inability to see that people do listen to you, you will always be no one. And maybe her way of finding some kind of serenity is to lie there in the brook and send flowers down the stream. I'm not for people committing suicide, but I think there are times in life, like Ibsen did with Hedda Gabler, when somehow that is a solution. It's a bad solution, but if you can't make a choice, it is a solution.

I hadn't remembered that the action of this play took place on Midsummer’s Eve, which is such an important night in European drama, European myth and so on. Shakespeare, of course, wrote a play set then, Bergman made a wonderful film set then [“Smiles of a Summer Night”]. While those are in very different tones from “Miss Julie,” at the same time I felt a connection at the spiritual level. I almost feel like “Miss Julie” is the reverse of “Smiles of a Summer Night,” or its dark side. What is it John says to Julie in your film? It’s a night when people can open their hearts and open their loins ...

Yes, but I stole that! Yeah, it is from Ingmar. So you were very right about that. To make sure, since it was stolen, I have him say, “My father used to say …” As different as they may be, they are also the same because they are about love, and this story could have been about love if they could have listened to each other.

Bergman must have known this play. Do you know whether he admired it? Can you remember him talking about it?

Oh, he knew it. And apparently he directed it [for the Royal Dramatic Theatre of Stockholm, in the early ‘90s]. But I never saw it and to be honest I didn't even know he had directed it. So yes, and it would be very much like him to like that play. We never talked about it, but Ingmar admired Strindberg a lot. Behind his working chair, where he would sit listening to classical music, there was a picture of Strindberg. I can't say I was that interested because I was much more into Ibsen. It was always Ibsen and you know, he's no more the thing for me. So I'm sad about my age because I would have liked to really go into it much deeper, because I believe Strindberg should be done by women.

Do you mean because a woman can serve as a corrective, so to speak, to the things about Strindberg that are troubling?

Exactly. I mean, every writer has their thing, and his thing is his feeling about women, which is hindering him in certain ways. I don’t mean that I'm correcting him, this sounds terrible. But everyone has something that comes into their work that maybe shouldn't.

Among the things that is troubling but also very truthful in “Miss Julie” is the nature of their relationship, which is alternately sadistic and masochistic on both sides. In the course of one evening, Julie and John go through periods of attempting to dominate and injure each other, and then sort of submitting to the other and abasing themselves. And you emphasize that dynamic very strongly: Each of them winds up kissing the other person's foot, literally. You clearly felt there was some truth in that.

There is a truth about that. I know a woman who was very unhappy in her marriage, and so was her husband. One day he asked her to write while he dictated, rules about how she would behave for him to continue being married, and it was to do like this and to answer him like this, it was like 10 terrible commandments. And this strong woman, she wrote down the commandments, and they continued to be married. And then, 14 days later, he came in with the letter and she thought he had come to his senses, because she disliked him more after the letter than she disliked him before. Instead he said, “You have made three errors in your writing. I want you to write it one more time.” And this woman, who I know, a levelheaded woman, she rewrote the whole thing without the errors. This happens. Why? And so they do the same thing in this movie, it's not an unusual thing. The woman with the letter is one that I know well.

One thing that makes drama so powerful is that you can find a way to express these truths that would be very difficult to talk about directly. I mean, I can’t write an article that says, people want to hurt each other, people want to abase themselves before each other. That sounds like I’m endorsing that kind of behavior. But we still need to recognize that it happens.

Exactly. And that's why it's good to make it happen in 1890, because then it's not us. We can say, “Oh yeah this reminds me,” but nobody is pointing the finger. That’s what is wonderful for me about movies and theater, but more so with movies, because they combine everything that we need today, music, painting and literature, it combines everything. Movies give us this possibility in this horrible world we are living in right now, but I think maybe in a few years those movies will not exist anymore. Will it get attention from the younger public? It's so important that they are still made and I've seen movies this year that are really incredible, but I don't know how long this will continue.

Well, I have been wondering whether people my children’s age are even going to know about what you and I think of as the great modern dramas. Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, Strindberg, Ibsen, Chekhov – will those things still exist? Or Bergman’s films, for that matter. I would say very few people under 40 have seen them.

I'm scared of that. I don't know if this whole era will soon be over, because there are so many new things that I don't know about that I get young people talk about. They say, “We don't read newspapers. What is an answering machine? What is letter-writing?” Just in a few years, all this is gone. So when will all this culture, as you just said, when will that be gone? I bless those producers and those distributors and those people in the media who allow it to continue, because they take it seriously and allow it to happen. But what kind of world is it where all this disappears? What do you think?

I think there will still be room for serious drama. I think there still is. It might have to be in new formats and new venues. And it might not be the same kind of thing it used to be. You can do somewhat serious drama on television now, for example. Whereas if you write a great play and produce it off-Broadway, almost no one will notice.

Exactly. But that's really sad. [Laughter.] I still love films, for example, and I end up sometimes spending too much with DVDs. It cannot compare with going into the cinema and it goes dark and you're sitting in the cinema and it happens. But even with me it's more seldom, because it's easier to do the DVD. But it belongs in the cinema, it belongs to the light going down, it belongs to experiencing it with other people that you don't know, and the quietness after, and you go out and you know something more about living.

Watching the relationship going back and forth in “Miss Julie,” I also thought about you and Erland Josephson in “Scenes From a Marriage.” Obviously this story is one night, and that one takes years to unfold. But the rhythm, the dynamic, is similar.

Well, it was in my head. I can say that. Whether Ingmar was thinking of Strindberg when he wrote that I can’t say. Because I find it interesting: The energy can go back and forth over a table. They sit and the table is like this, and then in the more violent times, the table is like this [longer], and in the end there's no table at all, there's a murder. But they are also different [from the characters in “Scenes From a Marriage”] because she doesn't grow, you know, she just goes towards maybe what she wanted all the time. He obviously doesn't grow because he's making choices all the time: Where is he less threatened? Where can he go? In the end he goes upstairs, which he always wished, but it wasn't going up the way he thought. But yes, it has connections with Ingmar, but at the ending of “Scenes From a Marriage” one person grew, and the other maybe got more of an understanding. Maybe that reflects the time when it was made. Or maybe this is showing that even with conversations this way and this way, maybe we'll go nowhere.

I can see that. But honestly, don't you think that it has gotten a little better between men and women during your lifetime?

Yeah, with men like you. And with women ...

I’m honored. But you don't really know me.

I know, but we can talk. And you don't really know me because we may not talk again after the next five minutes. I said to one person today, because I thought of it, “We women, when we are born, we come out of the water and we continue living with the water still within us. When you are born, you come out of the water, and you continue living but without the water. We are different.” I think the day when we really acknowledge that we are different and we fall in love and express admiration and curiosity that we are different, and we can learn from each other, but we will never be each other … We can have incredible connections, but he will never be like a woman, I will never like a man. I don't know what I'm trying to say. We are very different, and it doesn't stop us from loving each other and desiring each other and wanting to be with each other, but I think we have to find ways to ... It's still so difficult to be a woman in society, in a way that it is not for a man.

I felt that way about this film a little bit. I can feel the influence of Bergman in your work, and how could it not be there? But at the same time he would not have made this film. He created wonderful roles for women, and was always interested in women more than men. But you brought a different perspective to the material.

You know, he was good that way. He wrote a script called "Private Confessions," which he gave to me and he said, “I want you to direct.” I asked why. I mean, he was not too old then, he was younger than I am now. “Well, I don't believe in God,” he said. “You’re Christian, you have to do it.” It was his stupid way of saying he thought I could do it better than him, so he had to make it into some religious thing. But he was right. Certain things he knew he couldn't do, a woman had to do it. But he could never say that, even if he knew that. I think you are right. There are certain things you can do, and I can do, that the other can never do. The more honest we are about that, the better.

”Miss Julie” is now playing at the Sunshine Cinema in New York, with other cities and home video to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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