Interview: Max von Sydow

Talking to the guy who played chess with Death is kinda scary

EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE directed by Stephen Daldry, written by Eric Roth from the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, with Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Thomas Horn and Max von Sydow. A Warner Bros. release. 129 minutes. Opens December 25. For venues and times, see Movies.

I was supposed to interview Max von Sydow in person in New York City, but media junket schedules being what they are, we’ve ended up speaking on the telephone. In an odd way, this feels better having met the Swedish actor briefly at the press conference for Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, I was worried I’d be speechless in his presence.

This is the man who played chess with Death in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, one of the greatest films ever made. Other people would think of him first as Christ in The Greatest Story Ever Told, or as Father Merrin in The Exorcist – all iconic performances. Throw in the fact that he’s a very tall and imposing figure, and… well, I’m happy with the phone call.

Besides, there’s something great about von Sydow discussing his role in Extremely Loud with only his voice, since his character in that film – identified only as the Renter – communicates exclusively through written notes.

“He speaks,” von Sydow says, “but he speaks through his texts.”

The Renter’s silence stems from his surviving the bombing of Dresden as a child – a trauma that helps him understand what young Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) is experiencing after losing his father in the World Trade Center on 9/11. The Renter ends up assisting Oskar in his journey through New York’s five boroughs as he tries to solve a mystery he believes his father has left behind for him. Von Sydow’s mournful, stoic performance becomes an anchor for the audience.

“It is a balancing act, in a way, between what the Renter feels and what he dares to show,” von Sydow says. “It’s not he who goes looking for the boy it’s the boy who looks him up. But the Renter tries, tenderly, to help the boy.

“I think it’s a wonderful form of therapy that the boy chooses,” he continues, “in deciding to find something, some kind of message from his father, because his father gave him so much inspiration to do interesting things. It’s not just a film about 9/11 it’s a film about hope. Hope and love, also.”

I ask where he sees the role of the Renter fitting into his filmography, but von Sydow says he doesn’t arrange his work in a continuum, preferring to do as many different things as possible.

“When you have a certain success with a certain type of character, [you’re] frequently asked to do it again, with some other name, some other surroundings, et cetera,” he says. “But that is very boring for an actor. I want to fight it, because that’s not my thing.”

Oscar Odds

I’d be shocked if Max von Sydow doesn’t land a best supporting actor nomination. Also possible: adapted screenplay (Eric Roth has three nominations and a win for Forrest Gump) and supporting nods for Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock. If the movie gains best-picture momentum, a dark-horse best actor nod for 14-year-old Thomas Horn would blow our minds.

Interview Clips

Max von Sydow on signing onto the project:

Download associated audio clip.

von Sydow on how his stage training informs his screen roles:

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von Sydow on working with Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas on The Adventures Of Bob And Doug McKenzie In Strange Brew:

Download associated audio clip.

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