As her latest film Miss Julie hits cinemas, director and screen legend Liv Ullmann talks about the movie’s pertinence today, as well as an abrupt meeting with James Stewart, what she would say to her younger self and how Ingrid Bergman dared to stand up to Ingmar… As for her memories, “When you ask me such a question, I almost want to cry”, she tells HeyUGuys’ Greg Wetherall.

The iridescent glare of those unmistakable and iconic azure eyes; the ones that seem to evoke a thousand words, ranging from a whisper to a roar and everything in between, are there still. With an outstretched hand and a radiant smile, 76 year old screen legend Liv Ullmann greets me in central London to promote her latest directorial effort, Miss Julie; her adaptation of August Strindberg’s vicious 1888 play of the same name.

Starring Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell and Samantha Morton, this claustrophobic chamber piece is not broad appeal blockbuster fare. It is low key, but high in fractious disharmony; boiling with the incandescent rage of two damaged souls on a seesawing, power-shifting collision course. It wouldn’t sit too far out of place in the oeuvre of her ‘genius’, Ingmar Bergman. Her styling too, is much like his lifetime collaborator, the late acclaimed cinematographer Sven Nykvist.

“The best of me is when I think of Sven Nykvist”, she says with the affectionate glow of a fan rather than a peer and close friend. “I think of his framework. I don’t think all cinematographers like that, because I want it to look Sven-like. We have a Russian cinematographer in this movie (Mikhail Krichman – Leviathan, Elena). Whilst we were deciding whether or not it was to be him, and I am very happy we did, because he’s lovely, I called him and asked, ‘who is your favourite cinematographer?’ He said, ‘Sven Nykvist’”. I say that he passed the test. Her eyes light up. “Yes! He passed the test!” she exclaims. “I love Sven Nykvist”.

The combination of Krichman and Ullmann appears to have worked. There is a cool and classy direction in Miss Julie that feels very ‘Sven-like’. It also works as an interestingly detached counterpoint from the bubbling passions playing out on screen. We enter the complex fray, but we also observe, rather than side, as the director and text skilfully shift our own allegiances through itchy, capricious impulses. The opening momentarily reminds of the red hue in Cries and Whispers; the close consciously evokes Millais’ painting, Ophelia.

By virtue of the period, Strindberg’s material focuses on the cruel divisions of the late 19th century in class and privilege. It is something that Ullmann feels resonates still. “I thought, maybe in the beginning, it’s relevant for that time, and that it’s interesting. But when I started writing, I knew that it’s even more relevant for today”. Serious of tone, she continues, “Because, today, we who are privileged are sitting here as if all the rest don’t belong. We build walls against them”. To audiences who might not initially make the connection, she offers, ‘”You can’t see it immediately, but when you go out afterwards and talk or think about it, you might think, ‘well, this is like today too: I’m part of making walls between me and other people’.

miss-julieOne place where the Norwegian would appear to feel that walls don’t exist is in the powerful prose of the classical writers. Having tried (unsuccessfully) to get a version of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House off the ground, she found significant success directing Cate Blanchett in a stage adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Now, with Strindberg added to her bow, what is it in these works that strike such a chord with her?

“Well the classical writers know so much of what it is to be a human being”, she says. “Even if they lived hundreds of years ago, suddenly, they are here today. Why do I recognise myself in Shakespeare? That is why art, specifically today, is more important than ever, because it gives you the past so that you will understand more about today”.

Speaking of the modern age, Ullmann seems preoccupied with the sad notion that the march of technology has left her behind. When we first meet, she openly tells me that she doesn’t understand computers, and when we sit down for the interview proper, the fact raises its head again. “I know I am lost. Because I can hardly do anything. I call a number and they ask me to ‘press this’ and I don’t know what they are talking about. I took myself out of the world, and I have to find out what happened in Shakespeare’s time where people made a choice not to belong to and suddenly they were lost”.

Who inspired her growing up, I ask. She unveils a dispiriting encounter with the legendary James Stewart. “I thought Bette Davis was great… Susan Hayward… And I thought James Stewart was my father! Later, when I came to Hollywood, I met him and I thought that would make him happy. I said, ‘when I was little, I always wondered if you were my father!’ He looked at me and didn’t want to talk more with me. He got very offended! I thought he was incredible, but I wanted to be the sort of actress that Bette Davis and Susan Hayward were.” Were there particular films, I asked? “Bette Davis in everything she did. I met her and I got to tell her that. She liked it! She wrote to me. That was good.”

For someone whose face is etched in the celluloid of some of the most significant films of the cinema age, her lack of ego and all-round warmth is as disarming as it is welcome. She is open and sincere, and does not hold back when discussing the collaborative nature of the filmmaking process with the maestro, Ingmar Bergman. Her one-time lover, and the father to her only child (esteemed author and critic Linn Ullmann), she cemented her standing (and aided his significantly too) in ten of his most notable films, from 1966’s Persona to Scenes From A Marriage follow-up, 2003’s Saraband.

Did he let her, or indeed any of his other actors, change lines of dialogue? “No, no, no. You wouldn’t… there was only one who did that: Ingrid Bergman. On the first reading (of Autumn Sonata), she said, ‘Ingmar, she can’t talk like that. Shouldn’t it be like this?’ or ‘No. This is too many words’. She was saying all of these things. I thought, ‘Oh my God’”. She puts hand over her face, before continuing, “When the reading was over, I was alone with Ingmar and he was crying, saying, ‘We can’t do it. We can’t do it’. But she was wonderful. She always said what she felt was right. I knew not to say that. What was incredible with him is that he knew who was going to act (well). And he knew that we could do what he was writing, but he never wanted questions like ‘how should this be?’, ‘can I change…?’ and so forth. Never.”

ullmannUnexpectedly content to talk further about his approach, she provides a fascinating insight into their working relationship during the devastating final act of Face to Face (a film in which both the film and Ullmann’s performance were nominated for Academy Awards). “In Face to Face, my character was due to commit suicide. She went home to her mother, and she was sitting on the bed where she slept when she was little; her childhood room. We were to start the scene. Ingmar didn’t tell me anything other than ‘she takes sleeping pills and she dies, because you take your life’. He gave me the sleeping pills, then I heard him say to someone, ‘you took all the valium and put sugar things (instead), didn’t you?’”

“That was his direction. I thought, ‘Oh my god!’ It was inspiring. So we started the scene, I took some of the pills and I shivered in the hand. I thought, ‘this is exciting’, so I took more and more of the ‘pills’ and then I was finished. He didn’t stop it, so I continued. I was sitting there feeling a little strange, so I thought that maybe it was valium that I had taken. I lied down on my (character’s) childhood bed. He didn’t say a word. I was just lying there. I saw the tapestry and I thought, ‘this is the tapestry that I saw as a little girl’. I let my finger go over it, thinking ‘this is the last time that I am seeing that’. And he didn’t say ‘stop’. Then I thought, ‘what time is it? When am I dying?’ and I looked at my watch. ‘Oh, it’s 2 o’clock and I’m going to die now’. Suddenly, my eyes fell down and I died. Ingmar said, ‘that’s incredible’. That’s how he directed. He allowed my fantasy”, she then laughs, “but he did say then that there had been a valium (pill) in there!”

Watching her simultaneously both in the moment and in the past as she tells me this story, it makes me think; when going on the promotion trail, she must have to engage a lot with her history. When she looks back on these memories, this nostalgia, is it a source of comfort or sadness? And if she were to give her younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?

She leans forward and locks her gaze into mine with that same inimitable, scorching intensity of some of her finest moments on screen. I can see her eyes have welled up. I now feel outside of the ordinary constraints of the journalist/interviewee relationship. I feel moved myself. Fighting back tears, her voice noticeably more delicate and emotional, she tells me, “When you ask me such a question, I almost want to cry, because it was a time which I loved and cherished and it was good”. Poignantly adding, “I get that situation often, where I am in the memory land.”

“But that is also what makes me and makes my life rich, because I can continue to live by my memories. And I think, if I was to talk to myself when I was very young, I would quote your Shakespeare: ‘To thine own self be true, and it will follow, as the night the day, thou cannot then be false to any man.’ I’ve tried to live by that.”

She concludes tenderly, “It would have been nice if somebody had advised me of it, if I didn’t (already) know it”.

Miss Julie opens in cinemas on September 4th.