For the 82-year-old star of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, it's a desire to seek out the new that has kept him going.
Max von Sydow's silence is golden
In the end, this year's Academy Awards were neither extremely loud nor incredibly close. It went the way we expected. Not only did The Artist's Jean Dujardin win Best Actor for playing a silent movie star, but the other outright favourite, Christopher Plummer, took the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Winning for Beginners, the 82-year-old elegantly paid tribute to his fellow nominees Nick Nolte, Jonah Hill, Kenneth Branagh and "dear Max", as he addressed the Swedish legend that is Max von Sydow.
From his 11 films with the director Ingmar Bergman, beginning with 1957's The Seventh Seal (in which he famously played chess with Death) to recent work with Martin Scorsese (Shutter Island) and Steven Spielberg (Minority Report), Von Sydow's 60-year career has endeared him not only to Plummer. "Apparently, he's the nicest man in the whole world," the Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen once told me (the two voiced characters in the animated film Moominsand the Comet Chase but never met).
For Von Sydow - older than Plummer by eight months, he turns 83 next month - this year's Oscars were not to be his night. The force was with Plummer, who had been overlooked the previous year for The Last Station. And perhaps there was only ever going to be room for one dialogue-free performance to claim one of the little golden statues. But there can be no doubt that Von Sydow's turn in Stephen Daldry's Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, playing a mute man shell-shocked by his time in the Dresden bombings during the Second World War, deserves its plaudits.
We meet just a few days before the Oscars, at the Hotel De Rome in Berlin. Wearing a scarf around his neck to protect against the cold, with his silver hair and deliberate gait, he immediately exudes the air of an elder statesman. For a man born the same year as the Wall Street crash, the demands of doing countless interviews are a bit much, however. "You get bored with your own answers," he says, "because you can't really vary [them] that much." With this in mind, I'm half-expecting him to do what his character does in Daldry's film: either raise up the palms of his hands to show "Yes" or "No" tattoos, or use a pen and paper.
Fortunately, Von Sydow is in a talkative mood. Having made his first screen appearance in 1949, in the midst of a three-year stint at Stockholm's Royal Dramatic Theatre, he's happy to dip into his treasure trove of memories - notably working with the "inspirational" Bergman, who first cast him on stage at the Malmö Municipal Theatre. "It's all a matter of opportunities in this profession," he tells me. "If you don't get the opportunities, you cannot show it. Even if you are a genius, you cannot show it. But I've been spoilt with wonderful opportunities."
In his time, he's played James Bond's nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld in Never Say Never Again, the goatee-bearded villain Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon and King Osric opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan The Barbarian. Yet "early in my so-called international career", as he puts it, he went down a more spiritual path, after playing Jesus in 1965's The Greatest Story Ever Told. A success that allowed him and his first wife Christina Olin to move to Los Angeles, it came with a price: countless offers to play "priests, bishops, saints, cardinals and martyrs".
He took on some - not least Father Merrin in William Friedkin's The Exorcist - but decries the casting directors "that don't have very much imagination", offering him the same parts again and again.
It's this desire to seek out the new that has kept Von Sydow working. "What is great with the actor's profession, every new role you get, there's always something new - even if it sometimes can look fairly similar to something else that you have done. After all, all people are different."
So it's no surprise he was drawn to the novelty of playing a silent (and largely unexplained) role in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Daldry's film is sparse on background details, concentrating primarily on the viewpoint of a 10-year-old boy named Oskar (Thomas Horn). Undeterred, Von Sydow went back to the source novel, by Jonathan Safran Foer, to uncover insights into his character, who joins Oskar as he travels across New York trying to make sense of the death of his father (Tom Hanks) in the September 11 terror attacks.
Known only as The Renter - for he takes a room in Oskar's grandmother's apartment - Von Sydow portrays a mournful-looking soul, locked in a world of pain. "A poor man - he's had a tough life," sighs the actor, who delivers his entire performance through gestures and expressions (even Dujardin utters two words in The Artist). Calling it a "funny coincidence" that his should not be the only silent role this year, it also bears an odd similarity to Bille August's Pelle The Conqueror. The only other time Von Sydow was Oscar nominated, that 1987 masterpiece also saw him entirely share his scenes with a young boy.
Von Sydow was in Sweden, driving along a country road with his second wife, Catherine Brelat (to whom he's been married since 1997), when he first heard about the September 11 tragedies. It was one of his sons (he has four) on the phone. "He was very upset. He said, 'You have to come home - there's a war! They're attacking America! They are bombing New York'." His voice is suitably grave and austere, as he tells the story. "Whether we were New Yorkers or not, I guess we were all shocked by this criminal act. We were all New Yorkers that day, I think."
He may have been a temporary New Yorker, but, ironically, Von Sydow is no longer a Swede, having been awarded French citizenship back in 2002. He lives in Paris now, preferring it to the quiet of rural Sweden where he grew up (his father was an academic of comparative folklore at the University of Lund). "It's a rich country to explore, with an interesting history," he says of his adopted France. "I'm very fascinated by history." That's no surprise. Even without the Oscar, he's spent his distinguished career making it.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close opens on Thursday in the UAE