“When you’re young,” the Swedish screen legend Max Von Sydow says, “it’s always ‘I’ll do it tomorrow.’ But when you’re older, now, it IS tomorrow. You have to be in a hurry When you get older, you suddenly feel as if you’re in a hurry. ‘How much time will I have to do that?'”
If Von Sydow — now 82 — was ever going to get the chance to make a film that which called for him to use only his expressive, time-worn face, and not his voice, it is now. “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” is the film that gave him the chance. An actor who has starred, to great acclaim, in films in which he acted in Swedish, English, Italian, German, French, Danish, Norwegian and Spanish, plays an old man who has given up speaking. In “Extremely Loud,” Von Sydow is “The Renter,” a kindly, seemingly-traumatized old man who befriends a talkative child who is trying to make sense of 9/11, when his father was killed in the World Trade Center.
The film may star Oscar winners Sandra Bullock and Tom Hanks, be built around screen newcomer Thomas Horn, the boy on a quest to solve one last mystery about his dead father. But Von Sydow stands out in this ensemble.
“He radiates purity, nobility, a quiet good-humored strength and a kind of lofty, lonely wisdom.” says veteran Atlanta Business Journal film critic Eleanor Ringel. And Entertainment Weekly praised Von Sydow for “giving a great acting lesson in wordless physical action.”
When director Stephen Daldry first read the script for the film of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, he thought of Sydow.
“I was just happy to offer him a role in a Hollywood film where he didn’t have to play a priest,” Daldry jokes. Since “The Exorcist,” Von Sydow has regularly turned up in Hollywood films in a clerical collar. “I immediately thought of him as this man who doesn’t talk, who may or may not be Tom Hanks’ character’s father, a silent man who has a comedic element to his personality. I think he went for the part because for Max, he’s playing against type here. He’s over 80, a legend, and we were able to offer him something new. that seemed like such a joy or him.”
Von Sydow verifies this. Famed for his work in the films of Ingmar Bergman since 1957’s “The Seventh Seal,” a veteran of films with Woody Allen (“Hannah and her Sisters”), and thrillers (“Three Days of the Condor,” “Shutter Island”), in recent years he’s been in a Hollywood rut.
“People in casting offices, production offices, put you in a box. They say ‘Ah,Max. What can we use him for?’ He is good for religious parts. Or Nazi officers.’ And they come back with these officers, the same thing, over and over. And then suddenly someone thinks of you in a totally new way, it’s totally wonderful.”
He doesn’t work that much. “At my age, I have become a little lazy,” he chuckles. He took on a role which would have him co-starring with a precocious, untrained actor (Thomas Horn was a kid “Jeopardy” champion), and one that would remind him of what he didn’t learn “in the very traditional, very traditional acting academy of the Royal Dramatic Theatre” in Stockholm — pantomime.
“So I acted this role as if he was speaking the lines — the same expressions, gestures, emotions. If I had been speaking, I would have done the role exactly the same. No difference.”
Von Sydow is very much a an age where he could be excused for looking back over a long career that let him everyone from Jesus (“The Greatest Story Ever Told”) to Ming the Merciless (“Flash Gordon”). But he has to limit that, he says, again going back to his days in acting school, 1948-51.
“I was taught by teachers who wanted you to master how to act in Shakespeare, Moliere plays, or the Swedish classics. And just as I left school and started working, Marlon Brando came along and changed screen acting. So those early films? I’m embarrassed, frankly.”