Depth of Field: Harriet Andersson, Part II

[10 August 2006]

By Matt Mazur

PopMatters Contributing Editor


Andersson commented that her work on Through a Glass Darkly (which brought Bergman a second consecutive Academy Award in 1961) almost did not happen. She said it was the only time she considered not going to work. She was newly married with a baby when Bergman sent her the script, which asked her to play a schizophrenic. The actress turned him down flat. Bergman convinced her to visit a sanitarium and talk to doctors, figuring she might find a way into this character. She considered the notion of people who are very disturbed and sick - yet not having visible signs of same - to be a very challenging, intriguing acting prospect and quickly changed her mind, maintaining that “it’s very difficult to say ‘No’ to Ingmar Bergman”.

Cries and Whispers, the director’s 1972 masterwork, a visceral and intriguing mediation on death and afterlife, family, loyalty and feminine mystery, is widely considered by many film enthusiasts to be among the best films ever made. From the stark red, white and black art direction to cameraman Sven Nykvist’s other-worldly photographic style, all of the technical aspects of the movie blend beautifully with the intense, uncanny performances.  Playing Maria and Karin, sisters halfheartedly keeping watch over another dying sibling, Bergman greats Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Thulin generate heated emotion and subtlety in their characters, adding to the film’s ethereal and haunting qualities. As the pained, desperate and ghostly Agnes, Andersson gives arguably the most triumphant, nuanced and fully realized performance of her distinguished career.

Clearly, Andersson’s insights into the physical and emotional preparation for playing Agnes were most incisive and detailed. She recalled, with clear fondness and sadness, that she borrowed heavily for the role of the dying woman by dredging up memories of her father, who himself suffered a slow, horrible death from cancer. She explained that watching someone she knew and loved experience such personal hardship was the basis for her entire performance. She did not diet to achieve her corpse-like look. It was actually realized more through make up than an actual physical transformation - though Andersson said that Bergman did tell her to stay up late and not get any sleep, the very opposite of his usual instructions. She said that she almost lost her lips because of the make up used to create her mouth sores. The corrosive mixture that was to go on her face even ate through the cup it was mixed in!

She went on to say that as an actor, you must have discipline in your work and remember that it is a job. It was advice that helped her get through the wrenching performance. She also said there was under pressure because funding for motion pictures was almost impossible to secure (as she put it, “who wants to see a film about three sisters, one dying, one promiscuous and one who puts glass up her ‘va-guy-na’”). She said she knew what the stakes were, and that results in a performance of easy potency.
Andersson said there was never any need to adlib with Bergman because his scripts were literally so perfect that there literally was no need for embellishment. She also said that Bergman was open to the possibility of adding things, yet usually used just the first or second takes. Andersson noted she was never surprised or shocked at the director’s sometimes incendiary narrative. During her career she had been sent a variety of scripts: one, in particular, was a Greek tragedy where, at one point in the script, the director wanted her to play a table, down on all fours, completely in the nude. She also said it was impossible for her to accept work from other countries because it’s too hard to act in another language.

She mentioned her appearance in the experimental Lars Von Trier film Dogville, where she played Gloria, cousin of Lauren Bacall’s shopkeeper Ma Ginger. Andersson said that while it was a small part, she was delighted to take it. She commented that it was very fun to work with the cast, particularly Bacall, who she said she would engage her in little fights every day on the set. Bacall would yell at her not to touch her things in the “store” and she would say “Please, can I wash the windows or sweep or something?” She praised the director’s unconventional story, and when asked if it was the most unusual film she had been a part of, she looked justifiably shocked. Anderrson did, after all, contribute notable acting to some of the most iconic and remarkable European films of all time.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/depth-of-field-harriet-andersson-part-ii/