When I was six-years-old, Max von Sydow sure scared the living hell out of me. Now, this had nothing to do with 'The Exorcist'; instead, my skittish younger self was truly terrified of von Sydow's performance as Ming the Merciless in 'Flash Gordon' -- something that I felt compelled to admit to von Sydow. Which wasn't easy because -- even at 82 years old -- von Sydow is still an imposing figure. As gracious as von Sydow is, he's still a tall man that has a sometimes gruff, "seen it all, done it all" look on his face that bellows, "I'm not going to put up with any of your shit, punk." (Thankfully, he did.)
In 'Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,' von Sydow plays an at-first unnamed character whose relationship with a young boy named Oskar (Thomas Horn) -- whose father (Tom Hanks) died in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks -- becomes more clear as the story unfolds. Von Sydow's character is renting a room from Oskar's grandmother and does not speak, writing down every word that he wants to communicate, and joins Oskar on a quest to discover the secrets to a key that Oskar found in his late father's bedroom. Von Sydow spoke candidly about the subject matter of the film, including some key scenes (so, yes, this is somewhat of a spoiler alert), reminisced about filming cult favorites 'Flash Gordon' and 'Strange Brew,' and revealed which one of his over 100 films is, in his opinion, his most important.
Also, there's that time he turned down a role in the first James Bond movie...
On the notes that you use in the film, is that actually your handwriting?
You have very nice penmanship. If I were in his situation, people would just say, "Sorry, I can't read that."
[Laughs] That took a lot of ... I was a bit anxious that it would take too much time. It has to be readable! I've seen the film, but my angle in the theater, I couldn't really see the text all of the time. But I hope it is visible.
After watching this movie I felt compelled to read the GQ piece on the 9/11 victims who jumped from the towers. Is that a normal reaction?
No, no, no. I don't think so. This is a movie, I think, it's a movie about a boy who finds his own therapy to get out of the trauma that 9/11 created. I think it is a movie that wants go forward to the future and don't be stuck at what happened.
Though, you do relive that day while watching this movie.
Well, of course. You have to. Of course. But I think it's a brilliant way for this little boy to find this way out. He has decided, "I'm sure my father has left something for me to go on with. To continue. To look for. To seek. To achieve." And, of course, the father hasn't. But he finds it anyway. But the trouble is, when you realize it, "It was not meant for me, it was meant for somebody else. It was this other guy. This other father." But, nevertheless, it's hope looking forward.
Do you wish the relationship between Oskar and your character was more ambiguous?
So how much did you know before you watched?
I didn't know anything before.
So you hadn't read the book?
When did you decide that I may be something?
When the subject of Dresden came up.
And then a voiceover confirms this later.
Yes, yes, yes. But if that voiceover hadn't been there?
Would I have known? Yes, but there would have been a little bit of doubt. What do you think?
Well, I don't know. But I find this interesting. We've been discussing this, of course. What should it be? When should the audience understand the relationship? When would they?
Where were you on that debate?
I wanted it as late as possible.
Do you think the Dresden discussion was too much?
Well, of course that's a risk. But it was necessary to explain something about The Renter's background. So I think this was good. And I don't know how much you know about Dresden?
Decently well. And I've read 'Slaughterhouse Five.'
It was a catastrophe to compare with Hiroshima. And they sort of melted down the city. It was such an attack of firebombs -- it was cruel. Terrible. But, that was war.
Your character doesn't speak. Was there any discussion to having him say one word in some sort of dramatic fashion? Or does that defeat the purpose?
There were suggestions that, maybe, finally, he should say something. But I've been against that. But the film is not about this character finally being able to speak -- it's a film about the boy. It's about him finally feeling, "the future is mine and I shall be able to live in spite of what has happened to me."
Did you at all exaggerate motions or facial expressions because you weren't speaking?
No. There's no difference between him and normal people except the fact that he has decided, "I will not say one word more in my life." But he speaks! Through his writing. But I didn't feel that I had to do something extra in order to, how should I say, be more communicative.
Are you sad that you don't get any scenes with Tom Hanks?
Well, it's funny because receiving the script and reading the script: wonderful. Then, before reading the script, being told that Tom Hanks is already on it. And Sandra Bullock. And I've always admired Tom Hanks very much, he's a wonderful actor and I've enjoyed his films. So I'm like, "Ah, wonderful!"
Right, "Hey, I finally get to work with Tom Hanks!"
I still haven't met him.
To this day, you've never met Tom Hanks?
No. I hope I meet him. But that's the way it is in films. People say, "Oh, you worked with so and so in this film." And I say, "No I didn't. I was in the film, yes, but I never met this guy. His scenes were at the other end of the film."
When I was a little kid, you frightened me quite a bit as Ming in 'Flash Gordon.'
'Flash Gordon'! Ah!
Was that a fun movie to shoot? As a little kid, that's a great movie to watch.
[Laughs] No, it was great fun, I must say. Starting that production, I had not seen the television series. Did you see that?
No. That movie was my first introduction to Flash Gordon.
I had read the comic strip when I was a boy and I liked it very much. It was published weekly. I read it and I was fascinated by this guy who traveled through the universe. And then it just came up that I should be in it and I was very pleased. And enjoyed it very much.
And it didn't do that well at the box-office, but has become a cult favorite since. Actually, you're in a lot of movies that are cult favorites.
Maybe, I don't know. It's still on every now and then, isn't it?
It is. And the soundtrack is popular because Queen did the music.
I read that you turned down the role of Dr. No in the first James bond film.
I was offered Dr. No, yes. [Laughing] And I turned it down!
Is that something you regret?
Do I regret it? No. I don't. Well, of course, I didn't know what James Bond was at that time. And, of course, I didn't know what was going to happen [laughs] in the future. But, then, after many years, I was offered to be in 'Never Say Never Again.'
With Irvin Kershner directing, who had just done 'The Empire Strikes Back.'
That was the renegade James Bond film not sanctioned by United Artists. A remake of 'Thunderball.' Was there any pressure not to participate?
No. Not really. But there were big problems like, "What can we do?" and "What can we not do? What are we allowed to do? What is legally correct to do?" But this thing came out and it was not a bad film.
Speaking of cult favorites, you're in 'Strange Brew.'
Ah! Are you Canadian?
No, but I went to college at a Midwestern state school where it was quite popular.
It was fun to do. Actually, when I was asked to do it I didn't know anything about these two guys [Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas]. I didn't watch Canadian television [laughs]. So I didn't know anything about those two blokes, but it was a funny story so I was like, "Ah!" Just for once being on something that wasn't totally serious and most of the films I'm offered are. And I met with them and they were very nice directors, the both of them. A very nice shoot.
Did you understand their Canadian humor?
Yes, I think so! I enjoyed them very much. But I've still not really seen any of their TV shows.
But you have seen 'Strange Brew,' right?
Which of your movies do you revisit most often?
I don't go back and watch them.
Well, it happens.
Which one has it happened with?
Well, then I go back because somebody wants to see it and I happen to be there. Yes, like a Blu-ray release. But I cannot say that I watch my movies systematically. If somebody that I'm with wants to see something, well, I can show it to you.
Do you not enjoy watching them?
Well, it's interesting. If people ask me, "For you, what is your most important film?" I have a feeling that they all sort of want me to answer with one of the Bergman films. But I cannot choose. I cannot say which one of those would be the most important. Because that was a chunk of films which, no doubt, was probably the most important that happened in my life. But that was, how should I say, a series of films. But if I should choose one film that was important, it was 'Pelle the Conqueror.' Did you see it?
Yes. And you were nominated for an Academy Award for that film.
Yes, a nomination.
And that could happen again for 'Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.'
[Laughs] But I like 'Pelle the Conqueror' very much. And it was an interesting film to do.
I think a lot of people would have been very surprised if you thought your most important movie was 'Strange Brew.'
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[Photo: Warner Bros.]
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