Liv Ullmann Life Lessons: Never Turn Away, Never Kill Somebody’s Dream

Tim Gray
·6-min read

Liv Ullmann has been an international star since 1966’s Ingmar Bergman’s arthouse hit “Persona”; indeed, she is best-known for her collaborations with Bergman, acting in 10 of his films, and directing two of his screenplays; he was also the father of her daughter, author Lin Ullmann. But there’s more to her than that: She’s written two books, “Changing” (1976) and “Choices” (1979), and, more important, her activism.

Ullmann talked to Variety about acting in Bertolt Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” in Norway early in her career. In a war-torn area, her character discovers an abandoned baby. The director gave her advice valuable both in acting and in life: See things from both sides, and don’t turn away. Her life was changed with another production, the musical “I Remember Mama,” when Broadway shows raised funds for Cambodian refugees in 1979. The lesson then was similar: Don’t turn away.

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‘This doesn’t apply to those who have nothing.’

When I was 6, my father died. There was the feeling of emptiness, but also I had a lot of dreams and fantasies that he was there; when I started in theater at 17, he was seated up in the balcony watching me. A crisis may lead you to good things, because with your memories of that crisis, you can turn it into something positive. But this only applies to those of us who are privileged enough to have choices. This doesn’t apply to those who have nothing, which is maybe most of the world. Because for them, a crisis — even before you are 10 years old — may be just one of many.

‘OK, that’s enough’

When I was 17, I auditioned for the theater school in Norway. I was performing Juliet when she hears that Romeo is dead and drinks poison. I thought I was so splendid. There were six jury members, and when I was drinking the poison, I heard one voice say “OK, that’s enough.” That was so terrible. It taught me that in life, you must never kill somebody’s dream. I’m sure I was dreadful, but they could have let me die in the way I rehearsed. That was a crisis but it became good because I then went to provincial theater — and nobody interrupted me! I haven’t gone to any auditions since then. When I met Ingmar Bergman and got the script of “Persona,” I had been an actor for eight years and he had seen me in several films. Nobody ever asked me to audition, and I have never asked anyone to audition either. When I directed “Miss Julie,” I didn’t audition Jessica Chastain. The way she talked, I knew she understood Miss Julie.

‘Don’t turn away’

When people ask me about mentors, it would be natural to say Ingmar Bergman; yes, he was a mentor, but not the only one. Peter Palitzsch was my first mentor. He showed me what it means to be an actress. It’s not about yourself. I loved Peter; he made me see things from both sides. In the play [“Caucasian Chalk Circle”], he said don’t be a hero, show that you’re scared, show that you maybe try to run away, but you come back for the baby. He was from Berlin and came many times to Norway, where we did many plays together. He showed me what suffering is like. I always try to follow what he said: “Don’t turn away.”

Other mentors include theater director José Quintero, who made O’Neill really come to life again; Jan Troell, who did “The Emigrants” [for which Ullmann earned an Oscar nomination]; and Richard Rodgers. I’m not a musical star and I almost ruined his last work, “I Remember Mama,” but he never let me know; he would come in every day and say “This is wonderful, we’re in this together.” And Arthur Cohn, who’s won a lot of Oscars with his documentaries. He has a heart full of love. These people — and strangely, only men, I don’t know why, because women are so strong together — have been mentors because they have been so human.

‘It’s very seldom you see self-pity’

Leo Cherne was the head of the Intl. Rescue Committee, an incredible refugee organization that was founded by Einstein. I did “I Remember Mama” [in 1979] and all Broadway artists collected money for refugees. I’d never met him, and I was asked to present [Cherne] with the money. He said to me, “We are going out to meet refugees in different countries. Would you like to go with us?” I didn’t want to go to Cambodia, with vaccines and medicines. I wanted to have the glory of Broadway! So that was a test. I said, “How long will that take?” He said, “For the rest of your life.” I will never forget those words.

I was so glad meeting all these refugees and to see the generosity of people who have nothing, people with no choice; they can’t return to their own country, due to famine or politics. A person always wants to hope for their children, but as a refugee, it’s hard to have hope. But it’s very seldom you see self-pity. You see anger, but it’s righteous anger. David Miliband is now the head of IRC and he is doing wonderful things; he is an artist in his own way. With IRC, Unicef, Save the Children and others, you could see miracles every day. Again, the message is clear: Don’t turn your back, don’t turn away.

‘Art is more important than ever’

On that first trip with Leo and Bayard Rustin and IRC people, we couldn’t get into Cambodia; Bayard looked at the border and he sang “We Shall Overcome.” That’s a specific moment when art cheered us up. But in general, any kind of art — an incredible movie, book, classical music or any kind of music — will see you through if you give yourself over to it. If you see a wonderful ballet, and suddenly a man is jumping up, and he’s in the air two or three seconds longer than is possible for a human being, you know that we all have this miracle within us. True art can overcome any scary feeling we have. Art is more important than ever. Performances help you know what it is to be a human being. That’s holiness. This coronavirus time is so difficult and I’m scared, but who am I? I’m one of the lucky ones who have a choice. Today, it is almost overwhelming because of things the government is doing. Who’s going to stop the choices that the government is making? There is so much hate and so little love; we really have to work together. We have to make a change. We are not witnesses; we are all participants.

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