Veteran Swedish actor ventures onto US stage. Josephson appearing in `The Cherry Orchard'
New York — Here's a quick quiz for people who admire Ingmar Bergman's films. Who played the doctor in ``Cries and Whispers,'' the baron in ``Hour of the Wolf,'' and the architect in ``The Passion of Anna''? Even movie fans may not know the answers, because these weren't starring roles. So here's an easier one: Who played Liv Ullmann's husband in ``Scenes From a Marriage,'' one of the most celebrated European films of the past 20 years?
The answer, of course, is Erland Josephson - who went on to play important parts in such respected Bergman films as ``Face to Face'' and ``Fanny and Alexander.'' He has collaborated with other world-class directors, too, such as Yugoslav filmmaker Dusan Makavejev and Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. His latest screen role is a small part in ``The Unbearable Lightness of Being,'' and he recently finished a movie with Hungarian director Istvan Szabo.
Josephson is also a veteran of the theater. He made his stage debut more than 40 years ago, under a young director named Ingmar Bergman, and for almost a decade he was head of the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm.
That theater company traveled to many lands under his leadership. Yet he has never acted in a stage production outside his native Sweden - until now. He's currently making his American theatrical debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in Peter Brook's all-star production of Chekhov's classic play ``The Cherry Orchard.'' The cast includes such notable performers as Linda Hunt and Brian Dennehy.
Josephson's career has been amazingly varied. Besides acting on screen and stage, and running a theater company, he has written and published novels, poems, plays, and movie scripts. Visiting him backstage, I asked which aspect of his work is most important to him.
``I very often get that question: What is your real profession?'' he said with a smile. ``That's because in Sweden, it is `not allowed' to have more than one profession - there's something suspicious about it! But nowadays it's more accepted that one can do a lot of things.
``I'm very lucky,'' he continued. ``It is stimulating and good to change all the time. When you're an actor, you have to wait for texts and directors to come and fill you up with something. If you are out of the profession for half a year, you can feel rather empty. But I always can work! And I'm a very curious person. So I do everything - writing, directing, acting in all media. I've also been administrating.''
Some commentators on the arts feel writing is a more fundamental kind of expression than acting - since a writer may create things freely, while an actor must interpret a part written by someone else. Josephson agrees that acting is a ``secondary art.'' But he says performing is still a wonderfully creative thing.
``The actor himself - the art of acting - reminds people about their own possibilities,'' he muses. ``It reminds people that they [choose] a few parts in their personal lives out of a thousand possibilities. If this `secondary' art didn't exist, I think a lot of windows would be closed forever. It opens a lot of experiences and knowledge about human beings. It's also a very [fundamental] form of expressing yourself: to pretend, to lie, to show you have the possibility of being someone else if the circumstances are different.''
Josephson is full of admiration for director Peter Brook, whose recent work in the United States and Europe includes ``The Mahabharata'' and the ``Cherry Orchard'' production that has earned Josephson enthusiastic reviews.
``He's always extremely aware of the audience,'' says Josephson, assessing the director. ``And he's [concerned] that the audience can follow everything. That seems like an axiom, a simple truth. But very often, in modern theater, they exclude the audience. The actors are prepared for the part, prepared for the play, prepared for everything - but not prepared to have an audience for it.
``We have a good Chekhov tradition in Sweden,'' he continues. ``But he is a playwright who's full of that temptation to close yourself, to go into the play and the character in what you think is a naturalistic way. But that's a bad way to go. You must never forget this is art. And art must go out to people who are looking and listening.... Some very sophisticated directors and actors think everyone in the audience knows `The Cherry Orchard,' and they will make something tricky because they feel they must make something absolutely new - to surprise the critics, to surprise this audience that knows everything about it. But you must always think the audience doesn't know anything. You must feel and pretend as if you don't know how it ends!''
Although he's widely known for his movie performances, Josephson started his career on the stage. And he almost stayed there for good, because at first he disliked the technical aspects of filmmaking. Fortunately for audiences, he eventually changed his mind - after working with the great Swedish cinematographer Sven Nykvist, another longtime Bergman collaborator.
``I was mainly a stage actor,'' Josephson recalls. ``I found film acting mechanical, because it was so technical - there was so much technique with the lamps and the movements of the camera.
``But suddenly one day, when we made `Cries and Whispers' - the cinematographer was Sven Nykvist, as usual - I can remember the moment when I suddenly felt that the camera was a living partner. I suddenly felt this is art, and the camera is a cooperative living person. After that I was extremely happy to act in films!''
Yet stage acting remains a very important activity for Josephson - partly because it gives him more flexibility, and more chances to experiment with new approaches and techniques.
``Stage acting is for me the basic form of acting,'' he reports. ``If you make films all the time, you have so few possibilities to rehearse. And it's important to rehearse, because it gives you the possibility to try things which are not good! You have the possibility, for one week, of trying things all the time - trying to force the borders, the limits you have as an actor.''
Josephson is also a bit suspicious of movie-star status, which he says can be confining for an actor. He admires some stars - they include Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, and French actor G'erard Depardieu - a great deal. Yet, he says, ``If you go on with film all the time, you define the expectations of the audience much more ... because you sell a sort of personality, not a sort of acting. You become ... a sort of personality actor. You can get in a prison of your own personality if you are only making films, and if you become a real star.''