Max Von Sydow Offers Cannes Masterclass in Acting

Thesp sez craft is 'very much a matter of concentration'

Max von Sydow
Laurent Cipriani/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Is acting an art? For an hour, master thesp Max von Sydow addressed the question at a Cannes Film Festival special session, finally concluding, “I still don’t know. But maybe. Sometimes.”

After 50 years in the profession, he conceded, “You never master it. Every new part is a new challenge, a new beginning.”

At the Salle Bunuel, the Swedish thesp gave his thoughts on art and craft at the fest’s inaugural La Lecon d’Acteur/Acting Masterclass, one of a series of special events being held here during the 2004 Cannes festival.

After a few introductory words in French, he gave the English-lingo presentation, seated onstage at a small desk and referring to a notebook. Acting is “very much a matter of concentration,” he said, insisting actors should forget their everyday worries, personal vanities and awards: “There’s nothing wrong with a Palme d’Or — just don’t think about it when you’re acting.”

Comparing stage and film work, he said, “There are no major differences … it’s just technical matters.” However, he admitted to preferring live theater: “Excuse me, film festival, but that is my thought.”

After all these years, he’s still bothered by shooting out of sequence, but said the key to acting, whether legit or cinematic, is to find out what the character wants. When the various individuals’ desires collide, “the true drama is created.”

Hailing Ingmar Bergman as “the person who has influenced me the most,” he said the helmer rarely gives much interpretation or analysis to his actors. Instead, his blocking is so precise and artful “that it gives his actors a psychological rhythm.”

The public and press often define actors in three categories, he said. First is the personality actor, who is playing himself “and we love them for it.” Second group in inspirational: An actor who does no preparation and lives only in the moment, though von Sydow opined that this is a romantic concept that has more to do with myths about acting than with reality.

Third group is the intellectual actor, who prepares carefully; he emphasized that actors have to know the basics (breathing, gestures, projection) in order to create a “perfect moment.”

He also exploded the “romantic delusion that actors become the parts they play,” a misconception fueled by PR mavens and a few self-important actors.

After the session, von Sydow did a Q&A with the crowd of nearly 400, who had questions on films ranging from “Fanny & Alexander” to “Flash Gordon.” The actor also spoke of “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” saying it took a year and a half to convince him to play Jesus. And, no, he hasn’t seen “The Passion of the Christ.”