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Veteran von Sydow finds meaning in 'Cedars' role

Andy Culpepper talks with the star of "Snow Falling on Cedars"
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January 6, 2000
Web posted at: 5:13 p.m. EST (2213 GMT)

By Andy Culpepper
Turner Entertainment Report Senior Correspondent

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- Max von Sydow has starred in more than a hundred films. His debut motion picture, "The Seventh Seal," was directed by another legend of cinema, Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. His roles have included the stoic assassin in "Three Days of the Condor" and the irresolute priest in "The Exorcist." He was nominated for an Oscar for his starring role in 1998's "Pelle, the Conqueror."

But when asked to rank the character of attorney Nels Gudmundsson -- his current role in "Snow Falling on Cedars" -- among those he has played in his some five decades as an actor, von Sydow doesn't hesitate: "At the top, absolutely."

"He made sense to me from the very beginning," von Sydow says. "I felt I knew him. I felt I recognized him somewhere."

"There are characters which you spend a lot of time with, and you get to know, and you feel that -- suddenly it's a friend somewhere. And they are nice to return to."

"Snow Falling on Cedars" tells the story of a small Washington community torn apart by racial tensions and mistrust in the aftermath of World War II.

In the words of director Scott Hicks, it is one part "Romeo and Juliet" for two star-crossed lovers -- one Caucasian, one Japanese-American -- and one part "To Kill a Mockingbird," an unflinching head-on collision between prejudice and conviction.

David Guterson, a Washington state English teacher whose award-winning 1994 debut novel inspired the film, has admitted being influenced heavily by "To Kill a Mockingbird" -- both the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Harper Lee and the Oscar-winning screenplay by Horton Foote.

The influence carries through in the courtroom scenes adapted from Guterson's book by screenwriter Ron Bass. There is the defendant, a man of different color. And there is von Sydow's character, Nels Gudmundsson, a stalwart Atticus Finch-type lawyer.

Riveting scene

Von Sydow agreed to a 10-minute interview to discuss "Snow Falling on Cedars," and we met at a hotel in Beverly Hills. The actor is a physically imposing man with an unstudied grace, a certain comfort in one's own skin that comes with age. His unassuming demeanor and casual attire -- denim shirt, blue jeans and running shoes -- set the tone for our talk. It's obvious he's eager to discuss the film.

Theatrical preview for "Snow Falling on Cedars"
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I ask von Sydow to return to a particular scene in the film, an almost five-minute monologue in which his character delivers the defense's summation of a trial in which his client has been falsely accused of a heinous crime.

It is a riveting scene delivered by von Sydow in one take, without cutaways or master shots -- there are no breaks in the continuity of his performance. Asked how the scene came to be, the actor's eyebrows arch, he shakes his head, and the intake of his breath suggests the impact of the moment is still with him.

"Well, I don't know," he begins, perhaps with too much modesty.

(I subsequently learned the answer from director Hicks:

"It would have been a sacrilege, in a way, he was so perfect in his delivery. He delivered such a towering performance in front of my eyes, and I thought -- when we came to editing -- I can't cut away to other things here. Let's be the jury. Let's sit here and let this amazing speech put the question to ourselves. What Max does is just put you in the jury box, and it's really an astounding performance.")

At the hotel, I press von Sydow on the scene; his vision shifts to the right momentarily, as if to search some corner of his memory recalling the moment for himself.

"I don't know," he confesses. "But it's a wonderful speech which sums up a lot of what's being said. And a lot about the ... " -- he pauses, searching for the right word -- "... the moral problem."

'Humanity ... on trial'

The moral problem. A small fishing village peopled largely by immigrant families. Some German-American, some Japanese-American. Even the lawyer, Gudmundsson, is the son of immigrants.

Race remains at the root of the problem -- in "To Kill a Mockingbird," and in "Snow Falling on Cedars."

I tell von Sydow how much the monologue impressed me, and the slightest hint of a smile crosses his face before his Scandinavian reserve holds it once again in check. "But please don't deliver it again," I say," Or my time will quickly run out."

"Oh, no!" He erupts in laughter. "I'm sorry."

But a portion of it is worth quoting here:

My life is drawing to a close. Why do I say this? I say this because it means that I ponder matters in the light of death in a way that most of you do not. And I feel like a traveler descended from Mars, astounded by what I see.

We hate one another. We are the victims of irrational fear. You might think that this is a small trial in a small place. Well, it isn't. Every once in a while, somewhere in the world, humanity goes on trial.

Von Sydow has been on the planet long enough to remember the social climate from which both novels -- and films -- sprang.

I ask him to consider the question: Now that nearly 50 years have passed since the era depicted in the movie -- now that the year 2000 has arrived -- have we as a society gotten the message?

"No, no, we haven't," he exclaims, pouncing on the thought. "And we never will. But we will always have to try to get there." He punctuates every word with both fists, an unmistakable passion in his voice as he continues.

"And that's what I think Nels Gudmundsson is trying to say. He's trying to say that we are always going to have to try to fight intolerance ... and what I presume (author) David Guterson wants to say is that we all have a responsibility, and we have to be tolerant and open and try to understand each other."

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Official 'Snow Falling on Cedars' site
Universal Pictures
Internet Movie Database: 'To Kill a Mockingbird'
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