‘Miss Julie’ Director Liv Ullmann on Adapting a Misogynistic 19th-Century Play for 21st-Century Sensibilities

nullAfter making her film debut as a teenager and gaining international fame by starring in ten of Ingmar Bergman’s movies (including Persona and Scenes from a Marriage), Liv Ullmann directed her first film, Sofie, more than two decades ago. Since then, she’s made four other films and been nominated for the Cannes Film Festival’s highest prize, the Palme d’Or, as a filmmaker. Her latest film, Miss Julie, stars Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell, and Samantha Morton, with Chastain playing an Irish noblewoman who seduces her father’s valet (Farrell), who is already engaged to another servant (Morton). Miss Julie explores issues of systemic oppression — gender and class — and how they shape individuals’ personalities and possibilities. 

Women and Hollywood spoke with Ullmann about her new film’s more-relevant-than-ever class issues, the sexism she’s encountered as an actress-turned-director, and adding feminism to a 19th-century play that begins with a screed against women.  

Women & Hollywood: Miss Julie is a tough play; it’s got a
lot of issues related to women and class. Why did you pick Miss Julie?

Liv Ullmann: I had directed A Streetcar Named Desire with Cate Blanchett in Australia and in
Washington and New York. Tennessee Williams was so inspired by August
Strindberg that I started to read Miss
Julie
again [when] I saw how much that was likened to A Streetcar Named Desire. So when I was asked to do [a] movie and
write a script, I said, “Can I adapt Miss Julie? Because one, I’m very, very
interested, in feeling alone, in feeling that it’s very difficult in this world
to connect with other people. 

Also, class is so important, more important now
than when Strindberg wrote his plays because now we have money or no money. [We are] a
free person or a refugee. We are all put into places in terms of where we are
born or what we are born. The way it is today, our world is divided into so much
non-understanding of each other, and it was never this way when Strindberg wrote
the play.

Also, one more thing. [Strindberg] didn’t like women. He wrote
in a foreword [to Miss Julie] that he didn’t really like women. I felt in adapting it that I
was allowed to give Julie some thoughts that she could express in
monologues: “I do not belong,” “Do you ever feel like you’re nothing?” “I have a
secret place where I’m happy, where I feel at peace, where there are no choices
and we all belong together.”

W&H: Fascinating. I just feel like the juxtaposition of your lifelong love
of Ibsen and
A Doll’s House against
Miss Julie — they’re so different, yet
contemporary. I don’t feel the same kind of misogyny from Ibsen that you get
from Strindberg.

LU: When I did
Streetcar, I suddenly worked up to Strindberg. And to me, now, he’s even more
interesting than Ibsen, because he is showing conflicts that are so much
more on the inside. Whereas Ibsen shows so many conflicts on the outside, which are the surroundings of people and where they live
and who they are. But with Strindberg, each individual on the inside has so
many dreams, so many perils, so much isolation, and I found that, in doing a
movie, was more tempting. Because on stage, you see them from the audience. In a
film, because you have the camera, you can see them big, you can see them in
the doors, you can see them on the stairs, you can see them go up and down, and
what they do to each other — you can go very close to them. 

You can go close
to their faces, and you can show another piece of them — what’s inside their
eyes when they say something, what’s inside their face when they say
something — something that you cannot do on a stage, because you can never come
so close. So I thought it was an opportunity, because I feel
much more in Strindberg’s days [the idea that] we are not connecting. E.M. Forster said the most important thing in
life is to connect, and in this play there are three people who do not
connect. And today in our world, we don’t connect. We are connecting to
computers, we are connecting to lots, but we don’t listen to each other, and
that’s what I wanted to try to show.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge for you in trying to adapt this script
for contemporary times?

LU: I wanted to keep it at the time where it was written, because that way
people don’t think I’m pointing a finger, because I find that very dangerous. I wanted to be very faithful to Strindberg. I had so many translations, and
I used them all, but also, of course, I know the original language. So that was
very important to me, to really feel faithful to Strindberg, but also to say no
to certain pieces of the play, and yes to other pieces of the play, which I
feel have to do with our times. And I feel we live in a time of such terrorism
on one side, such need on another side, such non-caring on another side. We
live in world with an absolute class system where some have nothing and others
have everything.

I believe to show a play from that time where, if you look at
the house, the castle we used, the kitchen area and the bedrooms of the
servants are underground. Because the people who live at the top, they do not
want to see their servants walk around, so the [domestics] have to go through tunnels [to] not disturb the upstairs people. And I feel today, there
are so many people today in refugee camps, in homeless places all over the
world, that we do not see. We see little snippets on TV, but it is better for
us maybe that we don’t see, so we can go about and do all of our daily life. With this
Ebola thing, when that happened, people said, “Keep them away from us!
We don’t want to see them here. We don’t need them here. We don’t want anything
testing our lives.” And sometimes I think you make a movie or write one just because you hope there will be a connection when you
see it.


W&H: Talk a little bit about how you decided to cast this movie. How did
you get such an amazing cast [with Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell, and Samantha
Morton]?

LU: Well, they all said yes when they were asked. And I couldn’t have better
actors. I wish this were a bigger movie for the actors’ sake. I mean, I don’t
think Jessica’s done anything close to this today. There’s no better performance
that I know of than what I see here. She’s so incredible, and so crazy. 

And the same with Colin Farrell. [He plays] a man with slicked hair who is terrified when
the master [of the house] comes in the kitchen and orders him around. He protests, but he does what he’s ordered to do. And Samantha
Morton, who suddenly in all of this makes a choice, the choice to show
compassion. And in spite of what has happened to her, she takes the cares away
from Miss Julie. And so I just think these three actors, what they are doing, I
think they are incredible, really incredible, and I just wish this movie could
be shown where they would be acknowledged for their acting. Because you don’t
see better acting anywhere, anywhere. 

For me as a director, when you have actors like this, when the camera starts ,they do
the creation. It’s through their eyes, and the way they move, and the way they
speak and laugh and cry. That’s where the creation is, and that’s where you can
be very quiet in the audience and allow them to, you know, be part of your life
for a little while and get some new thoughts. They are incredible, those
actors.

W&H: What’s fascinating is, you see Jessica Chastain in a big
movie, Interstellar, this year, where she is really good, and then you see her
also in your movie, where she’s really good, and you’re just like, this young
woman has got it. She’s good in everything she does. From what I was
reading, it seemed like you and she really connected. Talk a little bit
about the process of working with her to discover Miss Julie [her character].

LU: I would do everything for her. I admire her so much. And
you know, what she’s doing with Julie, few actors would dare to do, because
when they do Miss Julie in the theatre and on the screen and on the film, they
come in and they’re charming, and they play with a man. And then here comes
this young girl, [played by] Jessica, a tormented soul. She’s standing in the
door, and you can see she’s tormented; she’s in anguish. And you follow her,
and she makes choices all the time that are so different than the normal
choices. Instead of being drunk all the time, she’s losing more and more of her grasp on life. And you can see that, and you can hear that. 

After we did the movie, we met in Toronto, and here is this beautiful, very young girl, laughing and going on, and I’m thinking, “Oh, my God!” Because
I didn’t see this Jessica when we were working. I saw somebody very serious,
somebody who knew her lines the first day (just like Colin and Samantha), and was so dedicated to be Miss Julie. 

W&H: I read a quote where
you said it took fifteen years from your first movie to your second movie, and
you said, “I hear it from producers. I know three terrible things about
directing today: that I’m a woman, I’m an actress, and my age.” You’re just an
amazing director. The performances you got out of these actors is fantastic.
I’ve seen male directors directing who are the same age as you are, and there’s
never an issue about their age. Could you talk a little bit about that issue?

LU: Yes, but you know that as a woman, your age is so important — the way she’s looked at and the way her age is always in parentheses after her name. So
obviously, age is very important. And if on top of that, you’re a woman, you’re an actress, then, you know, “Oh, isn’t she sweet, she’s an actress.” I direct a lot of the theatre, and [I have had] producers in the
theatre talk to me in a baby-talk voice. I said, "Don’t talk to me that way." And
he just meant to be friendly, but this is how you talk to a "little actress
woman." And you know that, that comes out even if it is friendly.