Mother of Anakin (and thus Darth Vader) in later Star Wars films but better known to Scandinavians as one of Sweden’s most celebrated actresses.
In the United States, Swedish actress Pernilla August may be best known for her portrayal of Shmi Skywalker, the mother of Anakin (and thus Darth Vader) in the film “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.” But she is better known to Scandinavians as one of Sweden’s most celebrated actresses of screen and stage.
Most recently, August and four colleagues from the Royal Dramatic Theater (Dramaten) in Stockholm presented five performances of Henrik Ibsen’s “Ghosts” in New York City in the summer. The play, directed by Ingmar Bergman (and possibly the director’s final performance), was yet another part of the cooperation between BAM and the renowned Swedish theater.
Like the other plays from Dramaten, “Ghosts” is performed in Swedish. “To work with a translation into English would be an enormous task for us, basically starting from scratch, with an entirely new basis for our work,” August explains during a stroll along Brooklyn Heights Promenade. “Even with the simultaneous translations, people here are such an attentive audience, they listen to every word from the translators, and they laugh more than the regular Swedish audience. They look at Bergman’s anxieties with humor, the kind of warm humor that makes you feel good.”
Bergman deserves author credits as well; his translation of the play from the Norwegian includes some lines from Swedish playwright August Strindberg as well as some complete new scenes by Bergman himself.
“At 85,” August noted, “you can probably allow yourself the creative freedom and free spirit it takes to make your own versions of the classics.”
A Bergman actress August’s relationship with the director goes over 20 years. She caught Bergman’s attention while still at the State School for Performing Arts in Stockholm. One day, she received an unexpected note to show up at Cinemateket in Stockholm at a certain time. The director and the young actress had never met, although Pernilla August had had parts in a couple of more or less forgettable Swedish films. At Cinemateket, she was simply handed a five-inch-thick script and told that her lines had been marked.
As a result of the sudden casting call, she played the nursemaid-mistress of a restaurateur in Bergman’s feature-directing swan song, "Fanny and Alexander" (1982).
In a sense, she became the latest heir to the tradition of radiant Bergman actresses that included Liv Ullman, Bibi Andersson and Harriet Andersson. But her route was different. Putting feature films behind him, Bergman took to directing theater again and cast August as Ophelia in "Hamlet" (1986) and Nora in "A Doll's House" (1989). In addition, Bergman continued providing Scandinavian filmmakers with potent screenplays of a personal nature, writing the part of Anna (based on his mother) in "Best Intentions" (1991) expressly for August. The role brought her the Cannes Film Festival Best Actress Award as well as the heart of the film’s Danish director, Bille August, who became her second husband in 1991.
What is it that made Bergman so special? “Somehow he created an atmosphere of trust, he made you feel comfortable with your own interpretations of a role, at least, that’s how it worked for me,” she said. “He made you trust your own sense of what is right for your character. He somehow made you trust your feelings and search your inner self to find the right way to express an attitude, a course of events, a process...
“This combination, of an atmosphere of trust in you and reliance upon the actors themselves, with an enormously strong need for control and attention to detail – I mean, he even had opinions about the way your hair is, how high up the wig should be positioned – somehow all this created the ideal foundation for his actors.”
Balancing work and family August has joked that should she be typecast in the future, the available roles would be rather limited: Both of her international productions have featured her as virgin mothers: Star Wars character Shmi Skywalker and a leading role as Mary of Nazareth in a film shot in Budapest. “I was honored to be chosen for the part and I loved working with Christian Bale [who played Jesus].
Having performed as Mary doesn’t mean she’s seen the finished product, however. “I have the movie on tape but haven’t seen it,” she admitted. “The work is what’s important to me and besides, would I sit down and watch myself in a movie at home? First off, I doubt whether my daughters would let me. They are absolutely not part of that aspect of my life, and are not interested in seeing me on stage or on the screen. It’s funny — where I live in central Stockholm, I move around freely, go shopping, take the kids to school, without ever being bothered. People just don’t recognize me, a fact which, quite frankly, is a blessing. It makes my kids’ lives so much easier too. In the kind of celebrity-crazed society we live in, being the offspring of an actress or a director is not always easy.” (August has three daughters, one with Swedish author Klas Östergren, two with Bille August.)
As for future dream roles, “There might be a couple of Chekhov’s ladies I would still like to play in the theater, but right now, I would like to do more movies. The work on stage tends to be strenuous.” In fact, August resigned from her regular job at Royal Dramatic Theatre about a year and a half ago to be able to spend more time with her daughters.
“Working in a film production has its own difficulties, but the ability to just slip into a character, do your job and be done with it appeals to me right now. It is sometimes hard to find fresh approaches when you play the same character night after night and for a full season. Besides, I would very much like to devote more of my time to my children.
Being Anakin’s mom August’s role as Shmi Skywalker brought her a whole new generation of fans. She landed the part, unbeknownst to her, while visiting Berlin for the release of former husband Bille August’s film “Smilla.” She spoke for some time with the film’s producer, Rick McCallum, who was in the middle of casting “The Phantom Menace” at the time.
“My trepidation at taking the role in Episode I and acting in English for the first time was very high,” she admitted. “There were so many people involved, so many international actors. But the crew was so professional, once you started working, the realization that you were among colleagues took away any nervousness.”
How did working on a U.S. production such as “The Phantom Menace” differ from working in Sweden?
“There were some obvious differences,” she noted. “In Sweden, maybe 30-40 people make up the whole crew, behind and in front of the camera. In a U.S. production, there are several hundred and they are shooting on three or four sets simultaneously.”
My co-interviewer, son Mårten, who is a major Star Wars fan, had some questions for Pernilla August as well:
• How did it feel to be a Jedi’s mother?
• How did they turn off the light sabers?
• Which Star Wars movie was her favorite?
“Playing Shmi and the mother of a Jedi was great,” she said. “Anakin
was so sweet and kind, it was like being the mother of one more [child] during the
filming.” The light sabers are constructed digitally, except for the handles, she explained. And, she said she enjoyed “The Phantom Menace” the most and was hoping to become a hologram for the third movie, but it never came to be.
Mårten wished she could be in more Star Wars movies too, giving her and the movie 25 thumbs up. And so do we.
Written by Ulf Mårtensson
Pernilla August: Selected Roles
“Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones” (2002), as Shmi Skywalker-Lars
“Adventures of Young Indiana Jones: The Tales of Innocence” (1999), as mother
“Mary, Mother of Jesus” (1999) (TV), as Mary of Nazareth
“Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace” (1999), as Shmi Skywalker
“The Glass-blower's Children” (1998) (Glasblåsarns barn), as Sofia
“Jerusalem” (1996), as Karin
“Private Confessions” (1996) (Enskilda samtal), as Anna Åkerblom Bergman, mother of Ingmar Bergman
“The Best Intentions” (1991) (Den Goda Viljan), as Anna Åkerblom Bergman, for which she won the Cannes Film Festival Best Actress Award
“Fanny and Alexander” (1982), as Maj
The Rooster (1981) (Tuppen), as Åsa
Some Bergman-directed stage productions at Stockholm's Royal Dramatic Theatre, then presented at BAM, Brooklyn Academy of Music, in New York City:
“Ghosts” (2003), as Mrs. Helene Alving
“Maria Stuart” (2002), in the title role
“A Doll's House” (1994), as Nora
“Hamlet” (1988), as Ophelia
Pernilla August, photographed in front of Manhattan's Skyline for Nordstjernan and Nordic Reach. Photo: B Zaunders.