photographer: Sandra Szebenyik
When it comes to the Swedish influence on film, there’s Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007), considered one of the greatest filmmakers in the earlier years of the artform, and Ingrid Bergman (1915-1982), most famous for her roles in Casablanca, For Whom The Bell Tolls, and several Hitchcock films – and Ingmar and Ingrid were not related. …And then there’s B&NC’s July/August 2023 Cover Features, who are husband and wife…and who are long-time locals…Lasse Hallstrom and Lena Olin.
Born in 1946, Lasse Hallstrom grew up in Stockholm, there attended Adolf Fredrik’s Music School, started his directorial career doing Swedish TV, and emerged as a film director for his work directing music videos for the all-time best selling Swedish music group ABBA. Still in Sweden, in 1985 Hallstrom wrote and directed My Life As A Dog, and the film won international acclaim, including Hallstrom being nominated for Academy Awards for Best Writer and Best Director. Whereupon, Hallstrom moved to Hollywood and has since enjoyed a celebrated career as an English-speaking feature film director, including notably What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), The Cider House Rules (1999) – for which Hallstrom again received a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Director, and Chocolat (2000). As further examples of his continuing work, Hallstrom’s films The Shipping News (2001), Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011), The Hypnotist (2012), and A Dog’s Purpose (2017), have all been highly awarded and critically acclaimed.
Lena Olin was also born and grew up in Stockholm, and her parents, Britta Holmber and Stig Olin, were both Swedish actors. At 17, Olin was crowned Miss Scandinavia. She studied acting at Sweden’s National Academy of Dramatic Art, and performed for over a decade with Sweden’s Royal Dramatic Theatre-ensemble, including playing the leading part in Strindberg’s A Dream Play. Most notably, she was a protege of Ingmar Bergman, who first cast Olin in Face to Face (1976), then, as Cordelia, in his world-tour production of King Lear, later in the title role in his rendition of Strindberg’s Miss Julie, and in Olin’s international film debut in his 1984 film After the Rehearsal. Olin has a long foreign and English-speaking filmography, including notable performances in what was her first English-speaking major part in The Unbearable Lightness Of Being (1988), and then in Enemies: A Love Story (1989) -for which she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, Sydney Pollack’s Havana (1990), Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate (1999), Romeo is Bleeding (1994), and Casanova (2005), among many others. Olin collaborated with Hallstrom on Chocolat (2000) – for which she received five Academy Award nominations, and in 2008 Olin played both a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz and her twenty-year-younger daughter in the Academy Award nominated The Reader. Olin has also been successful on TV, including most notably her roles as Irina Derevko in the series Alias – for which she was nominated for a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series and a Satellite Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Television Series, and most recently as Eva Braun in the series Hunters (2020-2023).
But, notwithstanding Lasse’s and Lena’s fame, this story is really about their soon to be famous 28-year-old daughter, Tora…and the movie Hilma (2022), which Lasse wrote and directed, and in which, in her screen debut, Tora plays Hilma up to her late 40s, and Lena takes-on the role of Hilma’s life from 50 on.
Lasse and Lena met in 1990, and were married in  . About meeting Lena, Lasse says, “We were just about the only two Swedes working in film in North America. Lena’s manager was a producer on a film I worked on, so I sent messages through him for a half-a-year or so. Eventually, she caved in.” Tora was born in Sweden in 1995, and Lasse and Lena brought her to America in 1997. Lasse explains, “Lena was working with the Director Sidney Lumet on the film Night Falls in Manhattan, and the Producer on the film, John Starke, who was Glenn Close’s husband and who lived with Glenn in Bedford, recommended living in the area. We rented two different houses, then in 2000 we purchased the house in Bedford Hills we still call ‘home’ – at least when we’re not back a month or two each year enjoying the house in the Swedish archipelago that my grandfather purchased in 1904.” From prior relationships, Lasse has a son, Johan, now in his forties, and Lena has a son, August, now in his late thirties, and August lived with the family in Bedford Hills until he went off to film school in Paris. The family speaks Swedish at home, and had a Swedish au pere who had a lot of time with Tora when Lasse and Lena were traveling to make films. Tora went to Rippowam Cisqua, then Deerfield Academy, and then Princeton University. She started her intended career in finance at Goldman Sachs in 2017, but quit one year later, just before she was about to get her bonus, and moved to San Francisco – mostly for a guy she no longer sees – and took another job in finance, with Uber.
With a big smile, Tora explains her decision to leave finance and become an actress saying, “I was Beauty in Beauty And The Beast, and I was Gertrude McFuzz in Seussical The Musical, and I was Ti Moune in Once On This Island in middle school, worked in a theater in North Carolina during the summer between my junior and senior years at Deerfield, got a few small parts in movies my dad was directing including one called Safe Haven, and I took Screenwriting and Dance at Princeton, but I grew up being good in math and science, majored in Economics, and always thought I’d be in Finance. I was always a little scared of theater kids because they were so dramatic. And, growing up, it seemed like a career in film translated into an emotionally erratic life. But I’d come back home to Bedford from San Francisco because of covid, and my father came to me with the idea of sharing the role of Hilma with my mom, and I thought ‘Yeah, why not!’ I remembered that I liked being the lead in the plays in middle school, and the rush I’d felt when I was performing on a hot, sweaty night in that play in North Carolina. I looked back at an essay I’d written back in high school on wanting to be an Actress. I’m a pretty good singer. And I’ve secretly always felt the camera could see something in me…and that something in me was screaming out to do it! Now I’m all in!”
“Getting Tora to come into what is really the family business of film and theater is certainly the best thing I’ve ever done,” Lasse remarks. “Tora grew up seeing us in action doing creative stuff and I think she wanted to do something that was more safe. She’s always had a talent for numbers. I encouraged her to pursue writing, but she went to Wall Street. I thought she was really wasting her time, even though she’d made it to Goldman Sachs. Everyone working 24/7, focused on money money money, never taking any time to focus on the arts or enjoy life. With Hilma…Tora moved right into being a leading lady!”
And Lasse is effusive about Hilma – both the film, which was produced by Viaplay as an English-speaking ‘streamer’ and is now being screened in Sweden, and which has debuted in America, including three screenings at the Bedford Playhouse, and the subject, Hilma af Klint. “I’m a believer in spiritual mysteries, and my involvement with Hilma has only deepened my search for deeper truths. I first heard about Hilma from Lena, who’d heard mention of an artist named Hilma referenced in an unrelated movie while on a flight to film The Artist’s Wife in 2018…only to have the Director of the movie mention Hilma to Lena later that same day. Lena was struck by the coincidence and mentioned it, and Hilma, to me. A Google search had me entranced, and the more I researched, the more of a mystical connection I felt. Hilma was born in 1862 and died in1944, relatively unknown in the art world. She began painting abstract art in 1906, laying enormous canvases on the floor and experimenting with her application of paint, and produced a body of art eerily similar to the work of, but predating, Vasily Kandinsky. Finding little acceptance of or understanding for her work, she instructed that, upon her death, all her paintings be stored away in an attic in Stockholm for a period of 20 years! …And then I discovered that the location where her paintings were stored was right across the street from where Lena and I used to have an apartment!” Lasse continues, “Once discovered, Hilma was immediately recognized as a master, and her work was first exhibited in Stockholm in 1967. Hilma had imagined that her work would someday be exhibited in a grand ‘spiral temple’ and drew pictures of a building that looks substantially similar to the Guggenheim Museum – but she did so a half-Century before Frank Lloyd Wright designed the building – and in 2019 the Guggenheim held the first major exhibit in the United States of Hilma’s work, called Hilma af Klint : Painting for the Future. And Hilma was special and ahead of her times in a lot of ways besides her artwork. From a family of admirals and sea captains, including a grandfather who first measured the depths of the seas in many of the world’s waters, she was a black sheep. She was a medium, and a healer who said her work laying hands was guided by spirits, and she believed in other life in the universe and UFOs. The movie is an epic story that covers almost all of Hilma’s life.”
About making the movie, Lena comments, “Lasse became obsessed with Hilma, and Tora and I immediately embraced the idea of playing Hilma together. I have to say everything about making a movie about Hilma’s life seemed perfect for us. We studied Hilma and, although we are or were a bit more skeptical than Lasse, we went to a medium in order to talk through the medium with Hilma – and the medium gave us some insights. We saw Hilma as a strong woman in an age when that was seldom permitted, and believed she should be portrayed as ‘the boss’, but that she was and should also be portrayed as having human flaws and being quite complicated. Tora may have believed in the medium a little more than I did, but Tora and I were aligned on who we wanted Hilma to be, and we influenced Lasse’s writing accordingly. Lasse directed us to bring out our inherent similarities, like the way we walk and certain gestures we both have, but was light on instruction or suggestions on how to be Hilma. And Tora really inhabited the part. Acting is all about being emotionally involved with the person you’re playing, and Hilma was the ideal role for both Tora and me.”
Lasse reflects, “Hilma has changed my life! You can say it’s the first script I’ve ever written, as my prior work writing has been interpreting books I didn’t author. I’ve always been interested in the unknown. I believe in reincarnation and UFOs, and that we might be visited by future incarnations of humans. But as I’ve come to accept Hilma’s ideas, I’m spending more and more of my time and focus on gaining a deeper understanding of human consciousness. I have a medium who I trust completely, who says I’ve been with Lena in different incarnations since Roman times, and who’s connected me with my father and mother. Hilma was channeling spirits in her drawings and I’d like to take on big questions of the universe in my work in the same way, but things like the power of thought and the origins of the universe are hard to make films about. I like to make films about real people and follow characters as truthfully as possible. To do it with Lena and Tora is certainly a wonderful and romantic family affair, and I’m grateful to have gotten to know Tora better and for how close we’ve become.”
Hilma is likely to win a bunch of the important Best Foreign Film awards. It’s a portrait of a woman way ahead of her time, and it’s a happy middle-ground between documentary and a romantic biography complete with life’s nuance, subtleties and intrigue. The combined performances of Lena and Tora in playing Hilma are seamless, insightful, and complete. And the film is a cinematic work of art.
But for now the family is back home in Bedford Hills. Lasse is promoting Hilma, taking meetings as always about the next film he’ll direct, and constantly searching for the answer to the big questions and looking to the heavens to meet visitors known and unknown. Lena continues to be the biggest movie star in the B&NC Mag area who might not be immediately recognized in the supermarket. Tora is looking to do whatever comes next. “I have agents in Sweden and America. I’d love to be in a comedy series. I’ve been collecting notes on funny moments in my phone my whole life, and maybe I’ll write something, maybe somewhere between Curb and Girls. My mom has taught me how I have to have an open heart and an open mind for every new role,” Tora remarks. And though Tora may yet just be known in the area by the kids in her class at Ripp…she’s about to become, well, the next Lena Olin!”