Byline: Merle Ginsberg
NEW YORK — Spouses who work together — particularly actress-director pairs — have a checkered history. Federico Fellini and Giulietta Masina made a great duo onscreen and off; Roger Vadim and Brigitte Bardot were notably less successful in both realms. Woody Allen and Mia Farrow created a few decent films, but the relationship disintegrated in epic style. And as for Renny Harlin and Geena Davis, well, probably the less said the better.
But to see the Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom, and his wife, the thinking man’s Swedish siren, Lena Olin, in each other’s company is to witness a romance of such unrivaled sweetness, it might as well be the subject of one of Hallstrom’s films. With this year’s Christmas charmer, “Chocolat,” the two have successfully made the leap from spousal bliss to professional collaboration. In 10 years of marriage, it’s their first film together.
“How did we avoid that?” chuckles Hallstrom softly to Olin, over lunch at Lespinasse in New York. “Ever since I saw her, I have wanted to work with Lena.” He looks over at her admiringly, as he often does. “And for many years before we met, I had a sense this would happen.”
Hallstrom, now 54, was already a successful Stockholm filmmaker with several Oscar nominations to his name — including “My Life as a Dog” and “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” — when he met Olin. The encounter was far from accidental. He’d seen her classical stage work at the Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm (including several productions directed by Ingmar Bergman), as well as her knock-out performances in “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” and “Enemies: A Love Story.” At the time, she was a divorced mother with one baby (August, now 14), living the life of a single workaholic.
“Lena had a manager that I knew,” Hallstrom recalls with a smile. “I would send little messages to him from time to time. When we finally had dinner, I realized I had no excuse of a project to discuss with her.”
“It was so strange,” laughs Olin, 44, and gorgeous in a Nordic cardigan, jeans and no hint of makeup. “It was so unlike Lasse to call up a girl and ask her to dinner. He seems far too shy. And it was so unlike me to go. At that time, I was utterly possessed by work — and by my baby.”
But they clicked. Both Swedes who had made it in Hollywood, and both being intellectuals, they seemed destined to be together. “I feel in a way I was saved by Lasse,” Olin says.
“It was the relationship I’d waited for for a very, very long time,” adds Hallstrom warmly, displaying the romantic streak so evident in his work.
Just don’t call it sentimental. “I hate the word,” cringes Hallstrom. “It implies doing things false or stylized. I love character-driven films — and I don’t mind being accused of tugging on a heartstring or two — but I always want to treat my subjects with humor and reality.”
“I think what Lasse does is heartwarming nitty-gritty,” says the diplomatic Olin. “He finds the truth, but with a soft lens. I think it is genetic for Lasse to be compassionate.”
Hallstrom’s father was a Stockholm dentist and amateur filmmaker, his mother a poet. Their home was constantly filled with artists. At age 10, young Lasse borrowed his father’s camera to make documentaries. By the time he was in his 20s, he was filming Abba. Indeed, he produced some of the earliest music videos. “I still make a big impression when I tell people I made a video with Jimi Hendrix,” he says. “I also made a segment with the Beatles for ‘Magical Mystery Tour,’ but they cut it out.”
Olin, not surprisingly, also grew up in the arts. Her parents were both actors on the Swedish stage, and her father worked with Bergman, who became her theatrical mentor.
In fact, the great Swedish director remains one of her closest confidantes. “He’s 82,” Olin says. “I see him whenever I can. He’s wonderful to see — wise, smart and gossipy — totally, totally! He has a way of pinpointing people, and it’s always fascinating to listen to him. He really is magic.”
But Hallstrom, her most recent director, is her favorite. “Ingmar is very controlling,” she says. “Lasse has the courage to seemingly give up the control in a joyful, playful way. Bergman has written everything in stone, including the way you use your eyebrows.”
Three years ago the couple decided to move to Bedford, N.Y. — where Olin lived while shooting Sidney Lumet’s urban drama “Night Falls on Manhattan” — in an effort to give August and daughter Tora, 5, some roots. After Hallstrom’s adaptation of John Irving’s novel “The Cider House Rules” received seven Oscar nominations last year, Miramax briskly adopted him as one of their premier directors. Miramax put him to work on another adaptation, Joanne Harris’s novel “Chocolat,” a French fable about a woman who brings passion — and sweets — to a repressed small town.
It was Harvey Weinstein who suggested that Olin play the role of Josephine, an abused wife who liberates herself and teams up with candy-shop owner Juliette Binoche. “At the premiere, he [Weinstein] said, ‘Remember, this was my idea!’ ” recalls Hallstrom.
Olin admits to some trepidation about working with her husband. “After almost 10 years of marriage, I wondered, ‘Can I act in front of Lasse?’ ” Olin says. “Will I feel uninhibited enough?” Hallstrom had his questions, too, but he says the experience felt natural for both of them.
“Watching Lena’s acting choices gave a new facet to our relationship,” he says. “She was unable to make a false move.”
Now Hallstrom is prepping a film version of “The Shipping News,” with Kevin Spacey and Julianne Moore, which will likely shoot in March. When that movie wraps, the couple will summer, as usual, with their kids in the south of Sweden.
As they walk out of the restaurant, someone recognizes Olin and gushes. She smiles modestly. Hallstrom beams.
And life, it seems, is just a box of Godiva.