Gunn Wållgren was one of the most prominent twentieth-century leading actors at the Dramaten theatre. She also performed at numerous private theatres and appeared on TV and in films.
Gunn Wållgren was born in Gothenburg in 1913. Her father, Harald Wållgren, was a merchant and so taking the artistic route may have seemed a far from obvious choice for her. Initially Gunn Wållgren attended a domestic sciences school, then gained commercial training, and finally began to work at her father’s office. In the meantime she was accepted at the Dramaten theatre school in 1934, at the same time as Sif Ruud, and her great talent quickly became apparent during her student years. She appeared in ten stage productions before becoming the top student in 1937. She made a much-noted debut the same year she graduated when she appeared in a comedy called Åh, en sån dag!. After continuing her studies in France in 1937 she gained employment at the Dramaten theatre where, apart from some visiting stints elsewhere and a longer period at the Nya theatre from 1943–1954, she spent the majority of her career.
It was in playing the part of Curley’s wife in the first-ever Swedish performance of John Steinbeck’s Möss och människor (Of mice and men) in 1940 that Gunn Wållgren revealed her ability to perform more demanding and more complex characters. From that point onwards she was no longer stereotyped as a young charming female. Gunn Wållgren performed her best roles during the second half of the 1940s in productions at Stockholm’s private theatres. According to Georg Svensson, a critic for BLM, she created a completely vibrant character when playing the “not-overly captivating Mrs Nathan” in Elmer Rice’s Med Clippern västerut at the Blanche theatre. Indeed her character portrayal was highlighted as one of the best across the Stockholm theatres that year.
Gunn Wållgren then began to work with the director Per-Axel Branner. He later became her second husband and they remained married until his death in 1975. Branner had been head of the Nya theatre from 1940–1947, producing Tjechov’s Måsen (The Seagull) in which Gunn Wållgren played the part of Nina. This production was a great hit and certainly proved to be Gunn Wållgren’s public artistic breakthrough. She continued to reveal her particular skills in Tjechov’s impressionist plays in the years to come. Leif Zern would describe this quality of hers as a “Mozart-like ease” and an apparently casual acting style which doubtlessly served to highlight Tjechov’s own qualities. She also played the part of Sonya in Onkel Vanja (Uncle Vanya) in 1955, Sasha in Ivanov in 1957, Masha in Tre systrar (Three Sisters) in 1959, and Ljubov Andreievna Ranevskaya in Körsbärsträdgården (The Cherry Orchard) in 1967. All of these were performed at the Dramaten theatre and directed by Per-Axel Branner and contributed to establishing Gunn Wållgren reputation as a top actor.
Gunn Wållgren also played the roles of Iphigenia in Stig Torsslow’s 1941 production of Goethe’s Iphigenia i Tauris, Ophelia in Rune Carlsten’s 1942 production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Mary Grey in Olof Molander’s 1948 production of Maxwell Anderson’s Johanna från Lottringen (Joan of Lorraine), Indra’s daughter in Molander’s production in 1955 of Strindberg’s Ett drömspel, Isabella in Alf Sjöberg’s 1958 production of Shakespeare’s Lika för lika (Measure for measure), Nora in Per-Axel Branner’s 1962 production of Ibsen’s Ett dockhem, and Gerda in Strindberg’s Oväder. Her final character portrayal was as Ethel Thayer in Bo Widerberg’s 1981 production of Ernest Thompson’s Sista sommaren (On Golden Pond).
Gunn Wållgren also appeared on the silver screen. She made her film debut in 1941, appearing in Hasse Ekman’s Sjätte skottet. This brought her to the attention of the film producer Lorens Marmstedt and he gave her the part which became her cinematic breakthrough role. In 1943 she played a young drifter in Olof Molander’s Kvinnor i fångenskap. In 1941 she married the actor and director Erik “Hampe” Faustman. Their marriage lasted until 1948. She appeared in some of his films, including the 1944 Flickan och djävulen and Brott och straff from 1945.
During the 1940s and the 1950s Gunn Wållgren produced her best cinematic performances, such as Klara Fina Gulleborg in Gustaf Molander’s film adaptation of Kejsarn av Portugallien in 1944, as the divorced stewardess in Hasse Ekman’s Medan porten var stängd in 1946, as the psychologically disturbed character in Kvinna utan ansikte in 1947 to a manuscript by Ingmar Bergman, as a young wife in 1948 in Hasse Ekman’s Var sin väg, and as a political activist in Gustaf Molander’s Glasberget in 1653.
Gunn Wållgren also appeared in many Swedish film classics and TV-show classics, such as the 1970s’ recording of the people’s-favourite play Söderkåkar by Gideon Wahlberg, in Tage Danielsson’s 1972 Mannen som slutade röka, and in the film adaptation of Astrid Lindgren’s children’s book Bröderna Lejonhjärta, in which she played the character of Sofia, the pigeon queen.
During the 1970s Gunn Wållgren achieved particular success with Hasse Ekman’s 1970 film version of Joseph Kesselring’s crime caper Arsenik och gamla spetsar (Arsenic and old lace) and in the 1972 Agnes, which Kent Andersson had written specially for her. These were both performed at the Scala theatre. She was awarded a Guldbagge for her supporting role in Gunnel Lindblom’s Sally och friheten in 1981 (with a manuscript by Margareta Garpe). However the part she is best remembered for today is the role of grandmother and mater familias Helena Ekdahl in Ingmar Bergman’s 1983 multi-award winning masterpiece Fanny och Alexander. This was her last performance. As Leif Zern has pointed out, Gunn Wållgren only appears in Bergman’s films after the demons have departed.
Gunn Wållgren died of cancer in 1983, shortly after the filming of Fanny och Alexander had been completed. The Gunn Wållgren stipend is awarded annually, in her memory, on her birthday of 16 November. It is awarded to two “artistically deserving dramatic and lyrical artists”.
Gunn Wållgren lies in the memorial garden at Norra begravningsplatsen (The Northern Cemetery) in Solna.