Ellen Burstyn Has Some Ques­tions for You

One of the most dis­arm­ing le­gends of stage and screen (and new In­side the Ac­tors Stu­dio co-host) talks about her dogs, cos­mol­ogy, and why she loves act­ing so much. By Matt Zoller Seitz

New York Magazine - - FEATURES - By Matt Zoller Seitz

In­side the ac­tor’s brain

Ellen burstyn’s first re­quest of any new guest vis­it­ing her apart­ment over­look­ing Cen­tral Park is to feed treats to her tiny, aged dog, Zoe. “Here, take two,” she says, hand­ing them to me, “and lean down when you give them to her, be­cause she’s old and she doesn’t jump.” The apart­ment, which she moved into not long ago af­ter spend­ing decades in Ny­ack, is an archive of her life and ca­reer: All around us are pic­tures com­mem­o­rat­ing her ex­pe­ri­ences as an ac­tress, a mother, a grand­mother, an arts ad­min­is­tra­tor, a pro­ducer, and a per­former. Burstyn’s face is in­stantly rec­og­niz­able, and she has been one of our finest ac­tors for decades, but de­spite her event­ful life and ca­reer, she has man­aged to avoid the kind of no­to­ri­ety that might have lim­ited her free­dom, ta­lent, and gen­eros­ity. Among the pic­tures in her apart­ment is a black-and-white close-up of Marilyn Mon­roe from the early 1960s. “I didn’t know her, but I adored her,” she ex­plains. “And she was so trou­bled and vul­ner­a­ble be­cause she had what I call ‘scary fame,’ the kind that jumps out like this,” she says, snarling like a preda­tor and claw­ing at the air. “I never had that kind of fame.”

She has acted in block­busters and cult clas­sics, in­clud­ing The Last Pic­ture Show, The Ex­or­cist, Re­quiem for a Dream, The Foun­tain, and In­ter­stel­lar. She has been nom­i­nated for six Os­cars (win­ning one for 1974’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any­more) and nine Em­mys (win­ning two, for a 2008 episode of Law & Or­der: Spe­cial Vic­tims Unit and 2012’s Po­lit­i­cal An­i­mals). She also has a Tony, for the orig­i­nal 1975 run of Same Time,

Next Year. Burstyn has been a teacher and an author­ity fig­ure for gen­er­a­tions of ac­tors, play­wrights, and film­mak­ers.

Since 2000, she has served along­side Al Pa­cino, Har­vey Kei­tel, and Alec Bald­win as co-pres­i­dent of the Ac­tors Stu­dio, where mem­ber the hosts she 52 of was years In­side ac­cepted ago, the and Ac­tors is as now a life­time Stu­dio, among which just started its 23rd sea­son in Oc­to­ber (long­time host James Lip­ton re­tired last year). And she re­mains quite busy as an ac­tress. In 2019, she ap­peared in the films Lucy in the Sky and Amer­i­can Woman as well as a re­vival of Moisés Kauf­man’s 33 Vari­a­tions in Mel­bourne.

When did you re­al­ize that act­ing could be a job you wanted to do?

I re­mem­ber the first time I was ever on the stage. I was in board­ing school in Canada, and I was be­tween 6 and 7 years old. I re­cited “Lit­tle Miss Muf­fet” to this black­ness. I heard a lady, front row, say, “Isn’t she cute?” I thought, I hope my mother heard that. You know those pho­to­graphs your brain takes, that you’ve got for your whole life, but it’s ac­tu­ally a mov­ing pic­ture? And you can re­live that mo­ment any­time? That was the mo­ment. Con­fronting that big black­ness and all that it was alive with.

Some­thing in me woke up. Some­thing went, Oh. In school, I was al­ways in the shows. In high school, I was pres­i­dent of the drama club and pro­duced the grad­u­at­ing mu­si­cal, as I re­call. Then there came a point when I wrote down what I thought were the pos­si­bil­i­ties for em­ploy­ment for me. One was mod­el­ing, which I did do. Two was—well, I don’t re­mem­ber the or­der, but cer­tainly ac­tress. And then vet­eri­nar­ian, and lawyer, and nun. I was a model from high school un­til I was 23. Then one day I said, “Okay, I made up my mind. I’m go­ing to be an ac­tress. I’m go­ing to do a Broad­way play this fall.” Af­ter that, I said to ev­ery per­son I met, “I’m go­ing to do a Broad­way play this fall. Do you know how to get an au­di­tion?” Not lack­ing in con­fi­dence.

No, but then, amaz­ingly, some­body said, “Yes, ac­tu­ally, I do know how to get an au­di­tion.” She was a sec­re­tary to an agent, and she said, “I know of a play that’s be­ing cast, and they’re look­ing for some­one to play a model.” So I au­di­tioned for a lead on Broad­way. It was the first time I was ever on a New York stage, it was the Ethel Bar­ry­more The­atre, and I got the part, in a play called Fair Game. I played Su­san Ham­merly, a model who came to New York from Chicago, where she’d lost her hus­band to a smarter girl, and de­cided she needed an ed­u­ca­tion. I al­ways say, when I tell this story in pub­lic speak­ing, “You know how of­ten that hap­pens—you lose your hus­band to a smarter girl.”

You joined the Ac­tors Stu­dio in 1967. What was that like?

I took Lee Stras­berg’s pri­vate classes. I had a ca­reer al­ready by that point. I was work­ing as an ac­tress, but I re­al­ized af­ter a cer­tain point that there were ac­tresses who knew some­thing I didn’t know, and they were al­most all mem­bers of the Ac­tors Stu­dio. So I went to Lee’s pri­vate classes, and I stud­ied with him for a few years. Then when I felt I was ready, I au­di­tioned for the Stu­dio.

Tell me about New York the­ater in the late ’60s.

There were a lot more plays than there are now and fewer mu­si­cals, and more of the mu­si­cals were orig­i­nal. There were no Dis­ney mu­si­cals, no mu­si­cals based on movies. There weren’t as many vis­i­tors

from out of town in the au­di­ence. I re­mem­ber in­cred­i­ble ex­pe­ri­ences, like Kim Stan­ley play­ing the mo­ment in A Far Coun­try when Freud dis­cov­ers the un­con­scious. It was just one of the most bone-chill­ing mo­ments I’ve ever ex­pe­ri­enced! That sort of ex­pe­ri­ence was more read­ily avail­able, it seems to me, to the au­di­ences. Un­der­stand, that’s not to knock what’s here now, be­cause I love go­ing to the the­ater, and I love the mu­si­cals, too. I think Hadestown is re­ally won­der­ful. And I love Come From Away.

How are young ac­tors dif­fer­ent now than when you joined the Stu­dio?

There’s more work avail­able, so they work sooner and they don’t all bother to de­velop their art. I was do­ing a scene with an ac­tor, and I could tell he was from television and had no real train­ing. So I said to him, “Where did you study?” He said, “Well, I got cast in a se­ries right out of my high-school pro­duc­tion, and I did the se­ries for six years. That’s the best train­ing you can get.” No, it’s not. So there’s a lot of that. Ac­tors who come to the Stu­dio are in­ter­ested in the art of act­ing, and those ac­tors are the same in any gen­er­a­tion. They’re the se­ri­ous seek­ers.

Is study­ing act­ing use­ful for any­thing be­sides be­ing an ac­tor?

Yeah. It’s use­ful in the way that ther­apy is use­ful: You get to know your­self. When they first start act­ing, ac­tors have no idea what’s go­ing on in­side of them all the time. They are sur­prised when they sud­denly ac­cess some­thing they had no idea was cook­ing and alive.

You have jumped be­tween the­ater, film, and television over the decades. What’s dif­fer­ent about act­ing onstage?

Let me tell you about some­thing that hap­pened when I was do­ing Same Time, Next Year on Broad­way. It had been run­ning for sev­eral months. I was set­tled in. But all of a sud­den, in the midst of a scene, my con­scious­ness jumped out of the scene into the whole the­ater, and I saw that, in this lit­tle tri­an­gle of light on the stage, there I was with this other ac­tor, and we were pre­tend­ing to be two other peo­ple, and over a thou­sand peo­ple were sit­ting in the dark watch­ing us do that. And I thought, What is this? What is hap­pen­ing here? And then I re­al­ized, It’s not just hap­pen­ing in this the­ater, it’s hap­pen­ing in other the­aters around Broad­way. And not just that: It’s hap­pen­ing around the world. Peo­ple are still go­ing to the the­ater. It hasn’t been re­placed by television or movies or any­thing else. Why is that?

So the next day, I went to the book­store and got a book on the his­tory of the­ater. I opened it and, on the first page, it said, “The mo­ment some­one stood up around the camp­fire and told the story of the tribe to the tribe, the­ater was born.” I thought, That’s what we’re do­ing. We are telling the story of the tribe to the tribe. That’s what that feel­ing of con­nec­tion is, the com­mu­nion. It’s that it’s not us/them, it’s we.

You’ve starred in many films about reli­gion, spir­i­tu­al­ity, or, at the very least, the pos­si­bil­ity of a world be­yond what we can ver­ify. Three of your sig­na­ture per­for­mances are in The Ex­or­cist, about a bat­tle be­tween good and evil for pos­ses­sion of a girl’s soul; Res­ur­rec­tion, about a faith healer with Christ-like pow­ers; and Re­quiem for a Dream, in which the char­ac­ters use drugs to es­cape earthly tor­ment. All of those per­for­mances were Os­car nom­i­nated. You were also in The Foun­tain and In­ter­stel­lar, which are also pre­oc­cu­pied with these sorts of ques­tions. Were these de­lib­er­ate choices?

Well, Res­ur­rec­tion was a film I put to­gether. That was no ac­ci­dent. Be­yond that, I don’t know what forces com­bine to bring us to a par­tic­u­lar piece of work that we do. But I know that’s what in­ter­ests me, the things you men­tion. Specif­i­cally, I would have to say cos­mol­ogy re­ally in­ter­ests me. That’s what I read about all the time, from dif­fer­ent points of view. Have you ever vis­ited the Nat­u­ral His­tory Mu­seum and that sphere where you go out into outer space?

I love that. I took my kids there.

It’s so won­der­ful. I went in there, sat down and then we were off the planet, and pretty soon we were out of the so­lar sys­tem. And then we were out of the Milky Way and then we were out of the whole mega­galac­tic sys­tem. I was just thrilled! When the lights came up, the thought that went through my mind was, The Bi­ble is a lim­er­ick. It’s just a lit­tle piece of work about a tiny lit­tle planet. And then later I wrote a lim­er­ick. Would you like to hear it?

Of course.

“There once was a planet called Earth That had a ter­ri­ble thirst

To know how it got here

And if there’s a God here

And what on Earth came first?” Mov­ing to an earth­bound plane: You were the in­ter­viewer on an episode of In­side the Ac­tors Stu­dio this sea­son. The sub­ject was your friend and co-pres­i­dent Al Pa­cino. Is this a per­ma­nent ar­range­ment, you in the in­ter­viewer’s seat?

Oh no. We’re not re­plac­ing Jim Lip­ton with one per­son. We’re go­ing to ro­tate dif­fer­ent peo­ple in and out. You were there when I in­ter­viewed Al, right? What did you think?

He’s a re­mark­able pres­ence, the great­est Al Pa­cino char­ac­ter of them all.

Isn’t he some­thing? I’ve known him so many years. He’s just such an orig­i­nal be­ing. I would ask a ques­tion and Al

would go off, and the story would go all the way around and around and I’d think, God, where is he go­ing with this? But he al­ways comes back.

Can you tell me, how did you be­come a writer?

Well, that’s too long a story to go into here, es­pe­cially since I’m sup­posed to be in­ter­view­ing you. But may I ask why you asked?

Be­cause I’m cu­ri­ous: What is a writ­ing­tal­ent gene com­prised of? What is the abil­ity, and where does it come from?

I don’t know if it’s an abil­ity so much as a con­di­tion. I don’t re­mem­ber a time when I wasn’t a sto­ry­teller.

What does ta­lent con­sist of in your case? An abil­ity to de­scribe the world with words eas­ily? What?

I don’t know. But I do know that when a per­son is a writer, they usu­ally know early. Like the mo­ment you had as a girl, recit­ing “Lit­tle Miss Muf­fet” into the void.

Yes. What’s on TV that you like right now? Have you seen that show Eu­pho­ria on HBO? It’s by Sam Levin­son. I was in a film he di­rected called An­other Happy Day.

Yes, I in­ter­viewed him. The pro­duc­tion is un­usual. Ninety per­cent of it is on sets. Ninety per­cent of it is sex?

Sets. Shot on sets.

[Laughs] I thought you said sex. I was shocked by it.

By the sex?

More by the num­ber of penises I saw on the screen all at once. There were like four or five penises there on the screen in one episode. I’ve never seen that many on TV be­fore.

Don’t you feel like that’s a step for­ward for equal­ity of nu­dity?

Well, it’s def­i­nitely that! What do you like about the show?

To me, a great TV show cre­ates its own world, as a stage pro­duc­tion might, and when you en­ter its fic­tion, you feel as if it’s the only world that ex­ists. Eu­pho­ria does that. Dead­wood did that. At­lanta and Bet­ter Things do it. It’s like the sto­ry­tellers are cre­at­ing a world in or­der to study it.

You’re re­mind­ing me of the time I asked Dar­ren [Aronof­sky] why he made The Wrestler. He said, “Be­cause I didn’t know any­thing about that world.” I said, “That’s what in­ter­ests you in mak­ing a movie, is go­ing into a world you don’t know any­thing about?” He said, “Yeah, mostly.”

Martin Scors­ese, your di­rec­tor on Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any­more, once said his great in­ter­est is an­thro­pol­ogy. What made you look at his break­through film, Mean Streets, and say, “My next film is go­ing to be about a sin­gle mother, and this is the ideal di­rec­tor”?

Well, I didn’t say that, be­cause there was only one woman in Mean Streets, and she had a very small part. But my mis­sion was to make a film from a woman’s point of view, and a cer­tain level of re­al­ity in the act­ing was what I knew I wanted. I saw Mean Streets and said, “That’s it. That’s Stu­dio.” Mean­ing, that’s Ac­tors Stu­dio. That level of be­ing real. That’s why I wanted Marty.

Then Marty and I met, and I said, “I want to make a movie from a woman’s point of view, and I can’t tell from your movie if you know any­thing about women. Do you?” He said, “No, but I’d like to learn.”

There was a harsh­ness to some of the char­ac­ter in­ter­ac­tions that was un­usual for a film about women back then.

The Last Pic­ture Show also had that qual­ity in the act­ing. There was a re­al­ity. How was that achieved?

A lot of it was how Peter [Bog­danovich] made it. We lived in the town where it was shot, Archer City, Texas. We stayed in a mo­tel, all of us to­gether with noth­ing around us, nowhere to go, be­cause we were on the high­way, we weren’t in the town. We were just the cast to­gether, eat­ing to­gether. We shot in the town where the events took place, and the peo­ple in the town would tell us who the char­ac­ter was based on.

In one scene, I’m read­ing a magazine, bored to death, and my hus­band is there asleep in front of the TV and then I hear a car pull up. I rec­og­nize the sound of the truck, and [I think] it’s my lover, Abi­lene. Yay! I put the magazine down, I get up, and the cam­era fol­lows me into the other room, and I go to the door to greet Abi­lene. But it’s not Abi­lene; it’s my daugh­ter. But wait a minute: That was Abi­lene’s truck, which means my daugh­ter was with Abi­lene, which means my daugh­ter is not a vir­gin any­more.

All of those things had to hap­pen with­out a line. So I said to Peter, “I have eight dif­fer­ent things hap­pen here in this one shot, and

I have no line.” And he said, “I know.” And I said, “How am I sup­posed to do that?” And he said, “Just think the thoughts of the char­ac­ter, and the cam­era will read your mind.”

That’s what the Ac­tors Stu­dio work is about: be­ing real. Be­cause if you’re real, and you feel the emo­tions of the char­ac­ter, the cam­era will read it. And the au­di­ence will feel it.

Where were you when you found out you’d been nom­i­nated for Best Sup­port­ing Ac­tress for The Last Pic­ture Show?

Af­ter that film came out, I no­ticed in my­self a de­gree of de­sire for an Os­car that I found unattrac­tive—and greedy, some­how. I didn’t want to want that much ac­claim. So on the morn­ing they an­nounced the nom­i­nees, I went to the beach, and when I came home to my apart­ment, it was filled with flow­ers and I thought, Oh, I guess I was nom­i­nated. The flow­ers told me. ■

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