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
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?
“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. ■
1971 an ellen burstyn pantheon
the exorcist 1973
same time, next year 1978