Remain in Light: An Interview with Ellen Burstyn

As we have established with this week of thorough coverage of Ellen Burstyn’s life, though she is a loved and popular talent who has been working in the entertainment world since the ’50s, there are also countless surprises waiting for those who take a closer look. I spoke with Ms. Burstyn in early November, as her most recent film Lovely, Still was being released to DVD, and just as she was gearing up for her next project: Ian Rickson’s West End adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour. Set to co-star Keira Knightley and Mad Men’s Elizabeth Moss in the roles made famous by Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine in the 1961 film, Hellman’s play is about teachers at a girl’s school being accused of being lesbian lovers. “I’ve never played the West End before,” said an enthusiastic Burstyn, who will appear in a key supporting role. “When I’m not rehearsing, I’ll be looking for an adventure.”

I loved that you dedicated your book Lessons in Becoming Myself to all of your teachers and that you are a teacher as well as an actor. That led me to wonder, what did you learn making Lovely, Still and what lessons did you perhaps teach?

I’ve got to get my mind back there, because it’s been two years, I think, since I did it and have done a few things in between! Marty Landau and I have known each other now for 40 years or something. At the Actors Studio, you know, he’s the director on the West coast, I am on the East cost, but we’ve never worked together. Marty is the one who sent me the script. It was just such fun working with somebody who has the same kind of training. It’s like we harmonized. It was very easy to harmonize with him because of that training, because we’re both students of Lee Strasberg’s. And working with him was kind of like the way jazz musicians must feel that don’t know each other, or that have never played together before, as soon as they start playing, they immediately can pick up each other’s music, inner music, you know? So that was a lot of fun. Now, what did I learn from that? Hm, I’m not if I can put it into words, you know? My experience, what I teach, is that if you are completely present and attuned to the other actor, there’s a kind of synergy that occurs. I’ve just done a film with Ellen Barkin a couple of months ago, and it’s playing a duet with somebody who you can feel into.

Is there marked difference acting with someone who maybe isn’t trained in the same method as you are?

Well, as our founder Elia Kazan said, “there’s no such thing as ‘Method’ acting, only ‘Method’ rehearsal.” That’s a really wise statement and a good way to think about it, because it’s not about the result that you get, but about your approach. It’s how you think about the character, and how you explore the psychology of a character. When you meet somebody for the first time – like I just met Ellen Barkin – and you both have this same kind of approach, you then you get into the … I remember a musician saying to me, he was learning a piece, and he said ‘I just have to get off the music, and get off the notes, so I can play the music.’ That’s a good way to express it, because sometimes you work with an actor who doesn’t have the same kind of training I do and I feel like they’re playing the notes. When you get with an actor who does have that kind of training, you can more quickly get into playing the music. You know, where you’re just in the scene with them, you’re just being the lover of that person, or the mother of that person, and you’re not trying to do it, it’s just there and you’re alive in it. Alive in the relationship and there’s a kind of ease and harmony in what you’re doing.

Can you describe the initial steps of your method of creating a character once you’ve decided to play the role? For example, on Lovely, Still, when did the prep start and what is the first part of the exploration of the character of Mary like?

For Mary, it was the fact that she was a wife, and a mother, that that is who she was in her identity, and that’s what she did. That was her function, and her life. That was her life. So what was at stake for her was trying to keep that alive in her, keep that relationship, keep her ability to do well, to love as a wife loves, that was her identity. So, once I get clear what’s important to a character, what she cares about and what her life experiences have been, then I start feeling my way into that aspect of myself and kind of occupy that character in me and bring her forward, and everyone else goes to sleep.

Having watched Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore recently I was particularly struck by the cinematic size of such a beautifully intimate story. Where do you think Alice fits into Martin Scorsese’s filmography? Is it similar to any of his other films for you or completely unique?

It’s completely different from anything else he’s ever done. He was a young filmmaker then, he had only made Mean Streets, and it hadn’t been released. I had brought the script to Warner Brothers, and they decided to make it, and they said ‘who do you want to make it?’ I said ‘I’m not sure. Somebody young and exciting.’ I was friends with Francis Coppola, and asked him if he knew anybody young and exciting, and he said ‘look at a film called Mean Streets, and I did, and I immediately wanted Marty to do it, because of the level of reality in Mean Streets. I knew that we had the same desire to be real. And so I asked for a meeting, and he came. I said ‘I love your film, but it’s hard to know from looking at that film if you know anything about women. This is a film told from a woman’s point of view. What do you know about that?’ He said ‘nothing, but I’d like to learn.’ I thought that was such an incredible answer that I immediately wanted to work with him. It was being told from a woman’s point of view, which had almost never been done at that time. He accomplished it, he did it, and I don’t know that he ever did that again. Not that I’m aware of.

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore was heralded at the time as being part of an emerging new kind of cinema where women’s issues were at the forefront. What did the word feminism mean to you then and how, if at all, has the meaning of that word has changed for you since?

Then it was what was happening in the Zeitgeist, you know? The women were awakening to their own value as people. One of the lines that I put in the film was ‘I mean, its my life, not some man’s life that I’m helping him out with.’ To me, that line was the core of what we women were awakening to then. I certainly felt like an assistant person until the Women’s Movement came along. I felt like I was a help mate. The idea that a woman could be of value on her own…The way I felt about it was if I looked at a sunset and it was beautiful, and I didn’t have a man there to say ‘oh, isn’t that a beautiful sunset?’, if I didn’t have a man there to see that, somehow the sunset was diminished. It wasn’t fulfilled, it wasn’t a complete experience. The Women’s Movement, at the time, it was like we all woke up and went ‘Oh! Me! I’m Alive! I’m here! ’ (laughs). I am an independent human being, whether or not I am with a man. It was a startling concept!

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

So, I was going through it, as many women were in that period, so that was the consciousness that we wanted to bring to Bob Getchell’s wonderful script. I wanted to add that element to it. What do I think about it now? That we did it, in that time, we awakened the value of being a woman, in the whole consciousness of our country. I don’t think we succeeded in doing much for the women of Afghanistan, but hopefully that will spread in time. Did you see the front page of the New York Times today? There’s a photograph of a woman in Afghanistan who set herself on fire; to get away from the family she was given into, for an arranged marriage. That’s how severe the lives are for them. We were never that bad off, but we certainly were property, and that’s changed. And now, you know, it’s like young girls now have no idea what it was like then. I suppose they’re learning more about it more from going to shows like Mad Men, that shows men’s usage of women in this period.

My personal favorite of all of your performances is in Resurrection.

Thank you! I always know that it’s a special person I’m talking to when that is their favorite picture! It’s available now! You can finally get it on Amazon now! For years it was very hard to get and people were always writing me and asking how they could get a copy of it, so please print that it is available now.

As I understand, from reading Lessons in Becoming Myself, this was a passion project for you, the amount of preparation you did for it was daunting and hard, and the film was misunderstood at the time of its release. In retrospect, what most resonates with you today about playing the character?

There’s so much…you know, I’ve experienced healing myself, and people who have that ability. It’s something that’s never been accepted too much in this country, except by a minority of people, whereas in England, everybody goes ‘yeah, sure, certain things you take to the doctor, other things you take to the healer.’ To me, she was a spiritual and sexual person. I felt the need at the time to unite those two aspect of being a woman, because most of the time, we tend to think of a spiritual woman, like Joan of Arc or St. Theresa, as non-sexual. It seemed to me that, my experience was, that they were not incompatible with each other. SO I wanted to have those two domains, the sexual and the spiritual, united in the character. That was one of my main intentions there, but also to shine some light on the whole death process. Being present with my father when he died, in the picture, talking about death with my grandmother, Eva La Galienne.

It seemed to be that death, at the time, was such a hush-hush thing and it had been taken out of our hands. For years, we used to prepare our beloved’s remains for burial, it would be at home, you know? The body laid out, and the family coming. Once it got taken away and put in funeral parlors, it became something to be shunned, to be afraid of, to not look at, to not mention. So I wanted to bring back that image, of somebody taking care of their dying loved ones, and being with them when they die. I feel I was successful in that. Many, many people wrote me and said that ‘because of that film, I was with my mother or my father when they died, and it was a profound experience, and thank you.’ That was a really important thing that I wanted to bring to her.

The supporting cast of Resurrection is so fabulous, but the scene I go back to over and over and over is the one where the Grandmother, played by Eva La Gallienne, explains Edna’s gifts. It’s such a perfect scene. Can you maybe talk a little bit about what it was like acting it? What was the set like that day?

Well, of course, she was a great actress, and a great woman, and that was her only film. I’m very glad to have been helpful in bringing her to the screen; otherwise, we wouldn’t have known who Eva La Galienne was, other than what we read about her. The scene where I say goodbye to her and she says it is the last time she’ll ever see me, and I say ‘will you save me a place on the other side?’ She says, ‘I’ll save it for you…’ Just before that I say something about love and she says ‘if we could just love each other, the way we say we love Him, I expect there wouldn’t all the bother in the world.’ Every time she said it, I burst into tears. She did something magical when she said the word love; I don’t know how she did it. It was like she dropped her voice into her heart. The word love came straight out of her heart. If the director [Daniel Petrie] would have said ‘you absolutely can’t cry in this scene,’ I wouldn’t have known how to do it because I couldn’t help myself. She was so great, she was a magnificent woman!

I’m jealous of everyone who got to see you play Mary Tyrone onstage in Long Day’s Journey into Night. Aside from the obvious addiction problems, I think that Mary Tyrone and Sara Goldfarb in Requiem for a Dream share many similar qualities….Did playing Mary Tyrone onstage inform your performance as Sara?

Absolutely! Because Darren came to see me as Mary Tyrone, we met backstage for the first time, I was still in costume. I was full of all of that research about addiction and morphine and all of it. I went right into it. I slid from Mary Tyrone into Sara Goldfarb.

As Sara, you had heavy prosthetics and make-up, a variety of costumes and wigs. Really harrowing dramatic elements to navigate. And then, technically speaking, the film was very complex. What appealed to you most about playing this character given the kind of restraints that you had to work with?

Ellen Burstyn: Oh, it was painful. It was very painful. But you know, it was Darren. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that film, I initially turned it down. I said to my agent ‘Oh my God, this is such a downer… why would anyone want to put themselves through this?’ And she said, well have a look at Pi, so I looked at it, and after several minutes I said ‘ok, I get it, he’s an artist.’ So I just wanted to work with him, I wasn’t sure about anything else. I love working with somebody who is really creative, it was very exciting.

Back to the new movie…Watching Lovely, Still, I couldn’t help but be reminded that ageism is rampant in Hollywood film, and is usually particularly directed toward women. So it was nice to see a romance with two non-traditional leads. What kind of changes have you seen in the past decade, in the way that more mature actresses are depicted? For example, are there many interesting, multi-dimensional roles like Sara Goldfarb or Mary from Lovely, Still out there for older actresses to begin with?

Well, there aren’t a lot, but there are some. I just did a film in Michigan with Sam Levinson, who is the son of Barry Levinson [editor’s note: The Reasonable Bunch, due 2011], and that’s the one where Ellen Barkin played my daughter, and Demi Moore is in it too, and there are a lot of wonderful women’s roles. I’m not sure that that the script would have been done a few years back. I think there is improvement now; I think there’s more awareness of women as interesting characters. You know, not just old gray grandmas.

From one Michigander to another, what are the major changes that you observed in the Detroit area since you left?

Well, I went back to the Detroit Institute of Arts, and that was so glorious. It was the first museum I was ever in, in my life. I loved going back there and seeing those great murals by Diego Rivera. There’s a highway system now, I used to, in order to get from downtown out where I lived, to where my mother lived, in Royal Oak, and you’d have to take Woodward Avenue, all the way. Now it’s all highways. I hardly got to see Detroit, because I was on the highway all the time! Of course, the shopping malls, like everywhere else in America, you just kind of go around, and whatever you want to do, it’s in a shopping mall. But it was lovely to be back, I love the people, I felt very at home there. You know what I discovered? The skies are so beautiful there. I didn’t really remember that my taste in sky was formed in Michigan. Whenever I was in California, I would always feel kind of disappointed when I looked up at the sky, because it was all kind of pale. In Michigan, the skies are all really stormy clouds, because of all of the lakes around there, they are very dramatic factors. I didn’t really remember that’s where I developed a taste for that kind of dramatic sky.

I love that in Lovely, Still, there is such a warm holiday milieu. What kinds of holiday rituals do you enjoy participating in?

Well, I always have a big Christmas tree, and I have my son and his family over, and I have my friends, and I cook, and I love Christmas! I have, on some occasions, worked in a soup kitchen on Christmas, but this is the first Christmas that I am going to be away from home. I have a phone call I have to make, its about my contract for a West End appearance, I’m going to do a production of Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour. I’ll be there for five months – over my birthday, for Thanksgiving, for New Year’s, for Christmas. I’m not sure yet how I’m going to spend Christmas, but I’ll be in Europe this year!