Ellen Burstyn’s Incredible Journey: ‘When I Think About What I Did Then, I Can’t Believe It’
The legendary actress has led a long, difficult, and rewarding life. And she’s not done yet.
Ellen Burstyn has led an extraordinary life.
She left home at 18, and, with no money, took a Greyhound Bus to Dallas, Texas. There, she knocked on doors looking for modeling work and eventually found it—but was forced to put up with a torrent of sexual harassment. A few years later, she moved to New York City with just a quarter in her pocket and the number of a creepy psychiatrist friend-of-a-friend who, it turns out, collected erotic photographs of women he encountered. She endured abusive relationships with her estranged father, who more than once attempted to sleep with her, as well as her third husband Neil, a schizophrenic who stalked her for a number of years following their split.
In the 1960s, she was active in the counterculture movement, experimenting with LSD and running in the same circles as Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper and Bruce Dern. She was even present for the birth of Dern’s daughter, Laura, and plays her mother in the upcoming film The Tale, premiering May 26 on HBO. In addition to being a longtime liberal activist, Burstyn was also a Hollywood trailblazer: becoming a star at 39, graduating in the first class of the AFI’s Directing Workshop for Women, and serving as president of the Actors’ Equity Association.
Today the 85-year-old, who’s treated us to memorable on-screen turns in The Last Picture Show, The Exorcist, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (for which she won the Best Actress Oscar), and Requiem for a Dream (for which she was robbed of the Best Actress Oscar), is recognized as one of the finest actresses to ever grace the screen. And she’s far from finished.
On a nice day in March, in her cozy Upper West Side apartment overlooking the Central Park Reservoir, I find myself seated across from Burstyn. “The sun’s reflection in the water I find to be soul food,” she tells me in her delicate voice. The windows are lined with crystals, and the walls decorated with books and artifacts representing what must be every religion.
We are here to discuss her latest film, The House of Tomorrow. In it, she plays Josephine, the overbearing grandmother to Sebastian (Asa Butterfield). The two live in a geodesic dome-home called The House of Tomorrow, a local tourist attraction. Josephine is a disciple of R. Buckminster Fuller, the futurist and inventor who popularized the geodesic dome, and her preservationist lifestyle clashes with her grandson’s ongoing bout of teenage rebellion—forming a punk group with a new friend (Alex Wolff) and crushing on his pal’s sister (Maude Apatow).
The movie was executive produced by Burstyn and made as a tribute to Fuller, her real-life pal.
There’s a certain serenity in this apartment—a sharp contrast to the chaos in the world, and this presidential administration.
Yeah. The latest thing is [Trump] taking the ban off the elephant trophies. That just killed me. I mean, when the whole world is trying to get countries to protect elephants before they’re extinct, which could happen in our lifetime, he takes the ban off trophies.
I’m not surprised, sadly. His large adult sons are big-game hunters.
How dare they! It’s so gross. That picture of one of the sons holding a dead leopard… Ugh.
Let’s talk House of Tomorrow. The film is dedicated to your late friend, the futurist R. Buckminster Fuller. And there’s some lovely real-life footage of you two sailing on a boat in the film.
That must have been in the late ‘70s. We’re sailing on his boat, The Intuition. I’ll show you.
Burstyn gets up and returns with an assortment of photographs and books of Fuller’s with inscriptions to her inside.
I approached him about wanting to do a film about his Great-Aunt Margaret Fuller, and he was so generous with his time talking to me, and then we became friends. What happened was, I contacted his office requesting an interview, and his secretary said, “I’ll call you back.” When she called me back, she said, “You can have two hours in the Boston airport or five hours in the Chicago airport.” She gave me his layovers. So, I took the five hours in Chicago. We had breakfast for five hours in a Howard Johnson’s and became friends. He was an incredible man. He was a futurist, and coined that phrase. He trained me to think about the future of the planet, so I shudder to think about what he would think of what’s happening now.
He is fascinating. And the film, in a way, explores the conflict between the old and the new, represented by your character and your grandson in the film.
I think for me the central message of the film, as I understood it, is although I think my way is better than the modern way, we have to think for ourselves and find our own way. That was hard for my character to understand. Kids are supposed to break away at a certain point, and I was very chagrined, in my own life, to learn that part of my role as a mother was to help my son break away; not to keep him tied to me, but to release him to his own future, and encourage him to fly from the nest. It’s hard. Because the fact is, mothers would really like to keep their children at home forever, if possible, and protected. You always want to protect you children from the realities of life, and you can’t.
You were very rebellious. I’ve read your biography—which is stunningly written, by the way—and you arrived in New York City with twenty-five cents and a wacky psychiatrist’s number in your pocket.
You know, when I think about what I did then, I can’t believe it. Before New York, getting on a Greyhound Bus for Texas, where I’d never been, with just enough money to get there and thinking, “Oh, I’ll figure it out”… what was I thinking?
And you had to go door-to-door in Dallas asking people for modeling work.
Yeah. “You need a model?” And then somebody said yes! But when I arrived in New York, I mean, I didn’t have food to eat.
There’s that great bit in your book about how, when you first landed in New York, you told the man next to you at a diner you forgot your wallet and got him to pay for your meal.
I was a hustler! I was a hustler when I arrived in Grand Central Station. Oh god. Talk about relying on the kindness of strangers… I really did. But back in Dallas, when I was trying to get a modeling job for the opening of the wholesale market, this salesman offered me the job—but for twenty-five dollars. And my hotel bill was thirty-five dollars already, and they said they were going to throw me out that day if I didn’t pay. So the man told me to go back and meet the sales manager, and then the guy said I could have the job for forty-five dollars—but I’d have to sleep with him.
You had to put up with a lot of misogynistic behavior then. There were the reviews for one of your first big Broadway plays, Fair Game, where the critic praised the male actor’s “comic genius” and your “sensational figure.”
[Laughs] That’s right. Well, we’re in the process with that now where it’s actually being addressed, which is so good. It’s just so good that what was acceptable for men’s behavior at that time is no longer acceptable. I was talking to an Oscar-winning actor the other day about this, and he said, “It’s like they changed the rules! Like you’re driving along on a road and the speed limit is 70 miles per hour and they change it to 50 but they don’t tell you, and then they stop you and want to give you a ticket. And you say, ‘But I always drove it 70.’” He said, “That’s what it’s like for men now: we didn’t know the rules changed.”
I think for men of a certain age, right? But then again, even men back in the day must have known that they were up to no good when they behaved horribly towards women.
It’s in the power dynamics of relationships—that’s what’s changing. With bosses and secretaries, or head waiters with waitresses, the assumption was, “She’s not going to say anything if I slap her on the ass.” Now, men are going to go, “She’s probably gonna say something if I do that.”
And you see women in Hollywood with production companies. You executive-produced House of Tomorrow. In your book, you write about how Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore was your project. You helped secure the rights and brought it to the studio, you brought Scorsese onboard as director. You should have had a producer’s credit.
And I think I could have had it. As I recall, John Calley [an executive at Warner Bros.] first asked me if I wanted to direct it, and I said no—and I was right about that—but I think he also asked me if I wanted a producer’s credit, and I said, “No, I don’t need that. I just want a nice part for myself.” So, that was my thinking. Those were the limitations I put on myself.
But do you think you put those limitations on yourself because of the environment at the time? Because there weren’t enough examples of female producers out there? If there had been, you might have been more inclined to say, yes, I’ll take it.
Yeah. I think so. Times have changed, thank god.
And after Warner Bros. saw the dailies to The Exorcist and knew they had a huge hit on their hands, you write about how they sent you every conceivable script: “Every woman in them was either the victim, the understanding wife of the hero who was out saving the world, or a prostitute or some other style of sex object. There was no script where the woman was the protagonist.”
They were victims, wives or prostitutes with a heart of gold. Occasionally, I think they were villains. Never the hero.
But around that time, in 1975, you were in the first graduating class of the AFI’s Directing Workshop for Women. That’s pretty amazing.
The class was small, maybe twenty people. I don’t remember who else was in it—nobody that I know now. The only thing that I remember was a review somewhere, I don’t remember which periodical it was, but it said that I showed a real flair for the use of the camera. It made me so happy. I retained it, and I don’t retain too many reviews. So, I’m hoping that I can finally get this movie on that I’ve been working on for three years.
Bathing Flo, right? Your directorial debut!
Yeah! I’m old enough now I think, don’t you?
I think you’re more than ready. You know, I’ve always been deeply fascinated by your career, because it’s so unique. You don’t see many actresses become stars in their late-30s/early-40s.
In The Last Picture Show, I was just about to turn 40. I remember after Alice, I was in the checkout line at a supermarket and I saw my face on the cover of a magazine and the caption was, “New Star at 42.” I went, “Oh, that’s interesting!” It’s a little curious: here I am at 85, and I’m still working—not at that level, but still working. I remember one time, I was 42 and I was taken to meet this living saint. Her name was Radiant Love. We talked for a little while and she said something that indicated to me that she thought I was young, and I said, “I’m 42.” And she said, “Oh, that means you’re going to be in that body for a long time.” I’m thinking of that now.
Speaking of premonitions, there’s a stunning moment in your book where you talk about how you had a premonition that Martin Luther King Jr. would be killed the morning it happened. And there’s a line you wrote that stuck with me, about the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, and Bobby Kennedy: “We carry those three assassinations in our collective soul. We may overcome them someday, but I don’t believe we have yet. I know I haven’t.” Do you still feel that way?
I do… I do. I remember what it felt like before—and now. It was like we were on a rising tide, and it just crashed. I don’t think anything was ever the same again. Now, it all might have been an illusion. It might not have been deeply true. But it felt like there was positive energy. It felt like we were growing into ourselves in a good way; that we were coming into our adulthood gracefully, with aspiration and improvement. Then we crashed.
It’s strange how politics swings like a pendulum in this country, where you’ll get an Obama and then get a Trump.
My first spiritual teacher, Rashad, used to say “everything manifests in reverse.” So if you get the first black president, you’re going to get its opposite.
He certainly is the opposite.
What are we gonna do?!
I think we’ll be OK. It’s hard but I’m trying to remain optimistic. There is the possibility, too, that by bringing all of these unsavory elements out of the darkness and into the light, Trump could unwittingly accelerate the process of America dealing with its festering issues.
Darren Aronofsky told me that recently, too. Trump gave voice to the shadow—to everything that was suppressed—and now it’s out, and now we have to deal with it. That could be a good thing—if the planet isn’t destroyed in the meantime. With the EPA, I just read that nearly all of the oceans are going to be open to oil drilling now. He’s lifting all the bans.
He’s a bit of a snake oil salesman, too. Which reminds me of your character Sara Goldfarb in Requiem for a Dream, who falls under the spell of a snake oil salesman. You deliver a monologue in that film—the “I’m somebody now, Harry” speech—that is among the most devastating I’ve ever seen. You wrote in your biography, “When I need to access a particular emotion for a role, I imagine taking an elevator down to my inner archive, where I quietly flip through the files until some memory rises up and offers itself. Then I move into that event and it comes alive in me.” Where did you go in your archive to achieve that?
You know, I did [the monologue] once and when I did it, I felt some feeling come up that I didn’t know I had, and it surprised me. So I went to Darren [Aronofsky] and said, “You have to do me next.” I knew I only had one shot at that for the personal realization that was there for me. He accommodated what I needed, and I did it, and it was as I knew. There was some feeling there about getting old that I didn’t know that I had, and I just allowed myself to experience it on camera. I didn’t have to go anywhere for that; it turned out it was in me, and I didn’t know it.
The next day, Darren came into my dressing room—which was a small trailer—and he said, “Can I do that again?” And I said, “No!” And he said, “Your nose goes out of focus. I fired the focus puller, we have a new one arriving. But we have to reshoot it.” I said, “How badly do I go out of focus?” He said, “Not badly. And if we can’t get it again, we’ll use what’s there. But I’d like to try it one more time.” We did it again. The out-of-focus one is there in the film and nobody notices. My nose goes out of focus for a minute.
Your apartment is filled with all these wonderful artifacts of various religions. You wrote in your book that you had a “god-sized hole” in you that you’ve filled with various religions. Where did that come from?
I was brought up Catholic, and that’s a very attractive religion, in a way—the churches are beautiful, the statues are beautiful, there’s a lot of pageantry. But I got to a point where I couldn’t accept the dedication to guilt, of having to feel sorry for my sins. As a little girl, I was always trying to cry so I would feel sorry enough when I went to confession, and I started to question that.
In catechism class, the teacher asked, “Who created the world?” The proper answer was, “God created the world.” “Who created God?” “Nobody created God. God always was.” Well, as soon as they said “God always was,” then I go, “Well, there can be an ‘always was,’ so why can’t Earth be the ‘always was?’ Why does it then have to have a Creator if God doesn’t have a Creator?” I didn’t understand then that those questions were the same ones that are being asked right now: if the universe began with the Big Bang, what banged? What was the dot that exploded into the universe? Where did the dot come from? That’s the biggest question we can ask. I’ve always been interested in those answers, and I go in all directions. I read the wisdom books of all religions. I don’t see a reason to say “I believe in this” or “I believe in that.” It’s all an exploration of life and the cosmos.
I wanted to go back to the sea change that’s happening with women, and the #MeToo movement. As someone who’s had to put with all matter of abuse from bad men, does it give you hope? Many of the women who are helping to lead the charge are in Hollywood, too.
Because they have a voice. A lot of women who need to take part in this change don’t have a voice. That Women’s March right after the inauguration was so inspiring. I was in the streets. My favorite moment was when I found myself in front of a cathedral on Fifth Avenue, and they started playing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” on the bells, and the crowd joined in and sang it together. God, it was so beautiful. So I think the women’s movement is going to lead us to where we need to be—in terms of man/woman relations, but also in terms of the Earth. Because the Earth really needs some love and care; our Mother needs some Mothering. Since the fall of Crete, we’ve been living in a patriarchy in the West. And that’s changing. Finally.