The Fretts on Film Interview: Ellen Burstyn on “Requiem,” “The Exorcist” and More!
Has Ellen Burstyn ever given a bad performance? If so, I haven’t seen it. Her streak hasn’t been broken with her scene-swiping role as Sigourney Weaver‘s booze-swilling mom on USA’s miniseries Political Animals. I spoke with Burstyn about that project as well as some earlier highlights of her brilliant career.
Is it fun working with Sigourney Weaver on Political Animals? Had you ever worked with her or met her before?
I had not ever worked with her before. I met her once briefly years ago. It’s wonderful working with her. She’s very professional, very intent, and very reserved. It took a little while for us to get to know each other but as soon as we played a scene where we have a fight, we got to know each other [laughing]. And, you know, the space between us got smaller. She’s very warm when you get to know her. But she’s a reserved person. Very elegant, very intense. And wonderful. The more you know her, the more likeable she is.
You won the Oscar for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, but you weren’t there when it was presented. Is that right?
Right. I was on Broadway doing Same Time, Next Year.
And they wouldn’t give you the night off?
They would give me the night off, but they wouldn’t close the show. People waited so long to get tickets to see the show that it didn’t seem fair to me to have them get to theater and find out I wasn’t going to be there.
So what was that night like? Did you know that you won when you were on stage? Or how did you find out?
Oh no, it was after the curtain, and I had gone to a friend’s house and was watching it on television and they started screaming and pulling me when my name was called!
What was it like making Requiem for a Dream? It was such an intense movie to watch. Was it just as intense to make?
It was very intense. Of course Darren Aronosky is such a genius that it was thrilling to work with him, and it was deep and hard. It was exhilarating.
That definitely came across. I thought you should have won another Oscar for that film, quite frankly. But what do I know?
I still have people walking up to me on the street and going “You were robbed!”
Well, let’s not go past that without saying Julia Roberts was wonderful in the film [Erin Brockovich] she won for. So I don’t in any way want to denigrate her.
Of course. Do you ever get scared watching any of your movies? The Exorcist or Requiem for a Dream?
No, I have a good time! When I look at a film, I’m not just seeing what’s on camera, I’m seeing everything around it. What it took to make that shot, and where the camera was, and what takes they didn’t use. So I have a different view of movies. I’m not just looking at what it’s like, the finished story.
On a personal note, my parents saw you in a play in summer stock on their honeymoon in 1960. It was called John Loves Mary, with James Garner.
Oh my God! I’ve never met anyone who actually saw me in that.
They remember it fondly. My Dad made my Mom wait in line to get James Garner’s autograph because he was a big fan of Maverick.
That’s so funny because the way the dressing room was set up, people had to file through my dressing room to get to James’ dressing room. So the whole line for autographs went by me.
That story is often told in my family. And they were married for 52 years, so it worked out well.
I hope seeing the play somehow brought them together.
It did! So it doesn’t seem you’re slowing down at all. Is that how it feels to you?
Uh, no, as a matter fact, it feels like I’m speeding up.
Why is that? Do you want to work more? Or are you just getting good offers?
I love working! I always have, and I see no reason to slow down.
There is none! You’re doing great work.
If I keep getting hired, I’ll keep acting.
What’s your favorite Ellen Burstyn role? Anybody remember Resurrection, Harry and Tonto, The King of Marvin Gardens or The Last Picture Show?