Ellen Burstyn

Published February 23, 2011

Multi award-winning actress Ellen Burstyn talks to Matthew Amer about volleyball, curses and why The Children’s Hour is making her so happy.

The West End debut, a landmark moment for every actor and actress who has ever dreamt of a career on the stage. But what if that debut came in the 55th year of a career which had already encompassed performances that had been honoured with Oscar, Emmy and Tony Awards, and one of the most memorable and influential films of all time? Ellen Burstyn’s answer is simple: “I don’t think I’ve ever been happier.”

American actress Burstyn, who starred in The Exorcist and has six Academy Award nominations including a win for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, is appearing alongside Keira Knightley, Elisabeth Moss and Carol Kane in Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour at the Comedy theatre. Though she is one of an exclusive club of performers to have completed the ‘triple threat’ of US acting accolades, this is the first time she has plied her trade in the English capital.

“We have a certain amount of history when you’re in a Broadway theatre,” she says as we chat in a deserted bar at the theatre, posters of previous productions surrounding our secluded table. “But it’s 50 years instead of 300, 400 years. Our history is so much shorter than yours. When we’re here we get a sense of the world before us… Oh yes, there was a whole world before we were even born as a country,” she laughs.

Burstyn plays Amelia Tilford, a grandmother whose belief in the words of her manipulative, unlikeable granddaughter sets in motion the downfall of a school founded by Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, played by the show’s headliners Knightley and Mad Men star Moss. “It’s about self-righteousness, of people thinking that they know the way that’s right and feel that their way is the only way. It’s about secrets and lying and friendship,” Burstyn explains. “It’s really about a lot of things.”

When it was written, in 1934, it might well have been about the taboo nature of homosexuality – it was banned from the stage for just that reason – but in 2011, with sexual preferences far less shocking than they were, the actual reason for the scandal takes a back seat. Instead the imposing power of rumour, hearsay and unsubstantiated gossip rises to the surface, with the play taking on a flavour of the McCarthy hearings though it was written two decades before they took place.

“I was certainly aware that there were unseen, not understood, strange energies around”

The chief proponent of The Children’s Hour’s terrible tittle tattle is the young Mary Tilford. In a cast packed with award winners and household names, relative unknown Bryony Hannah stole many of the critics’ column inches with her visceral performance as the young Machiavellian. Though Burstyn is unaware of how much Hannah has caught the imagination – she doesn’t read reviews as “It can get in your mind at the wrong times” – she was “impressed with what I experienced working with her. I’m glad she’s appreciated.”

Calm, poised and controlled in a way which comes from having spent more than five decades dealing with journalists, Burstyn is also full of praise for director Ian Rickson who, she says, is “creative in ways I’ve never experienced before”.

The former Artistic Director of the Royal Court has a habit of offering his cast the chance to play volleyball in theatre auditoriums before performances which, though Burstyn is “the worst” in the cast, fills her with glee. “The actors have claimed the whole house as ours,” she beams, “so that the audience becomes our guest. It’s all our house. Our visitors come and we share with them our work. It’s a whole other attitude.”

It would be fair to say that Burstyn is an experienced performer. Her 55-year career has seen her star on Broadway and in Hollywood, working with directors as lauded as Martin Scorcese and Darren Aronofsky. To find an approach that is new and invigorating noticeably gives her a lift.

It is a lift she must surely need. In playing Tilford she portrays a character whose gullibility or need to believe brings about terrible consequences which, when they reach their climax, she, now acquainted with the truth, is devastated to see. It is a performance that draws on the depths of Burstyn’s emotions, and, at 78, she gives that performance eight times a week. “I don’t do anything else,” she says when I ask how she manages to keep up with such a gruelling schedule. “I have a half hour walk to the theatre and home every day and I go to the gym three times a week if possible.” This schedule of abstinence, though, has little to do with her age and everything to do with her complete commitment to a role. “It’s always been this way,” she says.

Burstyn trained under Lee Strasberg, the man widely considered the father of method acting in the US. In fact, she is now co-president – along with Harvey Keitel and Al Pacino – of the Actors’ Studio, where Strasberg was first a teacher then Artistic Director. I may be reading too much into a simple turn of phrase, but as we discuss her character, and why, exactly, she takes the word of an adolescent girl as gospel, Burstyn constantly uses ‘I’ not ‘She’. “Her father was my favourite son,” she says, “He killed himself and I’m in denial about it. I brought into my home a child who was bent by an insane mother and a father’s suicide.” She really does inhabit the role and become the character.

“To be debuting in the West End at this age is like a miracle”

This may be why Darren Aronofsky, nominated for Best Director at this year’s Oscars for Black Swan, cast her in two of his previous films, The Fountain and, most famously, Requiem For A Dream. In the tale of four addicts, she memorably played Sara, a woman addicted to diet pills. It was a role for which she collected her sixth Academy Award nomination, 20 years after her last in the film Resurrection.

“It was very challenging,” she says, “but that’s the most fun. The more challenging the role, the better time you have because it’s high creativity which is what we’re all in it for. I just remember going through a couple of days of painful drama and then, at the end of the day, just feeling exhilarated.” Not exhausted, I ask? “No, it works the opposite because you’re firing all your brain cells and giving what you’ve got to give, so it feels good.”

Burstyn faced a very different challenge while working on the highest profile film of her career, controversial horror The Exorcist, which has had such a cultural impact that it recently joined a select number of movies in the National Film Registry of the US Library of Congress.

Though working on a film that was met with such expectation might have been pressure enough, there were so many unfortunate and inexplicable happenings during the production of the movie about a possessed girl that it began to gain a reputation as cursed. As we talk about it, Burstyn becomes noticeably quieter.

“I was eye-witness to some very, very powerful, strange things happening. Why should the set catch fire in the middle of the night when no-one was there? Why should our night watchman be shot and killed by the police thinking he was somebody else? It just went on and on and on. I was certainly aware that there were unseen, not understood, strange energies around. I don’t have a theory about it, I was just witness to something powerful. Too many accidents. Too many deaths. Too many everything.” Wouldn’t such supernatural threats make it difficult to go into work each day, I wonder? “Not if you pray a lot,” she smiles, breaking the eerie tension.

Though there are too many highpoints in her career for us to discuss in the short time we have – her Oscar-winning turn in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More: “nobody had told the story from a woman’s point of view in film before”, the film Resurrection which “has its own strange history” – it is clear that now, on the London stage for the first time and in the sixth decade of her career, fits right alongside the best of them: “I’m 78 now; so many people that have been important to me in my life have already gone. I feel that I’m, first of all, grateful to be alive every day, and, secondly, to be working at all. But then to be debuting in the West End at this age is like a miracle. I love it. I couldn’t be happier.”