Ellen Burstyn on Joining House of Cards and How She’s Fighting Hollywood’s ‘Patriarchy’

Photo: Daniel Zuchnik/WireImage

The latest installment of Netflix’s flagship drama, House of Cards, has an impressive infusion of new female characters, and among them is Elizabeth Hale, the cold, Dallas-society mother of First Lady Claire Underwood (Robin Wright). She is played with steely ease by veteran actress Ellen Burstyn, 83, whose résumé boasts some of the most intense and surprising work ever done by an actor. From her career-defining turns in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and The Exorcist, to numerous indie collaborations with Darren Aronofsky to sweeter turns on the small screen (remember her as the sweet Polish lady on Louie?), Burstyn’s work is always masterful, but never predictable. She spoke with Vulture about being directed by Wright on HOC, discovering Scorsese, and how she’s fighting the “patriarchy” of Hollywood.

How does it feel to be part of a series that’s literally keeping people up at night?
(Laughs) I must say, I don’t remember doing a television show that’s so talked about. I’ve had an overwhelming response of emails, texts, calls, and people stopping me on the street. I walk my dog now and everybody says, “We love you on the show!” I got a text from my friend in California who binged the whole season on the first night. (Laughs) I couldn’t believe it.

Were you a fan of House of Cards before you were cast?
I had watched some of it, yes, but I’m generally not a big TV watcher. I watch the news a lot — MSNBC — political stories and National Geographic [channel]. And of course I see a lot of movies for Oscar voting. But I had to watch some of House of Cards because I wanted to see what on earth everybody was talking about. It’s quite an interesting show with everything we have going on with the global reality-show that is our election season. 

It’s almost as if the series is an escape from reality, which is disturbing considering how incredibly evil all the characters are.
(Laughs) Yes. I know people in Scotland, Australia, and Paris, and they all say the same thing. “Have you people in America lost your minds?” Somehow the fact that the show is just “fiction” makes it entertaining, but terrifyingly real, too.

You and Robin have such a palpable, natural chemistry as mother and daughter — a shared iciness that’s at once scary and sad. Was the role written specifically for you?
The two episodes were already written when it was offered to me, and the next four after I was cast. They definitely give the viewer an idea of where Claire gets her iciness from!

Robin directed a few of the episodes in which you appear. What does it mean to you, after years of being directed by men, to have a woman director on set?
Well, I have a project I’m trying to raise money for now — it’s called Bathing Slow that I want to direct and also act in. We are fund-raising now, which is not easy and not my forte. I have a wonderful script by a writer named Lauren Lake, who’s also an actress. I’ve never had the experience of acting and directing, so it was wonderful to watch Robin going in and out of character, from behind the camera to in front of it. She’s very good and the crew just loves her.  They’re so happy when she’s directing. She’s such an interesting woman — very smart but also has Claire’s reserve. But she’s not mean. (Laughs.)

My favorite film of yours remains Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. It’s one of the most brutal and powerful performances I’ve ever seen on film. How do you know when you can trust someone with a story like that?
When I first read the script, my reaction was, “Oh, my God, this is the most depressing movie I’ve ever read. Who would want to go see this movie?” I told my agent I didn’t want to do it. And he said, “Before you say no, look at a film called Pi,” which was Darren’s first film. I just saw about four minutes of that and went, “Okay, I get it. The guy’s an artist. I’ll do it.” So, that’s the feeling I get. An opportunity to work with an artist is something I don’t pass up. 

And you were somewhat spoiled on that front early in your career, working with Martin Scorsese on Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and William Friedkin on The Exorcist.
That’s true. But you know, I selected Marty for Alice. He was an unknown director at the time, and I picked him just on the basis of Mean Streets.  I had no idea that I was picking one of the great film artists of all time. (Laughs) He was wonderful.

Overall your career also reflects a performer who doesn’t shy away from dark material, including your recent turn in Todd Solondz’s totally demented Sundance movie, Wiener-Dog.
Oh, yes!  Tell me what you thought of that film. 

It’s totally crazy and so depressing and so weird. It actually makes Requiem for a Dream look like a Disney movie.
(Laughs.) Well, I think Todd is a genius. He’s so original. He has a voice that is just his, you know?  Nobody else has his view. It’s dark and a little off-center. But I also feel in his films a love of humanity; seeing the foibles in all of us, but not judging them. I loved doing that film. It was a very low-budget film so it was uncomfortable at times. There were no trailers, no dressing room, there was no place to sit.  It was extreme in the discomfort, but I loved doing it because he’s so great. 

Recently, conversations about gender equality in Hollywood have reached fever pitch. How have these inequities impacted your work since you started acting in the late 1950s?
It’s interesting, John Calley at Warner Bros. helped me put Alice together. It was very unusual back then for a studio to support an actress the way he backed and supported me. He even asked me if I wanted to direct the film, which I didn’t feel prepared to at that point. I do now, but I didn’t then! Today, people like Reese Witherspoon and Meryl Streep have vowed to improve the opportunities for women, but those promises are still unusual. There’s no doubt that the patriarchy that we live in also controls the movie industry. The heads of the studios are men and it’s reflected in the scripts they buy and the work that gets made. So I’m hoping that we can infiltrate more so the business is more representative of the general population rather than just movies for 18-year-old boys.

Aside from your directing project, are there other pieces you’d like to see come to fruition?
Oh, yes, I have a wonderful project that’s been with Lifetime based on a real-life World War II heroine. Lifetime has developed a fantastic script, a two-part movie, and we have been waiting for a greenlight. They said they’ll let us know by the end of March.  I sure hope so because the script is so wonderful. And if they don’t, we’ll have to find a new home for it.

And this came from your having done Flowers in the Attic for Lifetime a few years ago?
That’s right. As a matter of fact it was at the table at the Emmy Awards when they asked me, “Do you have anything else you want to do?” and I said, “Yes, I’ve had the rights to this book for quite a few years.” So they bought it, and paid for a writer, and she wrote a brilliant script. So I’m hoping that they follow through and give us a greenlight by the end of the month. 

Are there actors with whom you’ve always wanted to work who you haven’t been able to for whatever reason? 
I’ve always wanted to work with my friend Al Pacino. 

Maybe you can cast him in your movie, since you’re going to be the director and the boss.
That’s a thought! Actually there’s a doorman part he would be wonderful for. I just hope we can work together before we all move up to that big stage in the sky.  

This interview has been edited and condensed.