The Brooklyn theater BAMcinématek just wrapped up its career retrospective on Ellen Burstyn, and there are few actresses more deserving. Although younger audiences might know her more as the evil grandmother in Lifetime’s 2014 adaptation of Flowers in the Attic, she’s also made indelible impressions on screen in The Exorcist, The Last Picture Show, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and Requiem for a Dream, to name but a few of her many great performances. Burstyn was generous enough to take a moment to chat with Vulture about her Oscar-, Emmy-, and Tony-winning career, including how she’s been under-directed, why she’s going to threaten Darren Aronofsky, and what would happen if she revealed secrets about the upcoming Christopher Nolan film Interstellar.
I was actually at Gloria Steinem’s 80th birthday party last night, and everyone was saying 80 is the new 40 …
That’s right! [Laughs.] It is. I believe it. And it is getting better for us these days. We do look better longer, I must say. And that’s my task, too — to prove that women are not ready to be put out to pasture, just because they turn 50. Or 60. Or 70, for that matter! We can all live longer, better, than we ever could before. You don’t have to retire.
What has it been like to look back at your body of work at BAM during this career retrospective?
Well, [the other night] I went to BAM and I saw my film Resurrection, which I’m very attached to. It was one of my favorite films. And the only sad part about it was how many people who were in it have already passed on. That kind of brings you up short, but I thought the film really held up well! Even in all the years that have gone by. The last time I saw Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, I still liked that one, too. I was on an airplane recently, and it was available there, in a section marked, “Classic Films.” And I said, “Oh, that’s good! I’m proud of that.” And I think it’s the 40th anniversary.
Does your process ever change per director? Because you’ve worked with so many of the greats, including Martin Scorsese on Alice.
I don’t know if my particular process … I mean, it gets enriched by whatever you do, whenever you get up and do something, and you go deeply, in order to do good work. But I’m not sure if I can say any director specifically influenced the way I work. I would have to say Darren Aronofsky mounted a camera on my body — that was a new one! [Laughs.] I became the dolly, or the camera mount, in Requiem for a Dream. [Laughs.] And that was very interesting, to be able to walk through my apartment, my so-called apartment, and be crazy with the lens about six inches from my nose, and moving with me. I had to do certain things in that film that I never had to do before. But acting is such an inside job. The real work of an actor goes on inside, and I don’t think it changes from director to director — I always go for broke! But I don’t get a lot of direction, unfortunately.
No. Directors tend to kind of let me do what I want to do. As a matter of fact, when I was doing Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, the one I won my first Emmy for, the director came up and he gave me a direction. He said, “What do you think about doing it this way?” And I said, “Oh, yeah, sure.” But as he walked away, he said, “You don’t mind me saying that to you, do you?” And I said, “Mind? It’s the first piece of direction I’ve gotten in ten years! I love it!” I tend to do a lot of homework before I come in, and I offer my interpretation. I haven’t really had the experience of a director not liking it. They’re usually pretty good, enthusiastic partners, but they don’t impose usually a concept over mine. I’ve liked all the directors I’ve worked with a lot. And the ones I like best are the ones that have really good taste about what take was best.
I was half-expecting to see you pop up in Aronofsky’s latest, Noah, even if just for a second.
Oh, I was almost in it! There was a moment where he tried having the voices of the monsters, or whatever they’re called. The stone monsters. He had me record the voices, and then he twisted it to make it sound like something else, and then he decided not to use that. So I was almost in it. My voice was almost in it. I was very disappointed that I didn’t get in it. [Laughs.]
Oh, that would have been cool — because since they’re fallen angels, the Nephilim, they should have more feminine or androgynous voices.
Well, he wanted to record it as feminine, and then do something with the equipment where it would become masculine, or not even human. I don’t know what he tried to do, but whatever it was, it didn’t work. [Laughs.] I ended up not in the film. So I’ll threaten him, he better put me in the next one! I don’t know with what, but I’ll think of something. He’s such a wonderful director. I’m very fond of it. He’s such a smart guy. And young people love his films. He’s very present day, in the consciousness as it is now. I loved The Fountain. Wasn’t that music great?
You also did voice work for one of the Hannibal films — Red Dragon.
Right! I was surprised so many people knew it was me. I don’t think I had a credit on the film. But so many people wrote to me, “Wasn’t that you?” And even my son — he was watching it, and then he went, “Oh my God! That’s my mother!” [Laughs.] But I don’t watch Hannibal, the TV show. Maybe I could do a cameo. I wouldn’t want to play a serial killer, though. That wouldn’t interest me. I did this television movie last year, Flowers in the Attic, where I played a really evil woman, and that was hard. That was difficult to get into. I did it, finally. I found a way in. But it takes an effort to find that character in yourself, you know? Where you’re mean to children? And so self-righteous?
How did you find your way in with the grandmother, then? Did you read the V.C. Andrews books? Because one of them is from her perspective …
I did. I learned more about her after I completed the first one, when I read her backstory. And that was very enlightening. What I found when I worked on her was that she was just a narcissist. She didn’t have the ability to understand anything from anyone else’s point of view, other than her own. And I had had people in my life who were narcissists, so I was able to track that, how that works. But it always takes an inner exploration to ask, “Under what circumstances am I narcissistic? When I can’t understand anyone else’s point of view?” And I can find, there are certain people, when I hear them speak, I can’t relate to them in any way. They just seem wrong to me, you know? So that feeling, “My God! I’m right, and they’re wrong!” — well, that’s how a narcissist feels all the time. So I find that in myself, and let it come forward as the dominant note in the orchestra. At the end, in the stairway, when she gets claustrophobic, I hope that that revealed her fear, her fear of being locked up, or whatever happened to her as a child, which made her be the way she is. I shot the second one, Petals on the Wind, and that’s going to air around the end of May. And then book three, I’m already dead, so I won’t be in that one. And book five, that’s her backstory, so they’ll probably have somebody younger do that. Unless they have flash-forwards? Then I could be in it!
You also have a pilot that Amy Poehler is involved with, Old Soul?
A half-hour comedy. We’ll know mid-May whether NBC is going to order more, but that’s an exciting project. I love Amy Poehler. She’s very smart, and a good writer. Natasha Lyonne plays my niece. There are two worlds in it — her world, of her roommates and her friends, and then there’s our world, the old folks. My character previously had cancer and she was my primary caregiver, and we decided that she was awfully good at it, so she’s now the primary caregiver for a whole bunch of old people. But she has a gambling addiction, so she’s not allowed to gamble. We play cards, and she’s our dealer.
Do you normally gamble? Is poker your game?
Since you’re also in Interstellar, I know Christopher Nolan doesn’t like you guys to talk about it, but what do you think he’d do to you if you did?
[Chuckles.] He’d put me through a wormhole! That’s exactly what he’d do. So we don’t want that that to happen.