In Ellen Burstyn’s living room on the Upper West Side, an enormous picture window looks out over Central Park. Next to the windowsill, where dozens of sparkling energy crystals adorn a view that, especially on a clear, optimistically sunny February afternoon like this one, by no means needs adorning, Burstyn, 85, sits comfortably in an armchair with her knees apart; this is what she’ll later describe, amusedly, as her “guy” way of sitting.
For decades, Burstyn has been a boldly idiosyncratic, lightning-rod figure in the landscape of Hollywood, and in Peter Livolsi’s new film House of Tomorrow, she plays a character as independent-minded as she is. Burstyn plays Josephine, who lives with her teenage grandson Sebastian (Asa Butterfield), and together, they operate a museum inside a spherical “geodesic dome” home based on the designs of the real-life architect and inventor Buckminster Fuller. Fuller, in a very meta twist, was a friend of Burstyn’s until his death in 1983. Burstyn talked to Vulture about her friendship with “Bucky,” filming her favorite scene of her career opposite Jared Leto, and the impending fall of the patriarchy, in Hollywood and elsewhere.
How did you first get involved with House of Tomorrow?
Well, first there was a script and Peter Livolsi sent it to me. I didn’t know him, but I read it and I called my manager and I said, “Does this guy know that I was friends with Buckminster Fuller?” She calls me back and said, “He’s getting on a plane for New York.”
So he came here and he said, “You knew him?” I said, “Yeah, I knew him and we were friends. Not only that, I taped him sailing his sailboat — late ’70s or early ’80s.” Well, he couldn’t believe it, so then I gave him the tape and of course that’s in the film now. But it was quite a serendipitous event — he had no idea I knew him.
How did you meet Buckminster Fuller?
He had a great-aunt, Margaret Fuller, who was a friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. I had been interested in her for a long time and had always wanted to play her, actually, and then while I was shooting The Exorcist, Buckminster Fuller gave a talk in Carnegie Hall. I was sitting there listening to him and I went, “Buckminster Fuller. Margaret Fuller. He’s from Boston. I wonder if they’re related.”
I went home and I looked through all my Margaret Fuller books because I had lots, and I saw on the inside of one cover the family tree, and her mother’s, her grandmother’s, I’m not sure, maiden name was Buckminster. I said, “That’s it.” So I called his office and said I would like to meet him and his secretary said, “You can have two hours in the Boston airport on this day or you can have five hours in the Chicago airport of this day.” He only had layovers. I said, “I’ll take the five hours in Chicago.” So I flew to Chicago. We met in the airport, we had breakfast and spent five hours together, and became friends.
How long did you stay friends?
Until he died. I have all his books autographed to me, and our correspondence.
The footage that ended up in the film, where did it come from?
I, for no reason at all, told him that I would like to interview him on tape, and he said, “All right, why don’t we go out on my sailboat?” So I flew up to Maine, to his summer home. He was a sailor, he loved the sea, and we went out on the sailboat and it was a long interview. There’s much more than what’s in the film. I brought a couple of crew people with me and we sailed all day and talked and he did his rewriting of the Lord’s Prayer, which he did all the time. He was always rewriting it.
You had something to do with getting Nick Offerman onboard for this film, too, right?
I gave his wife, Megan Mullally, her first job [Mullally played Burstyn’s daughter on The Ellen Burstyn Show in 1986]. And she was in New York in a play that I went to see a few years ago, and it was Christmastime and I realized that she was going to be away from home at Christmas. So I said, “Come spend Christmas with me.” So she brought her husband who was in town too, and I met Nick.
I really liked him so much, he’s such a likable guy, you know, I said, “You know, I’m working on a film, there’s a part in it for you.” So I gave him the script and he liked it and then, you know, Peter loved the idea.
Had you ever seen him on Parks and Recreation?
I saw it once. I’m not much of a TV viewer. I usually watch the evening news, then I turn off the TV and read. I go back for Rachel Maddow. That’s my TV watching. I have to look at a lot of films, too; I’m a voter for the Oscars so I get all those screeners. I’m a voter for the Tonys and I’m a voter for the Emmys, so I don’t tend to entertain myself by watching film.
What did you love this year in the Oscar field?
I loved Shape of Water. Three Billboards. I loved The Florida Project. Get Out. Get Out I just thought was fantastic. I was just floored by it. It was so original. And I loved Mother!
Did you? That’s a divisive one!
I know there are two camps, the people who hate it and the people who love it. I think it’s one of those films … You know, I did a film called the King of Marvin Gardens in the mid-1970s. It came out, the critics killed it. Hated it and it was dead in no time at all. Thirty years later, I’m hearing, I’m reading in the paper, “Where did this film come from? King of Marvin Gardens with Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern? It’s a classic,” and now it’s considered a classic. I think that’s going to happen to Mother! I think it’s a masterpiece. You know, the thing is that it’s an allegory and so when you watch it you have to translate what you’re looking at, you know, what he means, what he’s referring to, and not everybody’s willing to do that.
You have a bunch of scenes where you’re with Asa Butterfield. You two developed a real onscreen chemistry as a grandmother and grandson. What did you like about working with him?
His sweetness. You know, he’s really a sweet boy. He’s so darling. It just killed me to slap him.
I would imagine that was a challenging day on set.
It was, and I asked him beforehand, I said, “Can I slap you?” He said, “Sure.” Then I slapped him and I felt like I slapped him too hard. I said, “Are you all right?” He said, “Yeah, I’m fine,” but his face was red. I felt so bad. But he was very dear about it. He was just a lovely boy. He’s innocent, you know? And Alex [Wolff], he was just a dynamo, wasn’t he? I mean, he cut loose, and that music. I went, “Wow.” Maude Apatow, I thought she was a very fine actress.
When you look back on the roles you’ve played throughout your career, do you see any connective tissue between the characters?
Probably. I don’t really like to play evil people. I played that evil grandmother in Flowers in the Attic, and she was one of the few evil people I played; I don’t really understand it too well. I don’t find it in me too much. Not that it’s not there, because we all have our dark side, but I don’t always understand cruel people. My idea is that we’re all holograms of all of humanity, that we have everybody inside from Hitler to Jesus, and if we are willing to go there, we can find those things in ourselves and bring them forward. I just don’t know that I feel it’s doing a service to bring forward a selfish or greedy person unless there’s some way to illuminate what that does. How to convert it, hence form it into some other kind of idea that has some benefit for people to look at. But I don’t like to play people who are just greedy.
I like to play somebody who has some kind of purpose in life. Some aim or cause or reason for being. Josephine’s was her grandson but also keeping Bucky’s ideas alive. She wanted to keep Bucky’s ideas alive through her grandson. Also, I think she had an idea that if she trained him properly, he could right the wrongs of the world. Which it’s not really up to anybody to do.
What’s the most challenging role you’ve ever taken on?
To shoot it, The Exorcist. But to play it, to find it, probably Flowers in the Attic. I don’t understand somebody being cruel to their grandchildren and hurting them. I don’t get that. But, in a way, it’s interesting to feel those juices and what that’s like.
What’s the most fun you’ve ever had on a film set?
Requiem for a Dream.
What was your favorite day of Requiem for a Dream?
There’s a scene with Jared Leto where he realizes I’m a drug addict. It’s a very well-written scene and difficult to pull off, so it was a singular day, but I felt good afterwards. I rehearsed it and at a particular moment I felt something rise in me that I didn’t know was there, and I went, “Oh, that’s interesting.” It had to do with age. I say, “I’m old,” and I hadn’t really known that I had any feeling about that, but there it was, and I thought, “Oh, I can use that.” So I just told Darren [Aronofsky] that I only wanted to do that once. I didn’t want to rehearse it, and I didn’t want to shoot [Jared’s] close-up first. I wanted to just do it once, and I did, and it’s what’s in the film. It’s a good moment. I see it on the internet, Facebook — people replay it.
Which acting role taught you the most about acting?
I recently did Shakespeare for the first time. I did a production of As You Like It down at the Classic Stage and I played Jacques, who delivers the great “seven ages of man” speech. So it’s a male character. I didn’t play it necessarily as a man; I played it as a kind of androgynous character.
What was your approach to playing an androgynous, genderless character?
I found this way of sitting, I’d never sat that way before. I’d always kept my legs together. The first time I did that, I went, “Oh, that’s very different.” And I find I can do it now comfortably, which I never used to be able to. It’s very subtle. It’s hard to describe. Guys are different, though, and when you feel your own guy side, it’s not as pretty.
How so? How does that feel?
I think as a woman — or as a girl, even — that there’s always a kind of wanting to please, and wanting to be thought of as pretty and wanting to be nice and desirable. When you let go of that, there’s a different kind of strength. I was surprised; I went, “My masculine side, what is that?” I had no idea but I found it in my body first and when I freed my body from the habitual feminine positions, it affected me inside too.
It’s an interesting time for women who in the film industry and the TV industry; people are speaking up about sexual harassment, and people are speaking up about sexism in Hollywood. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. You’ve been working in this industry for decades, though, so I’m curious: Is this new to you, too, or have you seen this happen before?
This is momentous. I think it is the true beginning of the crumble of the patriarchy. We’ve been living under it for centuries, and I don’t think this would’ve been possible in any earlier period in history.
I think all of the baby steps that we’ve taken toward getting more women in positions of power — cinematographers that are women, and actresses who develop their own projects, and studio heads that are women — I mean, it was always one at a time, but it’s been slowly building. I think what’s happened now, it’s like, “Okay, the jig’s up, folks. You’re not going to get away with it. I’m not going to protect you if you treat me badly or disrespectfully.” We now have a woman cinematographer nominated for an Oscar, finally, in 2018. Finally. We’ve had a woman director win an Oscar. So it’s baby steps, but now I think it’s going to change drastically. Plus, I mean, look at Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman was a great movie. It was beautiful and it made a lot of money, which is what talks, of course, in this industry. So I think we’ll be seeing more women in positions of power.
What do you think is going to be different for women who are starting out as actresses or as directors or as producers right now, as opposed to when you were starting out?
Well, I’m going to direct a film, and I’ve said to the producer, “As we put the crew together, I want as many women as possible and cinematographer, assistant director, production designer,” whatever I can get that is artistically what I want. I want to really favor women. He said, “Great.” He’s all for it. And he’s the producer of Get Out, Sean McKittrick. And he’s already done films with women photographers and women line producers, so he’s already there. People are now consciously thinking in terms of diversity and diversity of both gender and race. It’s not an exception to think that way. It’s now like, yes, let’s do that. Let’s pay attention.
This interview has been edited and condensed.