At Lucy in the Sky’s Toronto premiere last month, Natalie Portman claimed that Ellen Burstyn memorizes a poem every single day. On the phone with Burstyn one recent afternoon, I asked her which poem she’d most recently committed to memory. I expected her to recite the title, or maybe just the name of the poet. “Did you read, by any chance, that beautiful poem in The New York Times Magazine section this week?” I had not. “If you hold on a minute, I’ll read it to you,” she said. Burstyn put down the phone. A moment later, I heard a little rustling: “Okay, I’m going to get it,” she said politely. “Just a minute.”
Burstyn didn’t just read this poem, she performed it for an audience of one. “I can’t pronounce the name of the poet; it looks like Danusha Laméris, L-A-M-E-R-I-S, and it’s called ‘Small Kindnesses.’ Her last name has an accent over the e.” It’s a few verses about treating one another tenderly, being gentle with strangers. Life is hard, “Small Kindnesses” says, and we shouldn’t make it any harder on ourselves by missing an opportunity to be gracious. Burstyn took her time as she read it, punctuating some words with passion, whispering others with reverence. Over the phone for the next half-hour, buzzing from her own interview with Al Pacino the previous night for Inside the Actors Studio, Burstyn discussed poetry, staying sharp at 86, and her childhood fantasy of being Betty Grable.
How are you today?
I’m doing very well. I had a big event last night. I interviewed Al Pacino. We started at 7 and it was supposed to be an hour, and we went till 10. [Laughs.]
I heard! I know someone who went, and it sounded like it was very cool.
It was for our master’s-degree program, the Actors Studio master’s-degree program at Pace University. It’s part of our curriculum. It’s called a craft seminar. We’ve had the show, Inside the Actors Studio, on the air for close to 20 years. It was hosted by Jim Lipton, who’s retired now, so we now have circulating hosts. Alec Baldwin started hosting, and we’ve had three others. Last night was my turn, and I did Al.
He’s so brilliant, and he’s just a genius. I just saw the film that he did with Marty Scorsese that’s going to open soon, called The Irishman. That is staggering, it’s so brilliant. Al’s playing Jimmy Hoffa in it. Marty very graciously gave us a scene from it to show last night. Al is just a genius! He’s a little unusual, shall we say. He talks brilliantly, but [in conversation] he comes to many crossroads and takes them. It’s kind of my job to to wrangle him back. It was fun and deep and wonderful, and I just love it. They said they’re going to make two shows out of it.
What did you think of the de-aging?
It was so successful that I didn’t even notice. They looked young and they looked old, but the technology wasn’t anything that jumped out. It’s amazing. I wish they’d invented it for people offscreen.
You and Al have known each other for a long time, right?
Well, we’re co-presidents of the Actors Studio — have been for years and years, since Lee Strasberg died [in 1982]. So we’ve known each other. We’re not, you know, bosom buddies, but we have a lot of shared interests and respect and admiration. I mean, that’s how I feel about him, anyway.
In conversations like that, with someone who does the same work you do but maybe approaches it differently, does it make you reflect on your own process?
Not really that, so much as how hard it is to express what happens. Really, what goes on in the creative process is that you feed data into your psyche and focus on it for as long as necessary, and then if necessary you let go, turn your attention somewhere else. But you’re always with the intention of coming to some understanding about the character. And finally, what happens is the solution rises up from your unconscious and you go, Oh, I get it! But the unconscious is so involved in the creative process, and it’s hard to talk about the unconscious, you know?
It’s hard to be specific about steps, like, This is what I do and then I get that result. That’s what was transpiring last night: Al describing things like walking from uptown, maybe 90th Street, down to the Village, as he’s thinking about The Godfather. He did it every day, and then the answer came to him. You know, it’s so gloriously mysterious when it flowers in you.
I like that.
You can’t force it, you know. You can only feed it information and then allow it to, in its own time, send up its blissful answers.
Is there a certain place or time of day, maybe, when you feel your unconscious the clearest? Or the strongest?
Certainly in dreams. Dreams are very usable. I can ask a question before I go to sleep and hope to get the answer in a dream, and sometimes I do, but not always. I find when I’m by the ocean, the unconscious is more available. Silence is important; but not silence: solitariness. Being quiet and alone, staring into space, and asking questions: I wonder why she says hello there? That’s funny, I didn’t think she would do that. With that kind of question, you just wait, and then, Oh my God, that’s why! And so, it comes up. It’ll always reveal. I love to go near the ocean when I’m finding a character.
Let’s start talking about Lucy in the Sky — how did this part come to you?
They just called my agent and said they wanted me. It wasn’t complicated. It might’ve been Natalie who asked for me, because I knew her before. I didn’t know Noah Hawley. I just flew in and shot it and flew out. Natalie’s so wonderful. I just love spending a little time with her, you know?
I went to the Q&A in Toronto, where she said you were the sharpest actress she’s ever worked with.
Isn’t that lovely? I love the report I got from the screening: It was Natalie and Jon Hamm, and somebody asked her how it was working with me, that I was such a legend, and that she was very complimentary and said something like I was there in the moment, every moment. I told her that I memorized a poem every day to keep my mind sharp and my memory working. Jon Hamm piped up and said, “Oh, she told me it was cocaine!” [Laughs.]
So what is the truth, which is it?
Well, it’s not cocaine, I’ll tell you that! I memorize poetry whenever I’m not working on a role. I love poetry and I read it a lot, and if anybody asks me to speak at an event, I always take that opportunity to recite a poem. I carry a lot of them in my memory. If I feel like it’s been too long since I’ve memorized something, I memorize a new poem.
You have my favorite line reading of the year in Lucy in the Sky: “All that astronaut dick has made you soft.”
Yes! I knew it was funny. The character knew it was funny.
How did you prepare to play Nan?
I’m trying to remember, because I did three movies in a row last year. My big concern with this role is I remember I loved that she was smoking cigarettes and had an oxygen tank. But I was terrified to inhale smoke because I get bronchitis so easily. I cough very easily if I inhale smoke. So they kept assuring me that I wouldn’t have any trouble with these herbal cigarettes that they got. But I was terrified. Well, terrified is too strong a word. Weary. And then, sure enough, I could smoke those darn cigarettes and inhale them and have no bad side effects at all. So that was a big relief. That was my main preparation: how was it gonna go with those cigarettes.
I had to find her walk, moving into that time where she’s at the end of her life. She lives in a home like that, looking out at the golf course, where people still could move around and she couldn’t. It’s like tamping down all of the energy that I have into a more constricted, quieter ball. I had to allow myself to be frail. But tough, that’s what she was. She was physically frail and emotionally tough, or her character was tough. So I loved her, she was funny!
It’s funny, because you seem so vivacious, so full of energy. I mean, you did three movies last year!
Oh, I’m very grateful that I got to 40 and decided I better pull my act together or I wasn’t gonna live very long. I stopped smoking and I stopped drinking and I stopped the occasional marijuana. I stopped eating meat and just got healthy. Started exercising, which I hadn’t done. And now, 46 years later, I’m so glad I did it because I feel really healthy and strong and I’m still working. I’m actually working more now than I ever did. I look at people that are ten or 15 years younger than I am and can hardly move, and I just came up from the gym where I was lifting weights. I don’t mean to brag. I’m gonna knock on wood; it sounds like I’m bragging …
No, please brag!
I’m a healthy person and I work at it and I’m thrilled that it pays off.
Part of Lucy in the Sky is about a love triangle, and I’m wondering if you’ve ever been in a love triangle.
Oh, at least a triangle, yeah.
“At least a triangle!” Tell me more.
I’m just being sarcastic. A love triangle, not really. But overlapping relationships where I started one with someone who hadn’t yet ended the other one — that’s happened a couple of times.
I tried not to do that. I mean, when I was doing that, you know, in that period of my life, I tried to be respectful of people’s relationships. But on occasion there’s, you know, the strong attraction, and the other thing has to be resolved before you can really move forward. You know, what a mess it is. Maybe you don’t. But it’s a mess.
A lot of people’s childhood dream is to be an astronaut. What was yours?
What did I want to do when I was a child? Oh, I think I wanted to be Betty Grable. Do you remember who Betty Grable is?
Sure, from How to Marry a Millionaire.
When I saw movies like The Dolly Sisters, where they wear costumes with sequins and feathers, I thought I’d like to do that, and sing and dance and flirt with Tyrone Power, or one of those handsome men. I don’t think I had very high aspirations. I think I pretty much wanted as much glitter as possible. Only later did I start discovering other aspects of life that were possible ways to go.
But I must say that acting was always part of me. I did it in school, it’s what I could do well, it’s what I came in with. I tell you, when you come in with something that you can do fairly easily and well, that’s a direction that your genes or fate or the spirits, whoever it is, is pointing you in a direction and you should probably follow it and see if there’s any way you can be of use there.
Do you think of acting, or being an artist, as a vocation? Like a higher or spiritual calling?
To me, being an artist is such a gift that anybody who comes in with talent of any kind, whether it’s in music or painting or acting or writing, whatever it is, it’s such a gift to be born that way. I am very grateful to live the life of an artist and also to live with other artists. All of my friends are artists. It’s not that I don’t feel comfortable with people who aren’t artists, it’s not that. It’s that I feel at home with artists. I just think it’s a real blessing.
I know that you are a lifelong Democrat. Have you decided whom you’ll support in 2020?
Well, I like Elizabeth Warren!
Very good. I think her policies are sound, I think she’s the woman who’s dedicated her life to helping the middle class. I think she’s saying all the right things. I never thought that she was going to catch on because I heard too many people say she’s too liberal, whatever that means. But she is, and people are listening to her and she’s rising, and I’m really happy about it.
I think she has the best shot. She’s better than Joe Biden by a mile.
I do too. Yeah, I like Joe Biden very much, but he is looking not young enough, isn’t he? And who am I to ever pull age on someone, but you know, I don’t feel he’s still strong enough.
What was it about “Small Kindnesses,” the poem you read me, that resonated with you?
So much. The fact that we’re cast, “we’re far from the tribe and the fire,” which connected us in humanity. But even so, that there are these “fleeting temples” — I love that phrase — “these fleeting temples, the true dwelling of the holy,” that we just bring into being with a little kindness to each other, even though we’re strangers. It makes life seem so grounded and spiritual, even though we’re far from the tribe and the fire. I guess that’s what I like about it.
We’re having a very hard time right now, you know? We’re living in such a dangerous and explosive and brutal, brutal time. The fires raging, and the hurricanes, and the mountains — people needing shelter and people closing the doors to them because they can’t handle any more in their shelter. It’s really unlike anything any of us have ever experienced. It’s new on the planet. So I guess we have to make more of an effort to remember to be kind even to strangers. Maybe especially to strangers.
Thank you for reading that.
You’re welcome. It’s a pleasure to give a poem like that to someone. To a stranger!