Ellen Burstyn’s first request of any new guest visiting her apartment overlooking Central Park is to feed treats to her tiny, aged dog, Zoe. “Here, take two,” she says, handing them to me, “and lean down when you give them to her, because she’s old and she doesn’t jump.” The apartment, which she moved into not long ago after spending decades in Nyack, is an archive of her life and career: All around us are pictures commemorating her experiences as an actress, a mother, a grandmother, an arts administrator, a producer, and a performer. Burstyn’s face is instantly recognizable, and she has been one of our finest actors for decades, but despite her eventful life and career, she has managed to avoid the kind of notoriety that might have limited her freedom, talent, and generosity. Among the pictures in her apartment is a black-and-white close-up of Marilyn Monroe from the early 1960s. “I didn’t know her, but I adored her,” she explains. “And she was so troubled and vulnerable because she had what I call ‘scary fame,’ the kind that jumps out like this,” she says, snarling like a predator and clawing at the air. “I never had that kind of fame.”
She has acted in blockbusters and cult classics, including The Last Picture Show, The Exorcist, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, and Interstellar. She has been nominated for six Oscars (winning one for 1974’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) and nine Emmys (winning two, for a 2008 episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and 2012’s Political Animals). She also has a Tony, for the original 1975 run of Same Time, Next Year. Burstyn has been a teacher and an authority figure for generations of actors, playwrights, and filmmakers. Since 2000, she has served alongside Al Pacino, Harvey Keitel, and Alec Baldwin as co-president of the Actors Studio, where she was accepted as a lifetime member 52 years ago, and is now among the hosts of Inside the Actors Studio, which just started its 23rd season in October (longtime host James Lipton retired last year). And she remains quite busy as an actress. In 2019, she appeared in the films Lucy in the Sky and American Woman as well as a revival of Moisés Kaufman’s 33 Variations in Melbourne.
Much of this interview was conducted near a window with a view of the park, as Burstyn sat in a chair beneath a full-size mermaid suspended from the ceiling by wires. It’s a parade prop that she picked up while visiting a small town in Mexico. “There are holes in there so that you can put your arms under her arms and carry her on your shoulders.” Two tables near the interview area are stacked with printouts of the interviewer’s previously published work. “I thought I should get to know you and your work,” she explains. The information will come in handy because, as it turns out, one does not interview Ellen Burstyn — a student of people as well as a teacher of acting — without also being interviewed by her.
Tell me about your dog.
Zoe is a rescue. She’s 16. And since she was about maybe 12, she’s had heart-valve disease. So we started giving her pills, and we can keep adding to them because the heart swells up with blood and it presses on the trachea. But there’s just endless repercussions from whatever pills we give her, so it ends up being an awful lot of pills. But she’s not in any pain. She’s walking and she sleeps a lot. I don’t feel like her life is over.
This isn’t the first dog you’ve had, right?
Oh, my God, no. I always have a dog. I don’t remember not having a dog. I’ve had all different kinds: male, female, large, small. Zoe is the smallest dog I’ve ever had. She’s maybe a little bigger than a Chihuahua, like a poodle size, kind of. I got a small dog specifically so that I could travel with her and bring her with me when I went away. She can’t travel anymore now. I usually have somebody stay here with her in the apartment and take care of her when I’m gone. I don’t put her in a kennel.
My last dog before her was a golden retriever, who was just the most divine being I ever knew. Well, I shouldn’t say that — I’ve had some pretty spectacular dogs. Like Daisy Mae, who was a Dalmatian. Daisy Mae died giving birth, and so I had her five puppies that I bottle-fed and I only managed to save two of the five. You know they get immunity from the mother’s milk. And when you feed them cow’s milk, they don’t have any immunity, so they get distemper.
What did you do with the other three after they died?
I was living in the country then, and I buried them. At one time, I had two dogs in the house — a standard poodle and one of Daisy’s puppies, who was full-grown by then. His name was Bernard; Bernard died, finally. I had the gardener come and dig a hole to bury him in. While he was digging the hole, I was sitting on the ground on a blanket with Bernard waiting for the hole to be complete. And the poodle came over and sat on his head. And I pushed her up and said, “What are you doing, Penelope? Don’t sit on his head.” I pushed her off again. She absolutely insisted on sitting on his head. I think she was making a statement.
What was the statement?
“He’s not here. That’s no longer him. He’s gone.”
In the course of a normal life, humans outlive their pets.
I say they are our death teachers. They teach us how to cope with death. So when the time comes when we have to deal with people close to us dying, we’ve already been through grief. We know what grief feels like, and we’ve built some grief muscles. Because otherwise, I mean the first time somebody dies, it’s such a shock.
I remember very well my brother waking me up and said, “Toots” — that was my nickname as a kid — “Toots, Toots, wake up. Grandma died last night.” And I said, “Grandma who?” I only had one grandma, but I couldn’t believe that he was talking about our grandma. She couldn’t have died! I was maybe 9 or 10. That was the first moment death entered my reality. It was such a profound shock. So I think going through it with animals helps us acquaint ourselves with the feelings of loss.
Do you feel any sadness or unease at the fact that it becomes easier?
I don’t think it becomes easier. I just think it becomes experience.
I’d like to delve a bit more into your childhood. When did you realize that acting could be a job you wanted to do?
I remember the first time I was ever on the stage. I was in boarding school in Canada, and I was between 6 and 7 years old. I recited “Little Miss Muffet” to this blackness. I heard a lady, front row, say, “Isn’t she cute?” I thought, I hope my mother heard that. You know those photographs your brain takes, that you’ve got for your whole life, but it’s actually a moving picture? And you can relive that moment anytime? That was the moment. Confronting that big blackness and all that it was alive with.
Something in me woke up. Something went, Oh. In school, I was always in the shows. In high school, I was president of the drama club and produced the graduating musical, as I recall. Then there came a point when I wrote down what I thought were the possibilities for employment for me. One was modeling, which I did do. Two was — well, I don’t remember the order, but certainly actress. And then veterinarian, and lawyer, and nun.
That’s quite a lineup.
I eliminated veterinarian when I realized I couldn’t give anyone or anything a shot. I couldn’t deal with the blood. My idea of being a veterinarian was to pet the animals. I gave up lawyer after I went to the Detroit Public Library to the law department and took out a law book at random, sat down and read it for about five minutes and said, “No.” When I discovered my sexuality, I realized nun wasn’t going to work. That left model and actress. I was a model from high school until I was 23. Then one day I said, “Okay, I made up my mind. I’m going to be an actress. I’m going to do a Broadway play this fall.” After that, I said to every person I met, “I’m going to do a Broadway play this fall. Do you know how to get an audition?”
Not lacking in confidence.
No, but then, amazingly, somebody said, “Yes, actually, I do know how to get an audition.” She was a secretary to an agent, and she said, “I know of a play that’s being cast, and they’re looking for someone to play a model.” So I auditioned for a lead on Broadway. It was the first time I was ever on a New York stage, it was the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, and I got the part, in a play called Fair Game. I played Susan Hammarlee, a model who came to New York from Chicago, where she’d lost her husband to a smarter girl, and decided she needed an education. I always say, when I tell this story in public speaking, “You know how often that happens — you lose your husband to a smarter girl.”
You joined the Actors Studio in 1967. What was that like?
I took Lee Strasberg’s private classes. I had a career already by that point. I was working as an actress, but I realized after a certain point that there were actresses who knew something I didn’t know, and they were almost all members of the Actors Studio. So I went to Lee’s private classes, and I studied with him for a few years. Then when I felt I was ready, I auditioned for the Studio.
Tell me about New York theater in the late ’60s.
There were a lot more plays than there are now and fewer musicals, and more of the musicals were original. There were no Disney musicals, no musicals based on movies. There weren’t as many visitors from out of town in the audience. I remember incredible experiences, like Kim Stanley playing the moment in A Far Country when Freud discovers the unconscious. It was just one of the most bone-chilling moments I’ve ever experienced! That sort of experience was more readily available, it seems to me, to the audiences. Understand, that’s not to knock what’s here now, because I love going to the theater, and I love the musicals, too. I think Hadestown is really wonderful. And I love Come From Away.
How are young actors different now than when you joined the Studio?
There’s more work available, so they work sooner and they don’t all bother to develop their art. I was doing a scene with an actor, and I could tell he was from television and had no real training. So I said to him, “Where did you study?” He said, “Well, I got cast in a series right out of my high-school production, and I did the series for six years. That’s the best training you can get.” No, it’s not. So there’s a lot of that. Actors who come to the Studio are interested in the art of acting, and those actors are the same in any generation. They’re the serious seekers.
Is studying acting useful for anything besides being an actor?
Yeah. It’s useful in the way that therapy is useful: You get to know yourself. When they first start acting, actors have no idea what’s going on inside of them all the time. They are surprised when they suddenly access something they had no idea was cooking and alive.
You have jumped between theater, film, and television over the decades. What’s different about acting onstage?
Let me tell you about something that happened when I was doing Same Time, Next Year on Broadway. It had been running for several months. I was settled in. But all of a sudden, in the midst of a scene, my consciousness jumped out of the scene into the whole theater, and I saw that, in this little triangle of light on the stage, there I was with this other actor, and we were pretending to be two other people, and over a thousand people were sitting in the dark watching us do that. And I thought, What is this? What is happening here? And then I realized, It’s not just happening in this theater, it’s happening in other theaters around Broadway. And not just that: It’s happening around the world. People are still going to the theater. It hasn’t been replaced by television or movies or anything else. Why is that?
So the next day, I went to the bookstore and got a book on the history of theater. I opened it and, on the first page, it said, “The moment someone stood up around the campfire and told the story of the tribe to the tribe, theater was born.” I thought, That’s what we’re doing. We are telling the story of the tribe to the tribe. That’s what that feeling of connection is, the communion. It’s that it’s not us/them, it’s we.
You’ve starred in many films about religion, spirituality, or, at the very least, the possibility of a world beyond what we can verify. Three of your signature performances are in The Exorcist, about a battle between good and evil for possession of a girl’s soul; Resurrection, about a faith healer with Christ-like powers; and Requiem for a Dream, in which the characters use drugs to escape earthly torment. All of those performances were Oscar nominated. You were also in The Fountain and Interstellar, which are also preoccupied with these sorts of questions. Were these deliberate choices?
Well, Resurrection was a film I put together. That was no accident. Beyond that, I don’t know what forces combine to bring us to a particular piece of work that we do. But I know that’s what interests me, the things you mention. Specifically, I would have to say cosmology really interests me. That’s what I read about all the time, from different points of view. Do you know Michio Kaku? He’s a theoretical physicist. I just read a book of his called Physics in the Future. I like books by people like him, or people who write about genes, or evolution, or any of those things that have a cosmological point of view that leads you to ask, “What’s going on here? How did we get here? How did we develop? How did this all happen? And what’s going to happen?” Have you ever visited the Natural History Museum and that sphere where you go out into outer space?
I love that. I took my kids there.
It’s so wonderful. I went in there, sat down and then we were off the planet, and pretty soon we were out of the solar system. And then we were out of the Milky Way and then we were out of the whole megagalactic system. I was just thrilled! When the lights came up, the thought that went through my mind was, The Bible is a limerick. It’s just a little piece of work about a tiny little planet. And then later I wrote a limerick. Would you like to hear it?
“There once was a planet called Earth
That had a terrible thirst
To know how it got here
And if there’s a God here
And what on Earth came first?”
Moving to an earthbound plane: You were the interviewer on an episode of Inside the Actors Studio this season. The subject was your friend and co-president Al Pacino. Is this a permanent arrangement, you in the interviewer’s seat?
Oh no. We’re not replacing Jim Lipton with one person. We’re going to rotate different people in and out. You were there when I interviewed Al, right? What did you think?
He’s a remarkable presence, the greatest Al Pacino character of them all.
Isn’t he something? I’ve known him so many years. He’s just such an original being. I would ask a question and Al would go off, and the story would go all the way around and around and I’d think, God, where is he going with this? But he always comes back.
Can you tell me, how did you become a writer?
Well, that’s too long a story to go into here, especially since I’m supposed to be interviewing you. But may I ask why you asked?
Because I’m curious: What is a writing-talent gene comprised of? What is the ability, and where does it come from?
I don’t know if it’s an ability so much as a condition. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t a storyteller.
What does talent consist of in your case? An ability to describe the world with words easily? What?
I don’t know. But I do know that when a person is a writer, they usually know early. Like the moment you had as a girl, reciting “Little Miss Muffet” into the void.
Yes. What’s on TV that you like right now? Have you seen that show Euphoria on HBO? It’s by Sam Levinson. I was in a film he directed called Another Happy Day.
Yes, I interviewed him. The production is unusual. Ninety percent of it is on sets.
Ninety percent of it is sex?
Sets. Shot on sets.
[Laughs] I thought you said sex. I was shocked by it.
By the sex?
More by the number of penises I saw on the screen all at once. There were like four or five penises there on the screen in one episode. I’ve never seen that many on TV before.
Don’t you feel like that’s a step forward for equality of nudity?
Well, it’s definitely that! What do you like about the show?
To me, a great TV show creates its own world, as a stage production might, and when you enter its fiction, you feel as if it’s the only world that exists. Euphoria does that. Deadwood did that. Atlanta and Better Things do it. It’s like the storytellers are creating a world in order to study it.
You’re reminding me of the time I asked Darren [Aronofsky] why he made The Wrestler. He said, “Because I didn’t know anything about that world.” I said, “That’s what interests you in making a movie, is going into a world you don’t know anything about?” He said, “Yeah, mostly.”
Martin Scorsese, your director on Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, once said his great interest is anthropology. What made you look at his breakthrough film, Mean Streets, and say, “My next film is going to be about a single mother, and this is the ideal director”?
Well, I didn’t say that, because there was only one woman in Mean Streets, and she had a very small part. But my mission was to make a film from a woman’s point of view, and a certain level of reality in the acting was what I knew I wanted. I saw Mean Streets and said, “That’s it. That’s Studio.” Meaning, that’s Actors Studio. That level of being real. That’s why I wanted Marty.
Then Marty and I met, and I said, “I want to make a movie from a woman’s point of view, and I can’t tell from your movie if you know anything about women. Do you?” He said, “No, but I’d like to learn.”
There was a harshness to some of the character interactions that was unusual for a film about women back then.
The Last Picture Show also had that quality in the acting. There was a reality.
How was that achieved?
A lot of it was how Peter [Bogdanovich] made it. We lived in the town where it was shot, Archer City, Texas. We stayed in a motel, all of us together with nothing around us, nowhere to go, because we were on the highway, we weren’t in the town. We were just the cast together, eating together. We shot in the town where the events took place, and the people in the town would tell us who the character was based on.
In one scene, I’m reading a magazine, bored to death, and my husband is there asleep in front of the TV and then I hear a car pull up. I recognize the sound of the truck, and [I think] it’s my lover, Abilene. Yay! I put the magazine down, I get up, and the camera follows me into the other room, and I go to the door to greet Abilene. But it’s not Abilene; it’s my daughter. But wait a minute: That was Abilene’s truck, which means my daughter was with Abilene, which means my daughter is not a virgin anymore.
All of those things had to happen without a line. So I said to Peter, “I have eight different things happen here in this one shot, and I have no line.” And he said, “I know.” And I said, “How am I supposed to do that?” And he said, “Just think the thoughts of the character, and the camera will read your mind.”
That’s what the Actors Studio work is about: being real. Because if you’re real, and you feel the emotions of the character, the camera will read it. And the audience will feel it.
The whole thing was a great experience. Peter wanted to shoot the movie in black-and-white, and he shot it in black-and-white. He auditioned actors, mostly unknowns, and picked just the people who were right for the movie, not ones that somebody thought were going to please foreign distributors. Ben Johnson had been in Westerns, but he wasn’t a star in the way that we think of people being stars. Cloris [Leachman] was one of the founding members of the Actors Studio, and she had been working as an actress for many, many years, but she wasn’t a household name. I had a career in television, I’d been on Broadway, but I was a working actor. None of us were famous. It was artistic integrity all the way. And yet all the unknown actors became famous as a result of being in it. The movie made a gazillion dollars and got nominated for awards.
Now it’s all about the foreign money, and this money, and that money, and keep the budget down to here. It’s so much harder to make a film like The Last Picture Show because everything is money-oriented. You have to have names. And I think we’ve lost some … artistic roots.
Where were you when you found out you’d been nominated for Best Supporting Actress for The Last Picture Show?
After that film came out, I noticed in myself a degree of desire for an Oscar that I found unattractive — and greedy, somehow. I didn’t want to want that much acclaim. So on the morning they announced the nominees, I went to the beach, and when I came home to my apartment, it was filled with flowers and I thought, Oh, I guess I was nominated. The flowers told me.
After that, though, you moved quickly to channel the fame you were acquiring, and exercise some control over the films you acted in.
I didn’t do that enough.
You had said that Resurrection was a film you put together. Tell me how that was made.
I was in Greece working on Medea. My agent called and said, “A script has come in for you, and it’s Jesus Christ comes back to earth as a woman.” I read it, and then I called back and said, “Well, I like the idea, but I don’t like the script.” My agent said, “The producers want to fly to Greece and talk to you.” So they came, and I told them what I didn’t like about it. It was a school teacher goes to Jerusalem and starts bleeding from the hands — but it’s not about anything. I then conjured, roughly, the story of Resurrection as it ended up, and they said, “Well, that’s a very good story, but that’s not our strategy. Do you want to do our story?” I said, “No, I don’t.” So they left and went to their hotel room in Greece and called me on the phone: “We decided we like your story better than our story. We’d like to start over with a new writer.”
They got the new writer, and a new director, by the way. And I met with the writer. He came to visit me. By then, I was shooting Same Time, Next Year in Northern California, and Alan Alda and I had gone out the night before. [Our characters] had this love affair and we didn’t know each other. So Alan said, “How do we get to know each other?” I said, “Well, a quick way is to get drunk together.” I was still drinking then. So we went out and we got horribly drunk and got to know each other and had a really good time. But the next morning, I thought I was going to die. And that’s when the writer for Resurrection came! I had to crawl to the door to let him in. I said, “Okay, you can talk to me, but I’m going to be lying on my bed.” He told me the story as he had written it so far, and I approved of it, and he went to work on it.
We continued to develop it as it went along. I was very invested in it. One thing I wanted to do was to play the death scene and have her be with her father and be holding his hand when he passed. Because until that time, the way I’d seen death in America was that it was kept out of sight: The funeral parlor people came and took the body away and took the blood out and put it on display with makeup on. I wanted to show death in another way — to look at it and be with it and be with the person and be conscious of what it is and what we have to deal with. It’s one of the important things that I feel I accomplished in my life, because I heard from so many people who told me that they were with their parents when they died because of seeing Resurrection. And I feel gratified that we accomplished that.
The film wasn’t particularly successful financially at the time.
What happened was that Universal had a very successful picture that was in competition for Best Actress and Best Picture — a very deserving, wonderful picture, Coal Miner’s Daughter. The reviews started saying that I was the competition for that. So Universal did what they explained to me was a straight business decision, and didn’t promote Resurrection. I did get nominated for an Oscar, but it was playing in New York City without an ad in the paper. It was really kind of sacrificed. That’s the way the business is. That can happen, and you just take your lumps.
But over the years, I’ve met so many people who have told me that they’re in their walk of life because of Resurrection, and that doesn’t mean that they are healers. They could be acupuncturists. They could be massage therapists, nurses. The head of the camp for seriously ill children that Paul Newman started told me that he went into that field after seeing Resurrection. Now, here we are, 39 years later. This past summer I was shooting a film in Atlanta, called Never Too Late. It’s not out yet, and it takes place in a retirement home. We used a lot of the people who lived in that retirement home as extras or atmosphere, as they’re called. There was a woman who sat next to me in one scene, who I didn’t know. At one point as they were lighting, she leaned over to me and said, “I want to tell you something. Your film, Resurrection, was so meaningful to me. And that last scene with you and the boy, I’ve never forgotten. I treasure that scene. And today is my first day here, and I was feeling very bad about ending up in a retirement home by myself. But the fact that on my first day, I get to sit next to you and tell you how important that scene was to me, you just healed me.” Isn’t that lovely?
It is beautiful.
To me, at the time [of the release], it felt like one of the most profound failures of my life because the film was important to me. It wasn’t just a film that I was in of somebody else’s. This was a film that had meaning for me, I mean artistically. It was such a failure at the time, but here it is all these years later and it’s still doing what it was meant to do. It’s still healing people.
What’s the best experience you’ve had on a film set, overall?
That’s hard to answer, because sometimes the best is the most difficult.
I’ll rephrase: What film set is the one that most made you feel as if you were not just being listened to, but heard?
Requiem for a Dream. I interviewed Darren for a podcast, so I did a lot of research on him beforehand, and I was surprised to read him say in an interview, the thing he was most proud of was, and I’m paraphrasing slightly, “That I was able to capture Ellen Burstyn’s performance in Requiem on film.” I was so surprised by that phrasing. Capture? But he was wonderful to work with because — there’s a kind of relationship between an actor and a director who’s so into what you’re offering that he becomes a partner in the work, and that was the kind of relationship we had. But of course, that’s not the only way to do it. What Marty did on Alice was so spectacular. Marty has a way, and I always think of his set as being like a boxing ring. You go under the ropes, you get into the ring, and then you’re sparring.
You initiated and oversaw Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. It won you an Oscar and broke Scorsese into studio filmmaking. A year later, you were part of the first American Film Institute Women in Directing workshops.
The women’s movement was happening, and we were becoming aware of ourselves as independent beings. It’s like that line, which I put in Alice, where I say, “I mean, it’s my life. It’s not some man’s life that I’m helping him out with.” The AFI workshop, that was something I’d asked to be in, because that’s what was happening in the consciousness at that time: women were like those little prairie dogs, standing up and going, “Oh, oh, we’re here.” I wanted to somehow manifest that, express it in some way.
Related to that: you injured your coccyx while you were shooting The Exorcist for William Friedkin, in a scene where your character’s possessed daughter throws you from her bed, and suffered a spinal injury. Do you still have physical issues from that incident?
Periodically. It flares up a bit.
Did you ever feel like that was a workplace-safety issue that you should have been compensated for, or that the production or the studio should have been punished for?
I don’t generally go there. But I will tell you that later on, I thought, “Why didn’t I say something?” At the time I was more concerned about being able to shoot the next day without my cane, which I used for weeks whenever I wasn’t on camera. So it was a pretty severe injury.
I thought about that when I read that Uma Thurman had been injured in a car wreck shooting Kill Bill for Quentin Tarantino, in a scene that could have been done with a stunt person.
She knew that it was dangerous, and she tried to have them not do that to her. But the arrangement is, the director always wins — the unspoken arrangement. So if you say, “No, I could get hurt,” enough times, and they’re still saying, “No, it’ll be fine, don’t worry about it,” and, well … We give in. We do.
Years after your injury, when you read about incidents like that, and continued gender discrimination in directing, and pay gaps between lead actors and actresses, and sexual harassment in casting and production, and all the other problems you had to deal with early on, do you think things are really changing for women in entertainment?
When people like Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose are brought down so that they can’t work, that will put a damper on behavior of certain people, certain male people. But remember, we’re dealing with centuries of patriarchy here, centuries of women accepting that men are the boss and what they say goes, and you aren’t allowed to call them on it if they’re in a position of power. Our president said it himself: When you’re a star, you can do anything you want to women. That’s called abuse of power. And abuse of power has gone on for centuries. Since the fall of Crete, there’s been a patriarchy. That’s not going to change overnight.
I was reading your biography, and the section about your third husband was quite disturbing. He broke into your house …
Well, I don’t know if I wrote this. I think I did. I called the police, and I told them that he broke in and that we were separated. And they said, “But you’re still married.” I said, “Yes. I’m not yet divorced.” And they said, “No crime has been committed.” I said, “He raped me.” And they said, “A man can’t rape his wife.” He was in the mental institution, and I was of course the sole supporter of my son and myself and him and actually driving the car to work, so I called to have the insurance changed to my name. It was in his name, and they said they couldn’t do it. And I said, “Why?” And they said, “Because you’re a woman.” I had already told her my husband was in the mental hospital. I said, “You mean to tell me that my husband in a mental hospital is less of a risk than the woman who is supporting the family?” They answered, “What I’m telling you is we ain’t going to do it.” So we might not realize that we’ve actually developed somewhat women’s position in society.
The title of your memoir is Lessons in Becoming Myself. Are you still becoming?
I just had an experience in Australia that was transforming, and I certainly have a hunger for more of those experiences, in whatever world where they await. I don’t feel done. Do you feel done?
I don’t feel done, but I am having an existential crisis after turning 50.
I’m 86. I have no sympathy for you!
I get that a lot from older folks. “You’re just a kid.”
My friend who’s staying here, my guest, is facing 60, and having an existential crisis about that. Why should you be ashamed of how many years you’ve been on the earth? I’ve always told my age. I think it’s important to own your age. What does it mean to you to be turning 50?
I think about the actuarial tables probably every hour.
And death is what?
What do you mean?
What is death to you? Is it something you’re afraid of?
I’m not afraid of it, but I’m aware that my time is limited, and I’m less inclined to go down pathways that I think are not really going to make me happy.
That’s good. See, that’s a blessing. You see, I think the whole trip is a preparation and learning experience to make a really good exit.
I just got a chill when you said that.
Well, it’s true. Do you know Mary Oliver’s poem, “When Death Comes”? I used to have fantasies that I would find out where she lived and go sit on the curb outside her house, and wait for her to come out and say, “I’m Ellen Burstyn, I’m an actress. I like your poems, can I talk to you please?” I tried to interview her for a podcast a couple of months ago, and they told me she was not doing well, so I wasn’t surprised when I heard she died. But her poems are so extraordinary that I don’t know if you need any other poetry if you’ve got hers. “When Death Comes” is a pathway for how you want to go.
“When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder,
If I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
And full of argument …”
[Burstyn excitedly raises her arm over her head and it bumps against the mermaid hanging from the ceiling above her, making it swing precariously.]
Oh, my! [Stabilizes the mermaid with her hand.]
Crushed by a mermaid in her own apartment!
That’s no way to go!
*A version of this article appears in the December 9, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!