One of the few actors to achieve the Triple Crown of Acting—an Academy Award for “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” a Tony Awards for “Same Time, Next Year,” and an Emmy Award for a guest starring role on “Law and Order: SVU”—Ellen Burstyn is one of the most decorated and experienced actors of our time. Over her 60-plus-year career, Burstyn has never once fallen out of love with the craft, and brings the same passion she had in her 20s to her latest role in the retirement home-set romantic comedy “Queen Bees.”
You began your career as a dancer and a model, but what was the moment you decided you wanted to be an actor?
I kind of always knew I was an actress, from the first time I was onstage when I was seven years old and just reciting a nursery rhyme. When I looked out at the audience and saw that blackness—I couldn’t see any people but I could feel them out there—something clicked in me. I was seven and I can recreate that feeling of relating to the breathing beings inside the blackness and connecting with them. I didn’t say, “Oh, I’m an actress, this is what I’m going to do with my life” but that moment was the beginning of something. I just found that every time I would go onstage, I could do it well. To me, what we come in with that comes easily to us is the path we should take. I was always heading that way from that point on.
In your subsequent theater roles throughout your career, did you get that same feeling of connection to the audience that you did as a child?
Yeah, always. Just hearing a purse clicking open when I’m doing something that’s making the audience cry and I know somebody’s reaching for their handkerchief or their tissue, or laughter, or any kind of response from the audience, even absolute silence where I can feel they’re really attentive, I call that feeling “communion.” I always feel like I’m in a communion with the audience, with the individual people. I can feel their presence and their concentration, their attention. When I feel I don’t have that, that’s a terrible feeling and then I have to refocus and get concentrated and reestablish that communion.
What do you consider your first big break to have been?
I was a model and then I decided, OK, I’m going to be an actress. I’m going to do a Broadway play this fall. I went around to everybody I knew and said, “I’ve decided to be an actress. I want to do a Broadway play this fall. Do you know how I can get an audition?” Somebody actually said yes and got me an audition. I auditioned for a lead on Broadway and I got the part. That was my beginning. That’s a pretty big break. Of course, after that I had a career of 20 years doing television guest shots, doing summer stock, doing some not very good movies. It wasn’t until “The Last Picture Show” that I felt I had a big break in films, and quality work in good films.
What advice would you give your younger self?
To get into an acting class and study. I didn’t study for quite a few years into my career. I was working so I thought I knew what I was doing, which I didn’t. I did get the feeling when I looked at certain actors that they knew something I didn’t know; actors like Marlon Brando and Jimmy Dean and Kim Stanley. It turned out they were all members of the Actors Studio and they were all students of Lee Strasberg. One day I decided it was time to find out what it was I didn’t know and I went to him and that really changed not only my work, but my life. I got serious about the art form, not just the career.
How did you first get your SAG-AFTRA and Equity cards?
My entry to the union was AFTRA. It was a television show, live TV I did somewhere. And then I got into Equity when I did that Broadway show, “Fair Game” it was called.
What is your worst audition horror story?
I can’t remember something like that. I was pretty good at auditions. One of the reasons why I was good at auditions is because I was always kind of nervous and scared. And then my husband was working for a television company and he came home one day and he was worried and upset and I asked him what was wrong and he said he was worried they weren’t going to find an actor for this particular part that they were auditioning actors for [on] a television show. I went, “Oh, it’s the same on the other end! It’s not just us being an actor that’s worried and scared. The producers are, too.” I changed my attitude when I went in for an audition: I’m the answer to your problems. I was going to solve their problems. And that changed my whole focus. I wasn’t going hat in hand, can you please give me a job? It gave me more confidence and it helped. So I got good at auditioning then. Confidence is so important for actors. If you’re not confident, it’s just impossible to do your best work. You have to get control of your mind and not let it defeat you. “I hope they like me, I'm so scared,” all that stuff makes it hard to do good work.
What performance should every actor see and why?
I love Laurence Olivier’s “Richard III.” He does just astonishing work in it. Of course, Meryl Streep’s “Sophie’s Choice” is a brilliant performance. So many of her performances are.
What has playing this latest role in “Queen Bees” added to your acting skills?
The thing that I learned from doing “Queen Bees” is I had an attitude about retirement homes. I thought entering a retirement home was kind of giving up on life. I got into this retirement home where we shot, which was a real place with real people living there, and they were having a good, hot time, I’ll tell you. There’s a beautiful swimming pool, a beautiful dining room. They had all kinds of activities. There are a lot of relationships that are formed in retirement homes. I was very impressed with the level of liveliness in the place where we were. It really changed my attitude, where I stopped thinking of going into a retirement as giving up on life but just another stage in life, another circumstance of life. It can be fun and interesting and enlivening. I’m very pleased for them to make a film where the four leading roles are over 70. There aren’t too many of those kinds of films that are fun. I think we’ve given the audience a good time.
Do you sense a tide is turning for more dynamic roles for older actors?
Well, I hope so. I’ve been working steadily in my 80s. That’s a good sign. Whether or not it’s a trend remains to be seen, but I hope so.
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