Catching Up with Ellen Burstyn

12.29.2009

By Joseph Hassan

Recently, Out had the opportunity to catch up with Academy Award'winning actress Ellen Burstyn, who plays a supporting yet pivotal role in Tennessee Williams's The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond, which opens in select theaters today. Of the legendary playwright's 17 works that have transitioned to the big screen, this is the only such work that was originally slated for the screen rather than the stage.

The film marks the directorial debut of long-time Tennessee Williams devotee Jodie Markell, who, while poring over the writer's old journals, discovered a reference to a work that had been lost in the ether for nearly 50 years. The film stars Bryce Dallas Howard as Fisher Willow, a misfit debutante who unapologetically flies in the face of everything expected of an heiress in 1920s Memphis.

Burstyn plays the role of Miss Addie, a world-traveled writer who has been forced to return to the United States following a series of crippling strokes that lead her to make the ultimate request of the kindred free spirit Fisher: To free her from the prison of her own body by helping her to take her own life. We sat down with Burstyn to discuss the theme of Teardrop, and its relevance today. We also touched upon her views on religion and why she sees reality television as a serious detriment to the arts -- and society at large.

Out: What was it about this role that drew you to this character?
Ellen Burstyn: Tennessee Williams. [Laughs]. I mean it's very exciting to be in a new Tennessee Williams screenplay at this point. And I liked [director] Jodie [Markell] very much when I met her. I thought she was sensitive and intelligent... and I was impressed that she was able to pull this off, you know, somebody who had never directed a film before to get a producer, and raise the money and actually direct it. And I liked the way she talked about not only the script and her dedication to the film and Tennessee Williams but also to the process. And thirdly is the character. It's a very challenging role, the character herself has a physical disability and an accent and a death wish -- there was a lot to work with. I think she was interesting before her stroke...but since her stroke, living in the way she does, there are a lot of juicy acting challenges there.

There's a strong physical component to many of the characters that you play -- I'm thinking of Requiem for a Dream in particular. For this role, how did you go about figuring out how to embody the character's physical challenges?
Well, I went to a hospital and I spent some time observing a woman who was in the same condition that Addie is in. Actually, she was even more disabled'not only her arms were pulled up [to her chest], but her legs were pulled up too and I started doing it that way. Then we found there was no place to put the camera -- my face was always [hidden] behind my knees -- so we decided to eliminate that aspect of it and just stay with the upper part of the body. So, you know, once I observed this woman for quite a while I was able to find that in my own body.

She is a fascinating character, and a key player in Fisher's development'
Well, you know, a character who takes it upon herself to say "I take responsibility for my life completely -- including ending it when I want to" is the opposite of what everybody else is doing. Everybody else around Fisher is getting in that box -- that convention of what a life should be. And this one person says, 'No. You can make your own life.' [Meaning that] you can make your decisions about how to live it -- and when to not live it. So I think she's probably, by her very nature, and the life she's led, influential to Fisher. She forces Fisher to get serious about life.

What do you think drew Addie to Fisher [to make the request to help her end her life?]
I think Addie recognized something in Fisher, that she knew this was one person she could count on to help her. That she'd be able to not have a conventional point of view. Because it's a very mysterious and strong thing when somebody decides to 'jump ship' completely, you know? I know a few people who have made that choice. And from [my] perspective, I can't see what it would take. From this perspective of health, I can't see what it would take. It seems [to me] like life-at-any-cost would be the choice. But that's not from the perspective of someone who's in misery -- in a living hell. But it's always a mystery, isn't it, when someone is able to do that.

[The New York Times theater critic Charles] Isherwood described your role as being 'small but potent,' which I thought was a really, you know'
[Laughs.] A small but potent description'

Yes, exactly. And you've said that the language [of Tennessee Williams] helped to carry you through [the role]. I was wondering if you could elaborate on that' about how the language 'carries' you.
Well, you know, [Addie] is a writer. She's somebody that uses language as her mode of expression and, at this point, it's all she has left. So you can kind of hear her choice of words. Her choice of words is always slightly poetic, you know, so it tells me, as I say them, how she feels about what she's saying.

That it's a very deliberate thought process in how she selects her words?
Yeah, yeah. There's that wonderful thing she says, 'I was removed from my comfort.' That's such a great way to say, 'They took my drugs away from me.' [Sighs] 'I was removed from my comfort.' I just love that. I always forget the lines after I'm finished. I see them fresh when I see the film. So, last night, when I heard that [line], it was like I heard it for the first time.

There was something else that you said last night [at a panel discussion on the film] that struck me' It was something you said about the topic of reality television and the impact it may have on the arts. I'd like to know more about what you were saying there.
What I was saying is that the training that I received, that I immersed myself in for many, many years, was an understanding of the theme of a play that's beneath the plot. The plot is what's happening, but the theme is what it is saying about what's happening. And what it is saying about those characters. And so my technique was to learn how to understand what the theme was underneath the plot -- and how to reveal it through behavior, so that the audience could get what the author was talking about. That's what actors learn how to do. Now you take people who aren't actors and put them in a situation and say, 'OK, go to it.' They're not trained to look for the theme; they're just doing the plot -- the reactivity between the characters. So there's no deepening of the understanding and the revelation. That's what art does. And [reality television] is a substitute for art. And it's a crass substitute that I think is dumbing us down as a culture. We've sped up to the point that we're not allowing time for the deep stuff to emerge. You can't write deep poetry fast; you need to take time. I think that we have to be really careful and conscious of, as we speed ahead, what we're jettisoning out the rear, because I think we're jettisoning our deep humanity and understanding.

So, for example, when life is condensed into 140 characters on Twitter, you can't communicate as much -- or really any -- substance'
And also -- if the people who are hired are hired for their physicality and they just are reacting to each other without any awareness' then what are we learning? We're being entertained by undigested ideas.

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