Catching Up with Ellen Burstyn


By Joseph Hassan

You mentioned earlier that you've known people who have made the decision to take their own life. Is that something that helped you, in a way, to prepare for this role?
No, I wouldn't say so. I was more concerned with a character who was a traveler and moving around the world and writing about her travels suddenly being trapped in a body that didn't move at all and her choices and ways to deal with that.

How would you describe the theme of The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond?
[Pauses.] I think, you know, it's one of those [works] that talks about the plight of those who didn't quite fit into society and didn't know what to do instead of fitting in and, therefore, they're kind of lost and trying to find their place and trying to make a decision about whether they're going to trim themselves to fit or are they going to be an outcast and make their own way. And I think that was the theme of many of Tennessee Williams's plays.

I think that's one of the reasons he resonates with gay audiences. Obviously Williams himself was gay, and [the themes] resonate with many people, but, I think they particularly resonate with a gay audience because of that search for authenticity and validation.
Yes. And I think it's a theme that gay people face but also artists face. Very often people who have artistic temperatures don't always fit in so well to the conventional mold. And they have to decide whether or not they're going to swallow their authenticity and conform or be free spirits. And a good artist almost always has to be a free spirit.

Was that the case for you? Did you face that challenge?
Oh, it was pretty clear at a pretty young age to me that I didn't fit into any of the conventional molds for me so I had to go in search of my own way.

My father is from Pakistan and he's Muslim and my mother is from England and she's Catholic. So I grew up exposed to two religions. Something I'm really interested in is how [being Irish American] you found your way to Sufism [the more mystical dimension or version of Islam]. Where did that impetus come from?
It had always bothered me -- I was brought up Catholic, too -- and it always bothered me that each religion seemed to have the idea that they were the only religion and that the only doorway into heaven was through their church door. That never seemed right to me. I did a lot of reading into it, and I ended up being initiated into the Sufi church. What I liked about it was that it recognizes truth in all religions and finds other ways of questioning the truth and [focuses on] the theory that the truth is alive. I really liked that idea.

I ask, too, because there are so many similarities between religions, especially growing up with Catholicism and Islam. There were so many similarities between the two.
I don't think religion should ever lead to war. If it does, there's something wrong that needs to be examined.

I read somewhere that you once said that, for women in Hollywood, you get to a certain age and 'fall off a cliff.' I was wondering if you think that's still the status quo or if things are improving in the industry?
I think there's been some change. I think that those of us who worked in the '70s and were in the women's movement, collectively we brought about that change. You know, there's plenty of room for more improvement. Still there are many, many, many more films by and about men than women, but I think the fact that I'm 77 years old and still working shows that there has been some growth in the consciousness of Hollywood.

And that Jodie Markell, too, was able to direct this great Tennessee Williams work [and is the first woman to direct any of his works on the screen].
Yes -- absolutely.

In January, Burstyn plans to start a second draft of her own screenplay about a historical character living during World War II in Paris. She is also putting together a book of her favorite poetry (like that of the 14th century Persian poet Hafez) coupled with photographs that she has taken over the course of her career. The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond opens in New York City and Los Angeles today and nationwide in January. Check local listings for show times.

Send a letter to the editor about this article.