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Catching Up with Ellen Burstyn

Recently, Out had the opportunity to catch up with Academy Awardwinning actress Ellen Burstyn, who plays a supporting yet pivotal role in Tennessee Williamss The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond, which opens in select theaters today. Of the legendary playwrights 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 writers 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 its 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. Its 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. Theres a strong physical component to many of the characters that you play -- Im thinking of Requiem for a Dream in particular. For this role, how did you go about figuring out how to embody the characters 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 disablednot 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 Fishers 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 shes probably, by her very nature, and the life shes 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 shed be able to not have a conventional point of view. Because its 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 cant see what it would take. From this perspective of health, I cant see what it would take. It seems [to me] like life-at-any-cost would be the choice. But thats not from the perspective of someone whos in misery -- in a living hell. But its always a mystery, isnt 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 youve 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. Shes somebody that uses language as her mode of expression and, at this point, its 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 shes saying. That its a very deliberate thought process in how she selects her words? Yeah, yeah. Theres that wonderful thing she says, I was removed from my comfort. Thats 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 Im 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. Id 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 thats beneath the plot. The plot is whats happening, but the theme is what it is saying about whats 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. Thats what actors learn how to do. Now you take people who arent actors and put them in a situation and say, OK, go to it. Theyre not trained to look for the theme; theyre just doing the plot -- the reactivity between the characters. So theres no deepening of the understanding and the revelation. Thats what art does. And [reality television] is a substitute for art. And its a crass substitute that I think is dumbing us down as a culture. Weve sped up to the point that were not allowing time for the deep stuff to emerge. You cant 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 were jettisoning out the rear, because I think were jettisoning our deep humanity and understanding. So, for example, when life is condensed into 140 characters on Twitter, you cant 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? Were being entertained by undigested ideas. You mentioned earlier that youve 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 wouldnt 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 didnt 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, its one of those [works] that talks about the plight of those who didnt quite fit into society and didnt know what to do instead of fitting in and, therefore, theyre kind of lost and trying to find their place and trying to make a decision about whether theyre 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 Williamss plays. I think thats 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 its a theme that gay people face but also artists face. Very often people who have artistic temperatures dont always fit in so well to the conventional mold. And they have to decide whether or not theyre 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 didnt 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 hes Muslim and my mother is from England and shes Catholic. So I grew up exposed to two religions. Something Im 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 dont think religion should ever lead to war. If it does, theres 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 thats still the status quo or if things are improving in the industry? I think theres been some change. I think that those of us who worked in the '70s and were in the womens movement, collectively we brought about that change. You know, theres 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 Im 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.
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