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Ellen Burstyn on Living "Hard and Honest"

We talked to acting great Ellen Burstyn on her new film, The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond, the great Tennessee Williams, what great writing can do for an actor, and much, much more. Learn from a master.

Jodie Markell's The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond is a work with a fascinating backstory. It started when Markell, an actress who has made a career of sorts excavating and refurbishing the "lost" works of a variety of artists (she brought Sophie Treadwell's lost 1928 work Machinal to the New York stage in 1990), found a never-produced screenplay in an anthology by one of the greatest American playwrights, Tennessee Williams. Determined to bring it to the screen, she got the funding and the approval from the Williams estate, and cast Bryce Dallas Howard as Fisher Willow, a classic Williams herione. The set-up is simple: Fisher, an heiress, has returned to 1920s Memphis society, and finds herself trying (and often failing) to fit in. She asks the poor caretaker's son, Jimmy Dobyne (Chris Evans) to escort her to social events, and the clash between the rich girl, the poor boy, and the restrictive rules of 1920s Mephis provide the film's frisson.

Screen legend Ellen Burstyn has a "small but potent" role as Miss Addie, a paralyzed matriarch confined to her bed who sees Fisher for the "hard and honest" woman that she is, a rare flower in this stultifying world. Burstyn was in a roundtable interview in New York recently, where she discussed what drew her to the role, how she feels about the women in Tennessee Williams' work, and how reality TV hurts culture. It was terrifically exciting to be in the same room as Burstyn; she's had a fascinating career in theater and film that spans training at The Actors' Studio in the '60s to her unforgettable and terrifying performance as Sara Goldfarb in Requiem for a Dream, arguably the best female performance of the 2000s and part of her trifecta of seminal roles (The Exorcist and Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore being the other two). In person, Burstyn is smart and interesting andin what is truly rarepresent in conversation. It was a privilege to spend time with one of the great actors of the last fifty years.

Jodie Markell
Director Jodie Markell and Ellen Burstyn

What attracted you to doing this role?

Tennessee Williams. It's very exciting to be in a new Tennessee Williams screenplay at this point, and I liked Jodie 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, somebody who had never directed a film before, to get a producer, raise the money, and actually direct it. 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. Then there's the character, she's a fascinating character. I think she's interesting before her stroke and after her stroke. Living the way she does had a lot of juicy acting challenges.

You're such a physical actress—Requiem for a Dream comes to mind—and this character in Diamond had a lot of physical limitations. How did you approach that?

Well, I went to a hospital and I spent some time observing a woman who was in the same condition that Addie is inactually she was even more disabled than her, not just her arms were pulled up but her legs were pulled up too. I started doing it that way and we found there was no place to put the camera, my face was always behind my knees, and we decided to eliminate that aspect. Once I observed this woman for quite a while, I was able to find that in my own body.

Have you ever performed other Tennessee Williams works?

Not professionally. I've done them at the Actor's StudioI did that scene from Baby Doll for Lee Strasberg and I worked on Blanche at the Studio. Never did a whole production, unfortunately. He sent me the play he wrote on Zelda and asked me to do it. I didn't like it enough at the time to want to do it. Now I'm sorry I didn't, actually.

Loss of Teardrop

Miss Addie serves as a sort of mentor to Fisher in this world. Why is that?

A character who takes it on 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, the convention of what a life should be. And this one person says no, you can make your own life, you can make your decisions 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. I don't know what happens to Fisher. I'm not sure who she becomes. Are you?

We were saying earlier that she's like Blanche DuBois (of A Streetcar Named Desire), but fifteen years earlier. When she still had a chance.

I think Addie recognized something in Fisher that she knew this one person she could count on to help her. That she'd be able to not have the conventional point of view. Because it's a very mysterious and strong thing, when somebody decides to jump ship completely. I've known some people who've made that choice and from this perspective, it's hard to see what it would take. From this perspective of health, it seems like life at any cost would be the choice, but that's not from the perspective of someone who's in misery and who's in a living hell. It's always a mystery, isn't it? When somebody's able to do that?

Could you expand about how the language carries you with Tennessee Williams and this character?

Well, she's a writer, so she's somebody who uses langage, that's her mode of expression at this point, it's all she has left. So you can kind of hear that in her choice of words. Her choice of words is always slightly poetic, so it tells me, as I say them, how she feels about what she's saying.

It's a very deliberate thought process.

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." Removed from my comfort. I just love that. I always forget the lines after I'm finished and I see them fresh as I see the film, so last night when I heard that it was like I heard it for the first time.


What are you doing in the future?

I'm writing a screenplay; I'm starting my second draft in January. I'm working on a book I'm putting together of my photographs, and I have a play called Vengeance is Mine (written by Bob Glaudini) that I liked very much, and I asked John Doyle to direct it. Now I have to decide whether we'll do it on Broadway or at the Public. We're doing a reading at the Public after the first of the year.

You were talking about reality TV shows and the impact it would have on the arts last night at the panel. [Burstyn was part of a panel about bringing Tennessee Williams' work to stage and screen.] Can you elaborate on that thought?

What I'm saying is that the training that I received, that I immersed myself in for many years, was an understanding of the theme of a play that's beneath the plot. The plot is what happening, but the theme is what it's saying about what's happening, and what it's saying about those characters. So my technique was to learn how to understand what the theme was underneath the plot and how to reveal it in behavior, so the audience could get what the author was talking about. Well, that's what actors learned how to do.

Now you take people who aren't actors, and you put them in a situation and say hey, go to it. They're not trained to do that, they're just performing the plot. They're destroying what happens, the reactivity between the characters, so there's no deepening of the understanding and the revelationthat's what art does. This is a substitute for art. It's a crass substitute that I think is dumbing us down as a culture.

We've speeded up to the point that we're not allowing time for the deep stuff to emerge. You can't write deep poetry fast. It just doesn't happen. You need to take time, and it's the same with acting. When I do a play like Long Day's Journey into NightI did it once in Texas, and then I took a year off. All that time I was mulling over it, and then I went back to it and did it again in Hartford and it was a different approach, it was a different understanding. Then working on it for a month after we opened, that kept getting it deeper and deeper so my understanding of the character was deep. So she's not just a lady who's taking drugs and messing up her family. 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.

If the people who are hired are hired for their physicality, and they're just reacting to each other without awareness, what are we learning? We're being entertained by undigested ideas.

The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles. Click here for ticket information.



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