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Q&A: Ellen Burstyn on her acting life, and never retiring

NEW YORK (AP) — That Ellen Burstyn plays a woman who recoils at the very mention of a retirement community in the upcoming film “Queen Bees” is extremely appropriate. Rarely has an actor been as good for as long as Burstyn has.

NEW YORK (AP) — That Ellen Burstyn plays a woman who recoils at the very mention of a retirement community in the upcoming film “Queen Bees” is extremely appropriate.

Rarely has an actor been as good for as long as Burstyn has. She is still, at 88, tireless, her vitality almost preternaturally undiminished. As intense as her early career was — Lee Strasberg’s The Actors Studio in the late 1960s followed by ‘70s classics like “The Last Picture Show,” “The Exorcist" and “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” — her later years have been no less probing or challenging — “Requiem for a Dream," “Interstellar," last year's “Pieces of a Woman.”

She has the awards to show for it. A six-time Oscar nominee and one-time winner (for “Alice,” a movie she might have directed until she picked a young filmmaker, Martin Scorsese, to do so instead), she has a Tony and two Emmys, too. And while “Queen Bees," in theaters Friday, is more of fun diversion, Burstyn remains a magnificent and fierce screen presence. She plays a proudly independent senior temporarily staying at a retirement community that turns out to be as rife with comical cliques and romantic possibility as “Mean Girls.” The cast includes James Caan, Ann-Margret, Jane Curtin, Loretta Devine and Christopher Lloyd.

Burstyn's own retirement plans aren't just unmade. They're unfathomable. When she turned 80, she decided to move from Rockland County, up the Hudson, into the city. “Time for a little action," she explained in a recent interview by phone.

She has since lived in an apartment overlooking Central Park, which she strolls daily. “It's my garden,” she says. During the pandemic, Burstyn has mostly laid low, spending time with friends in the Catskills and at a condo on the Connecticut waterfront.

“Otherwise, I’ve been in the city. I’ve been in my apartment," says Burstyn. "I am absolutely a cooped-up person ready to hit the road again.”

Remarks have been edited for clarity and brevity.

AP: What do you attribute your longevity to?

BURSTYN: I must have some good genes. I was sort of wild in my 20s and 30s. When I got into my 40s, I started dropping bad habits slowly. First hard liquor went, then wine went, exercise began, changing my diet and giving up meat. Marijuana was also part of the mix. I just gave it up all up. I think it really paid off.

AP: Has acting evolved for you over time?

BURSTYN: I’m not sure I know how to answer that. It must have. You know, I’m very well trained. I had the great, great fortune of studying with one of the master teachers of all time — Lee Strasberg I’m talking about — and he influenced me so much. I found as I went on in my career that the things I had to work hard for early on became easier and easier to access. I became more relaxed in my efforts. But I never lost interest in it.

AP: You had a somewhat tumultuous early life. Was acting initially an escape for you?

BURSTYN: No, I think it was something that I discovered pretty young that I could do. From the first time I went on stage, I felt at home there. Not that it wasn’t scary — it was. But it felt right to me. It’s a gift that I came in with.

AP: You must meet a lot of young actors through the Actor’s Studio, where you’re co-president with Al Pacino and Alec Baldwin. What do you tell them?

BURSTYN: It’s a process. It’s one of those things that the more you do it, if you’re really approaching it from the point of view of wanting to get better and better, then you’re always learning. I tell actors that where you start out from is just the beginning.

AP: Did any advice you received have a dramatic influence on you?

BURSTYN: The most important thing was connecting the character and myself emotionally so that I could understand on an emotional level what was happening to her — that I wasn’t just saying words.

AP: Do you still immerse yourself so much in a character?

BURSTYN: It’s just that some characters are more available than others. I don’t have to go very far to understand them. And then some of them are strangers to me and I have to go deeper to find a place where I align with them.

AP: Your character in "Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” was one close to you. What’s one that was a stranger?

BURSTYN: Well, I did a film in Greece with Melina Mercouri (“A Dream of Passion”) where I played a character who was in jail for killing her children. It was a Medea theme. That really took a lot of work for me to be able to go there. I don’t mean that I wanted myself to be able to kill my children. (laughs) But I had to find the thing in her that allowed that. I did get to that point where there was a maniacal fury. I found that what she was doing was hurting her husband in the best way she possibly could. It wasn’t about the children. It was about her fury with him.

AP: With quite a few of your characters — “The Exorcist,” “Requiem for a Dream” — that meant going quite dark places. Did that ever wear on you?

BURSTYN: The act of doing a good job is thrilling and pleasurable. If the act is to play a horrible person, the result of it is that you feel afterward that you did the job well. It has its own strange reward.

AP: I imagine your “Queen Bees” character wasn’t a far journey since her attitude about retirement aligns with yours.

BURSTYN: : I can’t picture my retirement. (laughs) I can’t picture wanting to retire. The only thing I can picture is if some day I’m being retired because I don’t get work. But volunteering to retire? I can’t picture that.

AP: What drew you to the movie?

BURSTYN: I love it when the movie industry shows women past 60 still having interest in life and not retiring. I read so many scripts from the time I was 50 that were all about: Should we put grandma in the nursing home? And how do we tell her? It was always like putting her out to pasture. This is quite different. It happens in a retirement home but there’s lots of life going on in there, a lot of mating. So I liked it. It’s a story about, let’s say, elderly lusty people.

AP: You’ve lived through a patriarchal era in Hollywood. Do you ever wonder how your career and life might have been different without those roadblocks?

BURSTYN: I’ve done a lot of studying about the patriarchy, which has been in effect for thousands of years. Only now is it really being challenged. I think that’s what’s so scary to a lot of fellas, that they’re not going to know how to function if they’re sharing the cat-bird seat with a woman. I think it affects our politics. I think what the country is going through right now is a fear, for some people, that if the white man is not in power that that would be a bad thing. I don’t share in that opinion. I think we have been slowly in my lifetime opening up the throne to the other sex and the other color and the other religion — the other. I don’t think about how my life had been different. I’m just glad I was able to make some films like “Alice Doesn’t Live Her Anymore” that’s really about that, and affected it in some way.

AP: In your memoir, “Lessons in Becoming,” you wrote about how your third husband, after separating, broke into your home and raped you. It’s his name you have. Do you wish you didn’t?

BURSTYN: (Laughs) Well, I try not spend time on wishing for anything that I can’t change. That’s my name, however I came to it. It surprised me, but that’s what I got. But I know I was very honest as I wrote that book. Every time I came to a new chapter in my life, I’d go, “Well, I can’t write about that.” Finally, I said: Honey, if you’re going to tell the story, tell the story.

AP: You could tell in that book you view your life as an ever-ongoing spiritual journey. Where would you put yourself on that journey now?

BURSTYN: The way I understand life is that you come on Earth to learn something spiritually, and everything that happens is a spiritual lesson if you view it that way. I’m still on the path of trying to be as honest and sensitive and open and kind as I can possibly be. So I hope I’m growing that way.

AP: You’ve also talked about memory is the reservoir of all your acting. For someone who draws so much on the past, you seem very forward-looking.

BURSTYN: I use my memory all the time in my work. Memory, it forms us. Our stories form us. Being totally present is essential. I’m in the past and I’m in the future and I’m in the now all at the same time.


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Jake Coyle, The Associated Press