Ellen Burstyn: 'I Never Had the Option of Being Conventional'
One of the true treasures among American actresses, Ellen Burstyn returns to theaters this week in Tennessee Williams's The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond. Based on a 1957 script long thought lost, the film stars Bryce Dallas Howard as Fisher Willow, a headstrong young woman looking for a little more excitement than staid upper-class Memphis is ready to provide just before the Depression. Fisher becomes involved with sharecropper Jimmy Dobyne (Chris Evans), who escorts her to a Halloween party where all kinds of Williams-esque drama breaks loose. Director Jodie Markell parses the material with care and reverence, rarely more evident than in the long scenes Burstyn shares with Howard as Miss Addie, a bedridden stroke victim who asks Fisher for a favor highly likely to crimp the holiday festivities downstairs.
Three days after celebrating her 77th birthday, the Oscar-winner talked to Movieline about finally getting a crack at Tennessee Williams, her own days of being wild, and why she hopes to have another look soon at her classic The Last Picture Show.
Your character in The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond is bedridden and partially paralyzed, yet this still feels like a intensely physical performance. How did you approach it?
I went to a hospital and observed a woman who'd had a stroke. I took my physical condition from her. She was worse off than Miss Addie because she couldn't speak, either. But then it's just a question of getting your body into it and to feel the restriction of that. He so beautifully made her be a traveler -- and a writer of her travels -- who is now immobile. So it's even more sad that she's in this prison, and more understandable that she doesn't want to go on living like that. But you know, once you get into it physically, the rest is just concentrating on the emotional aliveness of the character.
Miss Addie asks Fisher to commit a pretty extraordinary act for a young woman her age, or any age for that matter. What made her think Fisher could pull it off?
I think she recognized something of herself in Fisher. She said those two words that Tennessee put together: "I recognize something hard and honest in you." I think she must have been recognizing something hard and honest in herself as well that could do it, and there was no one around her who could help her, you know? Her brother brought her back from the Orient, where she was happy because she could get opium. I love that line when she says, "I was removed from my comfort." Such a beautiful line. She's being forced to live in a way that's anathema to everything she's felt and done and believed in in her life, and so there's nobody around her who's not in the box. She's outside of the box, and there's nobody there but that girl she met once. She's not in the box; she still has some independence. And that's what she needs: someone who's independent enough that there's still something wild about her that she connect to, and make understand how intolerable this is. To have the mental strength to end your life but not have the physical capability is really the definition of hell.
Do you think Fisher saw something in Miss Addie as well that compelled her to relieve her of her suffering?
I think she just knew compassion. She knew how intolerable her life was.
Your characters in this film and Requiem For a Dream share a struggle with chemical dependency. How, if at all, did your work as Sara Goldfarb influence or inform Miss Addie?
I didn't think about that! It's funny: I was playing Mary Tyrone in Long Day's Journey Into Night when Darren [Aronofsky] approached me to do Requiem, so I was already deeply into addiction when I played Sarah. So it was an area I've explored -- not without personal experience, I have to say. Earlier in my life I was very... wild. But I finally gave up all of my various addictions; it was just part of not knowing what to do with all of my creative energy. Finally it occurred to me: "Create!" [Laughs] But I don't think I specifically thought of Sara Goldfarb when did this. I don't think that it was so much that she was addicted before the stroke. She might have had opium sometimes, but with the idea that the might have more strokes, it did make life tolerable to have the opium. Her addiction was really to keep her from knowing what was going to happen to her -- just softening the edges of reality, because it was pretty harsh.
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