Roundabout has just announced a revival of William Inges' Pulitzer-winning Picnic, a 1953 tragedy which hasn't been seen on Broadway since 1994. Previews start December 14, and the play opens on January 13th. Playing Helen will be Ellen Burstyn, the revered stage and screen actress last seen exercising her foulmouthed side on USA's abominable Political Animals.
As bad as that show was, Burstyn is far from abominable. I interviewed her in London last year for Bullett Magazine—them folks for whoms I've been blogging—about her part in Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour, which she appeared in alongside Keira Knightley and Elisabeth Moss. I happen to dislike Lillian Hellman's tedious melodrama almost as much as Political Animals, but that West End production was enlivened by strong performances, of which Burstyn's was the best.
Besides being a nifty actress, she is a nifty lady, and we discussed Darren Aronofsky, the wonderfulness that is New York City, and why it's important that actors play volleyball together.
Because Bullett has, foolishly, reworked their website so that the old article does not appear, I'll take the opportunity to reissue the interview. Truly, without the following 1,400 words, the Internet would be a cesspit.
Since her 1957 Broadway debut, Ellen Burstyn has had the career that young actors dream of, winning equal respect on stage as on the screen. Her first film appearance was an auspicious one, a part in Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show which saw Burstyn nominated for a supporting actress nomination. Again nominated for 1973's The Exorcist, she won her Oscar under the direction of Martin Scorcese, in 1974's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. More recently, she won wide acclaim for playing an addict in Darren Aronofsky's Requiem For a Dream.
Although she has spent decades as one of Broadway's grand dames—as an actor and as one of the chiefs of the Actor's Studio—she waited until this year to make her debut on the London stage. That came in January, playing alongside Keira Knightley and Elisabeth Moss in a revival of Lillian Hellman's torrid 1934 drama, The Children's Hour. In this story of two Massachussets teachers whose fledgling boarding school is destroyed when a disturbed child accuses them of being lovers, Burstyn represents the old guard, leading the charge against the supposed lesbians.
First of all, why The Children's Hour? What attracted you to this production?
It was right after we had those suicides in New York, the young gay guys, and I thought this play, although it takes place in 1934, shows the lurking attitude behind the liberalization towards homosexuality, and the self-righteousness that seems so prevalent right now in America. That seemed to me to be an issue worth airing. And I liked the role. There's a lot to act. And of course, [director] Ian Rickson, I met him and loved him immediately.
Is he the kind of director who attracts talent?
He's divine, an actresses's dream. He's smart, sensitive, caring, compassionate, perceptive, exploratory in the work process, and very respectful of actors, which a lot of directors aren't. He made a company out of a bunch of strangers in one morning.
He had us work in twos, telling each other about a time when we got in trouble at school, and then circulated us around the room. By the end of the morning we knew each other in a way that usually takes weeks if not months.
Would you mind telling me what your story was?
I would mind telling. Not because I mind revealing it, but because all of those things get used. If you air them they lose their charge and can't be used any more, so that becomes private work material.
What was Rickson's rehearsal process like?
A lot of research, a lot of talking. We all had homework. Everybody had research to do, and then we shared it. We rehearsed for six weeks, which is unheard of in New York. We previewed for two weeks, so that by the time we got to opening night, we were really flowing and solid. We just sailed through opening night, as opposed to hitting it like a wall. And then of course there was the volleyball.
We divided into two teams, and everybody played. I don't know how you play regular volleyball, but this is called aisle volleyball. Everybody on the team has to touch the ball before it's knocked over on to the other side. It's a regular occurence before every show.
Who's the strongest player?
Well, we call Lizzy [Elisabeth Moss] the Hulk. Interestingly enough, when Ian was in rehearsal with Jerusalem, before he brought it over to New York, we played Jerusalem, and we beat them. Then they came here, we had a tournament, and we beat them three times. All these little girls beating these big strong guys. It was really shameful.
Is there any chance of this production moving to New York?
There is a chance. The producers really want to bring it. We have two extremely busy actresses, so it's a question of working out everybody's schedule. Lizzy's gonna do Mad Men from July to December, and Keira has two films, so it's a question of scheduling.
What's it like working with the two of them? Have you been able to give them advice?
They're very talented actresses. I don't know if they came to me for advice, but I lavished them with advice at every opportunity, asked for or not.
Is it special having a cast which is, with the exception of Tobias Menzies, all female?
One day at rehearsal, Ian said to the company, "I've never worked with a company that is so devoted, so hardworking and generous and gracious with each other." He asked Tobias, "Do you think that's because it's mostly women?" And Tobias said, "Yes—and it galls me to say that."
And how do you personally get ready each night?
There's a kind of ritual, of just preparation, of going in your dressing rooom and turning on your music and freshening up with flowers and sitting down and starting the make up. In preparing yourself the outside world slowly fades away, so that you're just down into this one point of focus. I don't read or talk on the phone, because once I'm ready, there's nothing else to do. It's like being completely present. You don't want to distract from that.
Why did you wait so long before coming to the West End?
I was never invited before. If I'd been asked before, I would have said yes then!
And what makes this different from working on Broadway?
There's so much more sense of theater history here. There's more community—they have these private clubs that actors go to after the shows. And I'd say it feels less cutthroat. That might not be true, but it feels that way. You know, in New York we've gotten down to one newspaper and one critic who decides the fate of the show. It was not that way when I started out, and it's not that way here.
Do you miss New York?
I try not to think about it. It will be six months that I've been here, which is the longest that I've ever been away from home, and New York, and my son and my dog. If I'm going to miss it I'm not going to have a very good time here. When I close here on May 7th I'm going to take a little trip, a two week vacation, travel around Europe a little bit and then go home. I'll go back to the actor's studio, where I've always got a million problems waiting for me, and I will have two films coming out in the fall.
What's it like going back and forth between stage, screen and television?
Television is the hardest to do because it's so fast. You never meet anybody until you get in bed with them, but whatever you do do is seen all over the world, so you reach the most people with whatever you have to say. Film may take more time, but there's more opportunity to do quality work, and it lasts forever. But there's nothing like the stage for, I don't know any other word for it, communion with people. The exchange, it's like a heart to heart transfusion. You don't get that anywhere else. That's why the theater still exists, I think. Why it hasn't been completely replaced by machines.
Of the film directors you've worked with, who would you call the ideal?
It would have to be Marty Scorcese. He is it. But Darren Aronofsky, I think Darren's really major.
Ten years after you two made Requiem For a Dream, how do you look back on it?
Where to start? People, young people are really into that film. When I go out the stage door at night, some people have The Exorcist for me to sign, but most have Requiem For a Dream. People tell me it has changed their attitudes about drugs and addiction.
Everyone I know who's seen it tells me they don't want to see it again.
Because it ruined their drugs?
Exactly! Would you call Darren underrated?
In Hollywood you're rated according to how much money your film made. And that's not the first thing on his list. I think his films are very difficult. I mean, look at The Wrestler! I said to him, "What made you make that movie?" He said, "It was a whole world I knew nothing about!" To me that was a big clue about Darren—finding a world he knows nothing about and going in there to learn about it.
A month away from the end of your run, how do you feel so far?
For me? I think it's an important show because it's about bigotry in all its forms, and it's exciting, and it's intense. People come back and say, "I didn't breathe." The audiencedidn't breathe
. I think that intensity is valuable for people to experience, the intensity of human connection and emotion.