By Andrea Cuttler SOURCE
It’s safe to say that there is a space in Ellen Burstyn’s home that is overflowing with little gold statuettes. There have been Tonys, Emmys, a Golden Globe, an Oscar. Not that she needs the validation: for nearly six decades, she has been a constant presence on the big screen, the small screen, and the Great White Way. And just last night, she opened William Inge’s Picnic, in which she stars as Mrs. Potts, a woman beholden to her ailing mother as she lives vicariously through sisters that live next door. When a youthful, charismatic Hal (Sebastian Stan) rolls into town looking for work, Mrs. Potts hires him, and neighbor Madge (Maggie Grace) is taken by him. In 24 hours, Madge will have to make a life-changing decision, Mrs. Potts there to guide her all the while.
VF Daily: Hi, Ms. Burstyn. I saw the show last night. I really liked it.
Ellen Burstyn: Oh, thank you. I am so glad you saw it.
So how has it been working with Sebastian Stan again?
Oh, terrific. We were still doing Political Animals when he met with [Picnic director] Sam Gold and he told me about it, and then I was all excited for him because I thought it was a wonderful part for him, and then all of a sudden I got a call to meet with Sam. When I did, I told him how much I enjoyed working with Sebastian, and I was kind of pitching him to Sam. And Sam said, “I’m hiring him.” So he had already decided. I was very excited for him. He’s a darling guy. He’s just real sweet and we are having a very good time.
Yes. You can tell! The chemistry is very obvious onstage between the two of you.
Yeah, I must say the whole company, you know, it’s a true ensemble and we get along very well. Everybody is terrific. They’re wonderful people, and we are having a glorious time.
Oh, good. So the first time you were on Broadway was in 1975, correct?
The first time I was on Broadway?
No, no. The first time I was on Broadway was in 1957.
Oh my gosh.
But I wasn’t Ellen Burstyn yet. I was Ellen McRae, in a play called Fair Game.
Ah, that clears it up. You’ve had this decades-long career. How is this experience different from the rest?
Well, I think it’s the first ensemble I’ve worked in where there’s not like one leading star or two leading stars, but it’s a real community and neighborhood in the play, you know? And so there are lots of good parts and we are all working together as an ensemble, and it’s kind of like being in an octet or chamber music—that’s what it’s like, like being in chamber music. Where you are playing with your fellow musicians, you know, it’s not a solo—you are working together and dependent on each other. It’s a wonderful experience.
The show takes place in middle America in the 50s and that’s when it originally premiered on Broadway as well, so it’s safe to say that the times have changed pretty drastically. How are you finding how you relate to your character and this story?
Well, I grew up in Detroit in the 50s, so it’s very familiar. And I love this character because she is so benign, she’s so good and simple and not—she doesn’t have any apparent shadow, you know? But somebody saw the show and came backstage and said that she’s the angel of the play, and I sort of feel that way about her. She’s the one that gets it all started by hiring this Hal—Sebastian Stan’s character—and everything unfolds from that. So she kind of is responsible for mixing it up, you know?
Do you feel like you’ve ever had to make a choice like Madge does at the end? I mean, it’s really gut-wrenching watching her, but I just felt like I wanted her to follow her heart and I felt that your character really wanted her to go, too.
Yes, actually that is the way I feel, that it’s not a question so much of whether or not she is going to follow the guy as it is, is she going to leave home and branch out and seek her own destiny, you know? And not be held back by her mother’s desires as my character has been. Mrs. Potts has been in the clutches of her mother her whole life, and she wants Madge to step out and make her own destiny. But have I ever had to make that choice? Yeah, every day. But I really am very clear that I wanted to get out and see the world, and nothing was going to keep me home in Detroit.
New York is such an incredible place to perform. What excites you the most about being back onstage?
Well, I’ve been onstage since 1957 off and on. I live in New York. I did a play last year, Off Broadway, not on Broadway. I try to be on the stage, if I can, once a year. The year before, I was in London in The Children’s Hour, and to me, it’s very important to do a play, no matter where it is, whether it’s Broadway, Off Broadway, London, or wherever. I just love the theater. . . . And the director, Sam Gold, is just a genius. I really wanted to do the play as much to work with him as I did anything else, and I’m so glad I did because it’s just a pleasure to see a really fine mind at work.
You’ve done television, films, Broadway, you’ve written a book, and you teach as well. How do you do it all?
I keep very busy. I like it. I have an exciting life. You know, I put one foot in front of me each day and see what opportunities there are to be challenged and excited and enjoy my work.
Do you think you could ever choose between television, film, and Broadway if you had to?
If I had to, it would be the theater. But, fortunately, so far I haven’t had to.
How much does the audience affect your performance onstage?
Well, you know, we always get lifted by an enthusiastic audience. You can’t help but feel that connection with the audience, and they speak to us as we are speaking to them, and if there is a quiet audience, it’s a little depressing. The energy level dips a bit. We try not to let that happen, but it’s impossible not to react. The audience is a large part of the show.
What happens during intermission back there? People always want to know the behind-the-scenes secrets. Do people stay in character? Do you talk? What goes on?
Well, I stay in my dressing room. I stay pretty quiet before the show and during intermission. You know, occasionally we will meet in the hallway and exchange a few words, but we are all pretty focused on what we are doing. You know, we don’t hang out and play cards or anything if we are not onstage.
Do you have any pre-show rituals, anything you have to do?
Well, I am on the way to the theater now for rehearsal. Sam is still calling rehearsals, and when I’m there for the show I turn on music, take a lot of time getting into makeup and getting into clothes. I’ve got prayers. I do, you know, my routine.
Any music in particular?
All different kinds. I mean, sometimes I listen to 50s music, but more often I listen to classical music or world music—I mean ethnic music. I like that.
Theater actors have such interesting schedules because your day—when you’re not at rehearsal—really does start in the evening. So what occupies your day when you’re doing a show?
Well, I haven’t had that experience except New Year’s Day. That was the first day that I just went in for a performance without rehearsal, because Sam’s been calling rehearsal every day that we don’t have a two-show day.
Oh, wow. O.K., every day.
Yeah. So I’m looking forward to us getting open so that we can have those days to ourselves! And I don’t know what that will be yet.