'Age of Adaline's' Ellen Burstyn on the pursuit of truth in acting

'Age of Adaline's' Ellen Burstyn on the pursuit of truth in acting
Ellen Burstyn, left, and Blake Lively in a scene from "The Age of Adaline." (Diyah Pera / Lionsgate)

Ellen Burstyn had a difficult time channeling her inner teenager in the new romantic fantasy "The Age of Adaline."

And for good reason.


In the film, which opened Friday, the 82-year-old actress portrays the daughter of a woman (Blake Lively) who's perennially 29 — a woman who, incredibly, hasn't aged for almost 80 years.

"It was very hard to remember that I was her daughter," Burstyn said. "I would unconsciously say, 'Well, dear.' That was too maternal."

"Adaline" director Lee Toland Krieger said Burstyn — the Oscar-winning actress of 1974's "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" and the star of "The Last Picture Show," "The Exorcist" and "Requiem for a Dream" — was the only person he approached to play Flemming, the daughter who is her mother's only friend.

"It goes without saying she is a hero of mine," Krieger said.

So much so that Krieger was nervous on the set. But the actress quickly put him at ease, preparing well every day and otherwise showing why she's "such a pro."

"Ellen does this beautiful thing we all do around our parents regardless of how old we are," Krieger said. "We tend to regress a little bit. Ellen does a great job at hinting at that without shoving it down our throat — the little, tiny mannerisms that she is a teenager again, being slightly annoyed by Mom."

Making "Adaline" changed Burstyn's concept of aging.

"I think in the back of our minds, we wish would stay young forever," she said. "I realized in reading the script and then in playing it, what a curse it would be. When you are out of the natural order, it makes you a freak, in a way. I suddenly saw aging in a friendly light. It is the normal progression of things."

When Burstyn isn't working on a film or TV movie, she can be found Friday evenings moderating workshops at the Actors Studio in New York, where she is artistic director and co-president with Al Pacino and Harvey Keitel.

After acting for years without much success, Burstyn started studying with the founder of the Actors Studio, Lee Strasberg, in 1965.

"I was doing the work I was capable of doing with my own native talent, but when I looked at actors like Marlon Brando, Jimmy Dean, Kim Stanley and Geraldine Page, I knew that they knew something that I didn't know," Burstyn said. "I wanted to find out what that was. They were all Actors Studio actors. I left my career in Hollywood, moved back to New York and went to Lee Strasberg and studied with him for the rest of his life."

Burstyn is about to start a new chapter in her career. She's busy casting her feature directorial debut, the comedy "Bathing Flo," in which she will also star.

She has directed small films and workshops and was even given the opportunity to direct "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore."

But Burstyn told John Calley, who was head of Warner Bros., that she wasn't ready to direct and act at the same time. She visited Francis Ford Coppola to see whether he knew someone who could direct the feminist comedy-drama. The filmmaker told her to watch Martin Scorsese's 1973 "Mean Streets."

"John Calley set up a meeting with me and Marty," Burstyn said. "I said, 'I liked your film very much, but this is a film I want told from a woman's point of view. I can't tell looking at your film if you know anything about women.' "

Scorsese confessed to Burstyn that he didn't but said he'd like to learn.

"I thought that was the best answer he could possibly have given," Burstyn said. "We went into business together."

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