Ellen Burstyn on ad-libbing a fiery monologue: ‘It’s one of those delicious moments’
When you’ve been acting nonstop for more than 60 years; have starred in such iconic films as “The Last Picture Show,” “The Exorcist” and “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”; have won an Oscar, a Golden Globe, a Tony, two Emmys, and countless other award nominations and prizes; have played everyone from murderer Jean Harris to Mary Todd Lincoln to Barbara Bush; and are still raring to go — what do you do for an encore?
If you’re Ellen Burstyn, you dive into a juicy supporting role as a Holocaust survivor helping her daughter through a personal tragedy in a movie directed by an innovative Hungarian filmmaker born the same year — 1975 — you won that Oscar (for “Alice”).
Playing Elizabeth Weiss in the galvanizing new film “Pieces of a Woman,” directed by Kornél Mundruczó from a script by Kata Wéber, was a wise and bold choice. It’s one that could earn the actress her seventh Oscar nod and make Burstyn, who turned 88 on Dec. 7, the oldest actor ever to be nominated. (She would best 2018 nominee Christopher Plummer by six days.)
“I really want that, I must say,” said Burstyn of the nomination during a recent phone interview from her home in Manhattan. “I think that’s a badge of something. Of longevity, certainly!”
The actress continued in warm, lively and forthright form as she spoke about working with “Pieces” costars Vanessa Kirby (who plays her haunted daughter, Martha) and Shia LaBeouf (as Martha’s edgy boyfriend), the singular Mundruczó, and the depths she plumbed to play the controlling, if well-intentioned Elizabeth.
After so many years of inhabiting such a vast variety of roles, what drew you to invest in this particular part?
When I read the script I liked it very much. And then I looked at Kornel’s film “White God,” which I just loved … so I was very eager to work with him. And then I had seen Vanessa when she played Princess Margaret [on “The Crown”] and I remember as I watched her… just sitting up and leaning forward and saying, ‘Who is that?’ She was so good! Good in the way that actors who’ve really studied and have really worked on stage and have a full background in the art of acting are good.
Elizabeth is a difficult, complex character. What was your entry point into the role?
First, the thought that she was born at the end of the Holocaust and she came to America as a child [meant that] she didn’t need to have an accent. [Beyond that] she came to me to be someone who is trying to make things better. Coming from where she did and being an immigrant as a child, you don’t just accept things as they are, you try to improve on them. She made sense to me.
Your big monologue scene, in which you relate the fraught circumstances of your character’s birth to Martha’s fight for justice and looming court battle, is a knockout. And, amazingly, all shot in one take. What was its biggest challenge?
That story about how Elizabeth was born is such a brilliant story. But the monologue is one of the things that we kept rereading and tinkering with. Just before we went to shoot that take, Vanessa said to me, “Make me go to court.” I realized that she was having trouble as an actor figuring out why [Martha] finally goes to court… It’s not clear in the script.
I can’t tell you what kind of force erupts … but something rose up in me. When I finished [performing] the speech as written … I suddenly felt that I had not made her “go to court.” So I kept on going … and the rest of that speech just came out of me: unplanned, unanticipated. And I feel that I did make her go to court. Why? Because I needed her to speak her truth.
It was all kind of an inspired moment starting with Kata’s wonderful writing. It’s one of those delicious moments that happens between actors where something gets ignited between them.
You’ve worked with so many exceptional directors over the years and now another one in Kornél Mundruczó. How did he compare?
It’s impossible to compare directors or scripts or experiences in movies because each one is so unique. [That said], I just love Kornél. I love his eye and his sensitivity. He’s a quiet man and a kind man and I’m always surprised when I see the film that there was something going on I didn’t know. That the angle or the shot was different than I imagined when I was doing it.
Your dynamic with both Vanessa Kirby and Shia LaBeouf was so realistic, so natural. You’re all extremely strong actors, what was it like working with them?
We loved working together because we all kind of go for the truth that we can find in the experience. [We all] try to get into the fiction so that it becomes real to us. When you work with other actors who work the way you do, it’s kind of like jazz musicians.
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