A Conscious Life: At Home with Ellen Burstyn

When asked how it feels to direct her first feature film at the age of 85, Ellen Burstyn laughs and exclaims, “What am I, crazy!”

In the film Bathing Flo, Danny, a struggling actor, agrees to housesit for his wealthier acquaintance, Michael. But it’s not until Danny arrives at the house that he learns it’s occupied by Michael’s eccentric mother Flo, played by Ellen. “The producers offered me the script as an actress and I liked it, so I said I’d do it,” she tells me. “Then they asked me who I’d like to direct and, well, I always wanted to direct so I said, ‘Me.’”

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Ellen greets me at the door of her Central Park West apartment looking youthful in black tights and a loose cotton top. She’s been my mentor and friend since our collaboration on my 1995 Broadway play Sacrilege, in which she starred. I know her to be kind, principled, exacting, funny and perennially beautiful. “I feel so grateful to be healthy and still working at 85,” she says. “I try to start every day having the first words out of my mouth be ‘thank you.’”

Ellen’s achievements are all the more remarkable considering the violence of her childhood. As detailed in her bestselling memoir Lessons in Becoming Myself, she was frequently punished, her mother being a firm believer in “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” And Ellen certainly was not spoiled. When she told her mother she wanted to be an actress, her mother advised she go to secretarial school—so she had “something to fall back on when you fall on your ass.” Her stepfather said, “You’ll never amount to anything but a g.d. whore.”

Sixty years later, an Oscar, Emmy, Golden Globe, Tony Award, international awards and honorary degrees adorn the shelves and walls of her office. She was the first woman president of Actors’ Equity. She’s been inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame. Her film The Exorcist remains the benchmark of horror films. She brought the property Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore to Warner Brothers in 1974 and enlisted a young Martin Scorsese to direct, making her among the first actresses to package her own film. She was instrumental in developing the story line for Resurrection. Her harrowing portrayal of a woman descending into addiction in Requiem for a Dream earned her a sixth Academy Award nomination, and she endeared herself to a whole new generation as Elizabeth Hale in the Netflix series House of Cards.

Central to Ellen’s development as an actress was her introduction to Lee Strasberg of the Actors Studio. Shortly after she began studying with Lee, he observed her doing an exercise. “What would happen if you made a mistake?” he asked. “Go ahead. Make a mistake.” 

“When Lee said that, it just all came crashing down—the false face, the trying to be cute, trying to be interesting, smart, always trying to get by,” she confesses. “I had no idea who I was. And at that moment, I felt what it was like to be seen. To be known. It was a brand new feeling. I must’ve been 35 years old.”

Lee became Ellen’s mentor. “My mother was married four times and I grew up with three of her husbands,” she explains. “Whenever I looked at a little girl sitting on her Daddy’s lap, I thought, ‘I have no idea what that experience is like.’ I never had any kind of fathering. I did have two uncles who loved me and were kind to me, but I didn’t really know what a father was. I didn’t have an image in my mind of what a loving male-female relationship was. I never had that feeling of being wanted. I was distinctly not wanted by the stepfather I grew up with. So when I went out in the world and somebody wanted me, it felt really good. I tended to go with who wanted me, and they wanted me sexually, and that wasn’t a good basis for a relationship. Lee was genuinely interested in me as a person, not sexually.”

The rhythmic wheeze of Ellen’s dog Zoe intensifies, signaling it’s time for her medication. After dispensing Zoe’s pills, Ellen beckons me to a table near the front door. She picks up a card and reads from it: “Kindness is a mark of faith and whoever is not kind has no faith.” Muhammad. Ellen’s been a Sufi since 1970. Her apartment is part sanctuary, part temple. While books and family photographs exude warmth and welcome, religious statues and icons evince an aura of spirituality.

Her teacher, Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, lists three paths of the spiritual life: the prophet, the saint and the Master. Ellen writes in her book that she chose the path of the Master. When I ask if she’s attained Mastery, she chuckles. “I don’t think any Master of any kind would ever claim to be a Master. I’m always so aware of what I don’t know and how much more there is to learn. Most Sufi groups are Muslim. But I don’t like to eliminate things and say because I’m interested in the teachings of Jesus, I won’t read what Buddha has to say. I find Buddhism has powerful practices that are really helpful in one’s ripening. I’ve been reading the works of Neil Douglas-Klotz, a Sufi and Aramaic scholar, the language that Jesus spoke. And the word that Jesus would’ve used for good and evil mean ‘ripe’ and ‘not yet ripe.’ So do we say Hitler was not yet ripe? Do we say the that Trump is not yet ripe in his desecration of the White House? Jung talks about coming to the fullness of being, condemning the crime and not the criminal. Growing in consciousness is a ripening of the spirit. Calling someone evil is my own unripeness. Rumi has a quote: ‘Out beyond ideas of wrong doing and right doing, there is a field. I will meet you there.’”

Ellen’s political engagement began during the Vietnam War, when she joined Speakers and Talent Organized for Peace. She attended the 1968 Democratic convention and the 2004 convention when Obama gave the keynote address.  She despairs of the Trump presidency to the point of tears.

“So painful, it’s so painful,” she laments. “I was in the White House. It’s so beautiful. When I’m in that house, it’s like a holy place. It’s got the whole history of the country there.” Regarding Trump’s derogatory reference to Haiti and Africa, she said, “It’s a desecration to say things like that. He should be ashamed of himself. It seems to me he doesn’t know how to be ashamed. The Aramaic word for God is ‘Allaha’ which is the word Jesus would’ve used. The translation is not ‘Our Father,’ it is ‘sacred unity,’ and that sacred unity includes everything. It’s all one. And it’s all one for us to deal with. That’s part of us, too, what’s going on in the White House. Trump has revealed the shadow side of America.”

Part of that revealing has become a reckoning. “I think that Access Hollywood tape is what started the #MeToo movement,” she declares. “Then there was the Women’s March. Everything is coming from that. We have Trump to thank for that. That brought it out into the open. And it doesn’t do any good to point fingers and say those people are backward and unevolved and limited and stupid. It’s the place beyond good and evil, I’ll meet you there. We need to look at the sacred unity and say ‘this is us.’ We need to grow not individually, but as a unity. So that’s our job and we have Trump to thank for it. He didn’t create it; he just gave voice to it.”

In addition to Bathing Flo, Ellen is featured in three films this year: Nostalgia starring John Hamm and Catherine Keener, The Tale starring Laura Dern and The House of Tomorrow, about a grandmother who teaches her grandchild to live according to the principles of Buckminster Fuller. (The producers were amused to learn upon hiring Ellen that she was actually a friend of “Bucky’s.”) She’s currently shopping a script about a woman telegraph operator during World War II. She’s Co-President of the Actors Studio with Al Pacino and Alec Baldwin. And there’s still so much she wants to do.

“When I think about being 85, I think, ‘but I didn’t learn French yet! But I haven’t been practicing piano! Wait, just let me get this Beethoven Sonata down! I have no sense of being anywhere near what I would like to be. I feel faulty and not yet ripe. And at the same time, I try to be okay with myself. I try to accept it, you’re ok, c’mon, get off it. Then I think, I only won one Academy Award! What! I only got one!” She laughs and shakes her head. “It’s never really enough. I’m ambitious.”

But fame didn’t always sit well with Ellen. “When I was first famous, I used to shy from it, and think it was embarrassing. And then in the 90s, I wasn’t recognized so much and I missed it.” She indicates herself and exclaims humorously, “Here I am! C’mon! And then it came back again and I must admit, I did like it.” She resists, however, liking it too much. “I think of consciousness as not living in the ego and being famous is a temptation to live in the ego. Overcoming that is part of my effort to live a conscious life.”

Before I leave, Ellen and I embrace and wish each other well. Across from the elevator in the hallway outside her door, a three-foot-tall statue of Buddha stands beside a table of artfully arranged religious symbols. They serve as both a welcome and an indication of the seeker who placed them there.

Diane Shaffer is a playwright. She worked with Ellen Burstyn to bring her play “Sacrilege” to Broadway, wherein Ellen played a radical nun.

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