Ellen Burstyn: 'Women on screen were prostitutes or victims – I wanted to embody a hero'

At 85, the award-winning actor is preparing for her directorial debut and starring in a new film. She talks about Trump, feminism and the accident on The Exorcist set that still leaves a bitter taste

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‘It’s terrifying!” Ellen Burstyn isn’t talking about her war with a demon in The Exorcist. Nor is she recalling her battle with amphetamine addiction in Requiem for a Dream. Rather, as I sit down opposite her, she is talking about the current US president.

He has become an inescapable topic, especially in New York where we are, but for the 85-year-old, his reign has an added sting. Burstyn was not only a vocal supporter of his predecessor but was a visible part of Barack Obama’s campaign.

“I was so happy and pleased for this country that we finally had been able to step over the line into some kind of reasonable attitude and then it bounced way back the other way,” she says. “But I think the Russians did it, don’t you agree?”

Throughout our conversation, Burstyn often asks for my opinion, and then listens with patience to what I have to say. We are in her Upper West Side apartment in Manhattan. Filled with diverse ornaments, trinkets and furniture signalling a life filled with travel, it seems well-suited to the topic at hand, given that we are here to chat about her new film. The House of Tomorrow stars Burstyn as an idiosyncratic woman who maintains a geodesic dome home with her teenage grandson, played by Asa Butterfield. Their lives are led by the teachings of architect and futurist Buckminster Fuller, who, in reality, was close friends with Burstyn.

“The director, Peter Livolsi, sent it to me not knowing I was associated with Mr Fuller in the past,” Burstyn says. “It was quite by accident.”

Ellen Burstyn in The House of Tomorrow
Ellen Burstyn in The House of Tomorrow. Photograph: Shout Studios

It is Livolsi’s feature-length directorial debut and I imagine it must be intimidating to direct an actor of Burstyn’s experience. After all, she has worked with Peter Bogdanovich, William Friedkin, Oliver Stone, Darren Aronofsky and Christopher Nolan. It was Burstyn who was responsible for getting Martin Scorsese to direct her 1974 comedy Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.

“I love new directors,” she says. When she chose Scorsese to direct Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, he was a relative newcomer. “I wanted to find someone new. When I think about it now, what I’ve always been attracted to is that their talent hasn’t been crushed yet. It hasn’t gotten tainted by experience so it’s just fresh. As somebody once said, whatever can go wrong will go wrong when making a film, so I’m prepared for that.”

Not many actors know as well as Burstyn about what can go wrong on a set. When making The Exorcist in 1972, an accident left her on crutches for the rest of the production. As she recalls the incident, she was pulled on to the floor with a cable during a scene where she is slapped by her demonic child, Regan.

“I said: ‘He’s pulling me too hard.’ Billy [Friedkin, the film’s director] said: ‘Well, it has to look real.’ I said: ‘I know it has to look real but I’m telling you, I could get hurt.’ So, Billy said: ‘OK, don’t pull her so hard,’ and as I turned away, I felt him signal the guy and he smashed me on the floor. I expected Billy to yell cut. Instead, I saw him touch the cameraman’s arm to move the camera closer and I was screaming at the top of my lungs. Through my screams, I said: ‘Turn the fucking camera off.’”

Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair in The Exorcist.
Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair in The Exorcist. Photograph: Mondadori via Getty Images

The memory still leaves a bitter taste. It carries even more power in a climate where the irresponsible behaviour of directors is being re-examined following Uma Thurman’s story of mistreatment by Quentin Tarantino during a car crash on the set of Kill Bill.

“That was a bad experience,” she says. “I don’t feel that I was complicit in it because I told [Friedkin] not to do it. When I think about it now, why weren’t there pads on the floor, why weren’t there pads on my back?”

She underwent “all kinds of” treatment for the rest of production. Friedkin did not apologise, either then or since. In a recent interview with the Guardian, he denied she was seriously affected. “I’m sure she was hurt by the fall – you fall on your backside, it’s gonna hurt – but she wasn’t injured,” he said.

While the experience might have left its mark, Burstyn’s time in the industry has been devoid of the sexual harassment that many of her peers have experienced. “I’ve always been treated pretty well,” she says. “I’ve had a couple of experiences; there have been a couple of dumb guys that I worked for early on. But for the most part I’ve always been respected. When I was a model, that wasn’t true. Before I became an actress, when I was 19, 20, I had to handle some situations that were ugly.”

Was she aware of female colleagues suffering at the hands of other sexual predators in Hollywood?

“The only person I ever heard stories about like that was our president,” she says, although she doesn’t reveal any specifics.

She finds Harvey Weinstein “sick” and the allegations against him “flabbergasting” but is optimistic about the “seismic shift in the consciousness” and the opportunities that women are now being offered. She thinks Wonder Woman is “a fantastic movie” and praises “all those women warriors” in Black Panther.

Early in Burstyn’s career she made an important choice about how she would be viewed as a woman in Hollywood. “It occurred to me, I could have a career based on my looks,” she says. “But if I did, it would be a very short career and that I’d better not rely on that. So, I went to [Lee] Strasberg and I studied the art of acting. And it makes me so happy to be 85 and still working.”

She turned down a lot of roles early on because they didn’t fit with how she wished to be seen. “I wanted to portray women as heroes because that’s what they are,” she says. “Women were either villains or wives who stayed home while their husbands went out to save the world. Or they were prostitutes. Or they were victims. I wanted to embody a woman as a hero, so those were the parts I was looking for. After a while, I couldn’t do that any more. You get to a point where work is welcome.”

Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream
Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/Artisan Entertainment

She tells me she regrets turning down the role of Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest but remains happy with another important decision at that time. “I turned down a lot of money for The Exorcist 2,” she says. “You can’t make a brand out of The Exorcist. It’s just ridiculous.”

In general, she doesn’t dwell on the past. Next she is stepping behind the camera to make her directorial debut with Bathing Flo, a comedy in which she will also star. “I’ve been putting it together for three years,” she says. “We’re going to start shooting at the end of April and all of May and I pray I come out alive. It’s very exciting.”

She has also gained lessons from working with director Jennifer Fox in the devastating sexual abuse drama The Tale, which won plaudits at Sundance this year. While her career has given her plentiful opportunities with male directors, there is something different about working with a woman. “I think that’s the difference on set,” she says. “The male directors are ruling and the female directors are working as a team.”

• The House of Tomorrow is released in the US on 27 April with a UK date yet to be announced

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Benjamin Lee

The GuardianTramp

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