Ellen Barkin is riveting audiences as the doctor with polio who politicizes the Larry Kramer character about AIDS in the acclaimed Broadway revival of Kramer’s The Normal Heart. The other day, the Hollywood humdinger and Tony nominee talked to me about this eye-opening career twist—a really memorable Broadway debut.
Me: Hi, Ellen. This show [which originated as a reading, with a mostly different cast] was put together very quickly, yes?
Barkin: We started rehearsal April 10, and we opened April 27. So I don’t think any of us felt that pressure of mounting a Broadway play because we were just working too furiously to get there. We all fell into the arms of [co-director] George Wolfe and trusted him. Once we gave ourselves over to him, there was no time to feel each other out. That man is so creative and big with his vision and generous with his actors, and he’s still there!
Me: Did you feel awkward rehearsing your big monologue with the Times‘ Alex Witchel sitting there doing a piece on you?
Barkin: Not really. If you can act in front of a crew of 75, you can act in front of a very intelligent journalist, who also has a job to do. I didn’t feel like Alex was judging me.
Me: Well, I am. You’re sensational! But how do you modulate that monologue—railing at the system for ignoring the mounting ghastliness of AIDS—so you don’t peak too soon?
Barkin: You keep it together for as long as you can, you listen to your director, and you find the one word that tips you over the edge. Some nights I get angrier sooner. It works differently on different nights.
Me: Larry’s writing turns out to be more impressive than we’d realized, no?
Barkin: When it first came out in 1985, it was like, “This is Larry Kramer’s polemic against this horrible catastrophe that we just now called AIDS.” Now, it’s “Larry wrote a beautiful, profound, witty, and emotionally devastating play that is way bigger and better a play than the polemic it was seen to be.” A lot of that has to do with George. He said, “This is a horror movie. The only one that knows those people are zombies at the door is her.” The stakes are high, and there’s a world around it. People fall in love; people get in bad moods. A grind goes on while you’re fighting a war. That’s the beauty of what Larry wrote. During wartime, people create bonds, have fights, come together, and pull apart. It’s not just war.
Time has allowed us to see AIDS as something bigger. It’s a plague that’s never been defined as a plague. What happens when you have a plague for 30 years? This is very profound, and not like anything I’ve done in movies
Me: Oh, come on. Switch didn’t have this kind of magnitude? God, I’m such a bitch.
Barkin: [Laughs.] I’ve never made a movie like this that speaks to such profound issues. I’ve never done anything this political. It feels really good.
Me: Do you end each performance in a daze?
Barkin: We’re all wiped out. But any time any of us feel tired, we look at Joe Mantello [who plays Ned, the Kramer stand-in] and say, “What the fuck are we complaining about?” I have four scenes where I’m sitting in a wheelchair—that’s not so hard compared to what he’s done.
Me: Did you have any trepidation about not having done stage for a while?
Barkin: No. It’s not a different kind of acting. That’s where theater gets dicey, when actors feel they have to act differently on stage because they’re playing to the balcony. I saw The Merchant of Venice, and it didn’t look like Al Pacino was doing anything different from when he has a camera in his face. If you saw Liev Schreiber do A View From the Bridge, you felt like you were in his house with him. Stephen Dillane, my ex-husband Gabriel Byrne . . . these people aren’t tweaking. When actors do that, there’s a distancing!
Me: Speaking of screen acting, didn’t you grow in stature as a movie star rather than explode all at once?
Barkin: I was never a big, giant movie star. I was an actor who occasionally was in a glamorous movie that made a lot of money.
Me: I wasn’t saying you’re not a big movie star . . .
Barkin: I am. I got out there little by little. There are different points where things started to change. For me, it happened with The Big Easy, and then in a big way with Sea of Love. I was what they liked to call “the girl,” and that was great for me at that time, but also, that coincided with me starting a family [with Byrne in 1988. In 2000, Barkin married Revlon tycoon Ron Perelman, whom she isn’t allowed to talk about. I guess it is just war].
Me: Are you still in the film game?
Barkin: I have a movie coming out in the fall that I produced and starred in called Another Happy Day, and I’m very proud of it. But I would like to do this again. I’d been trying to do a play for three years, so I’m happy where I am.
Me: Yay! Before I leave you: IMDb.com says you’re “unconventionally pretty.” Your thoughts?
Barkin: I’ll go along with the unconventional part. [Pause.] It’s like a Jewish mother. They can never give you a compliment! [Laughs.]