When she was nineteen years old, Ellen Burstyn got on a train out of Houston to go to Manhattan and pursue a career as a performer. “I had just enough money to get here, and I had no money to eat on the train, and it was a twelve-hour train ride,” says Burstyn. “Some soldiers across the aisle had a bag of apples, and they had no money either, and they shared their apples with me. And on my lap was the book The Collected Works of William Shakespeare. And so I arrived in New York with twenty-five cents and The Collected Works of William Shakespeare, and that book has been with me this whole time. It’s the only book I have read Shakespeare out of.”
Throughout a long career that flowered in the fertile age of Seventies American cinema, Burstyn has played many roles and taken many chances, but she had never done Shakespeare professionally until director John Doyle offered her the male role of Jaques in a production of As You Like It at Classic Stage that opens this Thursday, September 28. “Just months before, I had been thinking, ‘What a dope I am, I’ve never played Shakespeare and now I think it’s too late,’ ” Burstyn says. “There are no roles left for women my age, great roles in Shakespeare. I mean, there’s the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet, but there aren’t that many wonderful parts for women my age. So I didn’t like that I had missed it. I thought, ‘What’s the matter with me?’ And then along came this offer.”
When Burstyn asked Doyle if she should play Jaques as a man, he instead directed her, “More your male side,” and this got Burstyn’s creativity working. “I thought that was a very interesting proposition,” she says. “Working on it, I thought, ‘I can’t really play a man, I don’t have the voice, or the hips to play a man.’ But what I can play is a man trapped in the body of a woman.” She says that Doyle told his actors that Shakespeare is all in the words. “If you have a thought, if the character has a thought, the thought comes on the word,” Burstyn says. “You don’t go, ‘To be…ummm…or not to be.’ Especially when it’s in iambic pentameter, you have to honor the poetry. Now, with my part, I am sometimes speaking in iambic pentameter, and sometimes in prose. And that is the tradition, to honor the word, and I think that’s right. But we’re also human beings and we also have feelings, so I don’t believe in eliminating them. They just have to be played within the rhythm of the writing.”
Burstyn has her classic films: The Last Picture Show (1971), The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), The Exorcist (1973), Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), Providence (1977), and Resurrection (1980). But she is best known to younger audiences as Sara Goldfarb in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000) — particularly for the famous “red dress” monologue with Jared Leto that gets shared so much online and spoken of with awe. How that particular scene came about was nearly as unsettling as the speech itself.
“We rehearsed it just once, and I was surprised that when I said, ‘I’m old,’ I felt these tears rise,” Burstyn says. “And I went, ‘Oh, what is that?’ And so I decided that I didn’t want to explore that except on camera. So I went to Darren and I said, ‘I don’t want to rehearse this, and I don’t want to shoot a master shot and then shoot him [Leto],’ which would be the natural way to do it because of the set that’s behind him. I said, ‘I want you to just shoot me.’
“Ordinarily a director wouldn’t do it,” Burstyn says. “Because it would mean taking down a background and putting it up again. But I only asked him for that one thing in the shooting because I knew there was something there and I didn’t know how I was going to experience it. And so we did it, and it came out like that, and we only did one take, and then we did another because you always do one for protection. But I knew that was it and so did he, and actually I don’t know if we even did one for protection, I don’t remember that.
“The next day when I came in, Darren came to my dressing room, my so-called dressing room, and he said, ‘We have a problem with that scene,’ ” Burstyn says. “And I said, ‘What’s the problem?’ And he said, ‘The focus puller was off, and your nose goes out of focus. I fired him, he’s already gone, but I want to reshoot it.’ I said, ‘How bad is it?’ And he said, ‘If we don’t get it, it’s not so bad that we can’t use it.’ And I said, ‘OK, I’m going to do it, but you have to swear on your life that if we don’t get what we got yesterday, that you will use what we did yesterday.’ He said, ‘I promise.’ So we did it again, and it was flat. And he said, ‘OK, we use yesterday’s.’ And that’s what’s in, and nobody has ever noticed that my nose goes out of focus.
“I knew there was something alive in me that was right for that scene, and I didn’t even know what it was,” Burstyn continues. “It had to…I can’t even talk about it! Because I feel it, and I know I can access it, and I don’t question it, I let it rip, and that’s what happened.” Burstyn studied with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio, and so she uses her own life as the basis for her characters. “I have a lot to call on in my life,” she says, and then she breaks into girlish laughter. “First of all, many years’ worth of experience, and also, I haven’t had a quiescent life, so I’ve got a lot of material in there to work with. I don’t think I remember having to go to some other realm than my own.
“Also, I find that my training with Lee Strasberg has made my emotional life very accessible to me, and I don’t always have to call up a specific experience from the past,” Burstyn says. “When I started out, I did. But now, after years of accessing those dimensions of myself, I can pretty well go there without having to…it’s years of training and working where I can just tap into it and it comes. But there are surprises. Like that whole scene you’re talking about in Requiem, that was a surprise to me! I can’t tell you where that came from. I had feelings about getting old that I didn’t know about. It was a surprise to me. Feelings were coming up that I didn’t know I had. And so I wanted to let those feelings out and I knew they were only going to be that real once, because after that it wasn’t a surprise.”