November 2011

Q+LA Ellen Barkin

The ballsy, Bronx-infused actress wears her larger-than-life story with equal pride and humor by ROBIN SAYERS

Ellen BarkinPHOTO: HENRY LEUTWYLER

Hearing that I’ve met with Ellen Barkin, inquiring minds want to know: “Is she as gorgeous as she is onscreen?” Definitely. “What’s that voice like in person?” Imagine a recently awoken Rip Van Winkle but much sexier. “Does she curse like a sailor?” Sort of. She drops only variations on the F-bomb but freely and with aplomb—as anyone who frequents her new but headline-grabbing Twitter feed will attest. “Was she wearing stunning jewelry?” Actually, less than most women.

And lastly, “Is she really dating a guy in his twenties?” Barkin doesn’t comment on her romantic life, but the short answer is this: Probably. The long answer, were it in a movie, would be too strange for fiction.

Barkin’s career was launched in Barry Levinson’s directorial debut, the 1982 dramedy Diner. This month, she stars in the dramedy Another Happy Day, written and directed by Levinson’s son Sam. Reportedly, 57-year-old Barkin and 26-year-old Sam Levinson have been dating for three years and share her West Village townhouse. Levinson has all but confirmed this in the press, and the handsome auteur was with her when she picked up this year’s Best Actress Tony for The Normal Heart (surprisingly, the first turn on Broadway for the New Yorker).

Back in 2006, when she unloaded $20.3 million worth of baubles from her ex-husband, billionaire financier Ron Perelman, she told journalists, in a twist on Hollywood parlance, that what she really wanted to do was produce. On Another Happy Day, which scored Levinson the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance, she does just that. Considering the epic saga that was her divorce and the fact that this searing performance is arguably her finest work on film, it seems unlikely Barkin could have scripted this latest act any better...

Let’s start at the beginning of your career. Is it true you studied acting for seven years before you landed a big audition?
Ten years. Ten years before any audition, not [just] big. I wasn’t looking for auditions. It wasn’t as if I was trying to get auditions and couldn’t. No, I studied acting from when I was a freshman in high school to maybe 26, then I went on my very first audition by choice.

Where did you go to college?
I went to Hunter because there was a brilliant director named Lloyd Richards—he directed all those plays on Broadway, but this was before most of them. It was hard to be a theater major, because there weren’t that many courses, so I had to be, like, theater-slash-something. And when I finished every theater or English or history course, I left, like, 16 credits shy of graduating. [Laughs.]

Do you have a rigid process when you build a character?
I’m Method trained. How is this character like me? What does she think of her mother? What does her mother think of her? It’s like construction, and then, yes, you hope you’re talented and that the universe aligns and captures the kind of laborer’s work you’ve done and whatever else sprinkles down on you, and it’s all caught on film or onstage. There’s a craft involved, like there is in building a table. And there are rules you have to follow and laws of gravity, of motion. Actors need equipment, but unlike a carpenter, your tools are not outside of you.

You were both a producer and actress on Another Happy Day. What initially drew you to the movie?
The minute I read the first scene, I’d already committed in my head. And it just got better from there. The character is very, very different from me at her core. I never played—what’s that cliché?—a “people pleaser.” I never played a character who was always aware of being judged and afraid of being judged and always questioning her actions. She’s such a complicated character, because she’s so fragile and aggressive at the same time. I feel proud saying it’s an extraordinary film. As an actor, it’s a piece of work that—I know everybody says this with every last movie they make—I am so proud of just having tackled. I didn’t say, “Uh, nobody’s really going to relate to this” or “Okay, wait, we’re moving into some unsympathetic territory here.” Look, I’m 57 years old. I don’t have to be coy anymore.

And the director?
He’s a brilliantly nonjudgmental filmmaker, which I find fabulous and refreshing. I love a filmmaker with an ax to grind as well, but Sam is just kind of like, “You are the camera”—not “I am the camera,” as the director. I don’t ever want to be a director. I just can’t have a first idea. I never have, [even] as a child. I just don’t see things visually.

But you seem to have an innate understanding for what directors are after.
I have enormous respect for them. I have to say, I haven’t worked with a lot of directors who have mistreated me. I’ve been extremely lucky, even in terms of the final movie and how it compares to what I brought to the table. I went to see The Ides of March. I am in awe of George Clooney—as an actor, writer and director. And I overheard a very humorous thing, but quite telling: There’s a dramatic moment where something big is about to happen. A window in an SUV comes down, and George—you can barely see his eyes—says, “You got a couple minutes?” to Philip Seymour Hoffman. Phil gets in the car, and the doors close. And I said, “I know my friend George. He’s shooting this scene, like, fill in the blank. So, the camera just stays on the car for what was going on to play out in real time. Philip gets out, the car drives away and you’re just looking at him. Then I overheard someone say, “Why wouldn’t he shoot the scene in the car?” And I thought, So you could shoot it in your head! Like, don’t you want to fill in that blank?

You’re certainly not shy about speaking your mind, and you’ve even put your money behind what you believe politically.
Well, we’re experiencing divisiveness in terms of our politics. Like, the Religious Right has identified themselves because of the propagandizing and illiteracy of...I don’t know...News Corp, maybe? They have identified themselves with this extremist, right-wing insurgency of a party—this Tea Party. They call it a grassroots movement. Grassroots? You’re attached to the wrong ship. And that just shows you the enormous—and don’t misquote me here!—the enormous success that has killed us in terms of Fox News. The blatant lying that passes itself off as journalism. I don’t even need to get there to go mental. Can you imagine a legitimate newsperson—Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw—just lying on the news? Let alone the entertainment factor—you know, news as entertainment. And because of the enormity of the money behind that machine, they have convinced this ever-growing group of really struggling, working-class people, that these f--kers can somehow, in some way, represent them. They do not. I mean, let’s not even start, because that’ll take up a whole month if I go down that road.

Okay, we’ll swap topics. Beauty magazines have written about how women have to decide which is more important—their ass or their face. Because when your ass is smaller, your wrinkles show more, and vice versa.
Yeah, and you know it’s your face—a lot more people see your face, unless you’re a stripper. And by the way, whoever sees my ass already likes me enough that they don’t care if it’s a little flat and skinny. Skinniness is not your friend when you’re over 40. I’d like to gain a good 10 pounds, but I did always have a fat, round face that plagued me when I was young. When I started to make movies, I couldn’t look at myself. My mother would say, “I had that same moon face, and you’re going to like it when—.” I’d say, “Yeah, but I don’t have your cheekbones,” and she’d say, “You do—you just can’t see them yet.” It is clear I was never the Pretty Girl. I had my two front teeth knocked out when I was 10 and didn’t fix them until I was 19. I have a crooked smile and a nose that looks like it’s been broken 12 times but never has been. My nose was always red, so people called me Rudolph. My whole face is off-center. My nickname was Skinabo—“skin and bones.” And I have, you know, squinty, slitty eyes.

Do you appreciate now how cool your eyes are?
You know, when the conver-sa-tion went from like, slitty eyes to bedroom eyes, I thought, What are bedroom eyes? Do I really have them? But I always talk about this, because if you are the “beautiful girl,” every door in the world is open to you immediately. When you’re that pretty, you don’t develop f--kin’ anything else. When I’d meet those girls, even decades ago, I would always say, “Listen, this is only gonna take you so far, so read a f--kin’ book. Make a f--kin’ friend. Have a conversation. And stay in school.”

Did you like living in L.A.?
I loved it. It was the smell. I’d just think, This is so different than anything I’ve smelled before. I moved to L.A. when I was 40 and lived there for five years, because my son was going into first grade and I was spending so much time—like, literally half the year—doing movies in L.A. I just thought, like the cliché, if I lived here, I’d be home. I lived above Coldwater, in a kind of East Coast–style shingled country house. We had beautiful trees, a gorgeous front lawn, a tree house for my kids, pool in the backyard, a beautiful picket fence. There had been so many brutal winters in a row with the kids in New York—on with the snowsuit, off with the snowsuit, feed them, change them—I just said, “I’m done! I gotta get the f--k outta here. I can’t roll the stroller over the icy snow and then have to go back home because someone needs to have their diaper changed. There’s gotta be a better way.” In L.A., you just open your door, and out they go. [But] I did not know how to drive a car, being a true New Yorker.

Yeah, that could be a problem in Los Angeles.
The only thing I could do was “movie drive,” which I did very unsuccessfully, having taken out several cameras, camera operators and mailboxes. I took driving lessons, and I got a license. Oh my God—the world’s worst! When I passed my test, I didn’t understand why there wasn’t a major ceremony at the DMV. I was like, “Do you people get it?! I couldn’t drive! I’m 40—four-zero! And I just passed my driving test!”

Did you buy yourself a nice car—a convertible, maybe?
No, an Audi—I had children. But I was always a terrible driver. I was never on a freeway. I mean, never. I had a friend who moved up to Mulholland. We were best friends, our kids were best friends, and before she bought her house, I was like, “Do not buy that house! I can’t drive up Mulholland. I’m never going to be able to come home at night.” And I could never do carpool. I’d just say to the other mothers, “I’m not your girl. I’ll make the sandwiches, I’ll cook for the lunch, I’ll go on the class trips...but you do not want me driving your children. In fact, I’d like you to drive my children.”

When you go out to L.A. now, do you drive or are you driven?
I rent a car, but I’m still not good at it.

So, if readers see you on the road, they should know to leave a wide berth.
[Smiles.]


HAIR: DJ Quintero
MAKEUP: Gita Bass