Ellen Burstyn Predicts The Future: 'We'll Be The Dogs Of The Robots'

The 85-year-old Oscar winner has a lot to say about the singularity, dark energy and humanity's place in the universe.
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost Photos: Getty

Ellen Burstyn is good at talking.

Seated in her living room overlooking Central Park on a brisk February afternoon, a wire-haired pooch perched at her feet, Burstyn registers as thoughtful, engaged and exceedingly well-read. Cluttered bookshelves line the walls. Crystals garnish the windowsill near our armchairs. A white piano sits across the room. Art from all corners of the globe hangs throughout her apartment, evincing an 85-year-old life full of adventures.

As quickly as we delve into the annals of her career ― from an auspicious Broadway debut to defining roles in “The Last Picture Show,” “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” “The Exorcist,” “Requiem for a Dream,” “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood,” “Interstellar” and “House of Cards” ― the conversation shifts to Burstyn’s spiritual fortification. She’s as infatuated with the cosmos and metaphysical ideology as she is anything to do with Hollywood, where she has gone from primo leading lady to venerated elder stateswoman.

In the next several weeks, Burstyn will appear in two movies: “The House of Tomorrow” (opening April 27) and “The Tale” (premiering May 26 on HBO). In the former, she’s an environmentally conscious grandmother obsessed with Buckminster Fuller, an architect and theorist who popularized the term “Spaceship Earth” (and a real-life friend of Burstyn’s; more on that later). In the latter, which was one of the most renowned films at Sundance this year, she’s a mother whose globetrotting daughter (Laura Dern) is reinvestigating a sexually abusive episode from her childhood. Onscreen, Burstyn has always had a crisp elocution that wobbles only to reveal characters’ vulnerability ― a trait seen in both “The House of Tomorrow” and “The Tale.”

For an hour, Burstyn and I had a conversation so articulate and wide-ranging we must have solved at least some of the world’s problems. We discussed the state of American politics, her Vietnam War protests in the 1970s, the injury she sustained on “The Exorcist,” the evolution of Hollywood and, yes, the mysteries of the universe.

Asa Butterfield and Ellen Burstyn in "The House of Tomorrow."
Asa Butterfield and Ellen Burstyn in "The House of Tomorrow."
Shout Studios

“The Tale,” which I saw at Sundance, is going to be a big conversation starter about sexual abuse. It’s a weird movie to love because it’s so difficult to process, but it’s really remarkable, especially because it’s autobiographical.

I think so, too. I think the way [director Jennifer Fox] mixed the two — documentary and narrative — is so unusual and innovative. It’s a lot of things. It’s an exploration of memory and it’s an expose of the seduction of children and young people. I think we always have an idea of an abuser as being ugly. I mean, when I met [Fox], she was still referring to [the predator seen in the movie] as her first boyfriend. So it was the whole process of investigating it and reawakening the memory when she started to think about it. I immediately liked her. Have you seen her?

Oh yes, I saw her speak at the Sundance premiere.

You know, I got in such trouble for that remark.

For speaking out against Trump during the Q&A afterward? What kind of trouble?

Oh, just Twitter outrage.

Oh, of course. Do you pay attention to all of that?

I’ve never experienced anything like that before. My remark just came out because I was so unsettled by the film. It’s a little elusive.

How does social media fodder get filtered to you? How do you find out people are saying certain things about you in certain contexts?

People tell me.

People being —

My family. My son. I try not to get into that too much. I just say, “OK.”

Not that you’re someone who’s stoked a lot of outrage throughout your career, but do you have a more zen approach to that now than you did in the past?

Probably. Probably I would have been more upset when people say bad things about me, but I have learned over the years how to separate it — not taking it personally, necessarily, not letting the knife go in, just saying, “That’s them. OK.” I probably shouldn’t have said anything.

Ellen Burstyn in "The Last Picture Show."
Ellen Burstyn in "The Last Picture Show."
John Springer Collection via Getty Images

From where I was sitting, it seemed invigorating. The audience certainly responded to it.

Well, the thing is, I always forget that what I say in a room is going to leave the room. If I had been on TV, I probably wouldn’t have said it. But I was with like-minded people, so I didn’t censor myself. But no, I should know that lesson by now. It always gets out somehow. Whatever.

Was there a time in your career when you didn’t handle criticism as well?

Oh yeah, when I first started out, I started with a lead on Broadway [in “Fair Game”]. In my first interview for a newspaper, I had lunch and I talked. And then when I read it, I went, “Oh my god.” I had to learn that what you say actually gets into print. It’s easy to forget.

Before that Broadway debut, you’d been a nightclub dancer and a model. Did you feel welcomed among the serious theater crowd?

Well, I auditioned and I got the part. It was the part of a model, so there was some reasonable decision-making. And Moss Hart was there. He was the one that told me I got the part, so if it’s OK with Moss Hart, it should be OK with everyone else. And then when I did the play, there were people in the play — one guy in particular — who were very resentful of me doing a lead on Broadway when I hadn’t studied or anything. There was resentment, but that was my journey and that was how it started. What are you going to do?

Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair in "The Exorcist."
Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair in "The Exorcist."
Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

You’ve talked about deciding you weren’t ready to be a lead actress while making “Goodbye Charlie” in 1964. But fast-forward a decade and you were one of, if not the, primo actresses of the ’70s.

Well, I had that moment when I auditioned for “Fair Game.” I said, “OK, I’ve decided to be an actress. I’m going to do a Broadway play this fall. Does anybody know how I get an audition?” It was that moment. The thing with “Goodbye Charlie,” I was on the set and I had that thought, OK, next step is I play Debbie Reynolds’ part. And then this voice in my head that speaks to me every once in a while said [in a low, guttural tone], “I don’t want it.” I was shocked. I mean, when that voice speaks, I don’t budge.

What does that voice sound like?

It doesn’t sound like my voice, or a male or a female voice. It’s just a voice, and it’s always flat. Just, boom. When it speaks, I don’t have any doubt that that’s the truth. Sometimes I think of it as an inner teacher, but I don’t know if that’s really what it is. I don’t know what it is. So that was the moment when I left Hollywood and went back to New York and studied with Lee Strasberg. That’s what it meant to me: I didn’t want that career when I saw I was on that track. I wanted to learn how to really act.

Studying was the reaction to the voice?

Investigating the art form, as opposed to doing what comes naturally and getting by on whatever comes without really knowing.

Or chasing the fame, knowing that a lead role in a Hollywood production often equates some level of fame. You never set that as a goal. The fame followed the craft.

That’s a good way to say it.

The New York Times did once say you were the most honored and respected actress of the 1970s. Did you feel that at the time?

No. Somebody asked me once, “Well, what was it like to be working in the golden age of Hollywood?” I said, “Nobody told me it was the golden age.” I was on the jury of the Cannes Film Festival, and I was reading about the festival in a newspaper, and they were writing about the jurors. They said, “Ellen Burstyn, considered the most intelligent actress in Hollywood.” I said, “I am?! I didn’t know that! Why doesn’t somebody tell me these things?” I don’t know, it’s weird.

And who is on the committee that lines up every actress and ranks her according to intelligence?

Right, exactly. Who considers? And how did you hear about that?

Elaine Stritch, Megan Mullally, Ellen Burstyn and Jesse R. Tendler on "The Ellen Burstyn Show."
Elaine Stritch, Megan Mullally, Ellen Burstyn and Jesse R. Tendler on "The Ellen Burstyn Show."
ABC Photo Archives via Getty Images

What did you do with your first big paycheck?

What comes to mind is my piano. That was in Detroit. I was very happy to be able to buy a piano. I took it with me. When I went to New York, it came with me. When I went to California, it came with me. I finally sold it. I think my son was 2, and I’d finally let go of this piano.

At 85, do you find yourself yearning for anything?

You know, I yearn for things. I’d like to understand the cosmos better. I spend a lot of time thinking about, “What is dark energy? What could be it be? What could it mean that we know it’s there but we don’t know what it is? And if we don’t know what it is, then maybe it’s an alternate universe.” So I spend a lot of time out there. I’m yearning to know, I’m yearning to understand.

And religion is important to you.


How has that evolved over the years? How would you have answered the question “What does spirituality mean to you” in 1970 compared to how you answer it today?

Well, I was brought up Catholic, and I rejected that around 17. For a few years, I just read about science. I wasn’t religious at all, but I felt this yearning. It felt like something was missing. So then I started reading various kinds of spiritual books, and then I came upon — have you ever heard of Gurdjieff? Gurdjieff was a teacher who came from the Caucasus between the two wars in Europe. He had a school, and people went there and did work on themselves. And I read his books and books by other people who studied with him, and I got interested in that work because it was really work on getting conscious.

And then I found out that he was a Sufi, and then I got interested in Sufism. And then I found a Sufi teacher — an Englishman — and I went to Europe and studied with him for a while, and then I met somebody he was associated with, and he became my teacher. Now, Sufis traditionally are Islamic, but my teacher wasn’t. He welcomed all, so there were Jewish Sufis and Catholic Sufis, and it was spiritual work without being identified with a religion. I notice that on the internet they say I’m Islamic. I’m not. I’ve never been, nor do I want to be, associated with any one religion. I’m interested in all of the various approaches to the divine, to the sacred ground, whatever that is.

I want to understand the whole thing. I want to understand what it’s all about.

And where has that led you today?

Right now I’m reading an ecotheologian. His name is Thomas Berry. I was introduced to him by a woman who’s a professor at Yale University. He’s into the sacred connectedness to nature, or in nature, as opposed to separate from nature. Because we’re separate from it, that’s why the earth is suffering so much. That’s why we can abuse it so badly. I’m just into exploring all these realms, being open to them and not saying, “This is what I believe and everything else is wrong.”

Ellen Burstyn in "Requiem for a Dream."
Ellen Burstyn in "Requiem for a Dream."
Ho New / Reuters

Maybe you don’t think about it this concretely, but how much do you think that spiritual quest has informed you a storyteller, as an actress inhabiting others’ lives, in terms of both the roles you’ve chosen over the years and how you piece those roles together?

Well, I’ve never thought about it, but thank you for asking that question. I think it would have to. You know, empathy is such a large part of an actor’s work — feeling into the character and into other human beings. Empathy seems to me to be one of the virtues that we’re blessed with. I think it’s a large part of my work. Now, how that connects with the spiritual explorations, I’m not sure — except that I do feel compassion for my characters, whatever their story is. I try to offer that up. I do think whatever makes us deeper as human beings makes us richer as artists.

Thinking back to the Twitter outrage from the Sundance premiere, how are you working through the current political turmoil and what led us to a Trump presidency, in light of having educated yourself about larger forces influencing the world?

You know, my first Sufi teacher used to say, “Everything manifests in reverse.” So we achieved the first black president, and this is the reaction. It’s a pendulum swing. I trust that we will survive it and will get back to some center. It’s very painful.

When “Requiem for a Dream” opened in 2000, you talked about a conversation with a doctor friend of yours, saying you both felt like the state of medicine and other professions —

The standards were lower?

Yes. And then in August 2016, you said, “I don’t believe Trump’s going to win. I don’t believe the universe will allow it.” We all said that around August 2016. But those two ideas seem to work hand in hand: the degradation of professional standards and Trump’s ability to become president. Do you think there’s a connection there?

Probably. When I think about my childhood, we didn’t lock the doors when I was in Detroit. So in the years that I’ve spent on the planet, there’s been a huge change. Social media has made it possible for the alt-right to speak to other alt-right people on the other side of the country that they didn’t know were there. They’re more organized, there are more of them. There are a lot of things that, as we developed technology, have advanced us in many ways, but at the same time the reverse goes along with it. So how we handle it and get out of it and grow with it, I don’t know. It’s very scary and we’re in the midst of it.

When there was the Industrial Revolution, that was such a huge change in the culture. We’re in that kind of revolution — social revolution — and we don’t know how it’s going to come out.

Do you know — oh, what’s that word? The moment where technology advances to the point where it takes over. I lose this word a lot. The singularity! And when we get there — we’ve never been there in the history of the planet — we have no idea what’s going to happen. Somebody has suggested that possibly we will become pets to the technology, however it’s manifesting. We’ll be the dogs of the robots. We have no idea what we’re in for.

Ellen Burstyn and Sigourney Weaver in "Political Animals."
Ellen Burstyn and Sigourney Weaver in "Political Animals."
USA Network via Getty Images

Did you consider yourself politically active in the ’70s?

Well, don’t forget there was the Vietnam War. I was very active during that. I was in the streets in Los Angeles. At the first Women Strike for Peace march, I was pushing my kid in a baby carriage. And I was with a group called STOP, Speakers and Talent Organize for Peace. We went out speaking to Rotary Clubs against the war. I was at the Democratic Convention in 1968. I was at a fundraiser for Eugene McCarthy when Martin Luther King was assassinated. We were supporting Martin Luther King, and we expected when Bobby Kennedy got California that he would get the nomination and we would then change our votes to Kennedy, and then he got assassinated. So I’ve always been political, and I’ve always been a Democrat.

How much do you think being around Hollywood at the time further galvanized your activism? Obviously Jane Fonda is a figurehead for celebrity politics in the ’70s, but the decade’s upheaval really defined Hollywood, on-screen and off.

I don’t know, it’s hard to say. I think, if I were still living in Detroit, I would have been against that war. We were in an unjust war, just like we are now in the Mideast. I think I just happened to live in Los Angeles at the time, but I think wherever I was that’s what I would have been doing: fighting.

Let’s talk about a few movies. Did you pay attention to the news about Uma Thurman’s injury on the set of “KiIl Bill”? Her lack of protection sounds similar to what happened to you on the set of “The Exorcist,” where you permanently injured your spine after being pulled to the ground for a stunt. You had asked your director, William Friedkin, to have the stuntman pull you more gently, but he didn’t listen.

Well, I wasn’t talked into doing it. I was telling him, “No, he’s pulling me too hard.” I was aware that I was in danger, and I said it. [Friedkin] went behind my back. So I didn’t agree to it. I think finally Uma did — I don’t know that for a fact, but from what I understand, she got talked into it. One does have to finally be able to say no, which I did. I mean, people have died making movies, especially stunt people. So one has to really learn how to protect oneself. I wouldn’t ever be in that position again.

Did you ever have any experiences like that again, where you were taken advantage of on a set?


Do you think it’s because that experience firmed you up?

Maybe. Possibly. People don’t mess with me too much.

That’s good. You’ve talked many times over the years about having a hand in selecting a young Martin Scorsese to direct “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.” If that movie were being made today, there might be some sort of conversation about whether a woman should make it. I assume there were no women for you to lobby for at the time?

No. Absolutely not. Although I have to say, an executive did ask me to direct it, and I said I didn’t want to act and direct at the same time. That’s what I’m doing now [with the comedy “Bathing Flo”]. And I was right. It wouldn’t have been as good a movie.

Ellen Burstyn on "House of Cards."
Ellen Burstyn on "House of Cards."

There’s a scene in “House of Tomorrow” where your character watches footage of your younger self and processes her former life. It made me think about what it’s like for you to be interviewed. Is it cathartic to be asked to recall the details of your younger self? Is it redundant? Intrusive?

Well, I shot that footage and had it to offer to the director, which he didn’t know when he asked me to do the film. He didn’t know that I knew [architect and theorist Buckminster Fuller, who appears in the footage] and that I had shot the film with him. It was pretty serendipitous. When people ask me, “Well, why did you shoot that film?” I don’t know. I just did. I have no explanation for it. I shot that 40 years ago. Forty? Thirty anyway. Between 30 and 40. And of course I don’t know if everybody knows it’s real when they see it.

It was wonderful to be able to offer it to the director when he offered me the part not knowing I was friends with Bucky. He was an amazing man. I was really grateful to know him. He was a great mind. Have you ever read any of his books?

I haven’t.

He’s a very strange writer. He makes up languages. He combines words into new words. I’ll show you. [Burstyn rises from the seat and retrieves a well-worn hardback book from a bookshelf.]

I have a lot of his books, most of them. Well, no. He wrote 30 books, and I don’t have 30. This one is actually autographed to me by him. [She opens to a passage called “Intuition: Metaphysical Mosaic,” written in verse, and hands me the book.] Read this.

[I proceed to read the two-page passage, which concludes with the line “This is why consciousness identified the basic increment of time as being a second.”]

That’s the way he writes. And by the way, that’s his definition of God: the a priori mystery, the mystery that exists before anything. He defines “universe” as a series of partially overlapping, simultaneous events. That’s the way his thinking is multidimensional. With his writing, I’m like, “What, Bucky?! What are you saying?”

How did you meet him?

I was interested in Margaret Fuller, who was an associate of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. I thought she was a great 19th-century woman writer and editor of their newspaper, The Dial. I was thinking about her and reading about her — I had many books — and I was also reading about him. He gave a lecture at Carnegie Hall while I was shooting “The Exorcist.” I went to the lecture, and while I was sitting there, I went, “Margaret Fuller, Buckminster Fuller, Boston.” I made the connection, and I wrote to him and told him I was interested in talking to him about his aunt. His secretary called back and said, “You can have two hours in the Boston airport at this date, or you can have five hours in the Chicago airport on this date.” So I picked the Chicago airport and flew there, and we had five hours together. Then we became friends. He was an amazing man.

You mentioned earlier not knowing the ’70s were a golden age. Today when we talk about the ’70s, we talk about the decade’s movies in very political terms. They were responses to the Vietnam War and social change and second-wave feminism and so forth. In thinking about “The House of Tomorrow” and “The Tale,” as well as the other movies you’ve made in recent years, do you think today’s movies, or more specifically today’s studios —

[Burstyn shakes her head.]

OK, maybe not the studios. Let’s say today’s filmmakers. Do you think the type of filmmakers you’re involved with — the type whose movies premiere at festivals, for example — are making movies that respond to today’s political and social mores the way we say movies in the ’70s did?

Well, “Mudbound” did. “Get Out” did. “Shape of Water” kind of does. “Florida Project” did. “Three Billboards,” kind of. “The Post.” So I think the answer’s yes.

We both shook our heads when I mentioned studios. But most of the movies you named are not getting the type of attention that “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” got when Warner Brothers released it in ’74.

No. No. No, the studios are doing “Spider-Man 12.” That’s the brand. The filmmakers are in the independent film world. It’s a different business.

You had an Oscar nomination in 1981 and then a gap until your next, for “Requiem” in 2001. By that point, Oscar campaigning had ballooned into an entire industry. Did you notice that shift?

Well, I know, for instance, with “Requiem,” that we didn’t have money for a campaign, and that made a huge difference. I still have people go by me on the street and go, “You were robbed.” I’ve had that experience more than once. And it wasn’t originally a problem not to have money for a campaign.

It hurt the movie’s chances in a way that it might not have 20 years earlier.

Right. I think. Not to take anything away from Julia Roberts, who was wonderful in “Erin Brockovich.” But they had a wonderful campaign, and we didn’t. It’s not reasonable to think you can get by without a campaign, not anymore.

I recently watched the pilot of “The Ellen Burstyn Show,” which only lasted 13 episodes. What happened with that show?

You know, I was put together with a partner who was the head writer, and we never saw eye-to-eye. We were making two different shows, or trying to. And it just didn’t work. It was a bad marriage is what it was. It just couldn’t work with him.

It’s such a good cast: you, Elaine Stritch, Megan Mullally. Writer drama aside, just on name recognition alone, how could that show have flown by?

I gave Megan her first job on that show, and Elaine playing my mother was a hoot. She’s only seven years older. But it never occurred to either one of us until much later. It just wasn’t right. I’ve never looked at those shows again.

Would you want to?

Maybe not. It hurt.

Well, even if not for that show, you’re forever enshrined in television history. The Emmys changed its eligibility rules after you were nominated for a 14-second cameo.

Yeah, that’s kind of funny. And I think it’s called the Ellen Burstyn Rule. It’s a funny claim to fame.

I was nominated for something, and I happened to tune into a show where they were predicting who would win. I think it was my last Oscar nomination, I’m not sure. And then they said who should win, and they said I should win and I would win, and the other person ― “Oh, well, that would be very controversial.” And the first person said, “Why?” And he said, “Because she wins everything.” But it’s not true!

Yeah, have you ever in your life thought, “Well, I just win everything?”

No! And I didn’t win! What was that for? Oh, I know. It was for my “House of Cards” nomination [in 2016].

OK, I’m exhausted.

This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed for length.

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