Ellen Burstyn likes to play strong, surprising women. She's been doing it her entire career, from her early, iconic roles in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and The Exorcist (the woman faced down the devil, for goodness sake) to more recent turns as Barbara Bush in Oliver Stone's W. and a Mormon family matriarch on the Showtime series Big Love. Her best characters have never been shy to say what's on their mind.
See also: Linda Evans and her Recipes for Life.
So her latest role on USA's limited run summer series Political Animals is a perfect fit. Burstyn plays Margaret Barrish, the spitfire live-in mom of U.S. Secretary of State Elaine Barrish Hammond, played by Sigourney Weaver. Margaret, a former Vegas showgirl, is also the former First-Mother-in-Law of an ex-president from a Southern state who is well known for philandering ways. Any resemblance to the Clinton family is purely coincidental, of course.
Political Animals, which premiered last week and will air on USA Sunday nights at 10 through Aug. 19, has generated great buzz, much of it about Burstyn. Margaret is an old dame who drinks too much, talks too much and "bursts everybody's bubbles when they get too puffed up," says Burstyn, who delivers many of the show's best lines.
"It's hard," she says, "to find people writing women my age who are not finished with life already."
Burstyn will soon be 80 — she becomes an octogenarian on Dec. 7 — but she certainly doesn't sound like she's finished creatively. To hear her tell it, she's still getting started.
"I feel very fortunate to be alive and working," she says when asked about her upcoming milestone. "My energy's great. My health is good. I'm having a good time."
Her Hollywood breakthrough came later than most. She was 39 when audiences discovered her in The Last Picture Show. She earned an Oscar nomination for that film, which began a decade of roaring success: five more Academy Award nods, highlighted by a win as Best Actress for her title role in Martin Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. She became an important industry activist as well, with stints as a co-president of The Actors Studio and as the first female president of Actors Equity.