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Ellen Burstyn Reflects on Her Career and Love of Acting

The screen star talks about 'The Exorcist,' grief and the importance of kindness

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Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

Any other name

I've changed my name eight times. I was born Edna Rae Gillooly. My mother had four husbands — three by the time I was 7, so the name kept changing. When I started acting, it was Ellen McRae. After I got famous, I couldn't change it anymore. Too many names were flying around.

United States

I was a child during World War II and remember collecting scrap metal and newspaper in my wagon for the war effort. We all pulled together. Whatever bad thing there is, there's the other side, too — how people respond and don't get defeated by it. I know we're going to be OK.

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Role model

The inspiration of my life is my acting teacher, Lee Strasberg. I was a mess from Detroit, getting hired for my looks and being as cute as I could be. I noticed Marlon Brando, James Dean and Kim Stanley — they knew something. I went to Lee and he stripped me down to my essence.

Class luminaries

I met Marilyn Monroe only once. She was a luminous character, a radiant being. She reflected light. She was always reading. That whole Marilyn character — she created. Students who saw her scene from Anna Christie in class say it was one of the greatest performances of all time.

Oscar-winning turn

During the ‘70s women's movement, female characters were either the loyal wife who stayed home while the husband saved the world, the prostitute with a heart of gold or the victim who was raped and murdered. I said, “No, I want to do a movie about the women I know.” Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore gave voice to women bringing up children alone, getting jobs, breaking glass ceilings.

Us, too

When I started acting, everybody on set was a white man except the actress and the script girl. Slowly, they brought in women, Black people, Asian people, gay people. Sixty years later, women are producers, directors and grips. Women hold the boom over your head for hours. The change is remarkable. Real cultural change takes real effort and time.

The Exorcist

I saw it again for its 45th anniversary showing in L.A. No, it doesn't scare me. You know what's funny? I passed a group of people the other day and a man said, “Ellen Burstyn?” I said, “How can you recognize me with this mask on?” He said, “I've seen The Exorcist over 40 times. Your eyes are very familiar."

On lockdown

I stay indoors except for one hour a day when I walk in the park. I'm coping but have dips. One day I had a sinking feeling of loneliness and a Frisbee landed near me. I handed it to a little girl, who said “Thank you,” and my spirit lifted! I'd made a connection with another human being! Kindness is really an important element of human interaction, you know?

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Social studies

I've been reading a wonderful book, Sapiens, about how we are the next evolutionary step genetically up from chimpanzees. Chimpanzees live in groups and are very social animals — they have large families. We retained that. When I returned the Frisbee, I felt like I satisfied my inner chimpanzee.

Staying spry

I turned 88 in December. I don't drink. I don't smoke. I don't do drugs. I eat healthily, and I exercise. I just got a new stationary bike. What are you willing to do — and not do — to stay healthy and vital into your 80s? You have to do the things that will get you there.

Roe v. Wade

Women have gotten abortions since the beginning of time, and they'll continue to get them without Roe v. Wade. But if they can't get them legally, we'll revert back to primitive times and the old coat hanger trick, and that would be a disaster.

Life and loss

Pieces of a Woman is about grief. I always say, you don't know who you are until you've gone through deep grief — it introduces you to the deepest levels of yourself. I've learned personally that love doesn't die. It's an amazing revelation. People you love stay alive inside of you.

Retirement? Pshaw!

My recipe for happiness is this: Find something to do for a living that you'd be glad to do for free. That's how I feel about acting. I love my work, and I get paid to do it! I've got projects cooking — as long as I can remember my lines, why stop?

—As told to Natasha Stoynoff

Oscar, Emmy and Tony award–winning actress Ellen Burstyn, 88, costars in Pieces of a Woman, which premiered on Netflix on January 7.

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