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.
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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.
Her on-screen and career success hasn't always carried over to her personal life, though. She married and divorced three times before she turned 40, and hasn't gotten hitched again since — she recently broke off a long-term relationship with an actor 23 years her junior. They're no longer together — "we're still friends," she says — but she's still open to discovering new love.
"I hope I'm always open," she says, "my whole life, in every way. All kinds of love."
All those failed relationships led to a spiritual quest that has lasted more than 40 years. In her late thirties, she became fascinated with the mystical Islamic religion of Sufism. Raised Catholic, Burstyn says she now embraces the good she finds in all faiths. She's ordained as a Sufi minister.
Her focus on spirituality brings her a sense of peace during her hectic filming days — while she shot Political Animals, she made time for a trip to host a retreat for women recovering from various addictions.
"I like doing that work," she says. "I made the commitment before the TV series came up, and I wanted to honor it. The TV series was very good about scheduling me so I could do it and not disappoint anyone."
That should hardly be a concern for an actress who has rarely disappointed over a sterling career that now spans more than a half-century.
"I'm always looking for the next great role," Burstyn says. "I've done that all my life, and I'll continue to do that as long as I'm walking and talking and working."
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