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Ellen Burstyn: Shakespeare and androgyny at age 84

Actress Ellen Burstyn

Actress Ellen Burstyn Credit: Getty Images / Bryan Bedder

To do Shakespeare or not to do Shakespeare? That was the question for Ellen Burstyn.

At 84, the Oscar winner thought she might never have the chance to perform the words of the Bard, especially since there are few good Shakespearean parts for “women of a certain age,” she says. She had forgotten about the male roles.

“That’s where the really good stuff is,” Burstyn says.

It was John Doyle, director of Bay Street Theater’s production of “As You Like It,” who thought of Burstyn as Jaques, the melancholy noble in the play which runs through Sept. 3 in Sag Harbor. The show, which takes place during the Depression, also features jazz music by Williston Park-raised composer Stephen Schwartz.

Burstyn recently chatted by phone from Manhattan about tackling Shakespeare and highlights of her six-decade career.

How are you playing Jaques differently than the way the character has traditionally been portrayed?

I’m not really playing it as a man because I don’t feel I have the voice to play a man. But I’m playing a woman who is playing a man. It’s set in the 1930s, and it was just as Marlene Dietrich wore a man’s suit [in the movie “Morocco”]. . . . I looked her up and she was called the Queen of Androgyny, and I thought, that’s what I want to go for, an androgynous nature, a woman who chooses to live the life of a man because it’s freer.

The show is certainly being staged creatively. Was that 1930s setting one of the things that appealed to you about the show?

That’s what John does. There’s wonderful music written by Stephen Schwartz but using Shakespeare’s words as lyrics. And it’s really directed like a musical. I’m not a singer or dancer, but Jaques is a melancholy character, so it’s all right for me to not be one of the singers.

Since you haven’t done Shakespeare before, was it a challenge understanding the language?

I love poetry so I’m very familiar with iambic pentameter, so it was easy enough for me to adjust to that. But then, of course, there are lots of words that Shakespeare uses that aren’t in use anymore, and I had to look up an awful lot of those. John recommended the Arden edition of “As You Like It” that is wonderful and has many, many footnotes, and you can refer to them to find out what he meant with each line. Then it’s just a question of acting it in a way that hopefully the audience understands. I think the meaning of the lines can be communicated in the playing even though the meaning of the words are different.

They say it’s hard to find good roles as you get older, yet you recently did “House of Cards” and you seem to work a lot.

More roles are being written for mature women than there used to be. At my age, the field narrows. A lot of my competitors have already left the building, so whatever wonderful roles are left, I get offered them. And I’m thrilled to still be working in my 80s.

You’ve also worked with so many great people. What was your experience like working with Martin Scorsese on “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”?

He had only made “Mean Streets” and I actually hired him. I was so impressed with “Mean Streets,” and I had no idea he was going to turn out to be one of the master filmmakers of our time. We had a great time together.

Do you regret that you weren’t there that night to accept your Oscar for “Alice”?

It would have been nice if I had been able to be there, but I was on Broadway doing “Same Time Next Year,” and I knew to fly out and pick up and Oscar and to fly out and be onstage for the next night I would really be cheating my work. It was one of those moral questions. What do I personally honor, the work or the prize? And if I could stand to live with myself, I had to honor the work.

You’ve won an Oscar, a Tony and two Emmys. Any plans to win a Grammy?

I’ve been nominated, but I still would like to win one. I’ll have to work on that.

Well maybe the musical aspects of this show will inspire you.

Yeah. [Laughs.] I’m hoping to do a recording of poetry, so maybe that will get me closer.

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