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Ellen Burstyn talks 'Picnic,' retirement

Ellen Burstyn has been awarded the Academy Award,

Ellen Burstyn has been awarded the Academy Award, Golden Globe Award, Primetime Emmy, BAFTA Award, Independent Spirit Award and many others. Credit: Getty Images

There's a term for actors like Ellen Burstyn. They're called Triple Crown winners. In a career spanning six decades, she's managed to pick up an Academy Award (playing a widow pulling her life together in 1974's "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore"), a Tony (in 1975 for "Same Time Next Year") and an Emmy (in 2009 for "Law & Order: SVU").

Edna Rae Gillooly (as she was known growing up in Detroit) has also nabbed a slew of nominations for other memorable roles (devoted mom to demon child in "The Exorcist," or more recently as another widow, this time addicted to prescription pills in "Requiem for a Dream"). She's also artistic director of the famed Actors Studio and penned a best-selling memoir.

At 80, she's still going strong, co-starring in the Broadway revival of William Inge's 1953 Pulitzer Prize winner, "Picnic," a Roundabout Theatre Company production that opened this month at the American Airlines Theatre and runs through Feb. 24.

In it, she plays Helen Potts, a lonely Kansas woman who hires a hunky drifter (Sebastian Stan) to do odd jobs around the house. He winds up shirtless a lot, which is just one of the reasons Helen and the other women onstage (including Mare Winningham and Maggie Grace) keep fanning themselves. Things get fiery. She spoke with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio.

Your character is a shy, sheltered spinster, yet...

She's the one that stirs the pot, bringing in this male energy completely missing in our lives. There's a lot of women on that stage. But she's the one who sets everything in motion. Somebody told me she's the play's angel. That's an apt description.

Guess there's no retirement for you, eh?

Not at all. There's nothing I'd rather do than be onstage with a fine company doing a great play. It's the most fun in the world.

Still, eight shows a week can be draining.

I don't find it that way. No two nights are alike, and you continue to find new things all the time. That's why I like doing a play -- it's not like film, where you do one scene at a time and then it's over. Here, as you do it over and over, you deepen into it, and it becomes more interesting, not less.

So, 'fess up -- did you encourage the director to have your co-star parade around without his shirt for so long?

OH! Nooo...

Just teasing, but y'know, it's your character who's supposedly washing his shirt, and it seems to take you an awfully long time.

Well... We had to hang it out to dry -- on the clothesline. We didn't have dryers back


I hear you give lectures in your spare time. What do you talk about?

Acting, women's issues, spirituality. And poetry. I love poetry.

Who are some of your favorites?

Of contemporary poets -- Mary Oliver and Billy Collins. Do you know Billy Collins?

Wasn't he the U.S. poet laureate a few years back?

Yes -- yes he was.

And the old codgers? The classics?

Well, I love Yeats, Keats, Shelley and Shakespeare -- can't leave him out.

You've had such great film roles, but two in particular jump out. "Alice" -- that film reminded moviegoers and Hollywood execs that just because a woman's past the ripe old age of 35, 40, don't count her out yet.


And you proved that again with "Requiem." Is that fortuitous casting or is there a bit of a revolutionary in you?

Certainly "Alice" was led by my desire to present women as I knew them, as opposed to women we constantly saw on-screen -- either loving wives or prostitutes, victims or villains. I wanted to tell a modern woman's story, and it was revolutionary then.

To show a woman making choices for herself? Not just following a guy?

I don't think a film had been told from a woman's point of view until then. And "Requiem" -- that's such an amazing work by Darren Aronofsky. I'm thrilled I got to be in it. And now that's how young people know me. As a matter of fact, I used it when I was in London last year. I was trying to get on an elevator that takes you up in a tower... where you can photograph London. It was closing time, and they weren't gonna let me on... and they were young. So I said, "Do you know the film 'Requiem for a Dream'?" And they said, "Yeah." I said, "That's me." And they let me on.

Hey, sometimes, ya gotta work it, right?

Sometimes you just gotta plain exploit it.

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