The actress and Another Happy Day producer explains why it took 10 years before she ever auditioned and discusses the rejection that she faced early in her career because of her looks.
Actress-producer Ellen Barkin
Tavis: I am delighted to welcome Ellen Barkin to this program. The Emmy and Tony-winning actress has had so many notable roles in her outstanding career, including her award-winning performance, of course, in the play “The Normal Heart.”
Her latest project is the new film “Another Happy Day.” The movie opens this Friday in New York and L.A., and so here now some scenes from “Another Happy Day.”
Tavis: I promise I’m going to get to this movie, but I want to start at perhaps an unorthodox place for some, but it’s where I want to start, so I get to make these choices sometimes. I read once many years ago that you studied acting for 10 years, a full decade, before you ever did your first audition.
Ellen Barkin: Mm-hmm.
Tavis: That is, like, so unheard of to me, to study something for 10 years before you ever take an audition.
Barkin: But if I were a doctor of anything, of medicine, of philosophy, of political science, wouldn’t I be required to study for 10 years?
Tavis: That’s the key word – “required.”
Tavis: In acting, nobody is, and nobody thinks that they’re supposed to go a decade before they audition.
Barkin: Well, I did. I was trained by method acting teachers and we were taught that aside from whatever gift you may or may not have or the level of that gift that you were obliged to know how to build a table. It’s a craft. It’s like being a ballerina or a violinist.
Would you just strap some toe shoes on and dance “Swan Lake?” No. Would you just put a violin in your hand and -? No. I felt that way about acting, and I was taught to feel that way. I didn’t come to it on my own.
By the time I auditioned I felt that I knew how to do the job. I might not be great at it, but I certainly knew how to do it, like I know how to open up a chest if I had to perform open heart surgery. I’m not equating the two, but you have to learn it, and I learned my craft.
Then I felt comfortable enough to kind of navigate what I knew could be a very debilitating process, which is auditioning and most often not getting jobs.
Tavis: What happened after a decade that made you finally feel that you were good enough, that you were prepared to hit the audition circuit?
Barkin: Well, I had a few brilliant teachers. One of them was a man named Lloyd Richards, who was the premiere interpreter of all of Athol Fugard’s work in this country. I studied acting with him for about 3.5 years in Hunter College, and one day he said, “Remember,” and he said it to the whole class, “When you audition for something, all these nerves you are all going to experience and insecurities, those people in the room want nothing more than for their search to end with you. They want you to get that job.”
That resonated with me, and I thought wow, like, if you approach this as if you’re the answer to their problem, it puts a completely different spin on it. He was one of the main shapers of the way I do my job and the way I approach the business of doing my job.
My responsibility for it, my personal responsibility to myself, my social responsibility. He was an extraordinary human being and put me on a very clear, ultimately very fulfilling path.
Tavis: I’ve got to tell you right quick, before I go any further, 2011 is my 20th year in the business doing this. I’ve been at this two decades now, speaking of decades – twice, two decades I’ve done this, and I’ve talked to a thousand actors, and I have never, ever heard an answer that delicious about auditioning.
I’ve said many times if I had any talent, if I had any, I could never be an actor because I don’t have a constitution strong enough to take being rejected that often. But you flip it 180 degrees, as you just did, and see your gift as the solution to their problem, these people don’t want to do a gazillion auditions.
Tavis: They want to find the – I never thought about it that way.
Barkin: Yeah, no, and I don’t think most people do. But he did. He’s a brilliant, brilliant man.
Tavis: Speaking of auditions, everybody gets rejected. It’s the path to success, the path to winning Tonys and Emmys and Academy Awards. You’ve got to go through a bunch of rejection, I get that. But your stuff is almost – to my mind, when you’re told, and I’m just repeating what I’ve read –
Barkin: Go ahead, hit me.
Tavis: When you’re told how unpretty you are –
Barkin: I wouldn’t say unpretty. Just say ugly. That’s what I was told. Ugly.
Tavis: Well, I’m trying to be charitable and generous here.
Barkin: Don’t be, no one else was.
Tavis: When you were told that you were ugly, that you’re unpretty, that you’re not talented, you were told, your parents were told get her out of this class, she has no gift, no talent for this, she will never make it.
Barkin: No “spark.” That was the big –
Tavis: And you stuck with it.
Barkin: Yeah. I’m tenacious, I think – I know – and I do also have a quality where if you tell me I can’t do something, if I know I can’t do it I’m the first to raise my hand and say, “I can’t do that.” But there is a big Bronx, New York Jew in me that just says, “Really? Really? You think I – yes, I can. I can do it. I can do it.”
It just made me fight harder. I got angry. It did make me angry. I wasn’t thrilled about it, but I just thought – I know I can’t curse, but I did think, like, screw them. Screw them. Yeah, I know what I look like, and I know that it’s not a model’s face. I get it. But I think I have a little spark.
Tavis: But why not, Ellen, why not take that path, which is to say, as you mentioned a moment ago, screw them? Why not say they don’t deserve me. If they don’t know that I’m gifted enough or talented enough, I’ll go do something else?
There are people every day who decide they’re going to go the other route because if they feel like they can’t convince whomever that they’re qualified with this, they just go another route, they just say forget it. But you didn’t.
Barkin: No, because I did it for myself, I think. I needed to – I believed I could do it. I knew I wasn’t going to get a TV commercial selling makeup or anything, but I thought I could answer their problems, and that’s why I was so dogged. I would force my poor agent to tell me what they said, and he would always say, “You just didn’t get the part. Just move on,” like on to the next.
Tavis: Why did you want to hear that?
Barkin: Because I wanted to know what the problem was so that I could solve it. So if they said, “Not sexy,” instead of me coming to an audition in baggy pants and a shirt I’d put a skirt on. The ugly thing I couldn’t – there was nothing I could do.
Tavis: Now, I pressed on that point because it, again, reading about your life for years, it’s always been fascinating to me how you and others who I admire, respect, take the negative, what they mean for evil, and turn it into good. You take the negative, you turn it into a positive.
So you’re forcing your agent to tell you what they said precisely because you want to figure out another way to do everything you can absent those things that you can’t touch.
Tavis: But that’s a brilliant strategy, though, to take what you can do and make it work.
Barkin: I’m going to get a little political here with you.
Tavis: Please. I can handle that.
Barkin: But isn’t that what is going on in this world? First, I personally would like to thank you for doing your job, for your poverty tour with Dr. Cornel West, for letting someone like Van Jones be heard, for focusing on the poor, which seem to have been forgotten in this equation of the middle class is struggling, yeah, but too many poor people.
But isn’t that exactly what’s going on in this country? Isn’t our president trying to say okay, I know what I can’t do? Tell me very specifically what you won’t let me do and then I will try to do as much good as I can. I see it all as the same thing, I really do, and in some way, it’s made me, like, much more politically present and involved, and maybe because I relate to it personally right now.
I have a personal connection with this struggle. Look at these millions and millions of people who are being told no, you can’t. No, you can’t get a job, no, you can’t eat, no, you can’t read, no, you can’t go to the doctor. I felt like that personally as a young woman, and it’s not the same, I know that.
One is very profound and one is the job of entertainment, but there is a kind of parallel, just a visceral reaction I have to all of this, because it’s what I did as a young woman. Let me understand exactly how bleak and grim this situation is.
Tavis: So why, Ellen – see, I’m trying to – why choose acting, then? I mentioned earlier, there are very few pursuits in life where you get told no that often, so if you’re getting told no that often and getting told no in such ugly ways, why be a thespian? Why not do something else?
Barkin: Well, I don’t know. I do know that I grew up, as they say, hard, in a very working class family, and my first introduction to acting was really based on the fact that I didn’t want to go to my neighborhood high school, Jamaica High School in Queens. I just didn’t want to take two buses, I didn’t want to get up in an hour, I knew it was not a great high school.
I said, “Is there another public school I can go to,” and so I auditioned in. Then I immediately got – told “no” would be an understatement, but I immediately felt under attack and an enormous amount of really negative pressure, and that’s when the kind of street fighter in me stepped up and said, “Uh-uh. Uh-uh.”
Tavis: How do you keep from being bitter in the midst of all that?
Barkin: I don’t know where bitterness comes into it. I’ve been too lucky to be bitter.
Tavis: Not initially, you weren’t.
Barkin: Well, I don’t know. I heard bad things, but I wound up getting beautiful parts on stage. My first movie was “Diner.” My second movie was “Tender Mercies.” I did really good work. Yeah, I think I didn’t get offered a job between “Diner” and “Tender Mercies” I think it was like 18 months or something, but where I never got one offer.
But I just kept waiting tables and I kept saying, “I’ll just keep studying,” and I just kept studying. I don’t – bitterness – I’ve been way too lucky. So much of this business has to do with luck. There are thousands of people more talented, certainly prettier, well, than me, but than anyone we see on screen who aren’t in the right place at the right time.
I’ve been lucky enough to be able to work and do work that for the most part I am proud of. Now, we all have jobs that we have to take in order to pay the bills and support ourselves, but for the most part – and I can look at 10 movies that I turned down and just think, what was I thinking?
But if I go through the specifics of it, I think oh, you know what? I’d make the exact same choice today, even though it might have cost me, like, movie star A-list status or a trip to the Oscars or a trip to the Tonys. But I made them for reasons, very specific reasons, usually having to do with learning from someone, and another actor who could make me a better actor.
Tavis: Speaking of your filmography, I just read this the other day. The movie that makes a lot of people aware of who Ellen Barkin is is “Sea of Love,” and I think I read the other day that you weren’t even all that crazy about that project.
Tavis: Did I misread that?
Barkin: No, you did not. I was very crazy about Al Pacino, and I would have done the phone book with Al Pacino, because (laughter) – also, you think, well, what if I never get offered another movie with Al Pacino? What if I never get to act with Al Pacino and I die and I’ve – so I just said yes.
I think also I was, like – I was literally the last girl alive that got that offer, because there was, I think, a consensus among every actress my age that because that character came in midway through the movie that it wasn’t a substantial enough role.
I never cared about those things. I cared about one actor to learn from, one speech I would get to say, one director. So I don’t think the director embraced any aspect of me, let me just say, and were it not for my brilliant and extremely humane costar, Mr. Pacino, I probably couldn’t have gotten out of my trailer.
Tavis: I get the idea of doing things because you want to learn from person X, Y or Z, so for all the hell that you had to endure getting that thing made with the director, did you get what you wanted out of the relationship with Mr. Pacino in terms of learning?
Barkin: Oh, he taught me so much. He runs the Actor’s Studio with Ellen Burstyn and Harvey Keitel, and these were the actors that actors like them taught me and mentored me.
So there was nothing but learning from Al. Just the way he approached it, the dedication, his net – talk about someone who never gives up. We would improvise for three hours for scenes that we were going to shoot sometime over the course of the next three and a half months, or whatever it was.
Barkin: It’s a dedication to and a respect for what he does, because he’s never going to give you less than more than he has.
Tavis: Somebody over to the side here, which they do this all the time – well, not all the time; doesn’t happen very often, but when it does happen, they’re going to send me a note that says, “You haven’t talked about the film,” like I’m stupid. Oh, there it is, see? (Laughter) “Ask her about her movie.”
I can’t help that her life is so fascinating that I haven’t gotten around to the film, but you did offer me a wonderful segue a few minutes ago in this conversation to talk about the film, which I’m glad to have you here on for.
So you mentioned “Diner.” Thirty years ago you were in the father’s directorial debut.
Barkin: Oh, yeah.
Tavis: Thirty years later you’re in the son’s directorial debut. Talk about –
Barkin: I know, the irony that is –
Tavis: Tell me (unintelligible).
Barkin: It’s not lost on me, and also it’s not just the fill circleness of it, but I will say that the role Barry Levinson offered me in “Diner” and the role I played and the character I see, like it’s now the 30th anniversary of “Diner” and there are some things being done, so I re-watched the movie.
That part is probably emotionally the closest role I ever played, considering where I was at that time. Thirty years later, Sam Levinson has me again as close to my pain and secrets as I have ever been in my career, and that’s what amazes me.
Like it’s something much more complex, because from both this father and son, I don’t know, both of them seemed to see something in me that was as honest and raw and close to who I am at that particular time.
Tavis: Tell me about your character.
Barkin: Well, look, I think that there’s very few taboos, obviously, left in Hollywood. Like, you could do anything. This idea of a mother that is pretty much 99.9 percent of mothers in the world, which is a mother that wants to be a better mother to her children than her mother was to her, a mother who just wants what’s best for them, and makes big mistakes.
I don’t see it. That population does not have an honest voice. You can be a caricature, nutty, flaky, crazy mother, or you can do what – you can give what that brilliant Mo’Nique gave in “Precious,” where she managed to play an extremely abusive mother and crack my heart open.
That’s okay, because that mother could be defined as abusive. The brilliance in that was Mo’Nique didn’t play that mother that way. Now, what you don’t have is just a mother like I’m a mother of two grown children. I have made mistakes, some of them big, some of them not so big, and at my age, at 57, with my kids the age they are, what I grapple with right now is how profound were the big mistakes?
How will they resonate with my children as they move into their own adulthood? So there’s no way I could not have played this part and not played it with the commitment to my own personal connection. It’s a frightening role because she’s not a very sympathetic character for a lot of the time. She makes a lot of mistakes, and it was very difficult, because sometimes I’d think it’s too much, it’s too much, and you don’t want to repel audiences, obviously.
I would look to my brilliant mentor and co-star, Ellen Burstyn, and I’d sometimes say, “Is it too much? Is it too much?” and she would say, “Go ahead, try to play the scene another way. Don’t lose the honesty of your character, Ellen. Remember your work. Remember how you work, and go try,” and I couldn’t.
It was gut-wrenching work. It was grueling. It was like every day I just had to sit and think about what did I do to my children, where did I make my mistakes and how impactful are those mistakes going to be?
Tavis: I suspect there’s not a mother alive who at some point doesn’t start to wrestle with these very questions.
Barkin: And that’s the voice I don’t see and I feel socially responsible to say hey, this is what women are really like. I don’t know Susan Smith. I don’t know someone drives her kids into a lake and kills them in the car. But I do know that character of Lynn. She’s me and she’s everyone else I know.
And you say, “Oh, I get it, because Hollywood, right, old story, run by men, and it’s the mother and it’s either a saint or somebody you can try to just say, well, that’s an abusive mother, and sometimes you just can’t do it.” I think motherhood is still sacrosanct in movies, and it shouldn’t be. Why? Parents make mistakes.
Tavis: Hi, Mom.
Barkin: Hi, Mom.
Tavis: I still love you. (Laughter)
Barkin: I love you too, Mom.
Tavis: The project is called “Another Happy Day.” As I mentioned earlier in this program, 30 years ago she was in “Diner,” Barry Levinson’s directorial debut, and you know how well that turned out. We’re still talking about it 30 years later.
So you might want to catch his son’s directorial debut, Sam Levinson, “Another Happy Day,” starring Ellen Barkin. Ellen, good – I have enjoyed this. They don’t give me enough time around here. I could have done this for a few more hours, but thank you.
Barkin: I’m honored to be here.
Tavis: I’m delighted to have had you here.
Barkin: I’m honored to be here.
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