Skip To Content

    Ellen Burstyn Talks About Death, Sex, And Money

    The actress, now 81, reflects on her career in an interview with WYNC's Death, Sex, Money podcast. It's amazing.

    Ellen Burstyn first won me over big time in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Martin Scorsese's second feature.

    Warner Bros.

    She's been acting for more than FIFTY. YEARS. Maybe you recognize her from The Last Picture Show:

    Columbia Pictures

    Or Requiem for a Dream, for which she received an Oscar nomination:

    Artisan Entertainment
    Artisan Entertainment

    Her interview with Death, Sex, Money is the opposite of the usual celebrity profile — it's frank and wise and anything but banal:

    On the first time she thought of herself as beautiful:

    "I don't think of myself as beautiful. I know that I get a lot of attention for my looks. The other day, I was doing a production of "The Cherry Orchard" at the Actor's Studio. And the director said his friend came to see it and all he could talk about was how beautiful I was. And John said, he kept wanting to hear about the direction, and he never got it. I said, you know when I was about 24 I decided to not base my career on my looks, but to be a serious actress, so I could have a long career and not have it fade when the beauty faded. And here I am 81 years old and now all I hear about is my beauty. I don't know what happened. There was a bend in the road somewhere. When I look in the mirror, I don't see beauty. When I look in the mirror, I see, who is that lady and where did she come from? What happened to the face that I think of when I think of myself. It's gone. I know I always got a lot of attention for my looks, so I guess it was there. But I never identified with it. Partly because I look so much like my mother. The beauty was always hers. So I had to develop other things that were mine."

    On getting an abortion in 1950 at age 18:

    "That was before I left home. I was still in Detroit. When I left home, I was 18. I think that was just before then. Yeah at that time, there were no legal abortions. And you could only get an illegal abortion. And that's not a pretty sight. There's nothing but shame connected to that. And although I don't recommend abortion to anybody, I don't think it's a good thing to do, at the same time if women are pregnant and don't want to have a baby under any circumstances to take care of a baby, they will get an abortion one way or another. And if it's illegal, they will get an illegal abortion. As I did. And it's a scarring experience . . .

    . . . I had no one. I had no one to go with me. That's not a good way to go. It's not a good experience. It's harmful. And I would always, if I had the opportunity, counsel somebody. A girl. To not have an abortion. To have the child and give it up for adoption. But, it has to be legal."

    On losing her younger brother:

    "My younger brother Steve's death was the hardest thing that I ever experienced in my life. Because we were very close, I adored him. When my mother, after she gave birth to him she had problems that eventually meant that she had to have a hysterectomy. But for the first 8 months of his life, she was bedridden. So he was my baby. So he was in my bedroom, and I did the 2 o'clock feeding in the morning and changed his diapers, so we were very very close. He died of cancer when he was 70, and I was, my son and I were both there. I would not have known how to love as much as I do if I didn't have that baby brother. And it is a bigger mystery than death. And of course you always, once I passed 60, the way I felt was like, you're looking down a tunnel and there's a light at the end of the tunnel and you realize it's getting closer."

    And the glory of "should-less" days:

    "I'm very lazy. I have what I called should-less days. Today is a day where there's nothing I should do. So I only do what I want to do. And if it's nap in the afternoon or watch TV, and eat ice cream, I get to do it . . . Should-less days, I recommend them. Because, what I figured out is we have wiring. I have wiring in my brain that calls me lazy, if I'm not doing something. God you're so lazy—can't imagine whose voice that is? And that wiring is there. I haven't been able to get rid of it. But what I can do is I can put in another wiring, I can put in should-less days, so when that voice goes off and says you're being lazy, I turn to the other wiring in my brain that says, no, this is a should-less day, and I'm doing what I want.

    Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood / Via Warner Bros.

    Listen to the rest of the amazing interview here, and subscribe to "Death, Sex, Money" here.

    Ellen Burstyn co-stars with Matthew McConnaghey in Interstellar, in theaters on November 8th. She most recently appeared in Louis, playing Louis C.K.'s Hungarian neighbor. She is awesome. The end.

    Lucy Nicholson / Reuters