Ellen Burstyn Reveals Why She Said Yes To An ‘Exorcist’ Sequel

To celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Actors Studio – the legendary New York (and later Los Angeles) studio co-founded by Elia Kazan in 1947 where Marlon Brando, James Dean, Paul Newman and dozens of other heavyweights actors have perfected their craft – the Academy The museum organizes a series of Sunday screenings. It starts on August 28 with a screening of 1974 Alice doesn’t live here anymore, one of Martin Scorsese’s first dramas with Ellen Burstyn, current co-president of the Actors Studio with Al Pacino. Burstyn will be on hand for a Q&A after the screening (tickets available here).

The Oscar-winning stage and screen legend, 89, spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the creative alchemy that happens behind the doors of this legendary institution – “a gymnasium where [actors] practice,” is how she describes it. Along the way, Burstyn hinted at why, after 50 years, she agreed to return to The Exorcist. It’s a film that defined a genre and a performance that has yet to be surpassed.

I think a lot of people know the name “Actors Studio”, but they don’t know much beyond that. Could you explain a bit what the Actors Studio is and how it changed the course of your career?

I already had a career. I hadn’t really studied theatre. The first time I auditioned for a play [in 1957]it was for a lead role on Broadway and I got the part and I thought, ‘Oh, well, that’s pretty easy, I can do it.’

And then over time, I noticed there were actors who seemed to know something that I didn’t, like Marlon Brando and Jimmy Dean and Paul Newman and Geraldine Page and Jim Stanley. I knew they were all members of the Actors Studio and had studied with Lee Strasberg, so I decided to go find out what they knew that I didn’t.

And [in 1967] I left Hollywood and moved back to New York and went to Lee’s private lessons first, not straight to his studio. It was a life changing experience. I studied with him for a few years then auditioned to get into the studio, didn’t pass my first audition but did my second and became a life member and continued to study at the studio until Lee passes.

When he did, of course, everyone feared the studio’s days were over because he was the heart and soul of the studio. But those of us who cared, Al Pacino, Paul Newman and myself, Arthur Penn, Shelley Winters, many others, we were on the board and we did our best to make it keep going, and keep going. Now we are celebrating our 75th year.

What’s going on inside the building? Do you work on stage? What does a session look like there
?

They meet twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and there are actors who bring a scene that they are working on — there are always two scenes for each session — and they do the scene and then they tell what they are working on it.

Sometimes they may try to do the whole scene; sometimes they are preparing for a particular role. Very often, if I’m preparing for a difficult role, I bring some kind of exercise.

Sometimes they’ll just work on a personal problem they have as an actor. For example, relaxation, say: they are always too tense when they work. So they’re not trying to do the scene well – they’re not trying to pull it off for a performance, they’re trying to get through a stage and keep their body relaxed.

It can be any type of personal issue or any goal. After the scene is over, they tell the moderator – for many years it was me, then myself and Estelle Parsons; Shelley Winters moderated; Paul Newman moderated. They’ll say what they’ve been working on, and then the moderator will get feedback from the audience, all of whom are Actors Studio members. And they will tell them what they saw. Did they actually see them working on what they said they were working on? Did they succeed in what they were trying to do?

Then the moderator will address the actor. This is the hardest part to get into, because this is where the person in the chair gives their opinion on the job. And that’s basically it. We think of it as a gym where we train, and when someone auditions and becomes a member, they’re a lifetime member at no cost. They don’t pay dues. The studio is at their disposal for everything they need to work.

When Kazan founded the studio, he said he wanted it to be a safe place for actors to develop their craft. And that’s what it continues to be even after the departure of Kazan and the departure of Strasberg and some of the other moderators, but we continue.

I imagine there is no shortage of people who want to enter. How does an actor enter?

There are two auditions: a preliminary audition and if they pass, there is a final audition. This is the basic way to enter. Now the Actors Studio also has a masters program at Pace University and these actors, when they get their masters, they don’t have to do any preliminary because we know they were trained by our teachers . So they go straight to a final audition. And very often they become permanent members of the Actors Studio, but not always. Some do, some don’t.

Approximately how many lifetime active members are there?

Active is hard to tell as it fluctuates. People can be members for years and not come, then all of a sudden start coming. Last time I asked, there were 2,000 members on both coasts, but that doesn’t mean they are 2,000 active members. So I would say that in New York and California combined, there are probably about 500 going there. Sometimes an actor will live in New York and join there, but then get cast on a show in California and move there and frequent the studio there. I would say 500 — that’s a generous number.

And is everyone there doing the method, the Stanislavski method kind of game?

Really, there is no “acting method”. There is only good acting and bad acting. And if you watch someone play and you say, “Oh, that’s methodical play,” that’s bad play. Because technique shouldn’t show. I think the best way to describe what the method is, I quote Lee Strasberg, who said, “It is a method of training the imagination to respond to imaginary stimuli. Now, that’s very different from anything we’ve heard lately about actors going to great lengths to stay in character and do crazy things to get “real.” It is not a method of action. It is a distortion. The game of method is to work with a highly trained imagination.

Fascinating. So I have to ask you: when you were preparing for The Exorcist, did you bring any of these scenes to the Actors Studio? Because you’re selling this movie. Your response is so visceral and so real that there is no doubt what is unfolding is actually happening.

No, but I think it’s a good example of what training helps an actor achieve. It’s really using your imagination to respond to imaginary stimuli. This is a good example. Because after all, I had never experienced anything like it. So I had to use my imagination to go there in such a way that it became real to me. That’s the thing we’re always working for – how to make imaginary circumstances real to us so that we react to them as if they were real. They’re real on the inside, and that’s the work of the imagination.

I understand that you are currently revisiting the world of The Exorcist. Is it true?

Yes. Yes, it’s true.

I’m sure you’ve been asked this many times over the years. Why now?

You know, what happened was that I turned down many versions of The Exorcist 2. I said no every time. This time they offered me a whole lot of money and I still said no. And then they surprised me and they came back and said, “We doubled the offer.” I said, “OK, let me think about that.” I thought, “That’s a lot of money. Let me think about it.” The next thought that came to my mind was, “I feel like the devil is asking my price.” And the next thought that came to my mind was : “My award is a scholarship program for talented students in our Masters program at Pace University. This is my award. So then I went back and upped their level and ended up getting this I wanted. And I have a scholarship program for young actors.

Unbelievable.

Isn’t that great?

Has this already been reported?

No.

I just got a scoop. Thanks.

You’re welcome. And I took most of the photo. The writer-director, David Gordon Green, I really like. I met him and we talked about the script and so on, and I promised him four more days if he needed it. And he edited the film and he wants the four days, so I’m going back in November to shoot four more days. And it will be released in 2024, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of The Exorcistthe original.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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