Ellen Burstyn is mad as hell, and she’s not going to take it anymore. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my life,” she exclaims, her warm voice rising an octave or two as she does. She chuckles at a thought. “And I’ve had a very long life.”
Of course with Burstyn, as with so many others this year, the frustration has surfaced through watching the race for the Republican nomination, in which Donald Trump became the candidate on a platform that included rhetoric about building a wall to keep out Mexican “rapists” and “temporarily” barring all Muslims from entering the country. “I can’t understand it,” she continues. “The only thing I can think—and this is just a hypothesis; I have nothing to base it on—is that the fact we elected a black president has excited an underlying racism, and it has come to the surface. Now they’re saying, ‘OK, it’s our turn. The racists get a turn.’ I can’t imagine any other election year that there could be this ridiculous and overpowering support for that particular candidate.”
It’s a different kind of approach from that of Frank Underwood, the fictional president of Netflix phenomenon House of Cards, who favors a subtler, more indirect style to advance his agenda. Burstyn joined the cast this year as Elizabeth Hale, the First Lady’s stone-cold mother, amidst a fictional White House world in which murder, extortion and political game-playing are the orders of the day. For all the insanity of House of Cards’ fourth season — and there is plenty of delicious insanity this season — it has felt uncomfortably tame next to the bombast of this election cycle.
“It seems crazy,” Burstyn says. “I’m just stunned. That’s why it’s so important that we get either Hillary or Bernie into office.”
Though she shares a concern that the vitriol flying between supporters of the two Democratic candidates is splitting a vote that could keep the Republicans out of office. “For a while I thought we were looking pretty virtuous by comparison. But I’m afraid that’s degenerated now. I just want to get them all together in a room and say, ‘Folks, we’re all human beings here. We’re all Americans. Could we just quiet down and have a little respect for the office, if not each other?’ It’s just so uncivil, and I don’t know what happened.”
It’s that word — “uncivil” — that best describes the machinations of Underwood et al. in House of Cards. This season starts with Frank separated from his wife Claire, whose own political aspirations are ready to be realized. Claire, meanwhile, returns to her family home on the pretext of caring for her sick, elderly mother. And if Claire ever seemed cool and distant before, this is the season in which we learn where that came from.
“I did want the audience to see me and go, ‘Ah, now I understand where Claire gets her sharp edge from,’” says Burstyn. “Elizabeth has a lot of resentment about Claire’s relationship with her father. I think she’s actually jealous of Claire. And Claire’s so cool that it was hard, really, to relate to her in a loving way, even if she had tried.”
The cold, uncaring way these two powerhouses behave around each other, in the somehow claustrophobic surroundings of an echoing mansion that has seen better days, becomes one of the most beguiling aspects of the show this year. Elizabeth, in the late stages of cancer, uses the rare visit by her daughter to vent her frustrations, culminating in a spectacular loss of control in one scene that is as raw and heart-stopping as anything the Oscar-winning Burstyn has done.
The response was immediate, Burstyn says, reflecting a world in which this season, as always, landed on people’s Netflix accounts in one burst. “I walked my dog in Central Park on the first weekend it was shown, and so many people came up to me who had already seen the whole season,” she laughs. “I’ve never done anything in my career that has gotten as much attention as House of Cards.”
Burstyn appears in five of the season’s 13 episodes, and in three of her appearances, she is directed by the woman behind Claire, Robin Wright. Burstyn, who is looking to make her first film as a director with a feature called Bathing Flo, watched her carefully. “It was a kind of in-and-out relationship with Robin,” she recalls. “She’d be in the scene with me, and then the next moment she’d be behind the camera, changing the shot. I was interested in watching that change of character. She’s very popular on set; they have different directors, but I think the crew all favor her.”
Progress on her directorial debut is slow, but hopeful. She plans to star in the film too, and thinks she might be on the cusp of securing finance. “Whether or not they’re going to close the deal remains to be seen.” So much of the development process, she says, relies upon the algorithmic calculation of risk, and much as Burstyn might appreciate the reality of that, she can barely countenance the logic of it.
“What happens is you submit your script with an idea of what the budget might be, and the financier will offer you less than that. In order to do it for less, it means cutting out the art, usually. With The Last Picture Show, Peter Bogdanovich brought the script to the company that made it, they liked it, and they gave him the money he needed to make the film. He cast it with the actors that he thought were right for the parts. Now it’s the reverse. You must get well-known actors, stars, to commit to doing it, and they want them all to work for scale. It’s ridiculous.”
That system doesn’t make room for new talent, she says. “When we did The Last Picture Show, the whole cast was unknowns and we all got careers from it. Well, I don’t think this could be done now.”
The Last Picture Show, The Exorcist, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore—these films that helped define New Hollywood in the 1970s and made Burstyn’s name—none of them would pass the commerce test today, she says. It’s with a sigh that she signs off, to gather resolve to keep fighting for her new passion. “Trying to hold onto the beauty of a film,” she opines, “and not just the bare-bones storytelling… You know. It’s a real war.”