And you thought your family was dysfunctional? Wait till you see the crew Sam Levinson has assembled for “Another Happy Day” in his first outing as writer/director of a feature film. Levinson – and let’s get this out of the way – is the son of filmmaker Barry Levinson. Ellen Barkin not only stars in and produced “Another Happy Day” – she made her debut some thirty years back in Sam’s dad’s first feature “Diner.”
Honor Roll is a daily series for December that will feature new or previously published interviews, profiles and first-persons of some of the year’s most notable cinematic voices. Today we’re revisiting an interview with Ellen Barkin who gave a career best turn in the Sundance winner “Another Happy Day.”
An item to make Page Six drool, Barkin – 57 – is also the romantic partner of Levinson fils – 26. At Sundance some wag photographed her with Susan Sarandon and Demi Moore, who, you might know, have also struck a blow for women with younger mates.)
You’d be mistaken, though, to regard “Another Happy Day” as an “event” film propelled by juicy gossip. In fact, Sam Levinson, winner of the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance, has crafted a complex ensemble piece with many moving parts that rolls out a caustic, humorous, and somehow compassionate view of an imploding American family. He has also coaxed from Barkin a raw, powerhouse turn primed for an Awards nom.
The plot kicks off with that old chestnut, the wedding ceremony as a catalyst for bad behavior, in this case, by a wealthy family celebrating the nuptials at the parents’ Chesapeake Bay estate. Anchoring the melee is Barkin as Lynn, a mother of four who’s trying both to whip her wayward brood into shape – and, much harder, simply let go.
Middle son Ezra Miller is a substance abuser who cycles in and out of rehab and has Tourette’s syndrome (and uncorks the film’s snarkiest lines with wicked comic timing); his pudgy kid brother has Asperger’s and annoys everyone by videotaping them all; older sister (Kate Bosworth) cuts herself with a straight-edged razor. The bridegroom, the only sane child, has been raised by Lynn’s first husband (Thomas Haden Church) and his bitchy, vamping second wife (Demi Moore, a late-career bloomer), who’s determined to shoulder Lynn out of her son’s wedding.
Also on hand dispensing ill will is Ellen Burstyn as Lynn’s mom, who in the past condoned physical abuse by Lynn’s first husband. Lynn’s current husband – are you still with me? – is a clueless oddball, yet he’s neither sadistic nor certifiable, which in this group is a plus.
The film showcases Levinson’s impressive ability to keep all these loose canons in play, while putting a terrific cast through its paces. As for his star, in the recent theater revival of Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart,” Barkin, as a crusading doctor, delivered an enraged diatribe against government’s willed ignorance during the AIDS crisis that regularly brought down the house. I still cannot think of it without sprouting goose bumps. Now, she’s channeled another searing figure, a dolorous materfamilias who can’t seem to get it right.
I recently sat down with Barkin in a townhouse in SoHo to talk about the film. She’s whippet thin, wore the finest black leather – along with her crooked, tough-gal smile – and speaks in an emphatic manner.
You look in terrific shape. You must hear that a lot.
Luckily, yes, thank you.
[I ask her if she could please speak louder, apologizing for my antique tape recorder].
I’m very antique, in general. I have antique equipment too.
What drew you to this part?
Look, it’s an extraordinary, complicated role. I’ve been waiting for a part this good for my entire career. And the way Hollywood portrays mothers – you’re either all good and saint-like, or you’re all bad. And I think the real honesty of motherhood is not given a voice in movies. I miss that as an audience member. I saw an opportunity and a responsibility to give a voice to pretty much 98% of mothers. And then, just artistically, the role was extraordinarily challenging for me. It tapped into some very painful, difficult, gut-wrenching truths about myself that I had to face in order to play the part honestly. Lynn is also very unlike me in many ways.
In what ways?
One of the fundamental building blocks for me in the character is that she’s a baby. Because as I started to work on the role, I realized this constant need for approval, this constant checking … A baby does that. If you’ve watched your children take their first step, they look up to see, did everybody see? Kids wouldn’t have temper tantrums if there wasn’t someone there to see it. That’s how they are heard. And that’s how Lynn is heard, those are her tools. They’re not great. So I also felt this is a woman who’s got some serious stunted emotional growth. She is nothing without the approval and acknowledgement of everyone. Especially her mother. She also feels responsible for everybody elses’ behavior and takes everything very personally, like a baby.
You’ve been quoted as saying that in portraying a character you like to tell the viewers some secret about yourself.
I think it’s the actor’s job. Because you’re accessing a character and emotions. Because I’m very strictly Method trained, those emotions have to be real for me. So I think that if I can find a secret to tell that is honest and applicable to the role – and that I would not feel comfortable telling my best girlfriend — that’s what I strive for. The ability to tell that secret honestly and courageously without looking for sympathy from the audience.
Can you tell me what that is with regard to Lynn?
That’s my secret! It’s articulated when I get it right on screen.
But not something I could put into words?
I don’t think I myself could. In a role like this I’m a 57 year old woman with a 19 year old daughter and a 22 year old son. I’m playing a mother who comes from all the right places with very good intentions. To protect herself and her children. And I think she makes mistakes. And I think that is true for 98% of parents. The other 2% are the extreme Susan Smiths of the world who abuse or kill their children. Everyone else I know who’s a mother is, to a greater or lesser extent, just like Lynn. So I have to find that emotional connection in myself. What were my mistakes as my children are in their young adulthood? How will they resonate in their adult lives?
Can you tell me one mistake you made?
No. But watch the movie and you’ll see. I don’t need the audience to know it. Nor do I want to talk to anyone about my personal mistakes or successes. But I will tell you so much more and go much deeper through the voice of my character. [For the record, Barkin is the mother of two grown children with first husband Gabriel Byrne]
Playing devil’s advocate, I might say that the film offers a negative portrait of women. Lynn seems so frazzled and ready to implode any minute. The mother is cold and withholding, Demi is a bitch, the sisters are horrors, the way they mock Ezra’s fragility. Do you anticipate that people will be troubled by this view of women?
Well, I disagree with you. Before we talk about that, do you think the men are portrayed any differently?
They’re portrayed as the weak sisters, they’re less vivid characters.
Sam made a movie and wrote a script about women. I think he loves these women. I think he’s very non-judgmental in his portrayal of these women. The way the movie is written, shot, cast, the way the characters are put together – I don’t see any good guy or girl; I don’t see any bad guy or girl. My heart breaks for Demi Moore’s character. That moment when it’s decided who’s walking down the aisle brings up very serious questions about what is a mother. Is the mother the person who pops the baby out between her legs? Or the person who raises the baby? And [Demi] did raise that kid.
Lynn, you’ve said, is ferocious and tenacious. What is her goal?
She wants to protect herself, her children predominantly, and save them. But at some point you can’t save your children. You can raise them. But like with the Kate Bosworth character and Lynn’s need to protect her from this very damaging father – it’s time for her to back off. And Lynn can’t back off. She’s like a lioness. She’s not going to let you get at her cub. But her cub is no longer her cub. Lynn can’t separate. I think she has all the best intentions. She makes the wrong choices. In order to survive. And in order for her children to survive. I think the same thing of Burstyn’s character. I understand COMPLETELY why that woman needs that armor and is who she is. My heart breaks for her. Because as a grown woman, I understand that something made her that way.
I think it’s a very non-judgmental film. In terms of the script and the way it’s shot. There are very few closeups in this movie. Closeups are a powerful and manipulative tool. It not only forces emotion from the audience – it tells them whom to look at and whose side to be on. But Sam keeps that camera wide — most of the time everyone who’s in a scene is in the frame – and he lets the audience decide whom to look at. So not only is he not manipulating the audience, he’s not crushing their imagination. He’s allowing them to define what movie they’re watching.
Can I ask you what it’s like working with a director and a screenwriter who’s also your intimate partner?
No, you can’t ask me that, sorry.
One of your great gifts as an actor is the way you access anger. You blew me away as the doctor in Larry Kramer’s play, “The Normal Heart.”
It’s a very interesting thing. I studied acting for 10 years before I went for an audition. I studied with Lee Strasberg and Actors Studio teachers, and went to the High School of Performing Arts. Whether or not I was talented — or still whether or not I am – I knew how to build the table before I went to work. I think of acting as a craft. You have to learn to do it. It’s like a plumber, or a painter who has to learn how to mix paints and colors.
But one of the hardest things for me to do was to access anger. I could do it on stage. But when I did it on film it was hard for me. That probably as to do with the intimacy of film. And my own personal issues with expressing anger. So I had to learn how to do that.
What is it like working with the son of the director of your first movie?
Well, I do have to say that I did not know that Sam was Barry’s son. It’s really true. I was looking at the script [of “Another Happy Day”]. I’d known him for a week and a half. And I said, Levinson. Are you Barry’s kid? He said, you didn’t know that? I said, NO! I knew Sam’s parents, whom he’s very close to. I met the kids when they were 2 and 5. But I had no idea. I will say this: both Barry – and then thirty years later his son – each gave me a role that was so close, so on the surface and raw for me and just waiting for me to tell the story. Barry very differently. I was very young, my issues were very different. Whereas in this movie we’re one beautiful ensemble. It’s wonderful.
What’s it like to function both as actor and producer?
That helped me. Because it was a very hard part. And without Ellen Burstyn, and the help of every one of my cast members, and without the protection that Sam afforded the cast —
What do you mean by protection?
Sam’s first job as a director is to create a protective environment. He knew what he was asking us to do. Every one of us had to go to a bad, painful place. He needed to make sure that the set was an environment where we felt comfortable, not just to expose ourselves, but to fail in order that we succeed, hopefully. As producer it was hard for me. Ellen [Burstyn] was just the ultimate mother, she knew when I was afraid that the character was getting too unsympathetic, and she knew just how to get me back on track. What producing allowed me to do was, instead of going into my trailer and spending fifteen minutes thinking, oh that was so hard, I had to say c’mon guys, move the light stand, get your camera over here.
You were very hands on.
It was just me. I had no help.
Because of the personal backstory, are you concerned this will be an event film?
There is no event for me outside of this film. This film is my proudest professional accomplishment. “Normal Heart” was my most transcendent moment as an actor. This is the piece of work that I’m most proud of – the entire film, my part in it as an actor – so, no, it’s way bigger than—
Yes. Thank you so much, that was great! I feel so stimulated! [She comments on the color of my hair. I tell her there are many redhaired Jews from Odessa. She tells me her family’s from Odessa, now we’re really talking, maybe she’ll get into working with a director you live with, but the publicist is hustling her out … ]