Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Born and raised in the Bronx, two-time Golden Globe nominee Ellen Barkin got her start in Hollywood, like most fledgling actors, waiting tables and starring in daytime soap operas. However, unlike most burgeoning thespians, Barkin actually made it. For the last 30-plus years, she’s worked with some of America’s finest filmmakers, from Sidney Lumet to Walter Hill to Terry Gilliam. No matter the film, good or bad, Barkin stands out as an inimitable, radiant force of nature. Even as her cutthroat industry makes it increasingly difficult for women (especially those past 40) to find work, Barkin has endured. She’s carved out a niche for herself, and her movies are all the better for it.
Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas (1998)—“Waitress at North Star Café”
Ellen Barkin: [Laughs.] I don’t know why everyone talks to me about that movie. I’m in it for five seconds. I went down there to do the one real scene as the waitress at the North Star Café. And then Terry [Gilliam] decided it would be fun, since I’m in disguise with a wig and a fake ass and hips—my whole body was padded—to keep disguising me and insert me in, I think, two or three other scenes.
The A.V. Club: What were you disguised as?
EB: One time, I was in a club that they were all in, and I had some fringed, revealing outfit on, very scantily clad. Then I was part of their check-in scene, where I was dressed up as some Middle America lady. But it was fascinating to watch Terry, who I have loved and adored. So I was happy that he just kept saying, “Don’t go home.” I think he liked having me there, and he knew that I liked being there. So he’d just say, “Can you stay, and be in the nightclub scene, and we’ll disguise you again?” And I would say, “Sure.”
He’s fascinating to watch. It’s an interesting combination, because he has storyboards, if I remember correctly, so he’s got it pretty much planned out, but it’s so loose that he just goes with whatever’s happening on the set. So it’s a kind of perfect combination of a director who knows exactly what he wants out of the scene and how he wants to shoot it, and then will be willing to turn that around 180 degrees if one actor does one interesting thing that catches his eye. And he was very open to the kind of quirky improvisation of Benicio [Del Toro] and Johnny Depp.
This Boy’s Life (1993)—“Caroline”
EB: Well, let’s see. Leo [DiCaprio] was 16. I think he turned 17 when we were shooting. Yeah, 21 years ago. I was 39, because I was pregnant. It was Leo’s first movie with the exception of Critters or whatever. So Leo was very young. I think he had his final callback with me. He’d gone through quite a few auditions. His voice changed from the time we finished shooting to when we had to go back and loop; I know that was a big problem. He was extremely gifted. That was very obvious. I think when I came out of his audition, I remember calling Art Linson, who was the producer, and just saying, “It’s going to be that kid, right?” And he said, “Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.” And it was interesting, because he was, at the time, a 16-year-old boy—very intimidated by Bob [De Niro], as one would be, and as one should be.
AVC: Were you intimidated by De Niro?
EB: I’d known Bob since I was 21 or 22, just from my waitressing in New York. So I felt pretty comfortable with him. I waitressed a lot in kind of painter-actor-musician bars in downtown New York, and Bob was always there. We had a friendly relationship. So I knew him kind of as a casual acquaintance, and I was pretty comfortable with him. I’d auditioned with him for a couple of other movies. So I wasn’t intimidated as much as I was, I’d say, very excited, just at the prospect of working with him. And it was a part I was desperate to play. I was not the first offer.
AVC: Who was?
EB: Debra Winger, and then I kind of gave up hope. But a month or so later, I got a phone call saying Debra Winger had passed, and now it was mine if I wanted it, and I just got really excited and jumped onboard. It was wonderful working with Leo. We were extremely close. The beginning of the movie was just Leo and I, and we did all our stuff together before Bob’s character is introduced into the movie. So we had a nice little bond going, and then by the time he was presented with Robert De Niro, he had his footing a little bit, I think. So it worked out perfectly, and I don’t know if they scheduled it that way on purpose. But certainly by the time Bob showed up, I think Leo had—you know, he was a cocky little fucker, which was kind of interesting, because it was like he was both cocky and intimidated. Not of me. We had a very solid mother-son relationship—and I was close with Leo’s mother, so it was all fine. And I felt very protective of Leo. But there is a thing, and I think he just knew—he knew he had a lot to learn, but he knew he was gifted.
And it wasn’t a bad cockiness. It was a cockiness that made me comfortable that I could go wherever I wanted to go with him and know that he could follow me. And I can’t speak for Bob at all, but when I look at the movie, I think maybe Bob felt the same way, because they certainly do have some very extreme moments between the two of them in it. I loved making that movie. I loved traveling around Seattle, and I loved all of our characters.
Down By Law (1986)—“Laurette”
EB: That was an amazing couple of days. I think it took a couple of days to shoot that scene. There is a gentle guiding hand that Jim Jarmusch has that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced before or after. It’s very inclusive of you as an artist and what you bring to the table. He’s extremely supportive; you feel very protected and very appreciated. And then on top of that all, I had something I’ve also never had before or after, which was a very strong verbal relationship with Robby Müller, the DP. He would say things like, “Okay, I’m going to be very close,” and then he’d walk away. And he knew what that meant to me, that then maybe I don’t have to be as big, you know? It could be a tiny little performance.
Or he’d say, “I’m going to shoot this scene very dark; I might be on your back a lot of the time.” And then I’d know to amp it up a few notches. To me, Robby Müller is a genius of geniuses. And he really works with actors. It’s not just him whispering in a corner with Jim Jarmusch. They are both very inclusive of the actors, and it’s almost like you’re just all part of the same orchestra playing the same symphony together. And you have your instrument and they have their instruments, and Jim’s the conductor but everybody’s aware of when everybody comes in and out. It was great. And I loved [Tom] Waits; he was very courageous, and I think very respectful of me, in some odd way. I was taken aback by it, but I think maybe because he’s primarily a musician, he was learning to feel his way around being an actor.
AVC: We always hear about movies as a collaborative art, but this one especially sounds like it.
EB: Yeah. I just always wished I was in the entire movie. You can see what Jim Jarmusch did with the three of them. He really casts the actor he wants to play the part, and not the actor who is capable of playing the part. You know what I mean? I just think it feels like, “I’m interested in this person now. And then I’m going to cast them, and all the things I’m interested in about them, I’m going to put them in my movie.” You see it with Roberto Benigni, you see it with John Lurie, and you certainly see it with Waits. And I think he continually does that when he makes movies. It’s like, “I’m interested in Bill Murray, so I’m going to make Broken Flowers and I’m going to Bill Murray it up.”
Diner (1982)—“Beth Schreiber”
AVC: Your first movie.
EB: More than 30 years ago. Thirty-three years. It came out, I think, in ’80 or ’81, but it was made before that. I was 27 when I made it… [Steve] Guttenberg seemed to be the most well-known person there, oddly enough. But maybe it was Barry Levinson’s first movie. Mickey Rourke had already done his two incredibly memorable scenes in Body Heat but it wasn’t out yet. So many of us were new. I knew Kevin Bacon and Danny Stern from the New York theater world.
AVC: Was there something that stood out about that first experience?
EB: When I read the script—and this is certainly a story I’ve told Barry Levinson more than once—I was committed to doing a Broadway play about children of the Holocaust. And I was very excited about it, because it would have been my first Broadway play, and I’m a Jew. And then I got sent this script by my agent and there was no way I was leaving my Holocaust play to do this movie. And my agent forced me to go in for the audition. Now, once I went in there and met Barry and read for him, I really wanted to do the movie. I still wanted to do my play first, but I was torn, and it was my agent at the time that said, “You’re doing this movie and we’re going to pull out of the play.”
You know, the play actually closed in two days, so it was a good thing. But I think what did happen was, they needed to cast all the guys before they cast me, because that’s the main focus of the movie. But they couldn’t do that, because I was committed to do this play. And I wasn’t going to lose the play based on a “maybe I’ll get this job.” So I don’t know how but Jerry Weintraub and Barry Levinson managed in some way to go out on a limb with Warner Bros.
And Warner Bros. did not want me in the movie. They kept saying I wasn’t pretty enough. And Jerry and Barry kept saying, “She’s not supposed to be the pretty girl, first of all. The other one is the pretty girl. How could she not be pretty enough? She has lines where she talks and says she’s not pretty enough.” But they managed to finagle things with the studio where I think they kind of lied their way into casting me. I don’t know what it was. But it was a very interesting experience.
My soulmate was Mickey. Guttenberg didn’t like me because I cursed, and that offended him, so Mickey was always trying to get Guttenberg to give me another chance. A lot of the guys were a little cool to me, with the exception of Mickey. He and I became very good friends. I remember he had just gotten married, so he was all emotional at having to leave his brand new wife for a couple of weeks. We became very tight, and then Danny Stern and I had a relationship that pretty much reflected what was going on on-screen. We’ve since made amends to each other, but it was a little difficult. But we certainly had a lot of fun. I’d had a lot of experience on daytime soap operas and television movies, so I knew a little bit about cameras. It was a very nice first movie to make.
I do have to say that in whatever improvising was in that movie was pretty much in the diner scenes. There’s a couple of scenes I have with Mickey where Barry just kept the camera rolling. I think we did have such a strong connection on-screen as well, that he would just keep the camera rolling and say, “Just keep talking to him; just keep talking to her.” But most everything I said was, I have to say, beautifully scripted. And it is the character 35 years later that I most relate to of any part I’ve ever played.
Enormous Changes At The Last Minute (1983)—“Virginia”
Shit Year (2010)—“Colleen West”
AVC: Is there a role in your career that was particularly challenging, something you think back on often?
EB: There are a couple of things. One, when I was very young. I did a Grace Paley story called Enormous Changes At The Last Minute, and that was something that was very meaningful to me at the time.
AVC: What about it?
EB: Because she just writes those kind of working-class New York women who don’t usually—especially in the early ’80s—have a voice on-screen. And she was on the set, and that was a very big deal for me. And I loved the character; I loved playing this beaten-down woman. There’s no miraculous change there, but just through tiny little ways she can better her life, she has a better life. It was very realistic and a great experience.
And then as a grownup, I did an art film called Shit Year. It was a bit of a sensation at Cannes. It was a very arty film, almost like a film that should just be running on the wall of the Museum Of Modern Art. It was a movie I loved making, and it was extremely difficult for me. I played a washed-up actress.
AVC: And you felt there was a lot of crossover between yourself and this character?
EB: Oh yeah, of course, but then I was also able to even further it. I think any actress over the age of 10 feels a connection to that. If it’s not happening to you now, you see it in your lifetime. And I would actually say any actor, because it’s worse for women, but it’s not so great for anybody these days, unless you have the really big muscles and you’re in a superhero movie.
But it was a very challenging role. She was kind of isolating herself, and she was going crazy through the course of this movie. She was just losing her mind. That, I have not experienced. But you call on your own experiences to try to get you to where that might be a possibility for you.
It was shot in black and white. The movie cost, I think, $200,000. Technically, it was very difficult. We had 14 days to shoot it in; because of the film stock that was being used, you couldn’t move your head. You were sitting in 120-degree lights. Everything about it was hard, as well as just the performance aspect of it. And I was very proud of that.
I also loved making Siesta, that weird movie I did with Mary Lambert, where I met my future husband, Gabriel Byrne. That’s a kind of crazy movie where I had to learn to walk a tightrope. I always liked movies that made me do physical things that I could never in a million years do.
AVC: But you pulled it off.
EB: Yeah, I walked a tightrope really high off the ground. It was very exciting, took me about four months to learn. Very serious training. But I like that aspect of moviemaking.
The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension (1984)—“Penny Priddy”
Tender Mercies (1983)—“Sue Anne”
EB: Buckaroo Banzai was one of my total favorites. I think that movie was way ahead of its time, and that should have been a movie that had three sequels. If you watch that movie now, it’s just brilliant. I hated working on Eddie And The Fucking Cruisers. Oh, and I also loved every Walter Hill movie I did [Johnny Handsome, Wild Bill]. And I loved my Sidney Lumet movies [Daniel, Strip Search]. I had a lot of luck with directors.
You know, I will say that Tender Mercies was my second movie, and Robert Duvall taught me everything I needed to know about how to act in front of a movie camera.
Mike Nichols and Sidney Lumet—those were the greatest American directors of my time.
AVC: What about Lumet?
EB: It’s an extraordinary experience. He makes a movie like no one else in the world does. You rehearse it the same way you do a play. You have five weeks rehearsal, the entire cast in a rehearsal studio where everything is taped out on the ground just like it is for a play. This is the table; this is the stove. And the entire cast must be there. I had a small part. The cast has to be there for the full eight-hour day, so that you can see, if you’re a supporting player, why your character exists, and what you need to do to propel the story of the lead characters. And it’s just a fascinating way to go to work, and then by the time you get to the set, you really only need one or two takes, because you’ve been rehearsing. It’s just like theater, and I found it enormously fulfilling. I loved Sidney Lumet. There is no director alive who gave me more confidence than him.
AVC: How does someone make a debut like Lumet’s 12 Angry Men?
EB: Yeah, but that’s like when you say Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was Mike Nichols’ debut. That’s what boggles my fuckin’ mind. Like, how is that your first movie? I don’t even know how they… I know Sidney first came at it as an actor. Mike came at it as a performer. But if you look at 12 Angry Men and Virginia Woolf, and you look at the way those movies are shot… they are so radical. Like, how did they know that shit?
Eddie And The Cruisers (1983)—“Maggie Foley”
EB: And yes, I hated making Eddie And The Cruisers. That was what we liked to call a “pay the rent” job. It wasn’t a script I liked, but I remember my agent at the time saying, “Look, you only have to work two weeks, and they’re going to pay you a lot of money. We’ll just say it was your first movie and they just didn’t release it.”
AVC: Did it pay the rent?
EB: Yeah, it certainly did. I think people were all fucked-up on drugs. I don’t know. I was a little removed, because I wasn’t on the movie the whole time, but it seemed like it was just a mess. Like, when I’d go, I’d think—I like to make a movie where I know who the boss is. I like a big boss. I like a real director. And it seemed like it was just, “Who’s driving the ship here? What’s going on?”
The Cobbler (2015)—“Elaine Greenawalt”
Sea Of Love (1989)—”Helen Kruger”
EB: You know, I’m a gigantic Tom McCarthy fan. And I kind of hounded him after The Station Agent—any time I’d see him, I’d have seen the movie seven more times, and I’d constantly be begging for parts in future movies. So one day I did get an email from Tom, and I just said yes, and I’d never read the script or anything. And then when I read the script, I loved it.
I mean, I love that movie because to me, it really harkens back to that kind of magical realism—and there used to be so many movies like that. It’s A Wonderful Life wasn’t the only movie like that. You know, they had a message, but they didn’t have to be realistic. And I give Tom a lot of credit for not being afraid to tell a humanistic, sentimental story and use a little magical realism in this world. I like a superhero movie, but is that all we get to watch? I love this movie. I love its heart. I like the cast a lot. I love seeing Adam [Sandler] in his Punch-Drunk Love mode.
AVC: Tom McCarthy movies are never short of heart.
EB: Yeah, and he’s like that as a guy, and he’s wonderful to work with. Wonderful. Another very collaborative director yet knows exactly what he wants. And he gets very excited on the set. He’s always laughing and running the camera, and I’d be saying, “You know this isn’t going to make it into the movie,” and he’d say, “Yeah, I just want to see you do it.”
And I like the cast. I love the idea of working with Method Man and all that. Everybody became friends, and it was all kind of wonderful.
AVC: It doesn’t always play out like that.
EB: No, it does not. But I have to say, even in the experiences I’ve had that have been—let’s just say “difficult” or “trying”—there’s always been a shining light for me. I did not enjoy making the movie Sea Of Love, but Al Pacino, on the other hand, was my savior. And that was a wonderful thing. Just the fact that everything about Sea Of Love was wrong, except there I had, arguably, one of the great American actors as my fierce, fearsome protector, and that felt amazing to me and gave me a level of confidence that I certainly never would have had without him.