In celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Actors Studio – the legendary New York (and later Los Angeles) workshop co-founded by Elia Kazan in 1947 where Marlon Brando, James Dean, Paul Newman and many other heavyweights perfected the their art – the Academy The Museum hosts a series of Sunday screenings. It begins on August 28 with a performance from 1974 Alice doesn’t live here anymore, an early Martin Scorsese drama starring Ellen Burstyn, who currently co-chairs the Actors Studio with Al Pacino. Burstyn will be on hand for a Q&A after the screening (tickets available here).
The Oscar-winning legend of stage and screen, 89, spoke The Hollywood Reporter about the creative alchemy that happens behind the doors of this renowned institution — “a high school where [actors] exercise” is how she describes it herself. Along the way, Burstyn spilled why, after 50 years, she agreed to return The Exorcist. It is a film that defined a genre and a performance that has yet to be topped.
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I think a lot of people know the name ‘Actors Studio’ but don’t know much beyond that. Could you explain a little bit about what the Actors Studio is and how it changed the course of your career?
I already had a career. I hadn’t really studied acting. 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, that’s really easy, I can do it.”
And as time went on, I noticed that there were some actors who seemed to know something 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 they 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 came back to New York and went to Lee’s private lessons first, not exactly at his studio. It was a life changing experience. I studied with him for a few years, and then I auditioned to get into the studio, I didn’t pass my first audition, but I did the second one and became a part of my life and continued to study at the studio until Lee passed.
When he did, of course, everyone was worried that the studio’s days would be 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, were on board and we did everything we could to keep going and keep going. We are now celebrating our 75th anniversary.
What happens inside the building? Do you work in stage work? How is a session there?
They meet twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays, from 11am. until 1 am they work.
Sometimes it may be that they are trying to realize the whole scene. sometimes they prepare for a specific role. Quite often, if I’m preparing for a difficult role, I’ll bring in some sort of exercise.
Sometimes they will just deal with a personal problem they have as an actor. For example, relaxation, let’s say: that they always overextend themselves when they work. So they’re not trying to get the scene right — they’re not trying to realize it for a performance, they’re trying to get through a scene and keep their bodies relaxed.
It can be any personal problem or any goal. After the scene is over, they tell the moderator — for many, many, many years it was me, and then me and Estelle Parsons. Shelley Winters moderated. Directed by Paul Newman. They will say what they worked on and then the moderator will get feedback from the audience, who are all members of the Actors Studio. And they will tell them what they saw. Did they actually see them working on what they said they were working on? Were they successful in what they were trying to do?
The moderator will then address the actor. That’s the hard part to talk about, because that’s where the person in the moderator’s chair gives their insight into the job. And that’s basically it. We think of it as a gym where we work out, 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 whatever they need to work on.
When Kazan founded the studio, he said he wanted it to be a safe place for actors to go to develop their craft. And that continues to be even after Kazan and Strasberg and some other coordinators are gone, but we’re still going.
I imagine there is no shortage of people wanting to get in. How does an actor get in?
There are two auditions: a preliminary audition and then if they pass, there is a final audition. This is the basic way to get in. Now, the Actors Studio also has a master’s program at Pace University, and these actors, when they graduate with their master’s degree, don’t have to do prelims because we know they’ve been 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 active members are there?
Active is hard to say because it fluctuates. People can be members for years and not come, then suddenly start coming. Last time I asked, there were 2,000 members on both coasts, but that doesn’t mean it’s 2,000 active members. So I’d say in New York and California combined, there’s probably about 500 that go. Sometimes an actor lives in New York and casts up there, but then gets cast on a show in California and moves out there and watches the studio out there. I’d say 500 — that’s a generous number.
And everyone there is doing the method, the Stanislavski method kind of acting?
Really, there is no such thing as an “action method”. There is only good and bad acting. And if you look at someone acting and say, “Oh, that’s method acting,” that’s bad acting. Because the technique should not be seen. 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 this is very different from all the things we’ve been hearing lately about actors going to great lengths to stay in character and doing wild things to be ‘real’. It is not a method of action. This is distortion. Method acting is working with a truly trained imagination.
Charming. So I have to ask: When were you preparing for The Exorcist, did you bring any of these scenes to the Actors Studio? Why are you selling this movie? Your response is so visceral and so true that there is no doubt that what is unfolding is actually happening.
No, but I think that’s a good example of what training helps an actor realize. This is really using one’s imagination to respond to imaginary stimuli. This is a good example. Because after all, I had never experienced anything like this before. So I had to use my imagination to go there in a way that made it real to me. That’s the thing we’re always working on — how to make imaginary circumstances real to us so that we respond to them as if they were real. They are real in themselves, and that is the work of imagination.
I understand that you are currently revisiting his world The Exorcist. It is true that?
Yes. Yes it’s true.
I’m sure you’ve been asked many, many times over the years. Why now?
You know, what happened was I rejected a lot of versions The Exorcist 2. I’ve said no every time. This time they offered me a bunch of money and I still said no. And then they surprised me and came back and said, “We’ve doubled the offer.” I said, “Okay, let me think about this.” 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 for my honor.” And the next thought that came to my mind was, “My honor is a scholarship program for gifted students in our graduate program at Pace University. This is my honor.” Then I went back and uploaded them and ended up having what I want. And I have a scholarship program for young actors.
Isn’t that great?
Has this been mentioned yet?
I just got a scoop. Thanks.
You are welcome. And I took most of the picture. The writer-director, David Gordon Green, I really like. I met with him and we talked about the script and so on, and I promised him another four days if he needed them. And he’s edited the film and he wants the four days, so I’ll be back in November to shoot another four days. And it will be released in 2024, on the 50th anniversary The Exorcistthe original.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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