To celebrate 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 scores of other acting heavyweights perfected their craft — the Academy Museum is hosting a series of Sunday screenings. It kicked off Aug. 7 and continues Aug. 28 with a showing of 1974’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, an early Martin Scorsese drama starring Ellen Burstyn, current co-president of the Actors Studio with Al Pacino. Burstyn will be in attendance for a Q&A following the screening (tickets available here).
The Oscar-winning stage and screen legend, 89, spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the creative alchemy that goes on behind the doors of that storied institution — “a gymnasium where [actors] work out” is how she describes it. Along the way, Burstyn let it spill why, after 50 years, she agreed to return to The Exorcist. It is a film that defined a genre, and a performance that has yet to be topped.
I think a lot of people know the name “Actors Studio,” but they don’t know much beyond that. Could you explain a bit about what the Actors Studio is and how it changed the course of your career?
I had a career already. I hadn’t really studied acting. The first time I auditioned for a play [in 1957], it was for a lead on Broadway and I got the part and I thought, “Oh, well this is pretty easy, I can do this.”
And then as time went on, I noticed that there were some actors who seemed to know something I didn’t know, like Marlon Brando and Jimmy Dean and Paul Newman and Geraldine Page and Kim Stanley. I knew they were all members of the Actors Studio, and had studied with Lee Strasberg, so I decided I would go find out what they knew that I didn’t know.
And [in 1967] I left Hollywood and went back to New York and went to Lee’s private classes first, not right to 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, didn’t pass my first audition, but did my second and became a lifetime member and continued to study at the studio until Lee passed.
When he did, of course, everybody 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, lots of others, we were on the board and we did our best to keep it going, and on it goes. Now we’re celebrating our 75th year.
What goes on inside the building? You’re working on scene work? What is a session there like?
They meet twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and there are actors who bring in a scene that they’re working on — there are always two scenes for each session — and they do the scene and then they tell what they’re working on.
Sometimes it could be they’re trying to realize the whole scene; sometimes they’re preparing for a particular role. Very often if I’m preparing for a difficult role, I’ll bring some kind of exercise in.
Sometimes they’ll just be working on a personal problem they have as an actor. For instance, relaxation, let’s say: that they always tense up too much when they work. So they’re not trying to do the scene right — they’re not trying to realize it for a performance, they’re trying to get through a scene and keep their body relaxed.
It could be any kind of personal problem or any aim. After the scene is over, they tell the moderator — for many, many, many years it was Lee, and then myself and Estelle Parsons; Shelley Winters moderated; Paul Newman moderated. They’ll say what they worked on and then the moderator will get comments from the audience, who are all Actors Studio members. And they will tell them what they saw. Did they see them actually work on what they said they were working on? Were they successful in what they were trying to do?
Then the moderator will address the actor. That’s the hard part to talk about, because that’s where the person who’s in the chair moderating gives their insight into the work. And that’s basically it. We think of it as a gymnasium where we work out, and when somebody auditions and becomes a member, they’re a member for life at no cost. They don’t pay dues. The studio is available to them 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’s what it continues to be even after Kazan’s gone and Strasberg’s gone and some of the other moderators, but on we go.
I imagine there’s no shortage of people who want to get in. How does an actor get in?
There are two auditions: a preliminary audition and then if they pass that, there’s a final audition. That’s the basic way to get in. Now, the Actors Studio also has a master’s degree program at Pace University and those actors, when they graduate with their MFA, they don’t have to do a preliminary because we know that they’ve been trained by our teachers. So they go right to a final audition. And very often they become permanent members of the Actors Studio, but not always. Some do, some don’t.
About how many active lifetime members are there?
Active is hard to say because it fluctuates. People can be members for years and not come, and then all of a sudden start coming. The 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 in New York and California combined, there’s probably about 500 that go. Sometimes an actor will live in New York and join up there, but then get cast in a series in California and move out there and attend the studio out there. I would say 500 — it’s a generous number.
And is everyone there doing the method, the Stanislavski method kind of acting?
Really, there isn’t such a thing as “method acting.” There’s only good acting and bad acting. And if you look at somebody acting and you say, “Oh, that’s method acting,” that’s bad acting. Because the 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 than all the stuff we’ve been hearing lately about actors going to great lengths to stay in character and do wild things to get “real.” That’s not method acting. That’s a distortion. Method acting is working with a really trained imagination.
Fascinating. So I have to ask: When you were preparing for The Exorcist, did you bring any of those scenes to the Actors Studio? Because you sell that film. Your response is so visceral and so real that there’s no question that what’s unfolding is actually happening.
No, but I think that’s a good example of what the training helps an actor to realize. That’s really using one’s imagination to respond to imaginary stimuli. That’s a good example of it. Because after all, I’d never experienced anything like that. So I had to use my imagination to go there in a way that it became real to me. That’s the thing we’re always working for — is how to make the imaginary circumstances real to us so that we’re responding to them as though they are real. They’re real inside, and that’s the work of imagination.
I understand you’re currently revisiting the world of The Exorcist. Is that true?
Yes. Yes, it is true.
I’m sure you’ve been asked many, many times over the years. Why now?
You know, what happened was I’ve turned down many versions of The Exorcist 2. I’ve said no every time. This time they offered me a whole bunch 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 this.” I thought, “That’s a lot of money. Let me think about it.” The next thought that came to mind was: “I feel like the devil is asking my price.” And the next thought that came to mind was, “My price is a scholarship program for talented students at our master’s degree program at Pace University. That’s my price.” So I then went back and upped their up and ended up getting what I want. And I’ve got a scholarship program for young actors.
Isn’t that great?
Has that been reported yet?
I just got a scoop. Thank you.
You’re welcome. And I’ve shot most of the picture. The writer-director, David Gordon Green, I like very much. I met with him and we talked about the script and so forth, and I promised him four more days if he needed them. And he’s edited the film and he wants the four days, so I’m going back in November to shoot four more days. And it’ll come out in 2024, on the 50th anniversary of The Exorcist, the original.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.