Ellen Burstyn on ‘House of Tomorrow,’ Bad Horror Movies and Why #MeToo Is 'the Biggest Thing That’s Happened in My Life'

When Ellen Burstyn was a rising movie star in the 1970s, she struck up an unlikely friendship with the eccentric architect and visionary Buckminster Fuller, who was then in his 70s.

Burstyn had attended one of Fuller’s lectures while filming The Exorcist. She was immediately converted. “He didn’t speak down to me at all,” Burstyn says, surrounded by plants and quartz crystals in her enchanting Upper West Side living room. “He could speak at the highest level to experts in philosophy, architecture, inventions—so many different fields. When I was sitting in Carnegie Hall listening to him, I had the feeling that I was running as fast as I could mentally.”

So it was a fortuitous coincidence when Burstyn, now 85, was recently asked to appear in The House of Tomorrow, a film in which she plays a Fuller-worshipping grandma who lives in a geodesic dome and raises her sheltered grandson on a strict diet of the late thinker’s futurist teachings. Initially, the filmmaker, Peter Livolsi, who is making his directorial debut, had no clue Burstyn had known the man in real life. “I said, “I not only knew him, but I videotaped him,'" says Burstyn. “So I gave him the videotape to use in the film. It was quite… I don’t know what you’d call an event like that. Serendipity, maybe?”

In the new film, based on Peter Bognanni’s novel of the same name, Burstyn’s character goes to absurd lengths to honor Fuller’s beliefs, while her grandson (Asa Butterfield) mounts a rebellion and discovers punk rock. It’s an adept and quietly moving performance from Burstyn, who has remained a substantial onscreen draw more than 40 years after winning an Oscar for Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. (Among her significant recent roles: the elderly scientist Murphy in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and Barbara Bush in Oliver Stone’s W.)

During a wide-ranging conversation, Burstyn discussed her unusual new film and why she thinks the #MeToo movement represents a historic blow to the patriarchy. This interview has been lightly edited.

What about Buckminster Fuller's ideas interested you?
We met because I was interested in his great aunt Margaret Fuller, who was a transcendentalist friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. I’d always wanted to make a film about her. While I was shooting The Exorcist, Bucky was giving a lecture at Carnegie Hall that I went to. During the lecture, I went, “Buckminster Fuller. Margaret Fuller! I wonder if they’re related.” I went home and looked through all my Margaret Fuller books. In the inside cover of one, there was a family tree. I saw that her maternal grandmother was named Anne Buckminster. I said, “That’s it! They’ve gotta be related.”

I found out how to get to his office. I called and said I would like to talk to him about his great aunt Margaret. His assistant called me back and said I could have two hours at the Boston airport on such-and-such date, or I could have five hours at the Chicago airport on such-and-such date. He obviously had layovers with nothing to do. I said, “I’ll take five hours in Chicago.” So I flew to Chicago and we met in the restaurant. I just fell in love with him. At the time, he was considered the best mind on the planet. He was so fascinating but also so, so kind. I took out a cigarette—I still smoked then—and I said, “Do you mind if I smoke?” He said, “Oh, I don’t mind for myself, dear. I mind for you.” I said, “You don’t smoke, huh?” He said, “No. I, being the most sensitive sending and receiving mechanism ever designed, don’t want to do anything to interfere with my sensitivity.” Soon after that, I stopped smoking.

In the film, your character's grandson gets so much from your character. What was it like building that bond as two actors?
Asa [Butterfield] has such an innocence about him. A purity. He was really so perfect for the part. He was very open. So it was easy for us to connect. And Maude Apatow—wasn't she good? I was so impressed with them. I thought, "These guys are really terrific!" And the music. It's not my kind of music. I'm a Beethoven lover [laughs]. But I was so impressed with what they were able to conjure. I had a really good time. I loved the [geodesic] domes.

Ellen Burstyn Ellen Burstyn in the new film "The House of Tomorrow." Shout! Factory

What did you like about the geodesic domes?
I loved being in them. There's a very interesting feeling. I've read that if you're in a place with really low ceilings, it doesn't give your spirit room to fly. And in [the domes], you felt like there was a lot of space around you. It's a very good feeling. And they're beautiful. They're just beautiful—being able to see out all the time and seeing all those vistas shaped by triangles. I asked to live in one.

Really?
Yeah. I stayed in one for a while.

In interviews, you’ve talked of an interest in spirituality. Can you talk about that?
I became a Sufi in the 1970s. I loved that, because this particular group welcomed any religion. You could be a Jewish Sufi or a Catholic Sufi or whatever. I’ve never trusted a group that says, “We’ve got the only answer. And if you don’t believe in this, you’re going to hell.”

Right now I'm reading Thomas Berry. Have you heard of him? He was an ecotheologian. So he connects the natural world in spirit. I read a lot. I’ve become more and more aware of the cosmos and how big the whole thing is. And that we can’t just think in terms of the local story: “God created the earth.” When you get out there in the cosmos—like at the Natural History Museum—they take you for a ride, where you leave the planet, then you leave the solar system, then you leave the Milky Way. It’s so overwhelming and astonishing that I want to be open to all of it. I don’t want to limit myself to, “I am a,” and then a word that defines.

There’s this wonderful line in a Mary Oliver poem: “All my life I want to be a bride to amazement.” And that’s the way I feel. I appreciate the scope of the thing we’re taking part in. I want to be in amazement all the time. And I’m in awe. I’m in a state of awe. ’Cuz it’s just so big and glorious and miraculous and overwhelming. I don’t want to narrow it down. I don’t want to have a small view of what we’re taking part in here.

What has been your impression of the #MeToo movement among female actresses?
I think it's the biggest thing that's happened in my lifetime.

Really?
I do. I think we've been living in a patriarchy for centuries. And this is the beginning of the crumble. And it's about time. I think guys really didn't know how it felt—I think they just accepted it as normal. We seemed to be powerless to do anything about it. Now all of a sudden the balance has tipped. And now they're getting it: "Oh, you mean we can't do that? We can't slap you on the ass?" I'm jubilant about it. I don't think it'll ever be the same. The assumption of domination was appalling. And dehumanizing. I really think they didn't get it. They thought it was kind of cute.

Ellen Burstyn Ellen Burstyn at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, on January 21. The 85-year-old actress co-stars in the new film "The House of Tomorrow." Rich Polk/Getty Images for IMDb

Obviously, Hollywood has improved in some ways. Are there things about your earlier career that you miss?
I don’t really have any complaints. When I was a model, I got disrespected. But as an actress, I must say I’ve been treated pretty well. There have been assumptions that I allowed that I wouldn’t allow now—having to do with who’s the boss. But I can’t say I was ever sexually—what’s the word—abused. I must say, I didn’t have that. But there weren’t enough roles. And there weren’t enough women directors and photographers and cinematographers and studio heads and all that. That’s changing. And that’s really good. I think it’s good not only for women, but good for the general culture to have more of feminism values accepted. I love it that Wonder Woman made money!

A decade ago, it would have been unthinkable.
It wouldn’t have been made.

If you want to be bowled over by existence, how do you choose your roles these days? How do you decide that a film is worth your time and attention?
The writing is what interests me. Bad writing makes me cringe. If I like the writing, or I like what it’s saying, or if it’s being filmed in a place I’ve never been. I’m invited to take part in a film that’s being shot in South Africa. I’ve never been to South Africa. That interests me.

Is there a filmmaker you’d like to work with again who you’ve worked with before? Who’s your number one collaborator?
I love Darren Aronofsky. He's coming to lunch Thursday. I just love him. Did you see Mother!?

Of course.
Did you like it?

Related: Where were you when you first watched The Exorcist?

Yeah! Not every film is supposed to make you feel good. That was my take on it.
Some people people hate it. You know? You need to interpret that film as you're watching it. You can't just take it on face value. It's an allegory! I feel like some people aren't willing to do that, to make that step. I think it's a masterpiece. I love it.

The Shape of Water and Get Out are among the few horror films that have been recognized by the Academy since The Exorcist. Why do you think that is?​
It got overdone. I get scripts all the time for horror films. And they're disgusting! They're stupid. Blood and guts and you know. The reason why The Exorcist was so good was because it was careful about bringing the audience from a place of reality slowly into the nightmare. The horror films I get sent now just start right out assuming everybody’s going to be scared. To me, The Shape of Water is a fantastical movie more than a horror film. And I love it! It’s beautiful. Don’t you love that creature? But Get Out is really a horror film. And that’s wonderful.

Interview by Emily Gaudette, with an introduction by Zach Schonfeld.

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