The life builder

Ellen Burstyn

She’s hoping to direct her first feature film. Seems only right for someone with four Academy Award nominations and one win for Best Actress.

Those aren’t Ellen Burstyn’s only accolades. She’s been nominated for four Golden Globe Awards and has won once, again for Best Actress. She’s also got an Emmy and a Tony on her mantel.

At 83, Burstyn is ever seeking to discover more of herself. She’s directed some short films, but never a feature, and now she’s got a good script for a film called “Bathing Flo,” along with a burning desire to act in it and direct it. All she needs is the money.

Discovery is baked into Burstyn’s genes. Her whole life has been devoted to it. At work, she is plumbing the souls and minds of her characters, applying lessons she learned studying with Lee Strasberg at The Actor’s Studio in New York City. In her personal life, she is always looking inward, striving to understand herself.

For Burstyn, it’s been a spiritual journey more than anything, and she’ll be in Charleston to talk about it at 5 p.m. Saturday at Memminger Auditorium. The event is sponsored by The Sophia Institute.

Burstyn made her debut on Broadway in 1957. “Early on, I had the idea that if I relied on my looks, I would have a short career,” she said. So she invested in herself; the learning would continue. She wanted a long career.

She landed roles in several movies, getting to know the ways of Hollywood. Then came the 1970s, when the studio system started to break down and the movie business experienced an artistic revolution. A new generation of directors emerged, insisting on a grittier, more realistic kind of filmmaking.

“It was then that people were honoring the art form rather than the bank,” Burstyn said.

She was in the right place at the right time. First came a supporting role in Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Last Picture Show,” which featured a cast of relative unknowns, all of whom would go on to achieve enormous success. At first, it was merely the next job. The actors didn’t realize initially that they were involved in something special.

“I don’t think we did until we got to Texas and got to a hotel room and read the script for the first time out loud,” she said. “We finished the script, closed it. There was a moment of silence. Then someone said, ‘You know this could be a good movie.’ ”

No one in the film had known one another. They spent two weeks in an isolated hotel on the highway with nothing much to do. They’d hang out in someone’s room, playing guitar, singing, smoking dope and telling life stories.

“We really became a community,” Burstyn said.

Her performance, and subsequent Oscar nomination, put her on the Hollywood map. She became sought after. Following her starring role in “The Exorcist,” she had power.

She also had a new script by Robert Getchell for a film called “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” and its narrative told the story from the point of view of the female lead. It was the first time this had been done in Hollywood, Burstyn said.

“It was the beginning of the women’s movement, and we were just becoming aware,” she said. “It’s my life, it’s not some man’s life I’m helping him out with. There was a change in consciousness where women were waking up to be first person singular.”

She brought the script to Warner Bros. and the studio executives said: Who do you want to direct this? Burstyn called Francis Ford Coppola who invited her to check out a recent movie — “Mean Streets” — by another young Italian-American, Martin Scorsese. Then she set up a meeting.

She told Scorsese: “I saw your film, and it’s a great film, but there’s only one woman in it. Do you know anything about women?” “No,” came the reply. “But I’d like to learn.”

“I thought that was a great answer,” Burstyn recalled. So she hired Scorsese to direct “Alice.”

Her performance, a tour de force, won her an Oscar.

Many other roles followed, in film, television and on the stage, and many more accolades. During all of it she was searching for more of herself. In the 1970s, she had read the works of G.I. Gurdjieff on Sufism, was struck by the searching nature of this mystical form of Islam and by Gurdjieff’s insistence that one cannot be a serious apprentice without a teacher.

“So I looked for a Sufi teacher.” She found one in Reshad Feild, an English Sufi mystic and author, who recommended that she attend a Sufi camp in the Alps. She went for two weeks. What she discovered was that this camp was inclusive, welcoming people of all faith traditions, and this appealed greatly to Burstyn.

“Because it always seemed to me that the message of my-way-and-only-my-way-and-everything-else-is-sin is a false message,” she said.

They lit candles in honor of each of the great religions, placing a collection of diverse holy books on an altar. They selected a theme — love, death, forgiveness, charity — and read relevant passages from each of the holy books.

“And you see what each of them says on that theme, and the only possible conclusion is they’re saying basically the same thing. Only the dogma and rituals are different.”

Perhaps most important of all was the way that this form of Sufism gave her more tools with which to scrutinize herself, to learn and grow and change.

She wrote about her spiritual quest, and more, in her 2006 memoir, “Lessons in Becoming Myself.” The journey through life leads to discoveries large and small.

“It’s really asking questions like, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ ” she said. “And I love the answer that I finally received: There is no meaning of life, nothing there that you have to go find. It’s what you build. What is it I’m supposed to be doing with this life? What’s the purpose of my life? That question unfolds and creates more questions. That’s how it’s a journey.”

So Burstyn, in her career and in her life, is a seeker of truth. A brick layer. A life builder.

“So much is being revealed these days through science about the cosmos and the brain — the inner cosmos and outer cosmos — there’s so much to learn, I try not to close down possibilities. I’m always open to further depths and further exploration. It’s trying basically to be a better person. And when I say better, I think I mean kinder. If you get down to the root of what is morality, or being better person, or being good, it has to do with kindness.”

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