Inspiration leads actors to pursue their craft. Passion keeps them at it. More than 30 years after her breakthrough performance in Barry Levinson's Diner, Ellen Barkin has a surfeit of both. As Lynn, a harried, tormented and fragile mother in Another Happy Day, Barkin gives not only one of the best performances of the year, but of her entire career. Another Happy Day is an agonizing wedding dramedy where Barkin plays a twice-married mother of four who left her first husband (Thomas Jane) for abusing her. Problem is, her martyrdom goes ignored: he remarried a sexy ex-stripper (Demi Moore) who ended up Barkin's eldest son, and even her own mother (Ellen Burstyn) still thinks her ex is a good guy. Now at the eldest boy's wedding, Barkin demands love and respect from the family that shuns her and flies off the handle when she can't have it. Plus, her youngest boy Elliot (Ezra Miller) is spending the weekend stoned on pain killers and trying to stick mom with a major guilt trip. The actress gives her all to a role that demands an almost cartoonishly intense level of hysteria—it's the culmination of three decades of great work. And oddly, it was directed by Sam Levinson, son of Diner director Barry. We talk to Barkin about what keeps her going—and how this film might propel her forward.
Was this role as emotionally wrenching as it looked like on screen?
It was probably the biggest challenge of my career. I've been waiting to get a part like this since I started to act, and it was everything it looked like. It was very hard. It was very complicated, very complex, and I mean it was just very difficult for me emotionally. But I think if you work the way I was taught to work, you have to really put it out there just for yourself in order to get to where you need to get to. So it was emotionally very challenging and painful at times, but extremely cathartic. I mean, I have to say that at the end of every day I felt great. And just involved as the exploration might have been, it was hard because it was very hard for me to hold on to the honesty of the character and the integrity of the character and not become emotional or hysterical. There were a lot of times where I'd go to our director, Sam Levinson, and I'd say, "Is it too much?" You know, "Do I just have to stop for just one f--kin' scene and just try to get through it?" And Ellen Burstyn, you know, at one point, said, "Just try it, Ellen. Go ahead. Hold on to your character and try to get through the scene. Believe me, the take will last three seconds."
It seems almost inconceivable to be able to turn around and have a civil conversation after, say, the physical confrontation between Lynn and Elliot, or the moment where she tells him to go to hell.
That was all shot in one at the end of the day, so it's the natural progression of what happened after that fight, and I think it's where you also see a side of Elliot that you've never seen before, his vulnerability—he's just stripped naked in that scene. So emotionally it was the natural place to go as a mother when your child crosses a boundary that extremely. Of course you want to understand them and you don't take it; your job is to understand, "No, my son doesn't really think I'm a c--t," excuse my language. But what is it that brought him to that place that he would call me that and spit in my face and push me to the ground. Now this script is structured in a very specific, very purposeful way in that almost every time there is a big emotional moment, or gut-wrenching moment, or horrific moment, Sam, in the writing of it, takes you usually to a place of comedy. And by doing that, he doesn't let the audience wallow in it-it never becomes sentimental. You move in to another area of human emotion and it gives you the breathing space to reflect back on the scene before and say, "Wow. What the f--k was that about? Did George Kennedy really just lean over and say, 'It must have felt good to get something like that off your chest.' Did that really just happen to that woman?" So, it gives the audience an enormous amount of room, and he won't allow this sentimentalizing of the moment.
And so, you know, obviously, the movie wasn't shot in sequence so not every big emotional scene was followed by something else. Like that scene with Ezra, specifically, was our last shot of the night and the fight scene was just two angles, one take each. And so was his explanation, the same thing. Also, because we made the movie in 23 days, we moved at such a rapid pace that you had no choice but to be able to move on and I think it speaks so much of Sam, as a director, that he went in to this and said to me right from the beginning, "I want to be the only person who is here on a learning curve." And so everybody was really well experienced and so we all knew how to get the job done. Just to move on, you know, like the troopers that we are. And that was it. It was just part of the job and we all knew it going in. I mean, you read the script, you know what the schedule is, we worked six-day weeks and we were all there for most of the shoot. I mean, most every actor was there whether they were shooting scenes or not, they'd come to the set to watch, and it was extraordinary.
There's this amazing scene with you and Ellen Burstyn where she shows her daughter this vulnerability and Lynn doesn't even know what to do with it.
Well, I think what Ellen Burstyn does in that scene, I'd be hard-pressed to find two minutes of film acting that even equals that—let alone tops that. It was extraordinary to watch her do it as an actor and in terms of the character, I guess what she was seeing was for the first time. And it's something you learn in acting class, where if your character has a big experience in the movie, I always like to think of it as it never happened before. This is the first time because you'll make stronger choices as an actor. And you'll make stronger choices for your audience.
So there this woman is sitting there, seeing her mother vulnerable, and for me, playing the part of Lynn, it was the first time I'd ever seen my mother that way. And I so wanted to be open to it and accept it as the character, but because of who she is, she's very reactive and she takes everything personally. So in some way, even her mother expressing such extreme vulnerability only about herself, Lynn sees that as a criticism and so it was gut-wrenching for me that she gut-wrenched. I mean, I could barely get through that scene without me crying. I had to walk away before we started and said, "Pull it together, let me run the scene a few times, not with Ellen," so I become somewhat inured to it, and then I can make the right choice, which is: why is it my fault that you're alone? Because she feels responsible and accountable for everything that everybody does. So, whether it's her mother or her kids or her sisters or her father, like there's even a line George Kennedy says the grass looks overgrown, and Lynn took that personally. For him, it could have been just a benign comment: "I think the grass looks overgrown. I should do something about it." Whereas I took it as, he thinks the grass is overgrown, that means I'm not doing a good enough job with the landscaper that we provided him.
So it was very, very hard to stay in that place—very, very, very hard. It was very hard. And I've been lucky in that I've gotten to play such a wide range of characters in movies, but I've never played someone like this. Even in my most victimized roles or whatever, I've never played anyone that was constantly looking for approval. And at my age to find like that basic, core component of a character that I've never explored, it was a great gift. And it's also something that for better and for worse, I really don't have as a person—I don't have it to a fault. And I don't know why, but I just never even speak about what someone thinks of me, so I really had to search for what makes a person that way. And what I found was what makes a person that way is not dissimilar from my life experiences, it's just how it's manifested. She manifests it very differently. I manifest it personally by just getting more protective of myself, and this woman's unable to protect herself on every level.
Why does her family seem so unwilling to support her?
I think that that's part of the beauty of the film, that there are no answers to any questions. There's no answer to the simplest question of: is Lynn a good mother? Is Doris a good mother? I don't think there are answers. That, to me, is the beauty of this film—the filmmaker very purposely and very succinctly made a movie that provokes conversation. You leave that movie theater and you have to talk about it because everybody has a different opinion as to what they saw, and who they sided with and when. And when the person that they thought they were siding with betrayed them, and when they brought them back. And so I think the beauty of that movie and the answer to that movie is in not answering the questions.
You talked about having a sort of cathartic experience playing this character. What sort of catharsis do you feel like the audience will take from it?
Well I think most importantly, what we all were working towards was what our director was set out to do, which is: how do you love the people that love you without judgment? Regardless of what they do to you because you're stuck with them, they're your family. And how do you go on? And everybody in that movie has a very different way of going on. And what's amazing about is you've got 11 central players with very different ways of approaching a very harsh reality of the world that their family lives in. And in terms of the catharsis of it, I think that the idea of exploring the misguided mother—unless you're playing a mother like Medea or something—it's taboo in movies. You're not allowed to play a bad mother or a mother who, with all the best intentions, makes the wrong choices. So for me as an actor, it was a big deal to be able to give that a voice on screen. I mean, I'm always interested in giving voice to characters that are not usually explored. And that's the character that or character trait that's not usually explored: how does a mother with all of the right intentions wind up just piling the mistakes on top of each other? She only wants good for her children, her family, her mother, herself. And terrible things have been done to her. Why can't the words come out the way they are in her head? And for me, the answer was because she has to save everyone, including herself-and they're not saved, so she cannot rest until they are.
Have you always maintained the same kind of creative passion or does a film like this rekindle it?
The answer is no. I have not maintained that creative passion and there for me have been really big ebbs and flows in how I felt about my job. And every now and then, you get a part like this and you are a part of a movie like this and you're directed by a director like this. And it is so inspirational. You think, "Wow. This feels great. It's really challenging, but that's what's so great about it." And I do think part of it was it flowed right into my ability to go do the normal hard and play that part. You know, I was so inspired coming off this movie, and that was the place I was in. So I'm in a place where I'm just going to go for it, like full out. And if I fail, I fail. But I have no choice but to just go for it now after that experience, and it is a wonderful thing. I mean, the idea of maintaining the same level of passion to your job I think is almost impossible, especially if you're an actor, because you don't act alone. It's not like you're a painter. You're so dependent on your director, the writer, the crew for your experience that of course, there are going to be things where you don't feel so great afterwards and so you get a little, "Gee, I don't want to go to work again." And then there are going to be experiences like this where it just was a completely transcendent experience artistically and you feel like flying.