Ellen Barkin's Happy Days

In 'Another Happy Day,' actress and first-time producer Ellen Barkin takes on the role she's been waiting 30 years to play.

by Mary Kate Frank
Ellen Barkin in 'Another Happy Day'
Photograph: Courtesy of Phase 4 Films

Ellen Barkin has a lot to be happy about. She won a Tony this year for her Broadway debut as Dr. Emma Brookner in Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart and her passion project, the dark comedy Another Happy Day, hits theatres on November 18. The film marks two firsts: it's the directorial debut of 26-year-old writer Sam Levinson (Barkin's rumored beau) as well as Barkin's first time producing. She plays Lynn, a woman who has a lot to be unhappy about: her teenage son Elliot (Ezra Miller) has a drug problem, her daughter (Kate Bosworth) cuts herself, and her mother (Ellen Burstyn) sides with Lynn's abusive ex-husband (Thomas Haden Church) and his unbearable new wife (Demi Moore). When the whole family reunites at Lynn's eldest son's wedding, her long bottled-up frustrations finally explode.

Though the film has laughs (see: the bathroom catfight between Barkin and Moore), Barkin spends much of it in tears as Lynn unravels. Here, she tells More about the challenges of playing an imperfect mother:

More: Let’s talk about your character, Lynn. She seems to have good intentions ...
Ellen Barkin: Seems to? I hope she does have good intentions, flat out.

More: Yes, but she goes about things the wrong way.
EB: That's certainly what drew me to the character. I was given the opportunity to give a voice to an unheard group of women. I think that one of the last taboos in Hollywood—in the face of all the extreme violence and all of the bullshit propaganda we watch—is the idea of motherhood and what I know to be 98 percent of mothers, mothers that have only good intentions, want the best for their kids, and make mistakes big and small. I don’t see that a lot onscreen. We see performances that are transcendent like what Monique did in Precious where she managed to take a tremendously abusive mother and just crack my heart open. Then we see caricatures of mothers who are crazy. We don’t see mothers like Lynn.

More: Did you identify with Lynn?
EB: I’m Lynn and every woman I know is Lynn. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want the best for their kids and I don’t anyone who hasn’t made mistakes in trying to pursue that. The way the movie is structured, you don't realize until about a third of the way in that Lynn is right. She’s right, but how she goes about trying to save herself and her children, she piles up a shitload of mistakes. It was just an enormous job, an enormous character to tackle and an endless well of self-discovery and of me saying, 'Ok, I gotta expose some very hard secrets.' I am a 57-year-old woman with a 22-year-old son and a 19-year-old daughter [by her former marriage to actor Gabriel Byrne] and I have to get up there in every scene and make a mistake, which forced me to get in touch with my own mistakes.

More: That must have been difficult.
EB: It’s gut wrenching. It ripped me apart but it was, for me, incredibly cathartic. It called upon everything I had to offer after being an actor for 30 years, after being a mother for 22 years, and after being a woman for 57 years. I knew it would be very challenging and I knew there was the possibility of failure on my part, which always excites me. I thought, "I could really fuck this up." But I felt ready to do it.

More: How did you prepare? I've read that you depended on costumes especially.
EB: Yes, a lot. I think one of the fundamental building blocks of the character was something that was very far from who I am. I’m not a "girl" and I don’t think I’ve ever been a "girl." When I started to work on the role, there were things I noticed: Her constant need for approval, her fear of judgment and her constantly looking at her mother for affirmation. Well, who does that? A baby does that. There’s a lack of emotional growth there. So we made her look like a baby. You’ll never seen me in a ruffle and a smock dress.

First Published November 15, 2011

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