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.

More: What has the response been like? I understand someone yelled at you at Sundance.
EB: We have had very rousing Q&As, which is wonderful. Sam [Levinson] would say, "I don’t want to make a movie and afterwards people say: 'That was great. What’s for lunch?'" I think his whole idea was to spark really aggressive conversation. So at Sundance—and this happened at a lot of Q&As—a woman all the way in the back stood up and started pointing her finger at me and screaming, "I used to have so much respect for you as an actor and as a woman and now you dare come here and do this!" And a man stood up next to her and said, "I don't know what movie you just saw, but that woman is an angel and this is a love letter to that woman."

More: The film definitely raises a lot of questions about the idea of family.
EB: Yes. What is a mother? The person who pops the baby out between her legs or the one who raises the child? And what is a family? How do you love the people in your family, who you are stuck with despite the mistakes they make, and how do you not judge them?

More: With the cast playing such a dysfunctional clan, what was the dynamic among you?
EB: We all protected each other. We were the most highly functional version of that family. I don’t think I could have done what I did without Ellen [Burstyn] there. And without the enormous support from Demi [Moore]. She gave me the confidence I needed to produce the movie. Demi has a rep for being a tough girl because of a couple roles she played. She’s done GI Jane, but she's really the girl from Ghost. In playing this role, she didn’t go to the angry place. It’s not who she is as a person.

More: You broke out in 1982's Diner, directed by Barry Levinson. Do you feel like you've come full circle now, working with his son, Sam?
EB: They are completely different. It’s like asking me to compare Sam with Sidney Lumet. Sam is exactly what I want in a director. He knows what he wants and how he wants to get it, and he will give every actor what they need. I will say there was not person on that set, cast or crew, who at any given moment did not know who their daddy was—and that was Sam.

More: I noticed that you recently started using Twitter @ellenbarkin. How do you like it?
EB: I’m loving it! I’m completely addicted. I’m annoyed, even right now, that I’m not tweeting. My assistant is always saying, “I am 23 years old and I am yelling at you to get off your Twitter feed.”

More: To top it all off, the Savannah Film Festival just presented you with a Lifetime Achievement award.
EB: Look, I’ve had very good year. After the Tony and after this film, I just feel like, for whatever reason, the universe is being very good to me right now.

Want MORE? Check out our interview with Mariska Hargitay.

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First Published Tue, 2011-11-15 16:08

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