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Ellen Burstyn’s Lessons on Survival

On the Death, Sex, & Money podcast:

When Burstyn was 18, she got on a Greyhound bus going from Detroit to Dallas. She had 50 cents in her pocket and a hunch that she could find work as a model. The actress and director, known for her roles in Alice Doesn’t Live Here AnymoreThe Exorcist, and Requiem For a Dream, says she’d never do that now. But back then, she didn’t doubt herself.

It wasn’t the only risk she took as a young woman. At 18, she’d already gotten pregnant and had an illegal abortion. By her mid-20s, determined not to just get by on her looks, she left Hollywood to study acting with Lee Strasberg. In her mid-40s, after leaving an abusive marriage, she starred as a newly single mom in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. The role was based in part on her own life, and it won her an Oscar.

Now, at 81, she told me she is most proud of her relationship with her son, whom she adopted at birth. “I really think of myself as a work in progress,” Burstyn told me as we sat in wicker furniture in her Manhattan bedroom. “I know I’m a successful actress, but I don’t feel I’m necessarily a successful person.”

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