Since landing her breakout role in Barry Levinson’s 1982 film Diner, Ellen Barkin has been holding her own against acting titans like Al Pacino (Sea of Love), Robert de Niro (This Boy’s Life) and Robert Duvall (Tender Mercies), to name just a few, for the last 29 years. Now at 57, the New York native—born in the Bronx, educated at Manhattan’s High School of the Performing Arts and the prestigious Actor’s Studio—is finally making her Broadway debut. She plays Dr. Emma Brookner, a wheelchair-bound doctor-turned-crusader in the early days of the AIDS epidemic in New York’s gay community, in Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart. Broadway.com caught up with the offbeat beauty to chat about what finally drew her to Broadway, and what really goes on backstage at the Golden Theatre.
Congratulations on your Broadway debut! Why did you wait until now to come to Broadway?
I tend not to think of it that way—maybe just because of how old I am, a "debut" anything seems a bit late—but yes, it is my first time on a Broadway stage. When my children were younger, I found that the schedule of stage was not so conducive to child-rearing, meaning you never cook dinner and you never put your kids to bed, which I always thought was kind of a crucial part of the day. Movies were a little easier to navigate, because I could put my children to bed at night and they could eat dinner with me in my trailer.
What about this piece grabbed you?
I just think it’s too important not to do. It was very important that this play that was such a watershed theatrical moment finally be on Broadway, and to be a spear-carrier for Larry Kramer in the war he’s been fighting for a lifetime is an honor and a privilege for me. And the addition of [co-director] George Wolfe is like, well now we’re just in Geniusville, USA, as far as I’m concerned.
You were in New York acting off-Broadway in the early ‘80s; does the play bring back memories of that time for you?
Absolutely. You cannot help but completely relive the terror and horror of what was going on then. I look at the first 41 names of AIDS victims that come up [on the set of The Normal Heart], and I had a friend on that list. It is a real, visceral remembrance of that terror. There are maybe two generations of human brings who really don’t think AIDS is an issue anymore, and it’s bad. It's bad and that’s in part because of what happened at the beginning, that it was never identified as the plague it was and still is, and then it morphed into what it is now, a huge money-making machine for the pharmaceutical companies.
You seem like perfect casting for this crusader of a woman.
It’s true. When people ask me, “How do you get up the rage every night?” I say, well sometimes I just listen to the play and other times I wake up in the morning, turn on my TV and watch my president hand over his birth certificate. Where do I get my rage? It’s free-floating, it’s blowing in the wind, it’s everywhere. It’s the perfect climate for these words to be heard.
How’s it been working with this wonderful ensemble?
This cast is just extraordinary. Joe [Mantello] carries this play like a giant across the stage. When we got the Drama Desk citation [for Outstanding Ensemble] a few weeks ago, it was a big deal because that’s exactly what we are: a real ensemble. We are extremely supportive of each other and also love each other. Yes, it’s our personalities, but it was also that we had 12 days of rehearsal. We had to really count on everyone and we still do.
Is this show exhausting to do eight times a week?
To be honest it’s very hard to sit on stage and watch it every night, as the play goes on and we are all more and more trapped inside this disease and the stage gets smaller and we can’t leave. The other night during Lee [Pace]’s speech I had to blow my nose; I had wiped it so many times and it was running and I know that we’re somewhat lit but I just said fuck it. It’s also hard for many of us not to cry at that curtain call. The last thing you want to do at a fucking curtain call is cry, you want to pull it together and appreciate your audience for accompanying you on your journey, but you look out and the audience is sobbing and you want to sob with them.
How are you all getting through it?
In general, I never drink when I work. I don’t come home from work and wind down with a glass of wine or a cocktail. Never. Every night after this show we go in our dressing room, and those of us that drink pour a tiny little shot of vodka and down it. We tend to stay in the dressing room and cool down for a solid hour or so after the show.
Speaking of dressing rooms, tell me about this Ellen Barkin shrine Jim Parsons and his dressing roommates have created. Are you an active participant in this?
Come on, I’m the only girl [laughs]! Where do you think they get the photos? But I’ve instituted an age cut-off. I have allowed one photo of me in my 50s, but that’s all. I have veto power.
Do you like being part of a boys club?
You know, I don’t think about it but then occasionally I’ll think, yeah, I guess these were kind of defining moments; Diner, Ocean’s 13 and now this play. So do I feel like Angie Dickinson in the rat pack? Kind of. My rat pack just changes every now and then.
Were you nervous about how you’d be received, as a film star in her first Broadway show?
I know it sounds a little silly, but I don’t think I’ll ever consider myself a film star. Julia Roberts is a film star. We had 12 days of rehearsal; there was no time to be nervous or for anyone to be worried about, “Gee, I hope they like us! I hope they don’t just talk about me in terms of Eddie and The Cruisers.” It was just, “We gotta get this sucker on its feet.”
How does it feel to get a Tony nomination your first time out of the box?
It’s so beyond exciting. I’ve never been nominated for an Oscar; I’m sure it’s an extraordinary feeling. But as a trained actor to find myself going to the Tony Awards, I think that’s the pinnacle of accolades. You study acting for 10 or 15 years and you train for the theater, so the Tonys are like the home of the gods and goddesses of the theater world to me.
How cool is it that you and your Sea of Love and Ocean’s 13 co-star Al Pacino are both nominated this year?
I never thought about that—that is nice! Of course, Al Pacino hits the boards whenever he can. He’s always lived so much of his career on stage. His performance in Merchant was staggering. I’ve probably seen everything he’s done on stage at least three times in each production. It’s like going to a master class in acting.
Have your kids seen your show?
They both came opening night with their father. It was a very big deal. I think they were just happy I didn’t embarrass them in any way.
Did you get any Broadway tips from [their father and Barkin’s ex-husband] Gabriel Byrne?
Gabriel and I have an open line of communication and "tipping," if you want to call it that, when either of us work. He really is someone I go to and ask questions if I have them, and he does the same with me. On opening night, he came upstairs and into my dressing room and said to me and Joe [Mantello], “You only have to do a show like this one time in a career to feel like it’s all worth it.” And he’s right. If I can be Larry Kramer’s mouthpiece, wow. That’s more than I ever hoped for.