Q&A: Ellen Barkin on Her New Show, ‘The New Normal’, Being Outspoken and Why She’s Not a Fan of Improvising
Ellen Barkin is set to make her debut as a series regular on NBC’s new comedy, The New Normal. Created by Ryan Murphy (Glee, American Horror Story), the show also stars Justin Bartha, Andrew Rannells, and Georgia King and follows a successful gay couple (Bartha and Rannells) who set out to find a surrogate (King) to have their baby. Barkin plays the surrogates “small-minded grandmother”.
Barkin first appeared on-screen in Barry Levinson‘s iconic film Diner and since then has been featured in over 50 films; Steven Soderbergh‘s Ocean’s 13, This Boy’s Life opposite Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio, Sea of Love opposite Al Pacino and Bruce Beresford‘s Tender Mercies opposite Robert Duvall to name a few.
She’s a Tony and Emmy Award-winner, who, like the character she plays in the show, has no trouble speaking her mind and I love that about her. I saw her in the Broadway production of Larry Kramer‘s, The Normal Heart – he show the she won the Tony Award for – and she was fantastic. I still think about that show and the monologue she delivered towards the end. It was one of those theater experiences I’ll always remember.
In this Q & A, she chats about the show, her outspokenness and why she’s not a fan of improvising.
The New Normal premieres on NBC on September 11th at 9:30
Why do you think this is such an important show?
Ellen Barkin: I think, you know and I am in no way speaking for the creators of the show, Ryan Murphy or Ali Adler, but for me personally as an actor when I read the Pilot script, aside from thinking it was like to be sent out as an example for how to write a pilot, I just thought, “Oh, Ryan Murphy with his big beautiful brilliant brain, along with Ali, have come up with a way to reach out to a very divisive country about some very, very important issues.”
And I guess the big overriding issue is, what makes a family? And they’ve done it with an enormous amount of love, sensitivity, and more fun than a barrel of monkeys.
Your character, reminds me very much of an Archie Bunker kind of character; very outspoken and not peacy. Could you talk about the appeal of playing here?
Ellen Barkin: Well, I think any actor who wouldn’t be interested in bringing Archie Bunker types back into the conversation at this point in our history would need to have their head examined. So, the appeal was great. I saw it as a way to – now, let’s like – let me get this straight, and not with you. I don’t mean to be abrupt with you, but right off the bat this is a very unpeacy character, but she is whip smart, she is extremely well-informed, and extremely articulate.
So, this isn’t a stereotypical liberals version of, you know what someone who doesn’t disagree with their positions, whatever they are, anti-choice, anti-gay, anti-any ethnic, anti-foreigner xenophobic character. This – she is not that. She’s informed, she’s passionate about our commitments, and they are informed positions. And I would just, like Ryan Murphy did, beg people not to judge this character until they get to know her, because they are going to be very surprised.
And like all TV series, no character is fully revealed in the first episode or the pilot episode or the second the episode. I would beg that audiences stick with her and hear her arguments, which are just extremely intelligent, they come from her heart, from her gut, and they come from her own life experience.
Jane, your character, is kind of against everybody else, and of course we hear all her dialogue. As the show progresses will we see her kind of connect with these people, or is there one character she connects with before the others that you can kind of tease us about?
Ellen Barkin: Well, you know I don’t want to give away the arc, obviously, of the show or of the pilot, but the show is a very open show, in terms of how it approaches these, you know seemingly very different characters on the opposite ends of the spectrum. And my guess is that they will all learn from each other. And I can only say that, in terms of my character, there is not going to be a stereotypical representation of, you know, just some unpeacy, uninformed lunatic.
This woman is passionate about her beliefs. That passion comes from her own life experience. It comes from fear. It – she is informed. Now, whether or not she’s misinformed or not by the media that she’s surrounded by you’ll see. But, the point is she’s not someone who doesn’t read and she’s in no way an ignorant bigot. I take great offense at that. She’s coming from her heart and she’s very passionate. She’s very, very articulate. And whether or not she’s right or wrong, my job as an actor is not to judge her.
My job is to put myself in her shoes and find the truth in this woman, and I’m finding it easy to do that. And the way I’m doing it, if that’s interesting at all, since I think my own personal politics are pretty clear, is by just flipping my own passion, and that’s not hard. You know, actors start from – or certain actors start from themselves, and then you build outwards and I’m finding that all I have to do is just flip things and there’s my passion.
Do you think this show will have an impact on the masses, so to speak?
Ellen Barkin: I hope so. God, I hope so. I mean, I think that’s one of the main purposes of the show, and I think that in my character, you know what you have is a very articulate informed in her own world. Now, it might be a bubble and it might be misinformation, but she’s – as far as you and I might be concerned, but she’s not uninformed and she has a real – she has real reasons for her position and they come from her heart.
And what she will hopefully learn is that her idea of normal no more applies to her family than it does to a same sex family, because as – and I know that, you know this has been written about, so I’m not giving anything away, she is a 58-year old, I don’t know how old they played me, 56, 58, anyway it’s close to my age, great-grandmother, which means that for three generations women have had babies between the ages of 15 and 16. And I think there are a lot of people in the world that do not consider that normal either.
And I think that they would even have to admit that in their own world of same sex parents aren’t normal, I would say then is a15-year old mother normal? I’m just curious, like who’s more fit to raise a child, a loving, committed same sex couple or a an unmarried 15-year old with no income and really no skills to parent?
So God yes, I hope that everyone starts maybe opening up tiny bit and are able to redefine what normal is. And, you know like Archie Bunker, I mean yeah, he was very unpeacy, but every now and then, you know like I remember the Edith Bunker rape episode and, you know you saw a humanity in Archie where, you know it wasn’t just coming from hate. It’s not just hate. It’s fear of the other.
It’s – and look, with all of the divisiveness that is going on in the country we live, so much of it is live-in, so much of it is based around just fear of the other. And anyone who does not look like me, walk like me, talk like me, have sex like me, they’re the other and I’m afraid of them. And hopefully we will learn that the – it’s just not scary. There’s nothing to be afraid of.
Why did you make the decision after all these years to go ahead and do television?
Ellen Barkin: Because I actually think that television is the best way right now to reach the broadest population, and not just in terms of the numbers of people you reach on network, again I’m talking about network TV, and to be able to say important things to the biggest audience you possibly can.
And working with somebody like Ryan Murphy was important enough to me to get out and do anything, to tell you the truth, and his partner, Ali Adler on this.
Did they approach you or did you hear about? How did that all come about?
Ellen Barkin: Ryan offered me the role. I read the script, I met with Ryan, and yes I was in.
It sounds like you were really intent on creating a very well-rounded character. Did you draw any inspiration from life, people that you’ve had discussions with or how you really made sure that that you were creating someone who was not just a stereotype?
Ellen Barkin: I did what I did, and I always work, as we say in the method acting business, from the inside out. So, I started with me, and quite frankly I educated myself as to the politics of – as to different politics than mine, and then I just flipped my own passion.
It feels like we haven’t seen you in a while. I know you’ve done a lot of other things, but you know everyone’s just happy to have you back.
Ellen Barkin: Well, thanks. I kind of don’t understand why, quite frankly, people are missing me. I’ve been working non-stop for the last five or six years. So, I’ve been doing a lot of Indi movies, I did a Broadway play last year that I felt very strongly about, so I haven’t gone anywhere in the last six year. I’ve been out there working and more – working hard with projects that I feel very strongly about and it’s been extremely satisfying.
And this is, you know quite frankly, the most satisfying. I mean, with the exception of The Normal Heart, I don’t remember being so inspired and excited, which is not to say I haven’t been, but this show, these characters, the show’s message, it’s extraordinary for an actor, not to only have, and given the gift of a great role, which I have, but also to be doing important work that you feel can affect society.
And, you know I think that after my experience on Broadway with The Normal Heart I felt so impassioned about that, and this came so soon after that that I just – it was obvious, like this is where I want to be and the kind of work I want to be doing, and the kind of people I want to be working for. And I applaud, applaud, and can’t stop applauding NBC for, you know taking the show and really understanding the love behind it and the sensitivity behind it, and obviously the hysterical humor behind it.
I think you are such a role model for women, just something about speaking your mind.
Ellen Barkin: Thank you. Look, I – you know actors say it, but you know sometimes we actually mean it. I don’t mean to be a role model for anyone. If I am in a good way, I’ll take it with pride. I mean, I am an opinionated woman and I’m as educated as an average person would be. I’m not a politician, so I don’t know the ins and outs of every bill, and I haven’t read the budget plans entirely, but you know I just think that just by nature, you know I speak my mind when given a forum. And it’s hard for me not to, quite frankly.
I understand your hesitancy about talking about the Utah TV station not airing your show, but can you give us an impression about how you felt about the response you got on Twitter?
Ellen Barkin: I felt good about it. I – on both sides of the spectrum I felt that – look, I don’t think an affiliate – yes, it is their right to Barnes & Noble something, but I do think it’s a form of censorship, and to ban a show because I think the word “explicit characterizations” and “inappropriate behavior and dialogue,” yes, I did look at KSL’s lineup.
And I don’t understand why a show that I happen to love, like Law & Order SUV (sic), is not in family viewing time. Like, that’s what they kept talking about. Why that show, that I hope nobody is allowing a 10-year old watch, is acceptable, but a show about a very loving, committed, same sex couple wanting to raise a child, why that is explicit and offensive, and rape, murder, child slavery, in very graphic detail, is not; with very graphic language.
So, you know yeah, I did take a position on that and, you know being responded to by both sides meant that people paid attention. And I think that that is what matters. And whether you agree that KSL should ban the show and let your children watch a TV show where they use words like anal tearing and vaginal tearing and child slavery that’s okay, but watching two men kiss each other and cry because they’ve decided to raise a child together, I don’t get it.
So, let both sides weigh in and defend their positions. Like, that’s fine with me, as long as they weigh in without slander and without misinterpretation anyone’s remarks. I’d let them stay honest on both sides. And then, yeah, let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about it. I mean, I sent out a Tweet asking the one million moms who are, I think 3000 moms, to meet me for tea and let’s talk about it. You know, they didn’t answer back. I guess their position would be, “Well, you know we know where she stands and Ryan Murphy stands, so we have nothing to say to them.”
And that’s what makes this country divisive, and I do think that, you know extremism on any side. And am I guilty of extremism on my side? Yes. But, if you read my Twitter feed it would pale in comparison to what I get back. So, I don’t know if I answered your question.
At the end of the day, the show is a sitcom, it is entertainment, can you talk about how the show balances the efforts to entertain the audience and make a joke with keeping the characters real and sympathetic and not character-like?
Ellen Barkin: Just stay tuned and you’ll see it. I mean, I think that all the characters on the show are true and honest, and they’re not stereotyped. And the characters, as written, are – their positions are from the heart and from life experience. Now, some people’s positions are more fear-based than others, and I think, you know – and I do reference All in the Family and, you know I don’t know if anyone ever tops Norman Lear, but I do think that there is – you know that is a good template for, you know what we’re going for.
And at the end of the day, I mean you had to stick with him, but at the end of the day Archie Bunker was a humane person. He was afraid of the other and as you watched the show progress you saw, you know why he was afraid and he became a very complicated character. And I think all of our characters are very complicated and deep. And, you know I was saying before, like quite frankly we can barely get through a table read without breaking up and laughing, because the humor is just – I mean our writers are brilliant, and the humor is just inherent in who they are.
Remember, none of these characters are dummies, so that’s where a stereotype comes in for me. And our characters are very well informed on their own side, yes, you know? You know, I do not watch Fox News, so one could say, “Well, I don’t know what’s going on on the other side of the world because I don’t watch Fox News, but I read enough mainstream news that I feel that I get an idea.” So, you know I’m not watching a news station that I know just is not telling me – is not only telling me – they’re not even telling me their side of the story, honestly, quite frankly. So, you know I stay away from that.
What challenges you about playing this character on The New Normal?
Ellen Barkin: Oh, it’s so challenging and so inspiring and so exciting. I mean, the character is so well-drawn and so complicated, and the reveal of her throughout, what will hopefully be a long run, is fascinating. She – you know it’s kind of in a way like a little bit of the metaphor for the show, she’s not as simple. She’s not as easily categorized as you might think she is. And she, you know is a very, very passionate, informed, intelligent woman who is speaking from her heart, and it’s always challenging to play complicated, impassioned characters.
Is there anything that you’ve kind of been surprised to learn about yourself as you continue to delve into, you know the development of this character?
Ellen Barkin: That’s a great question. Well, you know I am learning things about myself as an actor. Like, when you read a character that’s very – or when I read a character that’s very unlike me, I – usually I have, you know an enormous amount of work to do. Now, sometimes they can be unlike me in the fact that they’re a lawyer, and I don’t know – I never knew what it meant to go to work with a briefcase.
This character was unlike me in her politics. And so I thought, “Wow, I’m going to have an enormous amount of work to do.” But quite frankly, and I said it earlier, but it is, you know my answer that I just flipped me and I found it all inside me; her passion, her commitment, her out – incredible outspokenness, and sometimes inappropriate outspokenness. I mean, I can be in appropriate. I’m overly opinionated. I, you know on occasion talk first and think later and I realize, “Oh God, should I have really said that?”
And so, I have a very strong connection to this character on a human level, and politically I just flip her, you know?
You definitely have funniest – some of the funniest lines on the show, do you get to improvise at all or is it kind of all in the script?
Ellen Barkin: You know I’ll be honest with you, I’m capable of improvising, I don’t like it, and I’m happy to say I don’t need to. These writers are fabulous and on occasion, you know there just might be something where I might say, “You know, a 58-year just wouldn’t phrase things that way.” And then, I just maybe, you know change the grammar or – but always with them. I don’t – I can do it, as I’ve said, and I’ve worked with brilliant actors who are brilliant at it, so I learned from them, but I don’t like it.
So, if I can turn my head and see a writer sitting there, which we also can, I can say, “This doesn’t like come out of my mouth easily, and since most everything you write does maybe that means it needs to be tweaked a little, and can you help me out?” And they do. I don’t improvise. I haven’t needed to, and I don’t see it coming because these scripts are getting better and stronger.
And I guess, look, I’ve never done any episodic television before, so I’ve never done a sitcom before, but what seems to be happening is as they learn who the actors are who are inhabiting the already brilliant, complicated characters they created, they’re obviously writing to our strong suits.
And, you know they’re really fast and successful at picking up what those strong suits are, in terms of, you know how we’re defining the characters, because it’s all, you know layered. Like, writers come in and write it, and then a director comes in and directs it. Now, our director is our creator and, you know had – with Ali Adler of the writing staff, so it’s – I don’t know, it’s just they’re really doing an extraordinary job and it’s getting better all the time.
And – like as, you know obviously we get scripts a little bit in advance, not much in advance of our shooting them, and you know as we read every script I kind of just say, “Oh my God, I can’t wait for the next script.” And – it’s just – it’s – I’m very, very happy at work, let me just say that, and it’s very inspiring for me.