Ellen Burstyn takes on the role of ruthless grandmother Olivia Foxworth in Lifetime's original movie "Flowers in the Attic," premiering tonight, marking the first time that the Detroit native says she has played an evil woman.
"I like good writing, so I'm always drawn to well-written scripts, not just my character but the story and so forth," says the Oscar and Emmy Award-winning actress. "I like a variety of characters. I like to do things I have never done before. That is what appealed to me about 'Flowers in the Attic.' I had never done a character like that before. It was hard but it was fun."
Flowers in the Attic, based on the best-selling novel, weaves the twisted story of the Dollanganger kids who, after the unexpected death of their father, are convinced by their mother Corrine (Heather Graham) to stay hidden in the attic of their wealthy grandparents’ mansion so she can reclaim the family fortune. But as her visits begin to wane after she becomes involved with a new husband, the children endure unimaginable treatment at the hands of their grandmother.
As years go by and the eldest children Cathy ("Mad Men"'s Kiernan Shipka) and Christopher (Mason Dye) come of age, both emotionally and physically, their family's sordid past entraps them further as they look to each other for comfort.
In an exclusive interview with Burstyn, she spoke about her familiarity with the story before taking on the role, addresses working on a film about such a taboo subject as incest, and how she made sure she didn't scare the children -- Ava Telek as Carrie and Maxwell Kovach as Cory -- too much.
"Flowers in the Attic" was a big seller and part of a franchise. Were you familiar with the book before you got the script?
I wasn't actually, no. I found out after I decided to do it how popular it was and how many people knew about it. It has a huge following.
The 1987 film version veered off from the book quite a bit. Do you think yours is a more accurate presentation?
I do. It is much closer to the book.
This is quite the gothic tale -- full of incest, murder and greed. What do you see as its appeal?
I think incest is one of those subjects that is totally taboo and nobody talks about it. But if you ever do bring it up, it turns out there is an awful lot more of it going on than anybody is admitting to. I think for centuries it has been going on -- back to the Egyptians for goodness sake.
This book makes it seem not so horrible in the fact that these children were put in this position right from puberty. That they were kept in the attic and locked in together makes it understandable. It is love; it is not lust. Anytime you break through a taboo, there is interest in that.
Olivia is very severe and unyielding in this. How do you get into character for a role like that?
It was a very, very interesting challenge for me because she seemed so evil and I had never played an evil character before. I was a little challenged by it. But as I got into it, I found that really what she was was a narcissist. What a narcissist has in common with really evil people -- what they share -- is they have no empathy to feel what the other person is feeling. Once I understood that, it was much easier to find her.
Any concerns about working with young children, playing such a scary character?
I was a little worried. Two of the kids were under five -- they were like five and six -- I was concerned that I would terrify them. When I introduced myself to them, I said, "I am going to scare you." And Ava said, "I know my mommy told me." Then when we did the scenes where I had to terrorize them, after the director said, "Cut," I said, "Did I scare you?" They said, "Yes." I tried to make a game out of it because I was worried about them.
"At one point, I thought I really did scare Ava, and when the director said, "Cut," I said, "Are you all right?" She said, "Yes, I was acting."
"Flowers in the Attic" premieres tonight on Lifetime at 8 p.m. ET/PT.