Ellen Burstyn on Reuniting With Martin Scorsese on Pieces of a Woman

Burstyn also explains how a note from Vanessa Kirby made all the difference in one of her biggest scenes in the movie.

[Editor’s note: This interview contains minor spoilers for Pieces of a Woman.]

Ellen Burstyn got the best of both worlds while making Pieces of a Woman. She got the opportunity to spark a new working relationship with the film’s star, Vanessa Kirby, and reunite with an old collaborator, her Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore director, Martin Scorsese.

Kirby leads the movie as Martha, a mother-to-be who commits to having a home birth. Complications arise during the process and the results are devastating. Burstyn steps in as Martha’s mother who insists that she knows the best way for Martha to grieve and then ultimately move forward.

Ellen Burstyn in Pieces of a Woman
Image via Netflix

There’s one particular standout scene in the film where they confront each other and Burstyn delivers an unforgettable monologue, the kind of speech that we’re bound to see play during the Academy Awards if (when?) Burstyn secures the Best Supporting Actress nomination. With Pieces of a Woman now available to watch on Netflix, I got the chance to chat with Burstyn and asked her about the value of having Kirby as a scene partner in that moment. Here’s what she said:

“I didn’t realize until afterwards that she was having trouble understanding why she finally goes to court because she’s resisting going to court and she didn’t know how she was gonna get from that scene to the going to court scene, and actually appearing in court. So before I went on she said to me, ‘Make me go to court.’ [That was] just before I did the speech. And I did the speech and the speech had its own reality and energy and a kind of forcefield where it came out of me. I finished it and then in that split second I remembered what she said and I did not feel I had made her go to court. And so I kept going and I said, ‘You must speak your truth. You tell the people how it is for you, how you’re feeling. If you don’t do that, if you don’t get it out of you,’ whatever I said. Because I don’t know what I said. [Laughs] It just came out. It had its own reality. We were in the scene and I asked her later if I helped her to go to court. She said I did. So it was a partnership in there where she told me what she needed, I did my best to provide it, it worked for her and we both benefited from the relationship that we had built over the course of the shoot.”

Martin Scorsese, Ellen Burstyn and Kris Kristofferson on the Set of Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore
Image via Warner Bros.

And then, of course, Pieces of a Woman also marks the reunion of Burstyn and Scorsese. Scorsese directed Burstyn in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, the film that scored her an Oscar win for Best Actress in a Leading Role. While Scorsese wasn’t involved in the production of Pieces of a Woman, he did step in as an executive producer after its completion to support its release. Here’s how Burstyn put it:

“He did because he saw the film and he liked it so much, and he wanted to make sure that [because] Kornel was an unknown director, that the right people got to see it. And we did an interview where he interviewed the cast and it was so wonderful to hear him talk about the film because he has such an eye that he picked up on things that I never heard anybody else pick up on. And he has such an appreciation of the art of moviemaking that you feel seen. It feels like your work is seen when he talks about it.”

If you’d like to hear more from Burstyn, you can find our full conversation at the top of this article. And if you’re looking for more on Pieces of a Woman, we’ve got an interview with Vanessa Kirby as well.

Ellen Burstyn, Vanessa Kirby and Kornel Mundruczó on the Set of Pieces of a Woman
Image via Netflix

Ellen Burstyn:

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  • Burstyn on getting ready to film Pieces of a Woman; having a pajama party with Vanessa Kirby.
  • How Kirby made a huge difference for Burstyn when filming a key monologue.
  • Comparing Martin Scorsese’s willingness to learn about women while making Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore to Kornél Mundruczó’s approach to making Pieces of a Woman.
  • Burstyn on Scorsese signing on as an executive producer of Pieces of a Woman.

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