Ellen Barkin in 'Another Happy Day,' Sam Levinson's Directorial Debut (Exclusive Video)
Levinson, 26, is the son of Oscar-winning filmmaker Barry Levinson, who also featured Barkin in his directorial debut, "Diner," 29 years ago.
I'm pleased to exclusively bring readers of The Race a clip of Another Happy Day, a dark comedy written and directed by Sam Levinson -- Oscar winner Barry Levinson's 26-year-old son, who was only 22 when he wrote it (in just three-and-a-half weeks) and 25 when he directed it -- and starring veteran actress Ellen Barkin in her highest-profile role in years. Barkin plays a high-strung mother struggling to communicate with her eccentric family, and is joined on screen by an extraordinary assemblage of actors including Kate Bosworth, Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn, Oscar nominee Thomas Haden Church, Oscar winner George Kennedy, Ezra Miller, Demi Moore, and Oscar nominee Diana Scarwid. The film premiered at Sundance in January (where Levinson won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award), was acquired by Phase 4 Films in May, and will be released in New York and Los Angeles on November 18.
Yesterday, I spoke by phone with Barkin about this clip, this role, and this film. The 57-year-old two-time Golden Globe nominee has starred in numerous critical and/or commercial successes over 29 years in the film industry -- beginning, oddly enough, with Barry Levinson's directorial debut Diner (1982) and continuing through Tender Mercies (1983), The Big Easy (1986), Down by Law (1986), Sea of Love (1989), This Boy's Life (1993), The Fan (1996), Fear and Loating in Las Vegas (1998), and Ocean's Thirteen (2007) -- but she told me, without reservation, that Another Happy Day is "the most important thing I've ever accomplished, career-wise." She paused a beat before adding, "I've been waiting for 30 years to be offered a part like this."
Barkin and Levinson, who are now dating, first met on the set of an indie movie in which she was starring and for which he had been brought on to do some emergency rewrites. Barkin recalls that after Levinson had been on the set for a full week, he timidly approached her with a script that he had written and asked her if she would be willing to check it out. On the basis of the work that he had done on that film -- "which was, compared with what they started with, brilliant" -- she agreed, went home and read it, and called him immediately afterwards to tell him she was in. (She also signed up to serve as a producer of the film.) "His writing was just so off-the-charts," she says, "with a voice that I have never heard before. I think Sam Levinson is really one of the leading voices of a new generation of American filmmakers, and I think it's a voice that's going to be talking to us for decades. It's just very impressive."
That's not to say that she didn't have some reservations about taking on her character, who is not especially likable. "Playing a bad mother is more taboo than playing a serial killer -- you know, it's just the untouchable thing," says Barkin, herself the mother of two kids, aged 22 and 19. "It was hard for me, but I just kept saying, 'You've just got to fucking strap 'em on, and do it, and not be afraid of them not liking you, of being a bad mother, of putting it out there -- because it is out there. That's also how I felt very early in my career, with a movie like Diner -- like, 'Don't be afraid to be the girl who thinks she's ugly, 'cause you do think you're ugly, Ellen.'"
Starring in both of the Levinsons' first films was a very rare -- and "very cool" -- thing, Barkin acknowledges. "This father and son have given me two of the most compelling roles I've ever had. Barry put me in my first movie. I could not get in a movie before that. I was a stage actor, and he gave me a gorgeous, very complicated supporting role. Diner was not just my first film, but it remains, to this day, among the work I'm most proud of -- and I don't mean the top 10 films, I mean, like, the top three. And this one [Another Happy Day] stands right alongside it." Her favorite thing about it: "You come out of this film, and there is no 'good guy,' there is no 'bad guy,' there is no 'wrong person,' there is no 'right person. When the movie's over, everybody disagrees... My character comes in with, you know, 30 shopping bags of trouble, and starts dumping it out on everybody's head... but her troubles are real, and she's right, and her motives are good and true. Now, how she approaches them -- that's up for debate.'"Of the clip featured at the top of this post, Barkin explains: "This really is the scene that really forced me to do this movie, because I think it is so complicated, in terms of the character. What you're seeing is the scene that leads to the real climax of the movie." She goes on, "The shit has been hitting the fan for an hour-and-a-half. She's been attacked, and provoked, and taunted, and beat up, emotionally and physically... by the people she loves, who, by definition, are supposed to love her back, and they're not, you know? She's looking for approval, and love, and comfort -- and, in fact, she's getting quite the opposite, from her perspective. At the point of this scene, they've shoved her head between a block and a blade. What is compelling for me in this scene as an actor is you have a mother who is saying to her children, 'I give up.' And it is quite possibly the healthiest thing she has done in the film... We are now about to watch what happens when says, 'I'm done.'"