Well, you don't have to push too hard to get a strong opinion out of Ellen Barkin. The outspoken actress, best known for her big-screen roles opposite Al Pacino ("Sea of Love") and Robert De Niro ("This Boy's Life"), co-stars on NBC's taboo-busting new comedy "The New Normal" as the wildly prejudiced Nana, who's disgusted by her granddaughter's plan to carry a baby for a gay couple. And Barkin hasn't been shy about defending the series, taking on conservative watchdog group One Million Moms ("let's say three thousand moms, maybe" she quips) for boycotting the show and accusing a Utah affiliate that refused to air the show of censorship.
We spoke with Barkin at length last week, and she had plenty to say about the controversy surrounding her new show, why she jumped at the chance to play such an unlikable character, how creator Ryan Murphy's pilot script convinced her to take a job in Los Angeles, and why she's actually not that different than the decidedly right-wing Nana.
How did you first find out about this project? Were you looking to do TV?
I had been, actually. I would've liked to do cable, because you live under the apprehension that the material is better, and sometimes it's not. Also, it's only ten weeks a year, and if you are viewed by 500,000 people, that's enormous. So I figured if I go to a network, I work a full 26 weeks, and if you do well, millions of people watch your show.
I wasn't necessarily looking to do a sitcom. My only real non-starter was I didn't want to play out my third act in L.A., particularly. So when my agent sent me the pilot, he said it was Ryan Murphy, and obviously I got very excited. Because if you're going to be in television, you might as well start in the genius pool, where he swims all by himself. But my first question was, 'Where does it shoot?' And he said, 'Just read the pilot.' And I said, 'Oh, that means it shoots in L.A. I kind of don't want to read it, because I know it's gonna be brilliant.'
And it was. It was more than brilliant. It certainly wasn't what I would call your average sitcom, or even your well-above-average sitcom. It deals with some very, very serious issues, social issues, political issues. And it deals with them in a very entertaining way. It's just hilariously funny; it's got an enormous amount of heart. And then the character, of course, is just so f---ing spectacular. I just thought, 'How do I not do this?' And then Ryan Murphy came out to New York and we had tea, and by the time the tea was over, we just hugged and kissed and I said, 'I'll see you in April to shoot the pilot.'
You mention that the show is political. You've certainly been outspoken about your political beliefs; is that something that drew you to this project?
Very much so, yeah. We live in a horribly divided, divisive country. I think it's very scary and very real. And if you can present that in a way that's wildly entertaining and very funny and do it with an enormous amount of heart… yeah, it was very important to me. I read the pilot and I thought, 'Boy, if they can pull this off, that'll really be something.' I mean, look, I don't think anyone will ever be Norman Lear. But the way that Norman Lear did that so brilliantly with 'All in the Family' in a country that was also going through a very rocky time… I just think it's a very open-hearted way to try to nudge people to open their minds.
So if this show reminds you of Norman Lear, does that make Nana the show's Archie Bunker?
It does... I wouldn't ever set my bar that high. [Laughs] Certainly I was of an age where I watched 'All in the Family' all the time. We never missed it. Archie Bunker… you knew he had a heart. We saw some very important episodes, like when Edith almost got raped or family problems would happen, he was always there to take care of his family. But Archie Bunker wasn't that smart. It was all bluster. He was opinionated, he was a bigot… there are similarities. But my character is extremely well-informed and a very intelligent woman.
See Ellen Barkin in action as Nana in this "New Normal" clip:
But what I find interesting is, before the pilot was even out on YouTube — or wherever it is, I'm not sure — there was all this backlash against the show. And you just think, 'They haven't seen it yet!' Of course I want everyone to love everything I do. But when someone decides that something is a thing before they've touched it or felt it or seen it or heard it or identified it in any real way… of course my hackles go up. Because I think, 'So you based this decision on what?' And I will go out on a limb and say it's because it's about a same-sex couple and it's not cartoony. There's real love and real heart on the show.
I think all these right-wing extremists and religious fanatics who are taking positions against the show, they should just wait a few weeks and watch how intelligently this woman speaks about her beliefs. I mean, she's not dumb. She has real life experience to back up her opinions. Whether I agree with them or not, that's beside the point. I think she's a lot like me. She's very passionate about what she believes in. She's as informed as an intelligent, aware citizen should be -- more so, quite frankly. She's opinionated, she always thinks she's right… those kind of character traits are very easy for me to play because I find them in myself. The only difference is she's on the other side of the aisle, really. I mean, if I were playing some meek, mousy, quiet woman, it might be very difficult for me. I don't have to do that here. I just feel as passionately as I feel about something, except I'm pretty much saying the opposite all the time.
So why do you think this show specifically has stirred up so much controversy? 'Modern Family' features a gay couple raising a baby, and I don't remember anybody protesting that when it premiered.
Because I think it's very clear that the show is political. We are definitely a comedy, but you have to confront yourself with some very real politics and some very real prejudices. It's not a cartoony gay couple, so there's no safe haven there. The show is begging you to look at it, and not just see the world from their perspective, but also understand the world from the grandmother's perspective.. But you can always find a common ground, even if it's love of family. That's a very strong common ground. Now what I think is a family and what a Mormon thinks is a family might be very different things. But it does start with a love of family.
I mean, the people who are stirring up controversy are who? One Million Moms… or let's say three thousand moms, maybe, if they're lucky. The KSL affiliate, which is an openly church-owned station, owned by the Church of Latter-Day Saints. They make no secret of it. We all know what their position is on same-sex marriage, same-sex adoption, same-sex sex… so that's where it's coming from.
Look, I think any kind of fanaticism is just that. It's crazy, and it's dangerous. And just by banning the show, KSL makes a statement that says, 'We are afraid of you. We are afraid to have you in our living room.' And then I think, 'Well, why are you afraid?' Are you afraid that people might say, 'You know what? Maybe it's not so bad to be in love with someone of the same sex. Maybe it's not so good to be a bigot, no matter where it comes from'? And those types of people, they don't want anyone's minds changed. They want people living in fear of the other, because it gives them more power.
And I'm talking about extremist right-wing people, not just your normal moderate Republican… though if Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney are what passes for normal moderate Republicans these days on the presidential ticket, this country is f---ed. But I would hope that extremists can watch the show and see pieces of themselves -- not just in my character, but in the couple, in Justin Bartha and Andrew Rannells' characters. And it's going to be very hard to deny that these two men are not going to provide a more stable home life for their baby than [my character] did, my daughter did, and my granddaughter did for our babies.
You've said that you'd like to sit down with members of One Million Moms and talk to them about the show. What would you want to say to them?
Yeah, they didn't answer me, so I don't feel I'm going to give them the benefit of saying anything to them. [Laughs]
You're definitely a prolific tweeter. Has NBC talked to you at all about watching what you say on Twitter while you're promoting the show?
Nope. Look, what NBC has done by airing this show is a major, major thing, and I just have enormous respect for them. In the beginning, I would say to Ryan, 'We're not going to get away with this. They're going to change it.' And he said, 'Ellen, NBC has approved every script before you read it.' So they're being very, very courageous. And they have not in any way reached out to me about my Twitter at all. I did think with the KSL thing, 'Oh God, am I going to hear from NBC?' Because it's an NBC affiliate and there are other NBC shows on it. Not a word, no. I actually think they're supportive of it, from what I'm hearing.
I mean, yeah, oftentimes my tweets are aggressive. Also, certain tweets are attributed to me which are not my tweets at all. They just take out the other person's name and put mine in. But I have certainly sent out my share of aggressive tweets. When the KSL thing happened, I thought, 'Let me do my research here. Let me see what this network's lineup looks like, what they allow and what they don't allow.' And the minute I saw that a show I happen to love, 'Law & Order: SVU,' was acceptable, they just lost the Super Bowl, as far as I was concerned. You know, violence towards women and children, the graphic kind of violence that's on that show, visual violence, verbal violence… that's okay, but just a same-sex couple in an obviously long-term, committed relationship is not okay?
They tried to say it wasn't really about that. So I said, 'Okay, well, what's it about, then? What's your problem?' I don't think they had much of an answer to that. Considering the fact that that is an LDS-owned station, I think we all know what their problem is.
Politics aside, did you have any reservations about playing this kind of character? She's abrasive, she's not exactly likable…
No, because I think she has a lot of heart, first of all. I think she comes from a very pure place. What happened to her through the course of her life, she was damaged and she became very, very frightened of everything and everybody that didn't look and sound exactly like her. And characters like that are infinitely interesting. In terms of a television show, if you get lucky and your show runs, she'll be interesting to me forever, because she's human. She's real. And playing an abrasive character is fun. That's just fun. What was interesting about it is it's very hard for me to finish those speeches and not think, 'You know, she does have a point.'
What else will we see from Nana this season? Will we get to see her personal life? Like, does she date?
I think so. I'm not allowed to say those things. But I think we'll all become human beings. I think all the sides of us will be revealed. So will she have a sexual side? I'm sure she will. I look forward to it. I'm interested to see where she'll go.
I think my character kind of surprised everyone, including myself. It was like, 'Wow, she's a real person.' You can't write her off. And all those people who are running around saying this is a bad, stereotypical portrayal… I'm sorry, it is not. I take offense to that as a human being and as an actor. Are we extreme? Absolutely. But that's what makes great television.
Watch the full series premiere of "The New Normal" right here:
"The New Normal" premieres Monday, 9/10 at 10 PM on NBC; a new episode will air in its regular time slot, Tuesday, 9/11 at 9:30 PM on NBC.