Ellen Barkin on Aging, the End of Men, and Her Rules for Living Like a Badass
Badass Woman celebrates women who show up, speak up, and get things done.
If being a badass is being a person who doesn’t take shit from anyone, then yes, that would be me. I guess it’s the best lesson my father ever taught me—never to give a fuck about what the other guy is doing.
I don’t look over my shoulder, and I never have. I stay in my own lane, and my race is against myself. I know I’m a tough cookie, but that’s because I’m always looking for perfection. I’ve got two speeds—1 and 100. I can’t go in the middle. As I get older and the parts become less interesting, I do wish I could cruise at 50, but I have too much respect for my art, my profession. And, yeah, I won’t stop fighting either. I’m 64 years old. I’ve been doing this for 40 years. This is the way I work.
One of the best benefits of getting older is that I no longer feel guilty about protecting myself. That’s a big thing in my job because the gender disparity is outrageous. I don’t think there’s a working actress alive who I wouldn’t call a badass. It’s a hard job, made even harder by being a woman.
Do I think that the ill treatment of women in the entertainment industry will disappear? No, I don’t. Not in my lifetime anyway. We’re talking about centuries of ingrained behavior, and considering we are an industry that trades on sex, I don’t ever expect to see any other real dynamic.
The truth is, big-studio executives are old. They’re my age and even older, and this is something I’ve been talking about a lot lately: Men just will not move over. Your time is up, dude. Now say thank you for everything you got and move the fuck over. Next!
What if I were saying, “Yeah, agents, why aren’t I playing opposite—I don’t know—Ryan Gosling? Why aren’t I still the girl in the red jacket from Sea of Love?” Why are the guys running these businesses between the ages of 60 and 80? The only audience they care about is 19-to-35-year-olds, so get a 35-year-old to green-light movies.
They’re not doing anything wrong; they just aged out of the job, just like I can’t do 10 pull-ups anymore. Men will just wait you out. They refuse to get old. This whole fantasy about women freaking out over aging—that’s bullshit. It’s the men who are hysterical.
I don’t think of myself as an intimidating presence, but my character Smurf [on TNT’s Animal Kingdom] is a villain—confident and deliberate in her actions and daring and irreverent with her style.
My own style could be considered badass. The very first thing I bought with my first big paycheck was an orange Stephen Sprouse coat. It was downtown New York in the ’80s. I dressed kind of like David Byrne in those days. Then there was a period of about five years when I was friends with some of the original supes [supermodels]—Linda Evangelista, Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell. I remember I could wear Kate’s pants sometimes (but not her jackets because her arms were so thin). I learned more than a couple of tricks from those girls—most important, how (not) to cross my legs.
My closet today is filled with The Row, Dries Van Noten, Proenza Schouler, Opening Ceremony, A.P.C., Ann Demeulemeester—simple, structured, unadorned. I still have every piece L’Wren Scott ever made for me. I like to look at them. It’s like seeing her again, like going back and visiting. Since she’s been gone [Scott died in 2014], I haven’t had a stylist. She taught me all I need to know.
I’d say I have a healthy relationship with jewelry. I think jewelry is a beautiful art. My dear friend Joel Arthur Rosenthal (JAR) taught me to love the way jewels feel. I’ll buy myself a little something every time I finish a job. That [2006 Christie’s] auction [in which I sold 102 pieces given to me by my ex-husband Ron Perelman for over $20 million] was in no way meant as any kind of statement. I wish I could say it was. I never thought of it that way; I didn’t have the luxury. It didn’t occur to me until one day when I was in Citarella and the pastry woman said, “I love you, Ellen Barkin. You are one bad-ass bitch.” I said, “Why? What did I do?” She said, “What you did with that jewelry!” I thought, “My God, of course!”
It’s an incredible feeling when you get older and realize, “Wow, I’m now at a point where I can do the giving. I’m the teacher now.” It’s a game changer. If you live long enough to experience both those aspects in your life, that alone is something. It’s a beautiful place in life that nobody talks about. For me, it was that watershed moment, like when I had children, that point when you realize the rest of your life isn’t going to be the same. It’s going to be better.
My favorite quote of late is, I’m told, an old Native American one: “It’s not the climb up the ladder that defines who you are, but the climb down.”
—As told to Sarah Cristobal
For more stories like this, pick up the August issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download July 6.