NEW YORK — When her new film, “Palindromes,” premiered at the Venice Film Festival last summer, Ellen Barkin was a little concerned that her husband, Ron Perelman, might not like it. After all, “Palindromes” was directed by Todd Solondz and deals with Aviva, a 13-year-old girl from New Jersey who has an abortion, runs away from home and has a sexual relationship with a born-again truck driver.
“I kept saying to him ‘You can’t walk out, Ronald. I know it’s not going to be your cup of tea but you cannot walk out of a movie I’m in at the Venice Film Festival,’” Barkin recalls.
Perelman not only didn’t walk out, he loved the movie. “The fact that my very straight husband said this was the best movie he’s seen and the best I’ve ever been and the prettiest I’ve ever been is kind of staggering.”
Even Barkin’s kids love the movie, in which she plays the unglamorous, supporting role of Aviva’s mother. One of the movie’s unusual devices has eight diverse actors — including a 420-pound black woman and Jennifer Jason Leigh — play Aviva at various points in the film. At times this is both heartbreaking and funny. “I don’t think anybody’s dumb enough in my family not to get the humor,” Barkin explains.
She has seen the movie 10 times. “I think it’s easy for me [to watch it again and again] because I’m not the central character.” It is also easy for her because she has a screening room at home, where she watches everything from “Sin City,” which she wishes she’d been in, to “Ice Princess,” which she has now seen twice, at least once with best friend Julianne Moore and Moore’s children. “I spend my entire weekend watching movies,” Barkin explains, “which is one of the delights of my life.”
Making “Palindromes” “was the best experience I’ve had,” Barkin adds. Big-budget filmmaking can be debilitating, she says. “I remember being on a movie and watching the entire BBC series of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ while they lit a shot and then going shopping. And I’m not exaggerating. That’s six episodes.” The time and budget constraints, however, of indie cinema provide no downtime, so the performers are actually acting all day long.
“When Todd called he said, ‘It’s not a lead role.’ I said, ‘I don’t care.’ He said, ‘Well, you haven’t read the script.’ I said, ‘I don’t care.’ He said, ‘There’s no money.’ I said, ‘I don’t care.’” The budget of “Palindromes” came in at under a million dollars, which is, in all likelihood, less than the cost of the jewelry Barkin has on today (two diamond rings, a diamond necklace and diamond earrings).
“Ronald thinks of jewelry as art, which is kind of fabulous,” she explains. “He really appreciates it — we’ll be eating dinner and he’ll play with my ring.”
The money, quite obviously, is not an issue, and though Barkin hadn’t worked in several years, the experience with Solondz has made her want to work more. She teaches acting in the graduate program at the New School, a gig that developed out of her affinity for playing mothers onscreen. “I could teach young actors, and I loved putting them on the right path,” she says.
That said, her children keep her busy at home. There are eight between her and Perelman (two from her marriage to Gabriel Byrne, and six from Perelman’s three previous marriages) and the shopping habits alone of the four teenage ones are enough to drive a parent crazy. “You have to have a rule as a parent,” Barkin says. “No Marc Jacobs. Just Marc.”
She goes on: “I can’t deny them [nice things.] I was too poor growing up not to buy them [now]. And I know it’s bad. I get yelled at by my ex-husband and my brother. Not by my husband, who doesn’t understand why they can’t have Marc Jacobs or Chanel. But I cut at Marc Jacobs. The older girls can have Miu Miu, no Prada. But If I ever think they’re head-to-toe designer, they’re finished. They’re not allowed.
“It’s not about the money,” she continues. “When you can afford it, then it has to be about something else. It’s not appropriate for my 12-year-old daughter to carry my Chanel bag, which is all she wants. She can wear her little Marc loafers and her Marc jacket.” Barkin tried to get the kids to shop at Zara, but that was only good for a while. “I liked Zara because I told them ‘It looks exactly like what you’re not getting.’” And though she jokes about having had one pair of jeans, one sweater and one pair of shoes growing up in The Bronx, she finds great pleasure in buying her children, stepchildren and niece nice things, like Mukluks at Kitson in L.A., plastic Chanel jewelry and Hermès leather bracelets. (For the record, she buys all her own clothing, too.)
“You want them to look so cute and they’re all so beautiful in their own way,” Barkin explains. “As long as they don’t look like little fashion victims.”