Like most talented actresses, Ellen Barkin has always been able to find work . . . as a waitress.
For seven years, while studying drama and later acting on the stage in New York, Barkin made ends meet taking breakfast orders. Even when she landed a part in a soap opera, she found herself playing a waitress, naturally.
"I was always the bad girl," she said. "You know, the promiscuous teen-ager who leads the hero astray. When I started getting jobs in the theater, I was always a nasty little girl--the teen-age murderess, the teen-age incestuous lover, the teen-age schizophrenic.
"Then 'Diner' came along, and everything changed. You want a vulnerable girl who cries a lot? Call Ellen Barkin."
Since "Diner," she's shed that bad-girl image and blossomed into one of the cinema's most striking unsung heroines. Wherever she's popped up on screen--whether as Robert Duvall's sultry, wayward daughter in "Tender Mercies," the frumpy, tearful wife in "Diner" or a slinky, sci-fi waif in "Buckaroo Banzai"--she's made the most of every fleeting minute, walking away with entire scenes and dazzling critics with her tousled, chameleon-like presence.
When she opened Off-Broadway last year in "Eden Court," one reviewer raved that "if it really were possible to give the kiss of life to a corpse, the actress Ellen Barkin would be the one to do it."
Nearly 30, the Bronx-born actress is at the stage of her career where fame and obscurity are still almost in balance. Barkin's waitressing days aren't that far behind her (old customers still recognize her on the street--"Remember me? Cheese and eggs?"), yet she's had an uncanny knack for winning roles in the kinds of films that set critics' hearts afire.
"I think it's probably a combination of good luck and good choices," said Barkin, who returns to the screen next month in "Desert Bloom," a film co-starring Jon Voight and JoBeth Williams. "I don't think of myself as some serious actor, but I do take my parts seriously, at least in terms of the responsibility of taking parts that are a challenge and have something to say."
She kicked her feet up on a couch at a friend's home here. "I mean, look at me--the only thing I have is my roles. That's how people know you. I'm not someone who puts my private life out there, so I feel responsible about what the movie's saying when I go to work.
"In the times we're living in, I'd find it hard to appear in a film that was politically amoral. I just couldn't be in a film like 'Rambo' or something I felt was dangerous."
With her full, downturned lips, narrow eyes and a nose that looks like it was broken in a schoolyard boxing match, it's easy to see why she began her career as a bad girl. Cracking her gum and talking in a throaty Bronx accent, she'd make a perfect gangster's moll, the kind of blue-collar beauty you'd expect to see at a "Prizzi's Honor" family reunion.
"I'm not one of those girls that get offered the dumb girlfriend kind of parts," she explained. "And even if I did, I don't know if I could play 'em--I don't know if I could do that and like going to work in the morning. I'd rather do two small scenes in a little movie than be a prop for the leading man in a big film for two hours."
Barkin may have uncommonly shrewd instincts about choosing challenging roles, but she credits her enviable track record to a simple fondness for good scripts. "I don't make movies that I wouldn't want to see," she said. "It's almost less important to me what my part is like--it's the film as a whole and what you can learn from it. To me, doing a movie is like signing up for a new college course--if you're not going to get anything out of it, you shouldn't take it.
"My job is to make the whole picture look better, not jam all my acting chops into the few scenes I've got. It sounds unselfish, but it's not. If you take a good small part and you fulfill your character's function, you're always gonna come out looking good."
That is, if you're still in the film when it's released. In "Tender Mercies," Barkin's role was trimmed considerably, though she takes solace in the fact that "I've gotten more mileage out of my two scenes with Robert Duvall than almost anything else I've done."
She didn't even know that most of her role had been cut until she was invited to an early screening. "I sat there and as every moment went by where I'd once had a scene, I'd say, 'Hmm, maybe they moved that scene around.' And even after I'd come to the part where I died, I was still hopeful--you know, maybe they're gonna tell my story in flashbacks.
"Needless to say, I was very disturbed. But you learn from that stuff." She offered a sheepish grin. "You definitely learn to like other scenes in the film, like the ones that are still there. You say, 'Gee, maybe that scene was my best scene in the movie.' "