Downtown Looks Back at Ed Burns: Mr Independent

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Photo: Courtesy of Leslie Hassler

Ed Burns has been a vital part of bringing Downtown Manhattan back into the spotlight post 9-11.

Ever since he burst onto the scene with The Brothers McMullen in 1995, actor/writer/director Edward Burns has been a stalwart voice for independent filmmaking, especially in New York City. Assisting ten years ago with the launch of a little film festival in his neighborhood of Tribeca, where he lives with his wife, supermodel Christy Turlington, Burns helped rejuvenate Lower Manhattan post-9-11.

Burns spoke with Downtown about his “on-going love affair” with New York City, why acting has never been his passion and when working with new actors makes for a better set.

DOWNTOWN:  There hasn’t been a year without Edward Burns acting, writing, directing or producing something in over a decade. Quite a long, strange trip since working as an assistant on Oliver Stone’s The Doors after college, wouldn’t you say?

Ed Burns: I certainly never imagined that this would be the career that I would have. When I was in school, I wanted to be a novelist. That dream died pretty quickly. Then I thought I should go into sports journalism. But it wasn’t until I was sort of failing out of college that an advisor told me I should take some film appreciation classes because they were easy A’s. And then I fell in love with movies. But, again, I thought I would be a screenwriter. And as I fell in love with this notion of being a writer-director, it seemed to be the unattainable career. Then, post-[The Brothers ]McMullen, and the movie goes to Sundance, I kind of luck-out on that moment in indie cinema when those little movies were being embraced by the public and getting theatrical releases. I knew then that, as long as I didn’t lose anybody any money, I would probably be allowed to continue to make these small films. And that’s been my only goal: To make these small talkie movies. I try to do one a year, and that’s been tough to do.

But the part of my career that I never imagined was the acting side. That’s been the gravy on this whole thing, but it’s been this blessing. Making indie films, you don’t make a lot of money. A lot of times you make no money. And the acting career has been able to sort of finance my dream, if you will.

DT: How do you continue to walk that line of being brazenly independent versus doing those big studio projects?

EB: You know, a lot of times you don’t have a hell of a lot of say in it. There have been years where, and I have no idea why, you get a little heat and all of a sudden you’re cast in two or three studio movies. And that’s great. Then a year will go by and you don’t get a gig, and you’ll take a job only because a year has gone by and you haven’t gotten a gig.

I love my acting career and I’m thankful for it, but it’s never been my passion. My life’s work is my indie movies that I write and direct. So I don’t have to be as careful with my acting choices, maybe, if that was my bread and butter.

DT: Anyone familiar with your work expects New York City to be a co-star. What is it about this city that so inspires you?

EB: It’s been an ongoing love affair I’ve had with the city since I was a little kid. We grew up in Valley Stream, Long Island, and my dad was a cop here in New York. He would always take us into town for any number of things, and my mom was a big theater buff, so she would take us in to see Broadway shows. As a young kid I recognized that this was where I wanted to be. Back then in the `70s, the city was a very different city, and I was in love with the grit and graffiti and, a little bit, probably the danger. You know, getting to ride around with my dad was a lot of fun.

Then, as I got older and after I came to the city after college, when I started to write, the city served as the inspiration for everything I’ve written. Sometimes the inspiration might be overhearing a conversation on the subway. Sometimes the inspiration might be walking around what used to be Hell’s Kitchen and imagining what it used to be like. The great thing about living in New York City is—whether it’s the architecture, whether it’s the atmosphere or the people on the street—there’s always going to be something to inspire if you have your eyes and your ears open.

DT: You live in Tribeca. How has lower Manhattan healed post-9-11, then followed by the stock market meltdown?

EB: I lived down here on 9-11, so certainly the months after were a difficult time, a sad time. I then got involved with the Tribeca Film Festival, when they launched the first festival, as a way to help get people back down to lower Manhattan, Tribeca more specifically. I’m still involved with the festival ten years later. There was a little minute during the recession when some restaurants closed but, you know, the guys on Wall Street seem to be doing well enough that most of the restaurants are still packing them in.

DT: People often question the quality of downtown life. How do you feel about it?   

EB: We love living in Tribeca. In fact, we rarely seem to go above Canal Street these days. It’s a terrific place for a family, especially with the new Hudson River Park. We can’t wait for Pier 40 to open as it’s going to be great.

 -by Brad Lockwood