The Hollywood actor, director, writer and producer returns to his Irish roots with his latest movie. By Tom Deignan.
First things first: Actor and filmmaker Ed Burns is well known as a Long Island native, and when we spoke about his latest film, The Fitzgerald Family Christmas, it had been only two weeks since Hurricane Sandy upended lives across New York and New Jersey.
“My immediate family is okay,” Burns said. “They lost power but that’s all.”
Burns has cousins, however, who live in the Long Beach section of Long Island, including one whose home was so damaged it “looks like it might be condemned.”
Members of Burns’ family who were displaced by the storm ended up staying at his parents’ home in Rockville Centre.
Perhaps none of this should be all that surprising. Burns shot to stardom exploring tight-knit Irish American families and the ties that bind — and occasionally threaten to choke — them. Earlier films such as The Brothers McMullen and She’s the One explored the fine line between family as a support system and family as the thing that requires you to find a new, much more sane and stable support system. These films were also among the more honest and authentic portraits of Irish Catholic life in American movie history. (Burns’ own parents, Ed Sr. and Molly, have roots in Cork and Westmeath.)
A Christmas Surprise
The Fitzgerald Family Christmas explores a decidedly darker side of family ties. Burns stars as Gerry Fitzgerald, a Long Islander whose mother, brothers and sisters do not realize he is about to spring a big Christmas surprise on them.
Gerry has discovered that the Fitzgeralds’ long-gone father (Ed Lauter) is dying and wants to spend one last holiday with his family. The matriarch of the Fitzgerald clan, Rose (Anita Gillette), wants no part of her former husband and can’t understand why Gerry is even considering the unlikely reunion. Meanwhile, several of the Fitzgerald siblings (including Kerry Bishé and Mike McGlone), are dealing with their own messy, complicated lives. Along the way, Gerry finds himself unexpectedly falling in love. As the holiday approaches, several simmering conflicts boil over, new problems are created, and all of the Fitzgeralds need to come to terms with the past and the present.
Though he was the product of a famously supportive family — Burns’ dad is a retired New York Police Department sergeant, and his brother Brian is a writer on the CBS TV show Blue Bloods — the filmmaker says The Fitzgerald Family Christmas is his most personal film.
“With any movie you make you’re going to draw from folks you know and the experiences you have,” said Burns. But he adds, “I’ve always made a point of not hitting too close to home.”
Burns continues: “Some plot points in this film are not from my life.” But he adds that many smaller moments and even actual lines of dialogue, came directly from personal experiences.
A Film Family Reunion
Burns also drew inspiration from the fact that The Fitzgerald Family Christmas is itself a kind of family reunion. The cast is not only brilliant, but most have a long working history with Burns.
Mike McGlone starred alongside Burns in The Brothers McMullen. So did the luminous Connie Britton, who went on to star in the brilliant TV series Friday Night Lights and can currently be seen on the ABC musical drama Nashville.
Naturally, there’s no shortage of Irish talent in Burns’ latest movie. There’s Caitlin Fitzgerald (who appeared in Burns’ 2011 film Newlyweds), as well as Malachy McCourt, who played a chauffeur in Burns 1996 film She’s the One. This time around, the beloved raconteur and outspoken critic of religion plays — you guessed it — the Fitzgerald family priest.
Broadway veteran Brian D’Arcy James also stars, though the best performances in the film probably belong to the Fitzgerald parents: Anita Gillette and Ed Lauter. Gillette plays Rosie Fitzgerald as equal parts loving and stubborn, and compelled the New York Daily News to dub her performance “Oscar-worthy.” Meanwhile, Ed Lauter is one of those character actors who quietly made a dozen movies better. Best known for a key role in The Longest Yard, as well as a string of 1980s films in which he played the hard-ass authority figure, Lauter brings a poignancy and complexity to his role as the deeply flawed father who gave every member of the Fitzgerald family a reason to despise him.
Irish American Authenticity
From the cast to the shooting locations, Burns went to great lengths to capture a level of Irish American working- class authenticity.
“The Brothers McMullen, we shot that in the house I grew up in,” recalls Burns. “As I was writing this I was drawing from a lot of my recollections and memories, and I was imagining the bars that I hung out in, the kitchens and living rooms I grew up in.”
For this film, he settled on another Irish American home, that of the Costello family, located on the same block.
“Shooting in a dining room that I can remember sitting in with my family was very surreal, but it was also an exciting experience.”
Burns continues to stay very busy in front of the camera. He has starred in films from Saving Private Ryan to 27 Dresses, and in 2012 he appeared in two films — Alex Cross and Man on a Ledge — as well as The Fitzgerald Family Christmas.
It was while shooting Alex Cross that co-star Tyler Perry offered Burns some important advice. Perry has become a superstar making the “Madea” movies, which have a strong, devoted fan following. He suggested Burns return to the Irish American setting he’d mined so successfully in The Brothers McMullen and She’s the One.
At a Crossroads
Burns had also explored Irish characters in subsequent films, from Ash Wednesday to Purple Violets. But he acknowledges that the audience reception to these films was not as strong as earlier ones.
“I was at a real crossroads,” Burns admits. “I flirted with the idea of becoming a director-for-hire or writing bigger- budget stuff.”
However, several projects along these lines were not getting off the ground. It didn’t help that the film business had radically transformed since Burns burst onto the scene in 1995.
“In the mid-90s, I was lucky enough to be part of that movement where you could make a no-budget movie,” notes Burns. “Then, something happened around 2006.”
One major change, Burns said, is the amount of high-quality television shows available as an alternative to a pricey night at the movie theater. From 24 to The Sopranos, audiences in search of quality entertainment had more reasons to stay home.
This forced Burns to rethink the type of filmmaker he wanted to be.
After yet another “depressing meeting,” he decided to embrace his own past as well as the cinematic future.
Burns has returned to what he calls the “Brothers McMullen production model”: shooting with low budgets, on location, often without permits. He is also using new forms of technology and distribution. The Fitzgerald Family Christmas, for example, is already available on demand and for download on iTunes, before it hits theaters in New York City on December 7.
Opening the Floodgates
When Tyler Perry offered his suggestion, Burns said he immediately went off to his trailer and began writing The Fitzgerald Family Christmas.
“It was like opening the floodgates,” he says.
Why had Burns avoided returning to the Irish American setting?
“Other things came up (but) I don’t have a real good explanation for why I hadn’t gone back to it.”
Aside from the Irish American tradition, Burns is also wading into another well-worn genre: the Christmas movie.
“There are two types of Christmas movies,” notes Burns. “There are the ones that are goofy fun…and then there are movies like It’s a Wonderful Life. George Bailey has to cover a lot of tough ground to get to that emotional payoff. There are plenty of laughs but it’s also about all that tough stuff that comes up during the holidays.”
Shocking as it may seem, the 20th anniversary of The Brothers McMullen is looming. And, yes, Burns is still slowly putting together a sequel.
When not working, Burns spends time with his supermodel wife Christy Turlington and his two children, Grace and Finn. (Ed’s brother Brian is married to Christy’s sister, Kelly.)
Ed says he also gets to Ireland every couple of years, most recently for a friend’s wedding.
“I’m always looking for an excuse to go over.”
Whenever the movie business seems tough, Burns recalls a supportive talk his dad gave him at a particular low point, when Burns was still trying to sell The Brothers McMullen.
“I was pissing and moaning about why no one in Hollywood was interested. And he said to me: ‘Did you make this movie because you wanted to be famous in Hollywood? Or did you do it because this is the thing you need to do?’”
Two decades later, it is still the thing Ed Burns needs to do. It just so happens that, along the way, he also got famous in Hollywood.