Ellen Barkin on ‘The Cobbler’ and Why New York is a City for Billionaires

Ellen Barkin embodies the forces of gentrification in “The Cobbler,” Tom McCarthy’s new comedy about the changing face of New York City.

It’s a role that Barkin, whose whiskey voice still betrays a hint of her Big Apple upbringing, has spent a life preparing for by observing the changes to the city she still calls home.

“It’s a big f—ing deal what’s happening across the country and in big cities like L.A. and New York,” she said. “They’re not even cities for millionaires any more. They’re cities for billionaires. When real estate is $4,000 a square foot it changes everything about a city.”

The Cobbler” opens this Friday and centers on a Lower East Side shoe repairman (Adam Sandler) who discovers he can assume the identities of his clients when he slips on their footwear. Barkin plays an unscrupulous real estate developer who will stop at nothing in her quest to tear down old buildings and replace them with posh palaces for the well heeled.

“You don’t have to look far to create that kind of character,” said Barkin. “All you have to do is go to a dry cleaner on the Upper East Side.”

It should be noted that at one point Barkin lived in the orbit of the New York billionaires she decries thanks to her marriage to business magnate and Forbes Rich List denizen Ronald Perelman, a union that ended in a contentious divorce in 2006.

From her new perch in Greenwich Village, Barkin said she’s been shocked by the way the neighborhood’s sense of community has been stripped away in a furious push to develop gleaming condominiums and high-end boutiques.

“In certain areas like the West Village, Tribeca and Soho, it used to be you knew your neighbors,” she said. “You’d see them in the grocery store and they’d help you home with your groceries. If I was single, the next-door neighbor would get the snow off the street. Now I don’t know anyone on my block. It’s all giant apartment buildings.”

New York’s redevelopment may give her agita, but Barkin is an unambiguous fan of “The Cobbler’s” director. Barkin said she’d been harassing McCarthy ever since she saw his 2003 indie breakout, “The Station Agent,” the story of a man who goes to live in a rural train depot.

“I wish there were more people making movies like Tom,” said Barkin. “There’s a heart and a humanity to his movies that slays me.”

In the case of “The Cobbler,” Barkin felt the film’s fantasy elements and look at a man at an emotional crossroads were reminiscent of Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

“Some negative naysayers will say it’s corny,” she said. “But I don’t think so. We need more humanity in our movies. I don’t want to see any more cynicism. There’s too much irony out there. We’ve ironed ourselves flat.”

New York may have undergone a facelift from the time that Barkin was growing up, but the movie business had experienced an equally radical change since she first turned heads in films such as “Diner,” “The Big Easy” and “Sea of Love.” Those kinds of films, adult dramas unafraid to challenge audiences, are no longer the work of major studios. The business has shifted in favor of big-budget comic book movies and special effects-driven productions and away from more intimate, character-based films.

“There’s no such thing as small studio dramas,” said Barkin. “The math doesn’t work in the new paradigm.”

The meaty roles that Barkin first sunk her teeth into have migrated to television, she argued, and she with them. Barkin will next be seen in the Showtime series “Happyish” opposite Steve Coogan. Now entering her sixth decade, Barkin stands to find richer parts on the small screen, much as middle aged stars like Robin Wright and Viola Davis have with shows like “House of Cards” and “How to Get Away With Murder.”

“If you’re an actor who’s older you realize that you get better at this job and you want to be challenged,” she said. “How challenging is it to say, ‘Don’t open the space hatch, superhero.’ ‘Don’t go out there, Thor’?”

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