Ellen Barkin putting on makeup
Ellen Barkin, 53, on set at a photo shoot, is staring at her very glamorous, very beautiful reflection. "It's hard to look at myself," she says for the third or fourth time. "Women of a certain age..." 

"Stop saying that!" cries her hairstylist, Serge Normant, throwing his hands up in the air. He has been fussing with her fine, blonde bob, a kind of Dutchboy cut with long, funky bangs and a modern angle shaped into the back. "I hate long hair on old ladies," says Barkin. Serge vehemently disagrees, but concedes that short and edgy suit Ellen fine. "She's got terrific style," he says.

She does. She's also terrifically approachable and down-to-earth and funny and actually, despite her aversion to looking at herself, quite happy to be of a certain age. "I have no problem being 53," she says. "Why would I want to be 35 again? I want to discover who I am in my 50s. And if I tried too hard to look younger, it would seem that I was uncomfortable with who I am, wouldn't it?" She happens not to be feeling especially well—she spiked a fever the night before—but she's a trouper in front of the camera, joking around, halfheartedly lamenting the condition of her body ("May I have some help with the posing, here?" she says at one point, looking down at her leg as she settles into a chair. "I like this nice line, running down my leg, of aging skin. I can only hope you'll feature that. I can only hope..."). The most surprising and consistent thing about her, though, is that she is unutterably nice. Unpretentious. Humble. Generous. (She leaves me a voice mail not an hour after the shoot; I'd asked her what products were in her medicine cabinet. "Hey, Val, it's Ellen," she says in her smoky voice. "I'm standing here in my bathroom and I'm looking at my moisturizers...I've got a lot of Starline stuff from Switzerland....") Though there are some things she declines to talk about, including her teenage son and daughter, and her divorce from billionaire Ronald Perelman, she is remarkably open about her beauty routine—like how she maintains her radiant complexion (it hurts), and what she's tried that she won't do again. Plus, your handy cheat sheet: Ellen's beauty rules for life after 50

What she never does that most people do every day: "I don't take showers; I find them assaulting. I bathe. Sometimes I take two baths a day. And I'm big on bath products: I love Jo Malone Amber & Lavender Bath Oil, and I like the Bliss scrubs."

What she does in the bath that you wouldn't do to your best friend: "I use a hard-bristle brush on my body to exfoliate. You might think it would hurt, but it doesn't. Maybe I have a high pain threshold."

Another thing she doesn't do every day: "I wash my hair once a week; twice a week at most. I don't think daily shampooing is good for your hair."

Just a few of the things she does in bed: "I sleep a lot—about nine hours every night. I always read or watch movies till about 2 a.m. If I'm alone, I might apply a hydrating mask before I get into bed. Sometimes after I shampoo, I'll put Kérastase conditioner on my wet hair and sleep with it like that."

How she resembles a puppy: "I have huge hands and feet. I'm 5'6" and wear a size 10 shoe."

The first thing she does the minute she gets home: "I take off my clothes and put on my silk Olatz PJ's. I have many, many pairs. Or else I'll wear sweats and a cotton tee. No bra—if I could give up anything in the world, I'd give up wearing a bra. Though I do have lots of pretty ones: Agent Provocateur, La Perla, Le Mystère."