So, are you totes obsessed with Feud on FX? Yeah, us too. Watching Susan Sarandon embody Hollywood legend Bette Davis so masterfully makes us adore her even more. It also inspired us to revisit this rad cover story we did with her for our Oct/Nov 2005 issue.
Enjoy this Flashback Friday reprint of that epic chat. Then plan a rampaging road trip with your bestie √† la Thelma & Louise.
Sue's The Boss
Super-smart, politically savvy, and strikingly sexy, Susan Sarandon is an icon of individuality in an industry fixated on female conformity. Here, she opens up to BUST about her family, her 35 years in film, and her feelings about the word "feminism"
By Ariana Speyer
Photos By Michael Lavine
Since she is sometimes spun by the mainstream media as a bit of a left-wing nutter, I was concerned that Susan Sarandon might be a tad guarded and preoccupied when sitting down with a journalist. Turns out, she's more the way you wish your mom was (if having a super-foxy mom wouldn't weird you out): wise, fun, intuitive, strong. When we meet at Danal, a country-French bistro in the East Village that's one of her regular joints, she arrives radiant in a pink-striped oxford shirt and jeans, her uniform of choice. The big brown eyes, jut of her chin, reddish-brownish hair, and throaty voice stir up a bunch of film memories, from the campy (Rocky Horror) to the debased (Pretty Baby) to the scintillating (Bull Durham) to the solemn (Dead Man Walking) to the sublime (Thelma & Louise). This fall you can see her in the recently released Romance & Cigarettes and the forthcoming Elizabethtown. Sarandon's phenomenal range (and Oscar, for Dead Man Walking) belies the fact that although she claims to be a character actor, she's really more of a star in the old-fashioned, Katharine-Hepburn sense of the word—her trademark gritty resilience and sweet humanity come through in every role.
On the personal side, Sarandon leads the life of a truly independent spirit. One of nine children from a Catholic N.Y.C. family, she was discovered at age 20 when she accompanied her then-husband to an audition. During the '70s and '80s, she had relationships with the directors Louis Malle and Franco Amurri, with whom she has a daughter, the actress Eva Amurri. Her well-known political passions—she's worked with everyone from the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen to UNICEF—attest to her fierce dedication to justice. But perhaps Sarandon's most famous private-life factoid is her longstanding relationship with her Bull Durham co-star Tim Robbins, the father of her two sons, Jack and Miles.
Bio aside, what is Sarandon really like? She's a mom who's totally devoted to her kids (at the end of our interview Eva showed up for brunch, and they were both over the moon about picking up Jack—who has been studying at Oxford for the summer—from the airport later that day). She's a pro who, even though she had pneumonia and used an inhaler to help her breathe during the interview, engaged as if there was nothing she'd rather be doing. And the kicker? She has one of the best "girlfriend" qualities—she's comfortable in her own skin and makes you feel good about yours.
In a culture that places such a premium on youth, you're known for aging with grace. Being so much in the public eye, is that a challenge?
You know, when I was younger and I saw Melina Mercouri and Anna Magnani and a few other European women who, at that point, were probably only in their late 30s or early 40s, I thought, "God, they're really attractive in such a different way." Because I was coming of age with Barbarella; she was right ahead of me. When I look at pictures of myself in my early 20s, I had thick, fake eyelashes, lots of hair.
But Mercouri and Magnani had a looser sensuality than the armored Jane Fonda/Barbarella model.
I found those women very sensual and very interesting. I couldn't quite figure out why, and around that time (I started doing films when I was 20) I was being asked to pose for Playboy. So then I started to really try and figure out why the women in Playboy seemed so without personality. I remember thinking, "Well, they [Mercouri and Magnani] really seem like they're saying yes to life." There was something about them that, though they weren't traditionally beautiful, they were so attractive. I didn't feel that they were victims; I just thought that they were very brave. As opposed to Marilyn Monroe, who came a little bit later, where sexuality suddenly became all about vulnerability and being somewhat of a victim. It wasn't like that earlier, with the Carole Lombards, who could be funny. So, we definitely have gone through periods. Now, I find myself "the older woman," which is pretty funny.
What's that like?
I don't feel like an older woman. I'm part of a gang of women—some of them are a few years older, some are ten years younger, a lot of them are artists, very few are actors, one's a shrink, one's a poet, an activist. These are people who have been in my life for 30 years and have all led lives that have had severe ups and downs. I mean, everybody's cried their eyes out about something. But they all have lives that they've chosen. Their lives haven't been done to them. They're definitely looking for ways to hang onto their jaw line, but they're not cutting themselves up yet. They're looking for other ways that aren't as invasive. I think of them as being really attractive, interesting, vital women. So, I guess, when people ask me this question, I don't see myself as being somebody that's standing out, but because I'm an actor, it's a little bit more public.
Earlier this year you were hired as a new face of Revlon, which is a big statement for a cosmetics company to make about how they value older women.
The Revlon thing was interesting because they had asked me a number of years ago to do it, and I didn't really take the request seriously. This time when they asked me, some of my friends said, "Hey, it would really be great for women to see somebody who hasn't been drastically surgically altered and is of a certain age." Most of the other companies were firing people when they hit 40, not hiring them when they're almost 60, as I am.
But I guess I don't know [how I feel] about the whole age thing. I consider myself lucky because I've lost so many people around me. First, it was AIDS, and now cancer seems to be catching up. One of the things that really interested me in doing Stepmom was that it was about someone going through a disease and how your life suddenly comes into focus when you've got a life-threatening situation. Being sick can expedite you into dealing with some issues you don't want to deal with. Now I just thank God that my family's healthy, that I'm healthy, and the aging thing doesn't seem to be quite as important.
That's not on your radar.
I'm happy to still be working and having choices, even though a lot of them are supporting parts. I've always seen myself as a character actor, so it doesn't bother me to not be "the person" the film's about. So much of what happens to you has to do with how you imagine your life—you do create your life. It's like going up to the plate—you're really not going to hit anything if you're expecting to strike out. I just never expected it to be over at 40. I didn't think that starting to play moms would be the end; there are so many interesting women who happen to have children. I was more than happy to take on the banner of all these different kinds of moms: evil and good, everyone from Marmee in Little Women to the one in Igby Goes Down. There are plenty of sexually active, sensual women who are even older than I am but maybe they haven't been in the media so much.
You've been in step with the zeitgeist for many years, both in your personal life and in your roles.
I'm really not so special. I'm just a representative of women of that generation of these circumstances: lucky enough to be educated, lucky enough to have my own money, you know, asking questions like so many women are. But certain parts that I've taken have turned out to be, somehow, really challenging to the public conscience. Like who would have thought Thelma & Louise would be such a big deal? Who would've thought that Pretty Baby would have been such a big deal? Certainly not when we were making it. I thought Thelma & Louise was a cowboy movie with trucks and girls, instead of guys and horses, you know?
'Certain parts that I've taken have turned out to be, somehow, really challenging to the public conscience. Like who would have thought Thelma & Louise would be such a big deal?'
What nerve do you think that hit, that it got such a powerful response?
Because women have options. I think that was really the threat. Because, really, it's bullshit that we killed people. I didn't want it to be a revenge movie; I wasn't interested in shooting people. I thought that she [Louise] had to keep asking questions, that she was trying to figure something out because of her experience, this idea of not settling. There had been many other genre films, but they'd just never been with women, except maybe Jules and Jim. But certainly Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid didn't come under the scrutiny that Thelma & Louise did, and there are a lot more people killed in that movie. And they jump off a cliff. I think just giving women options and choices and strength was threatening to some people and, in a way, was very disturbing. I think Pretty Baby, for instance, was disturbing because the girl wasn't a victim. And the clich√© would have been, "Here you have a little child prostitute. Poor her, what a victim, how tragic." And she was the one in the movie who was the most in control of anybody in that film. The guy was a mess; [as the mother] I was doing the best I could to keep my family together, but I wasn't that bright. She's this kind of ballsy, mean little girl who knew how to wield power, and that was really disturbing for people, because she wasn't touched or naked or anything. So, why?
That sexuality, that young sexuality, is also very problematic and troublesome.
And she was sexy, in a very mean kind of way.
I love that movie. Let's talk about Elizabethtown, your new movie directed by Cameron Crowe.
Everybody loves working for Cameron. He uses music on the set. He's very funny and very sweet but is also an incredibly exacting director. He does something that I've run into a few times since, which is: he gives you line readings. He makes you go over and over a certain thing. He knows exactly what he wants. You might get tricked into thinking that you're in this incredibly permissive, very loose atmosphere, which you are, but at the same time, you have no sense of how something's going to end up because you're working in a very different way.
Do you find that confining?
I don't. You have to surrender to the fact that you're not in control, that ultimately he's going to pick and choose from all these takes and, you know, you just get into giving him as much variation as possible. I've done a number of films now where a director has been doing something that's autobiographical, and that's another really interesting phenomenon. I'll always put my money with a director who really has to make a movie. I always ask, "Why are you making this movie?" That's how I often end up working with first-time directors. Elizabethtown is something that is very, very significant for [Cameron Crowe]. And it's going to Venice. I have two films in Venice this year.
What's the other one?
John Turturro's film, Romance & Cigarettes. It's the story of his family, another autobiographical thing he's been trying to do for years. It's kind of a musical. It's kind of The Honeymooners in an opera form. We sing the first line, and then the whole song comes in, and it's really weird. So, I guess I'll get to see both of them in Venice.
As festivals go, is that one that you enjoy? Do you like Venice?
Love Venice, the geography, the food. I just love Venice. I don't like Cannes. For me, being at Cannes is like being in an amusement park and you're the ride. And they never seem to like anything that anybody does, anyway. Even when there's a standing ovation for 15 minutes, they dump on it.
There's a lot of scrutiny when you're in that kind of spotlight. With all the tabloid TV shows and all the US Weeklies, there's now a sort of fetishizing of famous people and erosion of privacy that is really warping in a fundamental way.
I think [as a celebrity] you give up a certain amount of privacy. That's part of the deal. I think there's a way to get around that, and there are people who conduct their lives with dignity. What I find disturbing is when people from these magazines come to me and ask me about how thin everybody's getting and how horrible that is. The same magazines that are constantly putting these people on their covers. So, they create the situations that they then...
Yeah. And that's really hypocritical. It's so easy to write about celebrities. If they would only have that kind of enthusiasm for other stories—like following through with Rove. Not because I like politics, but because this is something that affects your kids' lives—whether they go to war or not. It's about participating in your life. This is why, unfortunately, celebrities end up standing at a demonstration about cuts in New York City public education because no one's printing that unless Cynthia Nixon is there, and she happens to have decided that this is something she cares about. Or Rosie Perez is out because AIDS funding is quietly going down.
There have been a lot of changes, especially for women, in film and in life, since you started acting in 1970.
Certainly the job market is somewhat more open, even though I understand we're still getting paid less. We're still pretty tough on ourselves. We're pretty unforgiving about the way we look, and I think that with the world being so out of control, a lot of that roving anxiety has turned into punishing ideas about body image and cutting and things that didn't exist before. I certainly think this is a hard, hard time and that a lot is expected of young women. Having had boys also, I can't say they have an easy time either. Sean Penn said to me, I think he made this up—if not, it's a good quote anyway: "Girls learn to deny their truth, and boys live a lie." I think that that's true. At least girls can talk about things with their girlfriends; at least they're allowed to have emotional catastrophes. Boys just have the narrowest set of rules, no matter how intellectually advanced they are. When they see the dark side, they just don't know how to deal with it. But then when they get to a certain point and they hit the wall, they don't know what to do about it.
It's like they don't have the same support system that women do.
It's tough for men because they have friends, they have guys that they hang with and they do things with, but starting from the time they're little, it's seen as a weakness to say to someone "That really hurt my feelings." From the time they're tiny, even to their very good friends, they just don't have the language to talk about their emotions. It's somehow seen as a compromise. When they make mistakes, it's harder. It's a completely different trip, but it's a difficult one.
You have two sons?
I have two sons, 13 and 16.
And have you been grappling with this?
Oh, yeah. They're grappling away, and they have a father who's very, very involved, but it's a whole different thing. So many of the things that we're talking about are systemic. So even with the mom constantly saying, "Clear the table, what makes you think my time is worth any less than your time? Put it in the machine." You know, it's only supposed to take 11 consecutive times to teach someone to do something right. It's like throwing your stuff all over has replaced spraying your territory. That's such a guy thing. I remember my daughter, when she was about 10, saying, "Are there any guys my age who are clean who aren't gay? Why is that? Can they take a shower and be straight?" They're different; they're definitely different. And that's great, but as a mom, it makes you feel sorrier, and, therefore, more forgiving with men, because you see what happens to these sweet, sensitive, curious, gentle, little boys as they get older.
BUST considers itself a feminist magazine, but "feminist" is kind of a problematic term, these days.
It has been for quite a while. I don't use it.
I use "humanist" because it seems broader. I mean, I would consider myself a feminist, but people we are trying to reach have so many negative connotations [about it]. Not that there aren't strident women who call themselves feminists, who've been justifiably furious for so long, and who get to the point where, "OK, now we fucking have you by the balls, and now you're going to fucking listen to us." But I've been lobbying in places where I've been in the elevator and somebody's talking that way. It's not a productive way to go about something, even when you happen, for those two seconds, to have 40,000 people outside supporting your position. Being strident doesn't help. What you learn from lobbying is that you have to give somebody a way to cover their ass if they're going to change their stance on something. You have to find a way that they can [change their stance] without feeling humiliated. Power doesn't give up power unless it has to. It's not going to do it if you coerce it without giving it some way to...
To seem as if it's their idea. The way we use language is so important. I remember, years and years ago, before I was doing a junket, I spoke with people at the beginning of the AIDS crisis and said, "Okay, I'm about to do a lot of press. Give me three talking points. What should I try to accomplish?" One of the things they said was, "Get rid of the AIDS victim. Start saying 'people living with AIDS.' Start talking about HIV." That had to be strategically placed in the media and repeated and repeated and repeated until it came about. "People living with AIDS" is very different from an AIDS victim. Look at "freedom fighters and the contras." What a brilliant piece of PR. So, I don't know about "feminist." It's like "communist." I don't even know what "communist" means anymore, except that there's this knee-jerk reaction to it.
People are running away from the term "liberal," too. Now, "progressive" is used because "liberal" is scary. The same thing has happened with the word "feminist." So then you have to question yourself: should that word be reclaimed?
I guess it should be reclaimed if you can also redefine what it means, in the context of today's world.
How would you redefine that?
Twenty-year-olds don't want to call themselves feminists because, to them, that means a lot of angry women on a picket line. Now, the revolution's going to happen online.
It's more strategic.
It's more strategic; it's more media-based. It's not enough just to be putting a flower in the barrel of a gun anymore. Revolutions aren't happening that way. We have to get more women elected; we have to get more women's vocabulary in there; we have to get more girls understanding power in a different way. Some of these women running these studios are just as bad as the guys. And they're making movies that are horrible for women! But some of the women who are actors are coming up with their own projects and hiring and giving women jobs and stuff like that. I think we have to empower young girls. I don't care if they're called "feminists" or not, but [I do want them to] know they're entitled to an education. They're entitled to masturbate. They don't have to go out and give somebody a blow job in an alley. Starting way, way young, I want them to care about themselves, love themselves, and value themselves. I can't tell you how many kids write to me, young girls with body image problems who are frantic, smart girls who are imploding when they get out of college. Right when you'd think they'd be ready to go, they're going under. Beautiful, attractive, smart, educated women. What is going on? What is that about? I don't know.
'We have to empower young girls. I don't care if they're called "feminists" or not, but [I do want them to] know they're entitled to an education. They're entitled to masturbate. They don't have to go out and give somebody a blow job in an alley.'
What do you think about the way people like Hillary Clinton are sort of re-branding abortion? Like making it more about, "Yes, this is a tragic choice for women," going to more of an emotional place with it rather than just saying, "Yes, everybody has a right," and that's sort of the end of the conversation.
She lost me when she voted for the war, and then wagged her finger at Bush the next day. You know [it's like saying], "Here are the car keys, but don't drive anywhere" to a teenager. No, she really lost me way back then. I think she's a politician, and I think she's trying to weave her way into a place in the middle where she can go further. Personally, I think they won't ever outlaw abortion because it's the one area that they can constantly use to galvanize the right. What they're going to do is whittle away at it, make it more and more complicated and narrower and narrower, but they're never going to get rid of it. All of that crazy literature that goes out before an election has to do with the Bible and abortion. They need abortion. I don't believe it will ever completely disappear.
Right. Well, that's oddly comforting, I suppose.
One of the weird things that's happened has been things like, for instance, this Laci Peterson ruling. It's made it easier for people to be forced to have C-sections. There's a great group that deals with all of these issues defending women, even incarcerated women who have drug problems and who are pregnant, Gwyneth Paltrow's aunt is in charge of it. These "declaring the fetus a person" kinds of [things] are reaching into peoples' lives. That's what we're going to see, more and more.
You're known for being with a partner you're not married to. How do you feel about the idea of marriage? Is that feminist or not, does it enter into play?
I don't think that enters into my equation. What enters into my equation is getting up every day and knowing you're there because you choose to be there. I think something about the idea of getting married has always irked me. I got married once when I was 20 because if I didn't I would have gotten kicked out of school. It's not that I mind the commitment end of it; I've always been in committed relationships. If my kids really insisted that it meant a lot to them, I would do a commitment ceremony or something like that. I have said to them, "You come up with a ceremony, and we'll do it." That is usually the end of it, right there.
But you've never wanted to?
I think that there is something in my upbringing that convinced me that, in marriage, the woman is somewhat taken for granted. Even when you're not married, people start to see you as a couple and not as individuals. You're constantly struggling with that, you struggle not to end up in gender-designated assumptions. It's just a bitch, trying to live with somebody, it really is. I do, somewhere in my psyche, feel like I would give up something if I got married. But I don't know that you can't be a feminist and be married! There's nothing to say you can't be.
This story was originally published in BUST Magazine, Oct/Nov 2005.
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