Susan Sarandon – 20 years ago before everything changed

                                              August 1999  By Philip Berk

Susan Sarandon’s fifty three, and she doesn’t care who knows it.

Outspoken, independent, she’s broken all the rules.

At the l993 Academy Awards she made an appeal on behalf of Haitian refugees with AIDS, even though she was told not to.

The next year she won the Best Actress Oscar.

As a founding member of the Creative Coalition, she works tirelessly for liberal and humanitarian causes.

She also has a live-in relationship with Tim Robbins — they’ve been together for ten years, have two children together, work together — but they’re not married.

And that’s how she likes it.

Before the end of the year we’ll see her in  two new  films, Anywhere But Here in which plays the spirited mother of Natalie Portman, and Cradle Will Rock in which she  once again is directed by Robbins. (Their last joint venture was her Academy Award winning role in Dead Man Walking.)

In real life she has three children, a daughter from Italian filmmaker Franco Amurri — they too were never married — and the two sons from Robbins, Jack Henry and Miles, . 

She and Tim met on the set of Bull Durham, in which they played quirky lovers.

Would she be disappointed if her daughter, like Natalie Portman in Anywhere but Here, rejected her values?

Without a moment’s hesitation, she answers,“I believe in my kids.” 

But then she adds, “I would be disappointed if they embraced the death penalty, but if my daughter ends up on the stock market, I’ll invest with her. I can only hope that for her the world is a neighborhood, that she sees herself in other people, and whether they’re conservative or liberal doesn’t matter, only that they’re principled and they believe in the dignity of other people. 

“What the movie really is saying is, when you love someone, you let them go. You let them find their own way. It’s not because you’re a control freak that you try to guide them; it’s because you want to make them safe. Of course it takes a lot of trust to say, ‘If that what makes you happy, then I’m happy.”

The character she plays — she’s impulsive, kooky and not very bright — is not at all like her. Did she have any problem relating to her?

“Not at all. I love this woman. I loved her incredible reserve of denial that she used to get things done. I love the fact that she hasn’t allowed motherhood to change her personality. I loved her fierce love of her daughter and that she does everything wrong.”

Does she ever embarrass her children?

“All the time. I tell them it’s my job to embarrass your children. But it’s not something you can control. One moment you can kiss your son in front of the school,  and the next moment, it’s heresy!. When my son became ten, suddenly he was telling me, ‘Mom what are you touching me for?’ I don’t remember my mom ever embarrassing me, but I remember looking across the table at someone I was living with and asking myself at a breakfast table, how could I end up with this person who holds his fork like that!’”

Does she consider herself a perfect parent?

“First of all, it’s impossible to be a perfect parent. But the thing you have to learn is to apologize and accept the fact that you’re going to make mistakes. That frees you up quite a bit. Fortunately for me I became a parent  late so it gave me a chance to find my voice and to figure out who I was and that my kids weren’t in competition with anything. I genuinely want to spend time with them. I’m not sacrificing anything by not leaving New York during the school year. I just prefer to be with them. I can’t work if I’m separated from them. It’s not because I’m a great mom, it’s just that I think they’re fun. I want to be with them. I know at some point they’re going to leave, so it helps to find a way to love yourself before you have to love somebody else.”

One of these persons of course is Tim Robbins.

She once told me,  “I think he’s a wonderful  person. I enthusiastically support his career, his politics, who he is, and what he’s trying to do.”

But there were times, during the making of Dead Man Walking, when they disagreed on the set.

“When we worked on Dead man Walking, because I had found the book, and had brought it to Tim, I felt responsible. Also, of course I was carrying the movie, I was risking more. I not only felt entitled to be outspoken, I felt it was necessary.

“But on Cradle Will Rock I had a completely different approach. I gave opinions when the script was being written and when it was cast,  but when I was actually on the set — I worked maybe eight days — I surrendered to his vision totally. After all this was the movie he had been trying to make for seven years.”

Cradle Will Rock recalls a moment during the Depression when government and unions attempted to stifle free expression in the theatre.

Susan plays an Italian art dealer who promotes fascist interests in America. Most of the characters in the film are historically accurate. Hers is not.

Did that bother her?

“Not at all. I think what she was about was true. If she wasn’t Jewish and we made her Jewish, then that might have taken an irony too far. But in this instance the ironies are so profound they couldn’t have been dreamed up. For instance when Tim wrote it,  the whole issue of confiscated art was conjecture. Now we know that it is a fact and that a lot of Jewish owned art was confiscated and sold in the United States.”

What is Tim like as a director?

“Like any director who’s been an actor, he’s collaborative and has respect for actors. But he’s also incredibly bright at telling the story; he understands actors, he appreciates them, admires what an actor brings to the written word.”

When choosing projects, do they seek each other’s advice? 

“We’re very collaborative. We talk about scripts that we’re going to do, things that he hasn’t  yet written or is interested in doing. We read each other’s things. Occasionally I’ve done things that he didn’t think I should do, and he’s done stuff I didn’t get. We register our opinions and then proceed, unless it’s something he thinks immoral, then I have to decide whether or not I do it.”

Most of the actors in Cradle Will Rock were paid very little even though the film was made by Disney.

How important is money?

“Well obviously, not much. Half of the films I’ve done have been for nothing, relatively speaking. There are some jobs you take because you need French doors in your home, but then there are other things you do, Illuminata for instance, for scale. Everything I’ve done for Tim has been low pay. I did one for Stanley Tucci for practically nothing. That’s one of the reasons my price isn’t very high. They always look at the one you’ve done before. So it’s pretty hard to ask for an extra mil when you’ve accepted scale. 

“But the minute you get a script with a lot of blue screen, your price is very high. You’re offered millions and millions, but chances are the script is terrible. There’s some kind of correlation. But if it’s something you really want to do, I don’t think you’d not do it because of the money. And the thing about doing a film where people aren’t getting paid a lot of money, everyone’s really happy to be there; they’re there for the love of the project, and everybody is just jazzed to be working with each other.”

She once complained that  “the mother is always the one who has to say, ‘It’s time to come in now,’ (for dinner) while the guy’s the one that’s fooling around with the kids. After a while you completely lose your sense of humor.” 

Did she mind carrying both loads while Tim was making the film?

“Even when he’s not working, I’m kind of the glue that keeps the house going. We never really depend on him to do the grocery shopping so things aren’t going to fall apart if he’s up in his office for three days writing, or if he comes home late from the set. And when he’s editing, I bring the kids down wherever he’s editing because he can be gone for days and days and days. It doesn’t bother me. When he’s around I expect certain things of him, but when he’s gone we’re fine.”

Does he ever get grumpy?

“If he’s grumpy, he’s not the first writer I’ve ever been with. I was introduced pretty early to the process and I know it’s an insane thing to do. It’s lonely, it makes you vulnerable, so you just have to back off. One of the reasons I haven’t directed is I know the kind of concentration and dedication it takes. I’m just not interested in that right now. I’d rather be with my family, but I don’t begrudge anyone who is obsessive enough to want to do those things.

And then as an afterthought she adds, “What  becomes difficult is when you come home at the end of the day when he’s been working 14 hours a day and he expects me to have dinner ready for him even though I’ve been working fourteen hours. That doesn’t work. We figured that out pretty early on. If you want someone picking up your towels and making your dinner, you should be at a hotel.”

Is ageism still a problem in Hollywood?

“Hollywood has always had a double standard for women. The uproar that followed Rene Russo playing opposite a guy her age and then going topless. What is it that makes people freakout about those things?  I don’t know. Way back when I was young, when I was trying to figure out what sexy was, I remember looking at Melina Mercouri and Anouk (Aimee) and thinking, ‘God, what is it about them?’ because they weren’t beautiful in the Hollywood sense. I realized then if sex has anything to do with life, then these women are saying yes to life. As fragile as they were, as questioning as they were, as strong as they were, they were saying yes, and that was great. 

“I always thought it was not a problem in Europe, but French actresses have told me I’m crazy. They’re up against the same ageism in France, except for Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu. I had a conversation with Isabel Huppert and she said, ‘No, no no. We have the same problems. It exists.’  So in the end all you can do is follow your heart, choose stories that you really want to tell, and do whatever is needed to tell that story honestly.”

Fifteen years ago she made A Dry White Spell, in which Marlon Brando had a small part. 

Any memories of that experience?

“Every time I met Marlon Brando, they had to reintroduce me to him. I don’t think he remembered who I was like for three seconds. I really didn’t work with him. I was there watching him work. He wore a hearing aid, a thing that blocks what other people are saying. That’s the way he works so you can’t talk to him. If you say good morning, he just starts talking to whoever is on the other line of his little radio transmitter. So I can’t say we had a really inspiring exchange of any kind, but it was extraordinary to watch him work. I think he’s great, even if he doesn’t listen to anyone else.”

5 thoughts on “Susan Sarandon – 20 years ago before everything changed”

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