THEY elected Reagan president and made Schwarzenegger governor. And while Susan Sarandon has no plans to run for office, she also refuses to compromise on either her political ideals or her film roles, as Siobhan Synnot discovers.
KEVIN Costner called her the new Lauren Bacall – “feminine but tough” – after she stole the show from him in Bull Durham. Richard Gere says they fought happily throughout their last film. Geena Davis sighed after Thelma and Louise that she wanted to be just like her. In a nutshell, this is the Susan Sarandon effect: men in her orbit may admire her gutsiness, but women find her one of Hollywood’s most accessible A-list actresses. Unlike many of her peers, she’s worked steadily over 40 years, taking time out to have children then return to prove herself a versatile actress who can play dumb and smart, rich and poor, comedy and tragedy with equal elan. She says that with one glance at a page, she can tell if the dialogue rings true or tinny.
She sounds intimidating and yet in person she laughs a lot, and has a nice self-deprecating wit. So far this year she seems to have made a film for every month. “Supporting roles,” she clarifies. “So that adds up to about two films really.”
Still an avatar of cinematic sexy women, her widescreen Bette Davis eyes are not just beautiful but – better - ridiculously photogenic, and now aged 66, she has acquired some discreet, what-the-hell tattoos. On her wrist there is a barbed wire design that turns out to be the letters A N D A N D – a new dawn, a new day, marking the time she and her children went off and got inked together.
It also marked a new chapter of her life: the break-up of her 23-year relationship with actor-director Tim Robbins in 2009. They met on the set of Bull Durham and became a showbiz power couple who shared projects and political beliefs. When they split, people came up to her in street and ended up being comforted by Sarandon. “They were heartbroken, we were too,” she says.
They frequently worked together, and they also campaigned together – most notably at the Oscars when in 1993 they used the platform of presenting an award to draw attention to a group of Haitians interned in Guantanamo because they had HIV.
“We went back to our seats and nobody would even look us in the eye and they were all wearing their little ribbons. But the very next day, the Haitians were released.” Robbins and Sarandon were also banned from ever attending the Oscars ceremony again. And after the couple paraded their opposition to the Iraqi conflict, Sarandon had a charity appearance cancelled.
Years later, Sarandon remains a committed campaigner for underdogs, so it seems surprising that she has no interest in making a move into formal party politics. After all, she wouldn’t be the first actor to take up a governorship or higher office. “I support people I feel can make a difference,” she says, which is why she backed Obama, and continues to do so. “I think different people could have been hired but I know enough about the way things work so I’m not hugely disappointed. I think he’s a better choice by far.”
She doesn’t regret speaking out on political matters however, although it makes her a target both for the Right and the satirists. When the South Park creators came up with Team America, where puppets impersonated Hollywood’s political activists, Robbins and Sarandon were both included in a supergroup that also included George Clooney, Sean Penn and a rather dim version of Matt Damon. Sarandon can laugh about it, but the wider presumption is exasperating to her. “They elected Ronald Reagan president and made Arnold Schwarzenegger governor. Is it only bad actors who get to have political opinions?” She adds, “I don’t see myself as an expert on anything but my own choices, but a lot of things don’t get written about.”
On film sets, she is not shy about making her point either, but she’s not aggressive when it comes to expressing herself. Richard Gere, an old friend, says that on their last film Arbitrage they could spend hours going back and forth, arguing over their characters’ motivations. “Susan was wrong of course,” he says affectionately. “She can’t hear me, can she?”
In that film, she plays the trophy wife with hidden steel. On Robot and Frank, she’s in friendlier, folksier mode as a kindly neighbour to Frank (Frank Langella), an absent-minded divorcee. A film set in the near future, while the jet packs may not have arrived, apparently there are robots around that can be programmed to act as 24-hour carers for men like Frank. Sarandon’s character also has a robot helper at her library, a boxy number who follows in her footsteps and helps with the heavy lifting.
Sarandon quite fancies the idea of a robot butler as well, “to clean the house, vacuum and cook”, but admits she’s not so keen on electronic readers like Kindles replacing the tactile pleasure of a book. “I give a lot of books as presents, I buy them for myself and my kids. I re-read them and find things underlined.” She’s also not a big fan of mobile phones. She hates the moment when people sit down to eat and everybody’s phone goes up on the table, but has reluctantly embraced texting because her own children don’t always pick up the phone. She also tweets occasionally both as herself and, more whimsically, as her Pomeranian mspennypuppy, who recently asked where she could hear David Bowie’s new single, and can post pictures online. Most of it is rather funny, and although Ms Penny has also appeared in film, there are no signs of diva strops.
Sarandon’s career began by accident when she went along to offer moral support to her then-husband, Chris Sarandon, at a casting call for the film Joe in 1970. Her husband was asked to audition for an agent and needed someone to do a scene with him. Sarandon ended up landing a major part while he struck out. She went along with it because she thought it might be fun, and by using her husband’s name instead of Tomalin, she wouldn’t embarrass her family. “I thought if after ten years I don’t like it, I’ll drop out.” The eldest of nine, Sarandon was raised in New Jersey where “maybe 30 families populated the entire school. It didn’t seem unusual to have nine kids, it was pretty normal”. At home, she planned to be a ballet dancer, but during a heavy religious phase she also created home-made passion plays in which she starred and her younger brothers and sisters were given supporting roles. “I used to pray that when the Communists came over, I wouldn’t betray my faith even when they hanged me,” she recalls.
In her early days she got a lot of ingénue roles – she was the girl who fell off Robert Redford’s plane wing in The Great Waldo Pepper – but her first cult role was as Janet in The Rocky Horror Picture Show in 1975, an extreme version of every wide-eyed innocent she’d played to date. It also threw down a gauntlet.
“I always had a phobia about singing,” she admits. “My dad was a singer with the big bands, and from the time I was tiny, I was told to stop because I was completely off. I got in the Rocky Horror Show because I just thought, ‘It’s time to get over this, and they’ll give me booze or drugs or something and that’ll help.’ Of course, they didn’t.”
During the early years, Sarandon experienced the sharp edge of movie sexism. In Atlantic City, her second film with then-boyfriend Louis Malle, she had a scene where she rubbed lemons into her breasts, earning her the Playboy accolade ‘Celebrity Breasts of the Summer’, just after she’d earned her first Oscar nomination for the film. She also got bombarded with lemons from fans who sent her them in the post, to her table at restaurants, or brought them to her and asked her to autograph them.
Since then, she says she has been more willing to speak out when she is unhappy. On The Witches of Eastwick she had her role taken away and given to Cher. She made her unhappiness known, but then got on with the job of playing third witch. She also took on Ridley Scott in Thelma and Louise, anxious that a story of two women on the road with guns would become some kind of empty revenge thriller. She pushed Scott to drop a love scene because she felt it didn’t fit in with Louise’s new-found independence, leaving Geena Davis to whoop it up with Brad Pitt instead. It was also her idea to add a wordless scene where Louise trades her jewellery with an old man for his Stetson.
In 1996, the Oscars forgave her with the best actress award for Dead Man Walking, as the nun who befriends death row killer Penn. It’s fair to say, however, that she’s still not a big part of the Hollywood family. In her downtime she lives in New York, and was close pals with Gore Vidal until his death last summer. He helped her raise her daughter Eva when she was living in Italy, and became godfather to her son Miles. He remained, however, a merciless critic of other people’s writing. “We showed him both Cradle Will Rock and Dead Man Walking,” she says. “And he told us we shouldn’t make either of them, because they were both terrible ideas.”
The emphasis on looks has led to much speculation about surgery and enhancements. “I don’t look 20,” splutters Sarandon, and she’s right, she doesn’t. However she does look awfully good, with few lines, and her trademark bow cheekbones intact. She admits to having had liposuction under her chin to tighten her jawline “but no botox, I’m scared of injections and I need my face to move”. She’s hopeless on beauty tips; she uses whatever moisturiser is in the house, exercises and is stern about not smoking. Apart from that, she recommends good lighting. It’s another reason she would hate to live in LA. “If I got to the supermarket with no make-up on, while I’m looking at a lettuce I could lose three jobs,” she laughs.
Hollywood usually grows impatient with actresses after a certain age. As Goldie Hawn, one of Sarandon’s other friends, said in The First Wives Club, “There are only three ages of women: babe, district attorney and Driving Miss Daisy.” Sarandon has done some of the first two, but she has also worked steadily, even if she does play a lot more mothers and wives. It’s a wider problem for older actors, she says. “It starts in the 40s. I see a lot of scripts, but I also see the ones the men get sent and I’m not sure there are that many interesting parts. If it’s people I want to work with, or something I haven’t done, that’s how I make the decision.”
A heroine to younger actresses, she admires Vanessa Redgrave’s energy and keeps an eye on the next generation. “Anne Hathaway has become somebody who is really great,” she says, prescient even before last Sunday’s Oscar. “I think Emma Stone has it together and I like Jennifer Lawrence.” Sarandon and Lawrence met at an earlier awards ceremony. “She’s versatile and unaffected and I’ve seen a little bit of her humour.”
Besides film. Sarandon also dips into theatre, and likes the fact that on stage, no-one can leave her best work on the cutting room floor. “There’s no point acting up a storm if big chunks will be gone. Some films I’ve done as a favour and then you see them and wonder why they even called me in. It’s very frustrating.” New York is where her business partner lives. Jonathan Bricklin is also her boyfriend, her first big relationship since she and Robbins announced they were separating. That relationship remains amicable – he walked her daughter down the aisle for her wedding – but she doesn’t want to discuss him precisely because they are friends “and we have children”. She’s also superstitious about Bricklin. “The curse of those magazines where you say you are really happy, and then by the time it’s published they have split up.”
Bricklin is dark, skinny, handsome and in business, not showbusiness, and together they are in the process of setting up a chain of ping pong bars, although she rates her own wiff-waff skills as sporty rather than competitive. And as the press never let’s us forget, he’s also 35. Sarandon is unflustered. “Everyone’s younger than me,” she quips.
• Robot and Frank is on general release from Friday