A VERY GROWN-UP KIND OF GLAMOUR

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"I'M A little like fine vintage wine, getting better with age." Susan Sarandon laughs as she says this and pours more tea. We are in her Manhattan hotel room and America's favourite fortysomething is talking about growing old gracefully. "It was a big deal when I began to play mothers - then I started taking my make-up off with Marmie in Little Women, and now I've played a nun. I've gone about as far as I can go in defining the essence of womanhood."

You can't help believing her. Sarandon is the American bookies' favourite to take the Best Actress Oscar at tomorrow night's Academy Awards. It's her fifth nomination - and it's for a classic Sarandon part. As Sister Helen Prejean in Dead Man Walking, she is serious and dramatic, with an undercurrent of sexuality. In a film career lasting 26 years, Sarandon has cornered the market in this kind of role: tough but compassionate, sensual and intellectual. Her's is a very grown-up kind of glamour.

Dead Man Walking was directed by Sarandon's real-life partner, 39-year- old Tim Robbins, who's also nominated as Best Director. It's been 21 years since a couple was last nominated for Best Director and Best Actress after collaborating on the same project, and it's a combination that has only been repeated three times before. If Robbins and Sarandon do win, they will become Hollywood's hottest couple, America's answer to Ken and Em - an ironic outcome for two self- confessed outsiders who have often given Tinseltown the cold shoulder.

When we meet, on a cold winter's day, Sarandon is dressed in Manhattan black from head to toe, carrying her 49 years effortlessly on a tall, graceful body. When she talks she makes eye contact and holds it, drawing you into her world: a place where art and politics coexist, protected by a tough barrier of hard-assed attitude. She gives the sense that if you mess with her, someone is going to get hurt.

"PLAYING a nun was really challenging," says Sarandon, in a strong Southern accent (surprising for a woman born in New Jersey). "Sister Helen believes every man is worth more than his worst deed. Then she finds this horrible person who has reached out to her in a letter - and how does she love him? She just wants to get away from him, but everything keeps pushing her in."

Dead Man Walking explores the relationship between Sarandon's Sister Helen and a death-row inmate called Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn, in the performance of a lifetime). Penn's Poncelet is a foul-mouthed rapist, murderer and white supremacist - yet Sister Helen must find a way to love him and open his heart, so that he can find redemption. In the end, she travels with him all the way to the execution chamber; and more is said in the film's extraordinary final moments about the nature and power of love than you'd find in a thousand Hollywood romances. The last scene between Poncelet and Sister Helen is drama of the highest quality, and shows Sarandon at the peak of her powers. She says it's the kind of film she has always wanted to make: one that combines ideas with drama and doesn't assume the viewer is a buffoon.

Yet Sarandon is no stranger to "difficult" parts. In all she has made 33 films, and she has been short-listed for the Best Actress Oscar on five occasions - the other nominations were for Atlantic City (1980), Thelma and Louise (1991), Lorenzo's Oil (1992) and The Client (1994). In most of these, as in Dead Man Walking, she plays the thoughtful partner in a pair of misfits. This is what she does best, seeming to have too much star wattage to work well in an ensemble cast. Nobody remembers Safe Passage, also from 1994. And movies where she acts in a group, such as Light Sleeper (1992), do her little justice (though to many Americans in their thirties she will always be remembered as the wide-eyed innocent in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a role she played largely in her underwear).

"My favourite movie is Bull Durham," she says of the film that brought her together with Robbins in 1988, and in which she played a fanatical baseball fan who makes her man a star by forcing him to wear a garter belt under his sports kit. "It was obviously the film that changed my life personally, but it also came at a time when I had pretty much lost faith in acting as a team effort, or as something which people invested with any kind of passion. Up to that point I had not gotten a part which was bigger than I was."

Since then, Hollywood has thrown more challenges her way, including the wonderful Thelma and Louise. "How could I not enjoy that role, once it was crafted right?" she says, referring to the studio's attempt to stop her and Geena Davis from driving off a cliff in the movie's final scene. "The first thing I demanded from the director, Ridley Scott, was that I had to die in the last scene. I didn't want the movie to end with me in a Club Med. I'm not interested in that kind of film. Once he assured me I was definitely on the death list I accepted the part."

Hollywood also tried to impose its morality on Dead Man Walking. It failed: the finished product is unrelenting, showing the crimes which put Poncelet on death row in disturbing detail over the final scene, as Penn's character dies by lethal injection.

Sarandon sips her tea and smiles, a great wide grin. "It's a great date movie," she says, displaying an ironic sense of humour that's more British than American. "Hollywood always has to change things. That's one reason I wanted to do Dead Man Walking, to stop them turning it into a musical in which Poncelet is innocent."

The film was inspired by a book written by the real Sister Helen Pre- jean, which Sarandon read while filming The Client in New Orleans, the home of Sister Helen's mission. (When Sarandon asked her agent to arrange a meeting, Sister Helen was convinced she was about to be introduced to Geena Davis, the other half of Thelma and Louise.) Within weeks Tim Robbins had been persuaded to direct and write the script, which he did with Sarandon and Penn in mind.

"When we were looking for money to do the movie everybody was interested because of the people involved," she says. "Then they'd read Tim's treatment and say, `Couldn't Poncelet be innocent?' Or `Couldn't he live at the end?' It was totally like The Player [Robert Altman's acid Hollywood comedy, which starred Robbins as a movie producer]. They all said it was wonderful, but they wanted it softened to become more accessible at the box-office."

Sarandon and Robbins refused to change the script - an uncompromising stance that is typical of both of them. But they paid a price. The movie had to be made with a budget of just $11m and on a tight schedule, something which put their relationship under severe stress.

"I could just not answer questions about this," Sarandon tells me, getting up to adjust the blinds. "But in an attempt to encourage other people who are in unions that have two strong people, I'll be honest, and say it was difficult."

"We had six horrible days - or I know I did. Tim may have had even more," she laughs - as if she knows he definitely had more. "It was tough, but we are in a much better place now than we were before we started. Tim is more vulnerable as a writer than as a director. Some problems came about because what would normally be constructive criticism seemed to him like a betrayal - when it came from me after he'd just had to deal with 16 other people."

Many of their differences were creative, but not all. "It wasn't that I was demanding things all the time and he was resisting. It's just that sometimes you can't stand the way someone is eating their cereal in the morning. Anybody who has been in a long relationship knows what that's like. Sometimes you just look up and think: `Who is this person - yuk!' When you are working hard together that feeling is exacerbated."

Sarandon says the intense emotions helped make a movie she is proud of - but she would not want to work with Robbins again in the near future. "What gets tricky is that you expect more of somebody you are living with than somebody you just hired," she says. "You are more polite to somebody you have hired. I behaved on the Dead Man Walking set in the same way as I have on all my movies, and my outspokenness is not always welcome. But on other movies if I was publicly humiliated, I would just leave; with Tim I couldn't leave. You are in a bit of a hostage situation, both of you. I'm glad we took most of our disagreements to our trailer and settled them in private."

GIVEN the strength of personalities involved, one can imagine that trailer rocking like a small boat in a hurricane. But it seems to have worked - Sarandon's performance is rich with emotions. It's a prime example of how, with age, she has found a way of opening up a character from within, allowing the audience an intimacy that's rare among Hollywood's female stars.

Sarandon senses that acting has changed her. Indeed, that's the point: she has made a career out of self- discovery. She took drugs in the Sixties, marched with activists, and explored the highs and deep lows of stormy relationships with actor Chris Sarandon and writer-director Franco Amurri. Now she gives the impression - in person and on the screen - that every experience can be used as an exercise, a way of developing tougher emotional muscle.

"Acting has always been interesting to me because it's about self-discovery," she says. "As a little hippie flower child, doing LSD and mysticism and everything else I did before I had children, that was the quest - what is your purpose here? Who are you? Where is your demon? I always wanted the courage to try and answer these questions."

She drinks some tea and pauses, making you aware that she's digging deep within herself to find an answer. "Acting forces you not only to have compassion and to put yourself in other people's lives, but to discover things in yourself that you hoped were never there or you wished were there. To me it always seemed to be a means to an end - a way to find out more about myself."

That can mean tough decisions. Sarandon will not work outside New York during the school year, so that her children can enjoy their education with minimum disruption (she and Robbins have three children in their family - two boys, aged three and six, of their own, and a girl, from Sarandon's relationship with Franco Amurri). This meant recently turning down a key role in Jane Campion's forthcoming adaptation of Portrait of a Lady. "That's the first time I've turned something down which really upset me, because I think Jane is a great director. When they moved the film's production from the summer into November, my daughter was just starting middle school, and I just couldn't not be there for that, or ask her to go in late. I bring my kids everywhere, because I know I couldn't work if I was away from them. I would be just too unsettled."

As if on cue, the telephone rings; Sarandon takes a call from home which soon has her in conversation with her son, Jack. She paces as she speaks, a cat-like quality rippling through her movements. Her Sister Helen may be almost (though not quite) a sexless creature, but Sarandon herself still gives off plenty of heat. That may provide a clue about what she would like to do next.

"A comedy, with make-up and mascara and lipstick and legs," she says, seated again. "I want it to be a romance, a really good adult comedy. I don't know when I will find one, because I've been looking for years. Maybe that's what I have to write next, a romance of some sort. Apart from that I'd like to play a bad guy - that would really be fun."

Some in Hollywood say that's just what she did play when she broke Oscar conventions in 1991. Announcing nominations with Robbins, the couple launched into a political speech about the treatment of HIV-positive Haitian refugees. Sarandon instantly became labelled as the poster-girl of PC, a title confirmed by her decision not to play prosecution attorney Marcia Clark in a film about the OJ Simpson trial. "I don't think that's political correctness. I just don't want to make any money out of that tragedy."

Remarks like that make it tempting to see Sarandon as worthy. She can afford to wear her heart on her expensive designer sleeve because Hollywood values her vampish qualities enough to give her room to be political. The success of Dead Man Walking, both critically and at the box-office, will reinforce the Sarandon image. Her critics are watching to see if she becomes too self-righteous - after all she is an actress, Marcia Clark would have been a great role, and anyway isn't Dead Man Walking making money out of a tragedy too?

SARANDON says her latest emotional quest is to find ways of linking love and spirituality. There's nothing original about that in Nineties Hollywood. But what makes her different is how she applies her enthusiasm to her acting, which is always an exercise in re-examining her own past. "I admired Sister Helen so much because I'd never seen a real nun who could get anything done within the church. The nuns I grew up with had men's names and shaved heads and a little bit of a moustache. I imagined they wore black underwear," she says, suddenly throwing back her head and laughing. "That's probably why they thought I had an over-abundance of original sin."

Sarandon considers herself still religious, but not in an institutionalised way. She found that this helped her find the inner resources to play Sister Helen. There are few Hollywood stars who, approaching 50, would choose to play a part without make-up. "It was an amazing exercise in removing all vanity and ego, just to appear that way. It was a lesson in humility. I was pretty appalled the first time I saw myself up there on screen without make-up. I had to trust in some kind of inner light."

Motherhood has given the queen of causes a new battlefront. She fears her two boys will fall victim to what she sees as society's in-bred sexism. "I'm going through this heartbreaking process now of raising sons. I was so vigilant with my daughter, but I had no idea that in comparison to raising boys she was a cakewalk. Seeing what they have to go through has made me love men much more."

You can bet Tim Robbins gets little chance to backslide into male chauvinism. "Every now and then something will come out of his mouth that is not him and I'll pull him into another room and say, `Did you just hear what you said? Who is that?' I think people are such a product of their conditioning, but I decided a long time ago not to be Tim's shrink. All you can hope for is to have a partner who will try and keep you straight in as gentle a way as possible."

IT'S easy to imagine Sarandon doing just that, this daughter of a big- band singer who now fills cinemas on the strength of her complex feminine roles. In Dead Man Walking, Sarandon compels the audience to confront their feelings about loss and revenge and redemption, but there's also an undeniable sexual element which develops between her Sister Helen and Penn's demonic Poncelet. "We felt that just had to be there, it's part of the tension of intimacy. Here's this woman who has never been intimate with a man, with this guy who says that he's never been loved, and they find themselves forced together for the last seven days of his life."

What Sarandon and Penn produce is a fascinating chemistry which on its own justifies their Oscar nominations. To create sexual smoke between two people separated by bullet-proof glass is hard, even when one isn't playing a devoted nun in a polyester blouse.

"I want people to be moved by that relationship - it's important to an alternative dialogue about our goals as a society." By which she means her strong belief that most movies are not a force for good. "There is a constant reaffirmation in most films that a certain violent macho attitude towards women is not only acceptable but manly. Hollywood puts out subtle messages that link sex and violence in ways that make the two together seem normal. When people see that all the time it must do untold damage."

A PIONEER, an activist, a mother, a feminist, a sex symbol - Susan Sarandon can be all those things; but above all she is a fine actress who has given Hollywood a claim to quality that it would barely deserve if she were not working. She plans to wear a gauzy Robert Danes dress to tomorrow night's ceremony - but if those elegant fingers do curl around the Academy's famous statuette, the conservative Oscar establishment will hold its breath expecting another political speech from the world's most glamorous liberal. After all, she's bound to say something - isn't she?

`Dead Man Walking' (15) opens Fri.

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