'It's just a chance to use my celebrity'

Susan Sarandon says she knows how to make stardom socially useful. Sheila Johnston met her
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The Independent Culture

Susan Sarandon likes to speak out when she sees an injustice. She has argued for abortions rights and against Third World famine. Last year she was briefly held by police when she joined a demonstration against the shooting of an unarmed black immigrant. She was recently appointed a Special Representative of the United Nations Children's Fund. And she has just been protesting against Paramount Television's planned talk show hosted by the anti-gay activist Laura Schlessinger: "a person," declared Sarandon in a typically robust public statement, "clearly in dire need of compassion, education, and a good shrink herself."

It's a fair bet that few people were even aware of American government policy towards HIV-positive Haitian refugees before the 1993 Oscars when, Sarandon, with her partner, the actor-director Tim Robbins, launched into a speech about the "internment camps" where these refugees were detained. They were both promptly banned from the Academy.

We continue to listen to Sarandon because she is an authentic star with a string of unassailable successes to her credit: box-office hits (The Witches of Eastwick; Thelma and Louise), cult classics (The Rocky Horror Picture Show; The Hunger) and successes d'estime (Atlantic City; Lorenzo's Oil).

Indeed, only three years after that Academy ban, she was back on stage, collecting an Oscar, for her performance as Sister Helen Prejean, the compassionate nun who befriends a convicted murderer in Robbins's Dead Man Walking. Besides, her views are always outspoken and generally diverting. And, she says, exploiting the media's interest in her is "a chance to use my celebrity instead of being used by it."

It is therefore a small irony that, when we meet, Sarandon has all but lost her voice. Only physically, of course, and thanks to a nasty cold, but not metaphorically: in fact she has just been in the headlines yet again. When "Sensation", the controversial show of New British Art, opened in Brooklyn this winter, Rudolph Giuliani, the city's mayor, was affronted by Chris Ofili's Turner prize-winning, but dung-decorated painting of the Virgin Mary and threatened to close it. Sarandon was there with the demonstrators. "It all makes our movie seem very contemporary, doesn't it?" she croaks.

She is referring to Cradle Will Rock, a new film written and directed by Robbins, which, set in the New York cultural scene in Depression-era America, paints a comic, noticeably pessimistic picture of artists clashing with authority. The Federal Theatre Project, set up by the government to provide free entertainment and employment for working people, is under attack for peddling left-wing propaganda. Among the targets is Marc Blitzstein's agit-prop musical The Cradle Will Rock (for some unexplained reason, the definite article has been dropped from the movie's title), which is being staged by a young and already iconoclastic Orson Welles in the teeth of opposition, both from the right and from the left.

The film pinpoints one of those historical moments when the relationship between art and politics was hotly debated in the full glare of the public gaze. "It always interests me when people say that artists shouldn't be political and or get involved," says Sarandon, "because every work of art establishes a certain set of values: what women want, what it means to be a man, what's funny, what's acceptable. But people don't call an Arnold Schwarzenegger film 'political', even though it reinforces every stereotype. They only notice the ones which challenge the status quo."

There is one role in Cradle Will Rock which seems as if it's simply tailor-made for Sarandon: the character of Hallie Flanagan, the sober-suited leader of the Federal Theater Project who defends its policies with impassioned fierceness (her book, Arena, about these experiences was one of Robbins's chief sources for the film). "That would have been the obvious part for me," she says. "Which is precisely why I didn't want to take it." As she remarks, why would people pay $10 to watch her haranguing Congress in a cinema fiction when they could see her doing it in for real on television?

Instead Sarandon made a beeline for the role of Margherita Sarfetti, Mussolini's former mistress, a captivating femme fatale who is visiting New York to curry support among magnates like William Randolph Hearst by slipping them the odd Old Master in return for contributions to the fascist cause (Flanagan is played in the film by Cherry Jones).

Worthy characters might be admirable, but, as every actor knows, the bad boys and girls are so much more enjoyable. "Sister Helen in Dead Man Walking was very difficult because basically she just goes around saying, 'I'm so sorry, let's pray.' She's leading you through the more interesting characters, who all have much better hairdos and it's hard to make that work. So after that, I was looking for a role where I would wear make-up and f----me pumps, and have breasts again."

There followed a brief blip in the shape of last year's Stepmom, in which Sarandon played a woman with terminal cancer whose husband leaves her for Julia Roberts. The actress also executive-produced the movie: "At least," she jokes, "if you call yourself a producer they don't call you a bitch so much." But she got her breasts back for her next role, as Nathalie Portman's vulgar, irresponsible mother in Anywhere But Here: "That character has a great talent because she didn't leave her personality behind when she became a mom, and she's making memories for her daughter which are just as important as making sure her homework gets done".

In Cradle Will Rock, she also gets to wear some nifty - if rather classier - outfits and to portray another interestingly self-deluded personality: "I love her because she's so complicated, and not one of the good guys," Sarandon says (as a Jew, Sarfetti was both compromising and endangering herself by her flirtation with fascism). "It's both a blessing and a curse to play someone who actually lived, because you have such a wealth of information to pull from, but at the same time a certain responsibility to the truth."

The remarkable thing about Sarandon is that, at 53, she can still effortlessly take on board the vampy, glamorous, sexually active roles as well as the drab menopausal types. "I don't feel that my sexuality has kicked in in a different way, except that I'm probably more confident now and can offer more," she says. "When I was 20 I didn't have the faintest idea what I was doing. There are certainly people who have looked greater, but I've been really lucky because I started out as a character actor and it gave me a wider framework to hang my career on."

Despite her myriad political and social commitments and the demands of her family (she has two sons, aged 10 and 7, with Robbins as well as a daughter, 14, by a former relationship with the Italian writer-director Franco Amurri), Sarandon keeps constantly working: Cradle will be her third film to be released here in the last 12 months. Another key reason is undoubtedly that, while trying to maintain her integrity, she remains eclectic about her choice of projects.

"I'm not one of those actors who creates tension just in order to get the best out of herself. I'm just the opposite: I like to have a good time, so I'm looking for things I think could be fun for some reason or other. As an actor you're forced to overcome the narrowness of your vision, constantly: that's what attracted me to the profession in the first place.

"Left to myself I would never have gone into a locker room for three months in North Carolina to try to understand what goes on in a baseball team. The main thing for me is that the people involved are talented and their films have something that I want to say. I wouldn't call Ridley Scott a feminist, but he's an amazing director." It is probably no bad way to go about choosing a movie, since those two decision resulted in Bull Durham, on which she met Robbins, and in Thelma and Louise, which earned her one of her Oscar nominations.

How does she feel about the perception of herself as a intellectual or a maverick? She lets rip with a huge laugh: "Is that a compliment, coming from Hollywood? We live in New York, and I don't have the faintest idea of what goes on in Los Angeles, but then a lot of actors live outside that company town, so we're inside outsiders, I guess. Still, I'm always incredibly shocked that I still have a career. I've done everything wrong, so there must be some kind of angel watching over me."

'Cradle Will Rock' opens on 21 April