Susan Sarandon: Cause Celebrity

Susan Sarandon has become as well known for her liberal politics as for her film roles. Is that why her latest film is an all-singing, all-dancing musical? James Mottram finds out

It's a wonder Susan Sarandon is still standing. A natural successor to such campaigners as Vanessa Redgrave and Jane Fonda, the liberal actress has faced more pot-shots than a battery of clay pigeons. If it's not the Democrats and Republicans knocking her for supporting the independent candidate Ralph Nader during the 2000 US presidential elections, then it's the
South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone mocking her and Tim Robbins, her long-time partner, in the puppet-powered satire,
Team America: World Police. "Your powers have been weakened by time, Miss Sarandon," her marionette likeness is told as it is blown from a balcony. The truth is, as Sarandon approaches her 60th birthday this autumn, she is anything but frail. "I've been through
Celebrity Death Match and I survived that!" she smiles, referring to the cult MTV show that pitted animated versions of her and Robbins against Warren Beatty and Annette Bening. "I've been on lots of things where I make fun of myself."

In town to promote her latest film, Romance & Cigarettes, Sarandon is sitting in the shade in the lush gardens of a luxury Venetian hotel, wearing a green crêpe dress, white trainers and a chunky gold bracelet. Witty and wise in equal measure, she is keen to prove that she has a sense of humour as well as a keen conscience. Yet she can't resist a dig at Team America, which she feels showed a "lack of sophistication" in its choice of who to pick on. "I thought it was one-dimensional to kill off all the actors who were activists, rather than people who, in my mind, would be better served as targets. I don't understand why they didn't kill off right-wing activists. It seems that only right-wing actors can become political figures. Progressive actors are never allowed to run for office. It's all those bad actors that get into politics!"

Sarandon, of course, is anything but a bad actor. Nominated five times for an Oscar, she finally won Best Actress in 1996 for her role as a nun who befriends a Death Row inmate in Robbins's Dead Man Walking. "Anything to kill my sex appeal, and my career, I've done," she laughs. "I can't account for it." It was a supreme irony to win the award for such a chaste role, for Sarandon had made a career out of playing characters defined by their sexuality. In Louis Malle's Pretty Baby, she played a New Orleans prostitute who abandons her child. Then there was the vampire movie The Hunger, which featured Sarandon in an infamous love scene with Catherine Deneuve. After she reignited her career at 42 by playing a sizzling baseball groupie in 1988's Bull Durham, she got to play a leggy coke-fiend ( Light Sleeper), a femme fatale ( Twilight) and, most famously, her Oscar-nominated feminist icon Louise ( Thelma and Louise).

A former model, Sarandon appears at least a decade younger than she is - aided by skin that is remarkably free of wrinkles and that sassy crop of red hair. While Sarandon is entirely at ease with her sexual allure, she claims never to have focused on her looks. "In the early part of my career, I lost a job because my teeth were too small," she says. "So pretty early on, you learn to live with rejection." Yet it's more than that. There is a youthful zest to Sarandon that makes her a sensual being. While she tells me her children have been downloading tracks by Keane and The Killers on to her iPod, I suspect that it's being with a man 12 years her junior that has invigorated her. It's no coincidence that she met Robbins on Bull Durham at an age when most actresses would have been heading for early retirement in Hollywood. "I don't know how I've survived," she says. "I've done everything wrong."

You could be forgiven for thinking she's referring to the 1993 Academy Awards ceremony, when she and Robbins hijacked the show to speak out on behalf of HIV-positive Haitian refugees interned at Guantanamo Bay who were on hunger strike. "I wasn't raised to stop the conversation," she says. "I was raised as a dutiful little Catholic girl - people were screaming at us from the wings. Just thinking about it now traumatises me! There was nothing to read, and we fought over what we were going to say and the words to use to try to do it as quickly as possible. I guess that's the most concrete example of being inappropriate and getting something accomplished. You just never have any idea how your words affect people - for better or for worse. You just know that if you go home and you haven't said anything when you had an opportunity, it's much worse. On your deathbed, those are the moments you regret."

While the Haitian prisoners were released the next day, a massive backlash followed, from sack-loads of "homophobic and racist" hate-mail to a ludicrous two-year ban from the Oscars (which was lifted when she was nominated for her role in The Client). It was not the first time she and Robbins had felt isolated in Hollywood. "During the Gulf war, we asked questions when a lot of people weren't, and that was a very scary, lonely time," she recalls, her eyes widening like an owl's. "It is definitely clear that people were afraid to question that war, or even to ask why we were in it. No one was talking to anybody. I know that that was a very unpopular phase, and I have to admit that, looking around, there were not the people I expected to be there."

If anything keeps Sarandon's value-system intact, it's her family. She and Robbins live in New York with their two sons, Jack, 16, and Miles, 13, as well as Sarandon's 20-year-old daughter, Eva, from her time with the Italian director Franco Amurri. It's not hard to imagine her children soon following their mother, who was even arrested for disorderly conduct in 1999 after the shooting of an unarmed African immigrant by four policemen.

"Miles was very, very frightened when Bush got re-elected," she says. "They were studying government, and he bottomed out in a serious way. It was the first time my daughter could vote; she voted and was also upset. But he was seriously affected." While Sarandon claims that their dinner-table conversations are as mundane as those of the next family, their children all have "strong opinions", she says. "We don't have one follower! The entire family is full of leaders. It's a nightmare. I have given up any kind of thoughts of influencing them one way or another; Tim's a little more reluctant to do that but I just think they'll find their way.

"It's a hard thing to have two parents who are really visible," she admits - particularly ones as outspoken as her and Robbins. "They've never been the least bit embarrassed if I was getting arrested or something like that. I've always talked to them ahead of time about why I was doing it and what would happen." In the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war, it was a particularly fractious time in their household. Robbins reportedly threatened a Washington Post reporter for interviewing Sarandon's staunchly Republican mother, who allegedly said that the pair had "brainwashed" Jack with regard to Bush's controversial 2000 election win. Other newspapers even focused on the boy himself, reporting that he had quit his play because his role wasn't big enough. "First of all, it wasn't true, and second, who would care?" Sarandon asks, her cheeks growing red as she tells the tale. How did it make her feel? "Oh, I wept. I was furious. Furious. I don't even pick on the Bush girls - you just leave people's kids alone."

While most actors are guarded about their politics and personal life, Sarandon is the opposite, to the point where you almost feel guilty when steering her towards her latest movie - particularly one as unashamedly apolitical as this. Written and directed by the actor John Turturro, Romance & Cigarettes is an uplifting blue-collar musical with New Jersey workers lip-sync-ing to standards, à la Dennis Potter. After playing a string of screwed-up mothers in films such as Anywhere But Here, The Banger Sisters and Igby Goes Down, Sarandon continues the theme as Kitty Kane, a downtrodden sort who finds out that her construction-worker husband (James Gandolfini) is having a torrid affair with a British lass (Kate Winslet). "In a way, it reminds me of a Pedro Almodovar film," Sarandon says, "where you have these colourful, strange dream sequences, and everybody is very passionate, and at the heart of it is a very simple story."

Her first all-out musical since starring as Janet in the cult 1975 movie The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Sarandon gets to lip-sync to Dusty Springfield's "Piece of My Heart". "The challenge of it was not to feel silly when you're trying to make it real," she notes. "It was hard for us to not perform it and, at the same time, be singing. You had to use the words as if it was an opera. I had to find a way to invite Janis Joplin and Dusty Springfield into the context of my story, as opposed to just deciding to get up and dance. When I was preparing for that, I really had missed the whole point of that song, all those years. She's really saying, 'I gave you everything, so why don't you come and fucking take the rest of it! Just come on and take it.' That's how pissed off she is. I never got it that way. I was just so mesmerised by the singers; it didn't enter my reality until I had to do it."

Sarandon knows the setting well, having grown up in New Jersey as the eldest of nine. Born to a half-English father and a red-haired Sicilian mother, she helped to deliver the first of her siblings when she was just six. "It's in my nature to be nurturing - though it never helped my relationships with men. With children, it's much healthier." Desperate to get out of the area, Sarandon went to a Catholic university in Washington, DC, where she became involved in protest marches about the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement. Ironically, it was her attempts to disrupt the 1968 Democratic Convention that drew her to the attention of the producers of Joe two years later. She won the role as the girlfriend to a drug-dealer, while her husband at the time, Chris Sarandon, was passed over.

It would be another decade before she won her first Oscar nod, for her croupier in Louis Malle's Atlantic City. Malle became her lover just at the point that she divorced from her husband, in 1979. Although her career was taking off, it was a tough time. In 1983, she went through therapy for a nervous breakdown and then suffered a bout of typhoid after working with deprived children in Nicaragua. It was at this point that she gave birth to Eva. "When I became a mother late in life, I was ready and willing. I had exhausted and demystified my career. I had partied as much as you can without dying, and I was ready for something that was more of a challenge. Motherhood takes every shred of creativity and patience." Eva now is making noises about becoming an actress, which Sarandon takes within her stride. "She's an impeccable student and a good kid and I totally trust her. I think it's great. I'd much rather she wait for the phone to ring about a job than a boy, or something stupid like that."

Quite how she finds time for her extensive charity work is anyone's guess. Honoured by Amnesty International and appointed a Special Representative of the United Nations Children's Fund, she has campaigned on behalf of the Amazon Conservation Team, the Centre for Constitutional Rights and the Green Party, to name but three.

"People are so frightened by so many things, and so overwhelmed, that activism is very important on a grass-roots level," she says. "It makes you feel that you can make a difference and that you're not insignificant. It's a way of dealing with this overwhelming sense of chaos." Does she feel she could leave the US? "I love America," she states. "I can't think of anywhere else that I'd want to be. My feeling is I'm going to stick around until they throw me out."

Romance & Cigarettes is released on 24 March

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice