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 MarchReuse content