Susan Sarandon doesn’t read the attacks that come her way. “But I know when things have gotten very bad,” she says with a snigger, “because people say, ‘Don’t worry, we love you, we’ve got your back!’ Oh boy. Something must be cooking now, if everyone’s declaring they’ve got my back. I guess my back is in danger.”
The 73-year-old actor and activist does find herself in the firing line more than most. Not for her films – her formidable career includes Atlantic City (1980), Thelma & Louise (1991), Lorenzo’s Oil (1992) and The Client (1994), all of which earned her Oscar nominations before she finally won for Dead Man Walking (1995) – but for her politics. Around the time of the last presidential election, the long-time left-wing campaigner fiercely supported Bernie Sanders. So much so that when he was out of the race, she refused to vote for Hillary Clinton, deeming her “very, very dangerous”. In another interview, she seemed to suggest there was a silver lining to a Donald Trump presidency – that maybe he would “bring the revolution immediately”. Some applauded her radical position. Others felt that it was people like her who helped get Trump elected. Debra Messing declared war.
“People don’t read an article, they just read clickbait,” says Sarandon now, her smoky New York drawl unmistakable even down a crackly phone line. “That worries me, because it shows how all this misinformation is becoming so powerful. You’ve got opinions and hatred based on clickbait and not on an actual article. When I’ve been attacked violently, then that’s kind of shocking. People ask, ‘How could you have said that?’ and I never said it. Seriously, go look at the clips, and you’ll see.”
I didn’t mean for the conversation to go this way. In fact, I’ve been asked not to bring up politics – which works well until she brings it up herself about five minutes in. We’re here to discuss John Turturro’s sprawling Big Lebowski spin-off, The Jesus Rolls, out on demand on Monday.
Turturro got permission from the Coen brothers to take his character from the 1998 cult film, and turn him into a star. This time around, Jesus, an oleaginous bowling ball-licking registered sex offender with a hairnet and a catchphrase – “Nobody f***s with the Jesus” – has transformed into a loveable goof on the run. It is a road movie full of capers and oddballs: Jesus’s partner-in-crime Petey (Bobby Cannavale); Marie (Audrey Tautou), the uninhibited, unfulfilled girlfriend of a hairdresser they pissed off; and, briefly, Susan Sarandon’s melancholic Jean, newly released from prison.
Sarandon doesn’t exactly have much to do, but “anything John asks me to do, I do it”, she says. He is lucky to have her. Since 1971’s Lady Liberty, Sarandon has barely put a foot wrong. With her all-consuming eyes and brisk, unerring delivery, she adds a flintiness to even her gentlest roles – as the spiritual adviser to a man on death row in Dead Man Walking, or the philanthropic matriarch Marmie in Little Women (1994) – and a tenderness to even her most unsympathetic. Most recently, as Bette Davis in the fabulous 2017 miniseries Feud, which followed the famous rivalry between Davis and Joan Crawford, she was at once snarky, conniving and deeply damaged.
And so, unsurprisingly, she makes the most of what little Turturro has given her to do in The Jesus Rolls. A particularly impassioned exchange with a waitress is one of the film’s best moments. “She’s been incarcerated for a long time,” says Sarandon of Jean, “so when she gets out, it’s almost like landing on a different planet. But she’s liberated, little by little, by these funny but respectful guys, who think she’s beautiful.”
Respectful is the operative word here. The Jesus Rolls is loosely based on Going Places (1974), the controversial French film described by film critic Roger Ebert as “the most misogynistic movie I can remember”, whose “hatred of women is palpable and embarrassing”. Sarandon knew this would be different. “John loves women,” she says. “The women are always pretty much in charge. The women’s choices might be unusual, but they’re in charge of their lives and I think he treats them with dignity and respect.”
Even if I wasn’t speaking to Louise herself, it would be hard to discuss a road movie about two companions on the run without mentioning Thelma & Louise. “I hadn’t thought of the crossover!” says Sarandon when I raise Ridley Scott’s feminist American masterpiece. “That’s funny!” She was at a charity screening of the film the other day, and saw it on the big screen for the first time in a long time. “It’s so beautiful. I think it holds up.”
Beautiful it may be, but it is not always easy to watch. On a trip to the Arkansas mountains, Thelma (Geena Davis) is sexually assaulted by a man at a roadhouse bar. Louise (Sarandon) shoots him dead. Could they explain to the police that he tried to rape her, asks Thelma? “Who’s gonna believe that?” shoots back Louise. “We just don’t live in that kind of world.” The scene, says Sarandon, is even more relevant today – “now that we’re actually bringing people to trial and talking about whether or not women will be listened to, or whether or not men will understand that this behaviour is unacceptable. To hear that now – ‘Who’s gonna believe us?’ – resonates much more strongly than it did 30 years ago.”
Her co-star, who founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media long before rallying against underrepresentation made it into the mainstream, talked recently about the initial response to Thelma & Louise. “One very common theme in the press,” she said, “was, ‘This changes everything. Now there are going to be so many female buddy pictures, so many female action figures. This just completely rewrites everything’. And it didn‘t. The really short answer is, it didn‘t do s***.”
The way Sarandon sees it, it’s more difficult for male executives, awards voters, even viewers, to connect with female leads. But women have no trouble putting themselves in the shoes of male ones. Why is that? “Maybe women just have more fluid imaginations,” she says. “Because it’s a male-driven, patriarchal society, men haven’t had to adjust. Maybe they just haven’t been challenged in terms of their imagination.” Younger men are different, she adds. “They have more fluidity of imagination, and are questioning a lot of male stereotypes.”
Sarandon has two adult sons, Jack and Miles, with the actor Tim Robbins (the couple separated in 2009), as well as a daughter, Eva, with her previous partner, the Italian film director Franco Amurri. A few years ago, Miles wrote a piece for The Huffington Post about his decision to wear dresses onstage. The piece went viral. “That was surprising!” says Sarandon. “The socialisation process is pretty horrific for boys. More so than young girls, because girls are pretty much ignored in terms of power structure – that’s their problem. Boys are corrupted from these sweet, open, gentle children into these hardened, often misogynistic men. There’s some sense of entitlement that crashes in when they’re about 30. There’s just so many pressures on young boys to be men in a way that closes down their imagination. I mean, that’s been my experience having two boys. You’re just fighting every day for their soul.”
She says things are changing, though. “I’ve been travelling around the country campaigning for Bernie Sanders, and there are all kinds of young people of different colours and ages who have been knocking on doors trying to connect with people. That has blown my mind. Bernie says, ‘I want you to look out and find the person that doesn’t look like you, that you don’t know, and tell that person that you will fight as hard for them as you will fight for yourself.’ I think that’s the moment we have to be in right now, in order to stand up against the normalisation of hatred and racism and Islamophobia and all the phobias that are happening.”
As well as using the old-fashioned door-to-door technique, Sarandon implores her 650,000-odd Twitter followers to vote for Bernie – although she insists she doesn’t use it “as an opinion-making thing”. She makes it clear what side she’s on, though. “I don’t use it to give my opinion,” she repeats, “I use it to put out facts that aren’t in the mainstream media. I use it to give a voice to organisations that don’t have huge budgets, or health stats, or environmental stats.” Is it getting harder, in the age of the internet, to distinguish what’s true and what isn’t? “No, I think facts are facts. And so you go to the facts and you look them up and those are the facts.” Fair enough. “But I’m not gonna tell people what to think.”
She’s hopeful these days about where the world is heading. “I really feel like the bubbles are bursting,” she says. “You can have fluidity of thought and imagination and a role. That makes me very, very optimistic, because that’s what the future’s going to be if we’re going to survive.”
‘The Jesus Rolls’ is available on demand from 23 March
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