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Susan Sarandon: Driving force

Susan Sarandon: Driving force — Film’s sexiest 44-year-old shoots from the hip about life, men, and ”Thelma & Louise”

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Here’s how you look when you’re Susan Sarandon and you’re at the opening-night party for your new gals-with-guns-on-the-road movie, Thelma & Louise, and you’re 44 years old and the mother of two and you’re known for your smoky sexuality, which, at least in Hollywood, is considered a Breakthrough for Older Women and a sign of hope for first wives everywhere:You wear a low-cut, check-out-the-breasts tank top and a narrow check-out-the-legs miniskirt and a funky jacket embroidered with vaguely Southwest motifs. And cowboy boots. You flash your big Bette Davis eyes and toss your tousled auburn hair and knock out a few happy hoedown kicks. You goof in an affectionate, sisterhood-is-powerful way with your swanny kid-sister of a costar, Geena Davis. You noodle your live-in sweetie, Bull Durham costar Tim Robbins.

And when journalists stick tape recorders under your nose and ask you, ”Will this movie change Hollywood’s attitude toward women as big box office draws?” you answer, ”Nope.” Or ”No way.” Or something equally hard-boiled — something that shows you know the limits of sexual equality in an industry where Out of Africa was considered Robert Redford’s movie, not Meryl Streep’s. Then you smile. And you turn your remarkable high beams on everyone who approaches, causing folks to fall back and ogle and say, Wow. This babe owns the road.

Susan Sarandon is at the wheel in Thelma & Louise all right — in a metallic green ragtop ’66 T-bird, to be exact. As Louise, the waitress with the neat beehive hairdo whose take-charge competence hides a secret mess in her past, Sarandon is in the driver’s seat for much of the journey, whipping over long ribbons of road through spectacular Southwestern landscapes. Setting off on a girls-only weekend with her best friend, Thelma —a cowed and complaisant housewife with an apoplectic bully for a husband — Louise sets the duo on an irrevocable path when Thelma is nearly raped. She kills the guy with Thelma’s gun, in a white-hot moment of icy fury. Pretty soon the two are outlaws on the run, hurtling toward fate in the middle of the desert.

Feminist trip? Existential car ride? You decide. Some trend scouts are lumping Thelma & Louise with Mortal Thoughts, Sleeping With the Enemy, and even Switch, arguing a case for the latest genre in the humorless ’90s: the man-hating revenge movie. Then again, there’s nothing to stop the less manifesto-minded from enjoying Thelma & Louise as just a grand cartoon saga about a coupla white chicks drivin’ around shootin’. In fact, the line on T&L should be this:

1) Women’s real emotions (which include real, uncute anger) are at least being explored, however clunkily, in today’s mainstream Hollywood.

2) Susan Sarandon, who established herself early in her career as a sexy lightweight, has chosen another complex, difficult, interesting character for her newest movie.

3) The actress has managed to combine motherhood (unwed), political activism (liberal), and sexuality (ripe) into an impressive substantiveness that serves her — and her audience — well.

In other words, Sarandon owns her own winding road. Which she is happy to describe. A driven talker, she is likely to leap from the topic of Hollywood to racism and ”self-determination for countries of color.” She is prone to turn conversation about her new movie into a treatise about media coverage of the gulf war. And the loneliness of her political passions. And why she went to Nicaragua in ’84. ”I brought baby food and milk through a friendship organization called MADRE, and if that makes me a communist then people are just so uneducated, and I don’t apologize for it.”

She is likely to mention homelessness and pro-choice issues and her pride in being an American. She is apt to get operatic the way people do when they’re defending the seriousness of their political involvement. And facts are slippery. And nothing is clear. Lord knows, Susan Sarandon is Right Out There.

But she is also graceful in her transitions. So pretty soon she’s talking about her life and career and Thelma & Louise again. ”My job in the movie was to literally and figuratively drive the film,” she says. ”I was responsible for the moral underpinning. And I had some fears about the project. I was afraid the movie could turn into some kind of revenge film and some kind of feeding frenzy of violence against men, which would not only be a tired idea but certainly something I wouldn’t be interested in pursuing.”

Sarandon brought her misgivings to costar Davis and director Ridley Scott (Alien, Black Rain). ”Ridley hasn’t been known for his character development or for being an actor’s director,” says Sarandon, ”so I thought it was necessary for us to agree about what this was about and what the traps would be, to try to find a way to make this a morally responsible film. The way I work, I tend to be pretty stream-of-consciousness in terms of suggestions. I don’t expect them all to be taken. I don’t believe there’s a right way or a wrong way. But I think there’s a way that works and a way that doesn’t.”

Stream-of-consciously, she made the following suggestions: She asked to drop a long love scene with her boyfriend, played by Michael Madsen (”contrary to my reputation”) that she thought was inappropriate to her character. She suggested adding some business in which Louise trades all her jewelry to an old man for his cowboy hat. And she suggested a stunning moment where she’s driving while Thelma sleeps and she pulls the car over and stops — just stops — to get out and take in the extraordinary silence of the Southwestern night.

Right now it’s mid-morning in Manhattan. Sarandon looks ready to play her real-life role as the Greenwich Village mom of a 6-year-old girl, Eva Maria (with Italian director Franco Amurri), and a 2-year-old boy, Jack Henry (with Robbins), whose birthday party later in the day will require the coordination of food, party favors, and a clown. Because her bones ache from hefting small children, Sarandon habitually wears an orthopedic schlepper-of-35-pound-son neck brace.

Motherhood surprised Sarandon at age 38 — she had been told she could never conceive — and since then she has brought her family with her wherever she works. Robbins, her 32-year-old companion whom she met when the two worked on Bull Durham, came out to Moab, Utah, with the two children for the Thelma & Louise shoot. And Sarandon included Geena Davis in her extended family; the pair formed a friendship during filming. Davis now calls Sarandon ”my role model. She’s crazy, strong, and outspoken — a real troublemaker. I love her.”

Ridley Scott chooses different words. ”I’ve always felt Susan has a great talent for being a chameleon, for changing herself from role to role,” says the director, who met Sarandon when his brother, Tony, directed her in 1983’s The Hunger. ”That’s really her talent as an actress. Susan’s a very smart woman and she’s always had a very strong selection of material. It nearly always has some kind of strong subtext to it, so it’s not necessarily overtly commercial. Which means she’s a ballsy lady, really.”

An actor by instinct more than by training, Sarandon has been a notable screen presence ever since her first film, Joe (1970). Before that — up until the time she went away to college at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. — Susan Abigail Tomalin was a shy child, the eldest of nine children whose father was a TV and advertising executive, a good parochial schoolkid from Metuchen, N.J., who was serious about her faith. ”I was very sheltered. I wasn’t the least bit rebellious,” she says. In college, she met Chris Sarandon, an acting student; she was 20 when she married him. Chris took her along to an audition, for company and support. She walked away with the role of the daughter in Joe, with Peter Boyle. She had become an actress without really trying. (Chris went on to star in Fright Night and Protocol. The couple divorced in 1979.)

”I’ve been discovered three or four times in my career,” she says, and her count is about right. There was the naive Midwestern girl-in-a-bra role of Janet in 1975’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show. There was her fleshpot performance as a prostitute mother in 1978’s Pretty Baby, and her affecting work as a clam-bar waitress in 1980’s Atlantic City — both directed by Louis Malle, who was also her lover in the late 1970s. (Malle is now married to Candice Bergen.) Then there was her MVP acting in 1988’s Bull Durham as a gal who knows her balls and strikes.

Both the origin and fate of Bull Durham seem typical of Sarandon’s career. Although she had received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her work in Atlantic City, she still had to hustle like mad to get the job, flying in from Rome on her own nickel to read for the part. ”Bull Durham happened because they couldn’t find someone to do it,” she says. ”The problem was that it had two things that usually aren’t juxtaposed. It had an enormous amount of verbiage that had to be moved, and it had a sensuality. There weren’t a lot of people that could be trusted to do both. So that narrowed the field somewhat. Then, I don’t know who else was pregnant or what was happening, but I was definitely not on the A list.” She won the role anyway, turned in one of her best performances ever, and produced one of the juiciest and most tender love scenes of her career (complete with Kevin Costner painting her toenails). So what did Bull Durham do for her career? She answers, ”It did nothing for my career.”

Nothing?

”No. First there was a writers’ strike, and then I took off a year because I was having a baby. And people weren’t offering me anything particularly interesting.” The lack of offers, she says, is the real reason her career has taken its idiosyncratic path. ”I haven’t been offered a lot of mainstream parts. And Hollywood is only going to change (its attitude toward older women’s sexuality) if it makes a profit changing. They’re not going to change through some kind of enlightenment. I know there are certainly a lot more women who are older now, because the baby boomers are older. Anyhow, I’m just trying to find roles to hold onto that are frightening because you’re not sure you’ll do them justice, rather than are frightening because they’re so empty that you have to fill them up.”

Sarandon uses that word a lot: frightening. ”Yeah, I suffer from inertia and laziness just like everybody else. If something frightens me, then I know I’m on the right track and should really explore it.”

In her own life, Sarandon is now steadier at the wheel than she has ever been. She’s not at the top of the pay scale (”I’ve always been open to the possibility of accepting less money for something that I wanted to do”), but neither is she Streepian in her dismay about the wage disparity between men and women in Hollywood. (”It concerns me — but I’m also very concerned about the racism in this industry. And the greed motivation.”) And after years on a romantic roller coaster — in addition to Malle and Amurri, she’s been linked to Christopher Walken and David Bowie — she seems to have found a steady partner in Tim Robbins, with whom she’s had a relationship for more than three years.

”I think being a family is the hardest thing ever,” says Sarandon. ”And having a relationship, because obviously all the role models of the past are completely obsolete. Even to figure out why you want to share your medicine cabinet these days with somebody when you’re independent….And then on top of that, to have children in high-maintenance years is another trip. And on top of that to have some responsibility to the world is another element. Luckily, Tim and I are committed to the same things, which is fabulous.”

Having children is a blessing Sarandon didn’t expect (”It was what I was looking for that I didn’t even know I was looking for, because I certainly don’t think a woman has to have a family to be fulfilled”). On top of that she’s got a honey at home and compatriots in political rabble-rousing. And she’s got a role (with Willem Dafoe) in Paul Schrader’s Light Sleeper, which begins filming this week. She’s got a lot, so what has Susan Sarandon learned in her many years on the road?

”I certainly know which battles to fight and which to let go of,” she says. ”I certainly know where to put my energy; you know, sometimes, in the beginning, you’re just punching around all over the place. But have I figured some stuff out? God, I hope so.”

It’s getting toward noon, and there’s that clown business to take care of for Jack Henry’s birthday, and Sarandon’s itching to get real with the party favors. Out on the street, she executes no happy hoedown kicks in her orthopedic neck brace. But folks fall back and ogle anyway. They seem to know: This babe owns the road.

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