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Susan Sarandon's eventful year

The actress talks about her new movie ”The Greatest” and romance — and shows off her mad ping-pong skills

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I should’ve known that Susan Sarandon was hustling me. After all, lying is what actors do. Even so, I wasn’t prepared to be such an easy mark.

The two of us are sitting in a secluded booth at SPiN, the actress’ new Manhattan Ping-Pong club. In theory, we’re here to discuss her new movie The Greatest. But the rows of turf-green tables behind us beckon. So I offer a challenge, and she accepts. Then I make the mistake of asking her if she’s any good.

”Not really,” she says with a laugh. ”Actually, I suck.”

I follow her over to one of the tables. Sarandon takes off her sweater and begins stretching. That was the first sign I was in trouble. The second was the fact that she has her own paddle. The third was her serve.

”1-0,” she says as the ball zips past me.

The sly-fox grin on Sarandon’s face is as unmistakable as it is familiar. It’s the same look she wore while toying with Kevin Costner’s libido in Bull Durham. She unleashes another serve, and I make contact this time. We even rally a bit before she puts me away with a forehand that seems to stop in midair before hanging a 90-degree right turn. In the end, she beats me 11-9.

That’s when it hits me that the woman standing across the table is a freak of nature. Sarandon is 63, but she doesn’t look a day over 40. She’s wearing an orange cardigan over a black T-shirt and has a thin bracelet tattoo around her right wrist. She loves dropping F-bombs and references to bands like Hot Chip and OK Go. And, as always, she prefers to keep her private life to herself.

That’s easier said than done lately. Since she and her partner of two decades, Tim Robbins, split up last summer, Sarandon has become a boldfaced regular in the gossip columns. She’s been spotted at late-night hot spots (including a cabaret club in February, where a transsexual performer vomited on her), and she’s even been romantically linked to one of her SPiN business partners, Jonathan Bricklin, a filmmaker and entrepreneur who’s half her age. But Sarandon shuts down this line of questioning with a playful ”no comment.”

Still, when asked how her life has changed since she parted ways with Robbins, she thinks about the question before carefully answering, ”I did a movie a long time ago where I had to fly in a glider. You get towed up in the air by a plane, and it’s loud and annoying. And at some point you pull the cord and you’re suddenly floating, and in your mind it makes absolutely no sense. But it’s exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. That’s where I am now.”

She leans back and gets comfortable. ”It’s a long time to not be dating and to then be going back into it. I certainly love the idea of being in love, and I love the idea of companionship. Whatever happens next in terms of romance or partners, I don’t know. But it’s exhilarating and terrifying. I think the point is to just keep moving, and to just say yes to life.”

Sarandon likes that phrase, yes to life. It’s become her mantra lately. While most actresses her age seem to be getting swept aside for newer models, she believes it’s her feisty free spirit that keeps her young and in demand. ”I’m happy to still be having fun and getting jobs,” she says, ”even if it seems like now all I’m getting are parts where I’m dying. Instead of being asked to do sex scenes, now I’ve always got some disease. But I’m hoping to change that.” Yes, for any studio head, director, or casting agent reading this, Sarandon says she’s totally up for doing sex scenes and doesn’t mind being seen as a cougar one bit. ”No, I love that,” she says, laughing.

Sarandon’s certainly been keeping things lively on the career front. Last year she costarred in The Lovely Bones, did a guest spot on ER, and played a come-hither mom in Saturday Night Live‘s follow-up to ”D— in a Box,” ”Motherlover.” This year she has five movies on tap, beginning with the just-released The Greatest, in which she and Pierce Brosnan play parents grieving over their son, who was killed in an accident. The film put her through the wringer. She cries in almost every scene. ”Those scenes changed me chemically,” she says. ”When I sweated, I didn’t smell like myself. My chemistry just became so acidy that I stunk. It was like Dead Man Walking. When I finished that movie, my skin actually hurt!”

Also currently in theaters is the dark comedy Leaves of Grass, with Edward Norton. On April 24, she’ll appear opposite Al Pacino in HBO’s Jack Kevorkian biopic, You Don’t Know Jack, followed by a scene-stealing turn as Michael Douglas’ ex in Solitary Man in May. Finally, there’s Oliver Stone’s greed-is-good sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, in September — a movie Sarandon so loved doing that she volunteered to host the wrap party at her club. ”Mel Gibson and Josh Brolin had a very interesting game,” she says of the star-studded event. ”Very serious.”

Which brings us back to her latest random venture, SPiN. ”That’s kind of the charm of it — the randomness. I mean, a Ping-Pong club? Who’d have thought it, right? It would be ironic if it ended up making money.” She laughs. ”The funniest thing is all the celebrity players who’ve come out of the woodwork: Jamie Foxx, George Clooney, the guys in Arcade Fire. It seems like every time I’m here, someone challenges me to a game.” A warning to those who do: Prepare to be both hustled and humbled. Susan Sarandon is at the top of her game.