The actress talks about her work, her family, and her liberal activism

By Jess Cagle
July 29, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • Movie

It’s a sun-bleached July 4th. Star-spangled ribbons of red, white, and blue have been neatly unfurled, and neatly they billow over the wealthy, snow-white enclave of New Canaan, Conn. Susan Sarandon, who lives outside town, has arrived in a great big tie-dyed T-shirt at the Hay Day gourmet deli to buy lunch for her friends and family. Later, they will gather at the town picnic to celebrate the nation’s independence. As Susan Sarandon Working Mother waits for her fried chicken, Susan Sarandon Celebrated Actress goes into action. She takes her place at a back table to discuss her new movie, The Client, an adaptation of the John Grisham novel in which she plays Reggie Love, a scrappy lawyer who defends a little boy against a bunch of Mob baddies and misguided public servants, led by Tommy Lee Jones in Fugitive mode as an ambitious U.S. district attorney. But the impending festivities are still foremost in her mind.

”We’ll go to the town park, where everybody sits on blankets and they have a band playing patriotic songs,” says Sarandon, reciting the schedule. ”Then you watch the fireworks. Then we’re going to have to go into [Manhattan] tonight because I do a morning taping tomorrow, so I have a 6:30 a.m. call.” For the Today show? ”One of those,” she says, shaking her head a little. ”I haven’t been able to retain the information.”

It’s a rare unfocused moment for an actress who, says her good friend and fellow Grisham heroine Julia Roberts, ”has the strength and energy of a thousand women.” On any given day, she’s as likely to shuttle kids hither and yon in the family Volvo (on which a bumper sticker urges other drivers to ”Kill Your Television”) as she is to join a political protest on the steps of New York’s City Hall.

”She’s not one of these limousine liberals,” says Client director Joel Schumacher. ”She’s the most liberal person I’ve ever met in my life. She goes out and works” — for AIDS for more than a decade, for changes in immigration policies, for Nicaraguan relief, against the Gulf War.

But Sarandon has another full-time job, and if it weren’t for the notable precedent set by Jane Fonda, it would seem mightily at odds with her feminist leanings: She is now Hollywood’s most durable working female sex symbol. ”She is the only 47-year-old woman who allows herself to look 47, and I think she’s more beautiful and more sexy now than even when she was a pretty young thing,” says Schumacher. ”One of the problems in Hollywood is, if you go to hire an actress who’s supposed to play 45 or 50, they look 30. They’ve had five facelifts, two boob jobs, their hair is some insane color, they’re too thin. Susan hasn’t bought into this.”

Since the public discovered her as the wide-eyed, nubile Janet in The Rocky Horror Picture Show in 1975, Sarandon has maintained her unique allure even as she has aged into more mature, headstrong characters — Brooke Shields’ mother in Pretty Baby (1978); the clam-bar waitress in Atlantic City (1980); the minor league groupie in Bull Durham (1988), a career-reviving part she says she had to ”grovel for”; and the pistol-packing renegade in the female buddy picture Thelma & Louise (1991) — the surprise hit that finally established Sarandon as a box office draw and won her the second of her three Academy Award nominations. Her role in The Client adds another distinction to her resume: She is the only woman single-handedly carrying one of this summer’s major studio releases.

Impressive, but New Canaanites aren’t an easily impressed bunch (Sarandon’s famous neighbors include David Letterman and, in nearby Greenwich, Diana Ross), and they pay no mind to this fiery, red-haired voice of equality tearing at a muffin and talking into a tape recorder. She’s funnier than you’d expect, nice but doesn’t suffer fools, and is more than slightly preoccupied with her children and her politics. ”I always choose to be hopeful,” says Sarandon, when asked her prognosis for the country she has been so vocal in criticizing, on its 218th birthday. ”I’m hopeful because I’m making children who will write letters to the editor, and have a conscience, and have a good time all at the same time.”

But frankly, the world is a little tired of liberal-activist movie stars. There was Barbra Streisand bending the ear of Colin Powell at the White House Correspondents’ dinner. There was Richard Gere communing telepathically with Tibet at the Oscars. And there was Sarandon’s own high-profile Oscar foray into civil disobedience, when she and her companion of seven years, Tim Robbins, held the telecast hostage for about 27 seconds to speak against the United States’ refusal to admit HIV-positive Haitian immigrants — a stunt that so angered producer Gilbert Cates that he vowed not to invite them back.

”It was very sad,” says Sarandon, recalling the hate mail she received. ”Like, why didn’t I have some of those, you know, sick faggots into my own home with my illegitimate children?” These days, she’s aware of the backlash, and she expects a fight.

”During the Gulf War, I was by myself with a baby in my arms at a ski resort. Someone came up and called me a Commie c—. So I stupidly followed him into this bar with my baby in my arms and said, ‘What did you say to me?’ He explained to me that he was a Marine. And I was just so stunned, because, first of all, this man didn’t know me. Second of all, I don’t even know what he means by a Communist these days.”

Surely, Sarandon must have a politically incorrect skeleton in her closet. ”You know, I’m so confused about what’s politically correct,” she says, a little irritated. ”This label seems to have sprung up to demean and belittle people who have a conscience about things. Very often when I complain about something in a script, people say, ‘This isn’t a politically correct script.’ Usually when I find something wrong, it has to do with the film, not whether it’s politically correct.” (In fact, Sarandon hasn’t limited herself to PC characters, having played everyone from an underage hooker’s mom in Pretty Baby to a chicly blase drug dealer in Light Sleeper.)

But her mood improves a notch as she resigns herself to answering. She tells a story about going to Washington, D.C., to protest the Gulf War. ”It was freezing and I just grabbed something out of my closet that someone had given me,” she says, deadpan. ”I was concentrating on the lives about to be lost, not on what was on my head. I wore a hat that had fur on it.”