Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins discuss the potential Oscar-winner

By Rebecca Ascher-Walsh
March 22, 1996 at 05:00 AM EST
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Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins are dancing, cooing, cuddling, and boogying across the floor of a downtown Manhattan photo studio. They look impossibly gorgeous, impossibly in love, impossibly Hollywood. With her newly coiffed Pre-Raphaelite-red hair and the kind of cheekbones and buxomness cosmetic surgery can’t buy, Sarandon looks better at 49 than she did at 25. Robbins, 6’5”, his blond hair beginning to silver at 37, is more angularly handsome than on screen.

A day later, in the New York City office of Robbins’ production company, Havoc, a few blocks from their Chelsea brownstone, they’ve seemingly morphed back into human form. Sitting down to their first joint interview for print, they are all business, more professional partners than pirouetting lovers. Sarandon, in a baggy sweater and stripped of her photo makeup, looks every bit the mom who got up at 6:30 with their children, Jack Henry, 6, and Miles, 3, and Eva, 11, Sarandon’s daughter with Italian filmmaker Franco Amurri. Robbins, in jeans and a sweater, slouches in a chair beside her. He is quiet and droll and often interrupted by Sarandon, who speaks in a voice pitched to rise above the din of her kids, whose company she prefers to any Hollywood setting.

”If I were 22 and trying to build a career, I don’t know who’d be watching the kids as happily as I do,” says Sarandon, taking a bite out of a cookie she brought for Robbins. ”It takes so much to get me to break out of domestic paradise. There’s hardly anything that interests me as much as my family.”

On the other hand, questions about marriage bore them both; after eight years together, they seem to have no desire to make it legal. ”How many more rings can she have?” asks Robbins, pointing to his companion’s gold-bedecked fingers. As for the band on his right hand? ”It’s a right-handed marriage.”

If a left-leaning one. The very serious side of this very political couple has always threatened to overwhelm the side that just as forcefully awes with talent: At the 1992 Oscars, the two presented the Best Film Editing award along with a lecture on Haitian internment camps that got them banned from the dais for one year. ”I don’t want people to be inspired or offended by what I do,” says Robbins, in odd defense. ”If you determine your behavior by what [other people] want, you’re screwed.”

It is precisely by not giving a damn — and making a movie few thought would succeed — that they got invited to next week’s Oscars. This time, they are nominees for their extraordinary collaboration on Dead Man Walking — Robbins for Best Director and Sarandon as Best Actress for her role as a nun ministering to a killer on death row. It’s the first time in 21 years that a director has received a nomination for collaborating with his also-nominated current companion. (In 1974, John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands were honored for A Woman Under the Influence.)

That they work together — that they are comfortable working together — hints at a love affair too good to be true. So it comes as a relief that they admit to occasional bad days while making Dead Man Walking. ??We’re not stupid, you know. It was clear it was going to be different,?? says Sarandon of undertaking the movie based on Sister Helen Prejean’s 1993 book of the same name. The film required the couple to spend 18 hours a day together for three months (at night, the two separated so Robbins’ longer working hours wouldn’t disturb Sarandon and the children). Adding to the pressure were a tight budget ($12.3 million), the kind of subject matter — capital punishment — that can provoke the most mild-mannered, and a costar, Sean Penn, not widely known for his calm.

But the source of their most stressful day wasn’t exhaustion or a difficult costar. ??I think it was the cycle of the moon or something,?? says Sarandon, managing to look regal even as she picks dog hair off her sweater. ??I remember it clearly, but I’m not going to talk about it.?? Adds Robbins obliquely, ??That was a nightmare. We won’t go into specifics.??

But someone from the set who will get specific says one factor contributing to the tension — in addition to equipment trouble — was Sister Helen Prejean, whose contributions were generally embraced by the actors. ??Her presence gave validity to our reality,?? says the source. But on the day in question, ??there was some kind of tension between Tim and Susan, something about Prejean directing her. Prejean would occasionally throw out an opinion. It’s tricky, since she’s not an actress.?? While everyone remained outwardly calm, adds the source, ??you could see the tension in the body language. It never quite got diffused that day.??

And there you have the most trying day of this production. Because, according to cast and crew, Robbins and Sarandon helmed a nurturing and healthy set, where an uncommon respect reigned. ??On [Oliver Stone’s] Born on the Fourth of July, you knew you had better do your best or you’d be shot at sundown,?? says Raymond J. Barry, who was Tom Cruise’s father in July and plays a parent of one of the murder victims in Dead Man Walking. ??On this, it wasn’t the usual bulls—t, and that had to do with Tim and Susan.??

It’s a partnership that enhances them both. ??Tim has strong intellectual components, and Susan has a strong emotional side. They bring each other into balance,?? says Thom Mount, a producer of Bull Durham, the 1988 baseball movie that brought the costars together. Paul Webster, an executive producer of Bob Roberts, Robbins’ 1992 writing-directing debut about a campaigning politician, agrees: ??They’re totally centered with each other.??

The strength of their union can be seen in Dead Man Walking, which, in addition to nominations for Sarandon, Robbins, and Penn (Best Actor), earned a fourth for Bruce Springsteen’s title track. The movie looks unflinchingly into the grief of the victims’ parents, as well as Sister Helen’s relationship with the murderer, transforming a harrowing and potentially inflammatory subject into, as Sarandon puts it, ??a strange love story.??

It is because they resist pontificating in Dead Man Walking that Sarandon and Robbins are now being compared less to revolutionaries than to acting royalty — America’s answer to Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh. But unlike their British counterparts, Sarandon and Robbins seem to be living happily ever after. ??Being with them,?? says Mount, ??is one of those rare occasions that make you f—ing romantic and sentimental.??

The path to their true love may have run smooth, but the road to this year’s Oscars was far more arduous. Sarandon first read reviews of Sister Helen’s book three years ago in New Orleans while filming The Client (which garnered her a fourth Oscar nomination; she has never won). The actress arranged a dinner, and the two became friends. ??She seemed, and turned out to be, the antithesis of every nun I’ve ever known,?? says Sarandon, who, like Robbins, is a lapsed Catholic. Robbins’ production company optioned the book, and he knocked out a first draft in two weeks. ??My part was inherently the most difficult to write because [Sister Helen] basically goes around to people saying she’s sorry, and where do you find the [story] arc in that??? Sarandon says.

The first draft was sent to Sister Helen in New Orleans in the fall of 1994. ??I had never read a screenplay,?? she says. ??I did not know what those POV things meant. But I am a nun, I did teach English, so I corrected his spelling.?? She also corrected Robbins’ occasionally warped memories of nuns — women more obedient than she — and tried her hand at writing a few scenes. ??I worked on getting a lot of humor into the film,?? she says.

By October, there was already a script in shooting shape, and Penn, who had stopped acting to concentrate on directing, agreed to costar. ??You have to find someone who people will believe killed someone,?? Sarandon says, ??someone who through all that machismo has humanity. And,?? she adds with a smile, ??Sean had been in prison,?? referring to Penn’s 1987 incarceration for reckless driving and assault. ??On-the-job training,?? Robbins says dryly.

There was only one snag: No studio would touch it. ??After Bob Roberts came out,?? Robbins says, ??a lot of the studios said, ‘We really love it. Next project you have, show it to us.’ I did. I brought them Dead Man Walking and got turned down.??

??The studios were all respectful of Tim and Susan,?? says their agent, Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas. ??I think their concern was this was a very heated issue. They didn’t know if it would make money.?? Thomas recalls only one outlandish reaction: ??A studio head called me up and said, ‘This is an amazing script, but I have one little note. Why can’t Sean Penn’s character be innocent?’ I said, ‘Gosh, this isn’t a movie about whether we should kill innocent people. I don’t think that’s a big debate.’??

Eventually PolyGram agreed to fund the film, but when the studio balked at the original projected budget, the cast agreed to what Robbins calls ??major pay cuts,?? and the supporting cast worked for Screen Actors Guild scale.

While some of the movie was shot at Louisiana’s Angola prison, most of the filming was done on a New York City soundstage, including Penn’s execution by lethal injection. In the final version the actor is effectively shown going to sleep. But at the time, Robbins wasn’t sure the scene would be dynamic enough, so he decided to shoot it a second way. ??Sometimes what happens with lethal injections is that if they haven’t taken the antihistamine, there’s an allergic reaction. They go into convulsions. So Sean very graciously—??

??Maniac,?? Susan interjects.

??—did 20 takes of convulsions, on and off camera.??

The scenes were grueling for the actors (particularly Penn, who says of the work, ??It wasn’t fun, but I’d work with them again in a flash??), and Robbins asked Sister Helen to come to New York to be on the set full-time. ??I affirmed the heck out of them,?? she says. ??Poor Sean Penn was executed all week long.?? At one point, ??we took a break and Sean didn’t want to get all unstrapped from the gurney, and I noticed that Susan went in to talk to him, and she just took ahold of his hand. I remember thinking to myself that even acting out dying like that is hard.??

For all of the actors’ courage, one of Sarandon’s simplest choices was also one of her most daunting. Despite forging a career on her sexual appeal, whether playing a prostitute in 1978’s Pretty Baby or rubbing lemons on her body in 1981’s Atlantic City, Sarandon faced the camera with no makeup, a move she had inched toward as Marmee in 1994’s Little Women. ??That felt really naked,?? Sarandon says, chewing on a nail. ??I wasn’t brave enough to go to dailies. The first couple of times I saw the film I was pretty devastated, but I knew the point was to find some kind of inner light, to empty myself of vanity.?? When told that Penn calls her ??the most present actor I’ve ever worked with,?? Sarandon laughs. ??That’s all I had, to be present.?? Next time, she says, ??I want to try to get some mascara on.??

Sarandon hasn’t decided on a new project, but with the success of Dead Man Walking (it has earned $26 million to date), she finds herself in great demand, dispelling the myth that youth equals desirability. Even so, says Mount, ??she will always be sexy, but obviously her role as a sex object is limited.?? The Client director Joel Schumacher disagrees. ??When did this occur, that women have time clocks on their sexuality? Men don’t. Even Walter Matthau gets Sophia Loren in [Grumpier Old Men].??

Despite her enviable position, Sarandon has no illusions about her status in Hollywood. ??They always find a way to humiliate me,?? she says. ??I’ve gotten calls recently offering me a part that’s already been given to someone else.??

??No matter how successful you are—?? Robbins chimes in.

??—as an actor,?? Sarandon finishes, ??you’re vulnerable.??

The downsides to acting haven’t deterred Robbins, who, as Sarandon puts it, ??has the market cornered on playing a–holes,?? after roles in The Player (1992), Short Cuts (1993), and Bob Roberts. ??I really enjoy acting,?? Robbins says simply of his decision to follow up a starring turn in 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption with the upcoming comedy Nothing to Lose. ??He’s got to make some money now,?? Sarandon says. ??We’ve got mortgages to pay,?? adds Robbins, referring to their Manhattan and Westchester County homes.

The couple have one more part to play together — their joint appearance at the Academy Awards. (Sarandon plans to wear a gauzy Robert Danes dress; Sister Helen, the couple’s date, says, ??I borrowed a nice black dress from a friend.??) Robbins and Sarandon say they haven’t given the ceremony much thought, but will admit to anxiety at the prospect of having to wait for the outcome. ??You put on your smile and pretend you’re Miss America,?? Sarandon says of the moment when the nominees’ names are read. Still, this year’s best bet is hedging hers. ??I’m very good at losing. The thing I’m not used to is winning. For me, the fear is having to get out of my seat.??

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