Susan Sarandon is transforming into Baby Jane.
She’s in the makeup trailer on the set of Ryan Murphy’s upcoming series Feud: Bette and Joan, chatting casually while a makeup artist covers her face with the same ghostly shade of pancake that Bette Davis used for the role in 1962’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, which cast Davis opposite longtime rival Joan Crawford (played by Jessica Lange). Heavy eye makeup, a frilly white dress, and a girlish, grotesque blond wig with ringlets will be added later. Like Davis, Sarandon, 70, is small in stature, but her large, intelligent eyes and low-slung voice indicate a reserve of formidable strength. Sarandon says she was “beyond terrified” about capturing Davis’ distinctive voice—not the exaggerated voice performed by drag queens and sometimes even Davis herself in later public appearances, but Davis’ authentic voice—a unique Yankee accent acquired growing up in Massachusetts and New York City, where Davis and her younger sister were raised by their single mom, a portrait photographer.
A vocal coach was hired, and Sarandon listened to Davis’ interviews for three weeks straight.
“All I did was wake up in the morning and start listening,” she says. “Go to work, come home, and do it again.” Davis’ interviews were enlightening: “I can’t say that I share her ambition, but I became more and more respectful of who she was. She regretted that she married so many times. She also said that you should never marry someone who makes less money because the men eventually can’t deal with it, which I thought was really interesting.” And like Davis, says Sarandon, “I never saw myself as being one of the beautiful girls. I was always the character girl, not the main pretty girl who got the guy. So I kind of understood that and related to that.”
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During filming, trying to step around some equipment on the set, Sarandon slipped on a camera track and fractured her foot. No surgery was required, but she was given a boot to wear “so I can kind of shuffle around.” (In long shots she’s wearing flats and standing still.) Sarandon says the boot actually helped her master Davis’ gait, which was always more Edward G. Robinson than Mae West. For the scenes that take place on the set of Baby Jane, Sarandon and her costars had an added challenge: creating exact replicas of Davis’ and Crawford’s performances in the film. “The hardest thing was re-creating those scenes gesture to gesture,” says Sarandon, “and trying to get exactly the cadence of the voice to match.”
With her face now smeared white, Sarandon is ready for the rest of the Baby Jane drag. Looking at herself in the mirror, she says, “I made the mistake of answering a FaceTime with my 2-year-old granddaughter. She just froze. I’d completely forgotten [about the scary Baby Jane makeup].” Sarandon widens her eyes and puts on a panicky smile. “I said, ‘Do you like my clown makeup? My funny clown makeup?'”
Feud debuts March 5 on FX; check out the exclusive first look on the cover of EW below, and pick up the issue for more.