Perhaps it's ironic that Susan Sarandon is gracing the cover of our bi-annual Spotlight on Acting Schools and Coaches. After all, she has her doubts about the benefits of training for some actors. Though she majored in theatre (with a minor in philosophy and military strategy) at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., her dramatic studies were mainly from a literary perspective. Her true training as an actor came later—on the job.
That does not mean Sarandon did not pay her dues as an actor. On the contrary, she spent much of the first decade of her career in near-hits and even more misses—the exception being The Rocky Horror Picture Show, in which her musical turn as the prudish-turned-sexually-awakened Janet Weiss made Sarandon a cult celebrity. After playing Brooke Shields' prostitute mother in Louis Malle's 1978 Pretty Baby, she was cast again by Malle two years later to star opposite Burt Lancaster in the beautifully gritty romance Atlantic City.
Even with the first of four Oscar nominations for her sultry lemon-squeezing performance in that film, Sarandon would spend another seven years trying to get hired for top jobs. While it ended up being one of her big breaks, her experience on The Witches of Eastwick set marked a humiliating moment—one of many, according to the actor. How would you like to show up on a set and learn that the studio had given your part away to another actor (in this case, Cher)? Like she'd done her entire career, Sarandon stuck it out.
Then Sarandon hit the dreaded age of 40, and something strangely wonderful happened—her career took off. Her role as minor league baseball muse Annie Savoy in Ron Shelton's Bull Durham was a turning point. While Sarandon is not one to put much stock in such terms as "career moves," it was her opportunity to completely shine, both professionally and personally—she met co-star Tim Robbins, who fathered her two sons and remains her domestic partner. From that point on, the industry recognized Sarandon's power: sensuality matched with wits.
Sarandon has since made it a point to pursue projects that matter to her—and that audiences can have a conversation about after seeing the picture. While there are too many credits to mention here, some of her best work includes Thelma & Louise, Lorenzo's Oil, The Client, Cradle Will Rock, and Stepmom. Her Oscar-winning depiction of Sister Helen Prejean, a real-life nun who becomes the spiritual advisor to a Death Row inmate, in Dead Man Walking, directed by Robbins, is in my opinion her most effective performance to date.
Currently appearing this month in three very different films, Igby Goes Down, The Banger Sisters, and Moonlight Mile, Sarandon continues to deliver memorable performances. During a recent interview, Sarandon explained her lack of strategy when it comes to her career, her pride in her politics, and her empathy with the struggles of the average working actor.
Back Stage West: I couldn't help but notice that your real-life 17-year-old daughter, Eva Amurri, plays your on-screen daughter in The Banger Sisters. Is acting what she wants to pursue?
Susan Sarandon: Right now she wants to do this. And I'm definitely supportive. She also wants to go to college. I'm hoping that she goes and that she studies a lot. I hope she can have the privilege of learning about a lot of things and getting one or two fabulous professors who really stretch her brain and challenge her perspective. I'm just pleased if she finds something that she's passionate about; I don't care what it is. You're blessed if you can find something that you really like to do and make a living out of. She's very young. She's very artistic. She speaks a number of languages. She writes beautifully. She'll have a lot of choices.
BSW: Did you feel like you had many choices when you were her age?
Sarandon: I didn't have a lot of choices. I was the eldest of nine. I was limited financially. I put myself through college. I had a fairly conservative upbringing. I was raised as a pretty staunch Catholic, but compared to some people, I had choices. Certainly my world was not as open as my daughter's is, and I was not as privileged as she is. So my choices weren't as obvious.
My daughter won't be studying acting in school. I believe in on-the-job training. Not that there's anything wrong with studying acting, but I think very often the scary thing is losing a sense of who you are. If you can find somebody who encourages you to find your unique voice and to capitalize on that, then I think that's really constructive, but for schools to put out a bunch of people who are all the same, or for schools or teachers to teach in a very negative fashion—I feel that can be really destructive to somebody that's vulnerable in the early part of their career.
BSW: You got your professional start in acting almost by accident. Is that right?
Sarandon: It was. I got married when I was 20. I graduated from college when I was 21. I went with my husband at that time [actor Chris Sarandon] to an agency in New York. He needed to get an agent, and I did the scene with him and they saw the two of us together. We did a scene from The Hostage and they [signed both of us]. When I came back in the fall, the first job that I went out for was Joe. They'd been looking for quite a while for somebody and they asked me to do an improv. They explained what that was and I did it. They hired me on the spot and I thought, That was really easy.
BSW: Did you really wish to be an actor then?
Sarandon: I did not want to be an actor. It was fun, a way to pay back my loan for my education. Sure, I mean, who wouldn't want to be an actor? But was it something that I grew up and planned to be? No. I saw it as a perfect means to an end—not as an end in itself. And I was constantly meeting new people. I was getting to [play] a lot of different parts, and I think I was helped by the fact that I wasn't incredibly serious about it. I was fairly playful, and I think that, really, the space to be in as an actor is open and playful and listening and exploring. I was able to be those things, and I wasn't burdened by the fact that I was really desperate to become an actor.
BSW: Most actors feel compelled to take any acting job that comes their way. Do you regret any of your early choices?
Sarandon: Well, I think you're allowed to take a lot of different kinds of things in the beginning because you're trying to survive. You're allowed a number of years to make stupid choices. I don't know that you're held accountable for a little while. You're allowed to make the odd movie that's kind of a disaster, and you learn from those and theatre experiences. I think you certainly don't want to be in something that's humiliating or which sends a message that you morally don't want to be responsible for. But making films is a collaboration, and you can assemble the best people and the best script, and somehow it can still go wrong.
So I think you're allowed to make mistakes. What you have to think of is not your career but what you're learning. You want to do different parts you haven't done before. You want to take a small part if it's with really good people—one scene in a movie that's a really good scene, as opposed to a stupid movie where there's nothing really to it. You want to learn and look at it in terms of what you're learning—never gauging it by thinking that something is going to be a success or a hit, because you really have no way to figure that out.
BSW: You worked with some very respected directors early on: Billy Wilder (The Front Page), George Roy Hill (The Great Waldo Pepper), Sidney Lumet (Lovin' Molly), and Louis Malle, among others. Those must have been great learning experiences.
Sarandon: I think that all of the directors—even the bad ones—you learn from. Sometimes you almost learn more from a bad movie than you do from a good experience, because most of the time you're really on your own. A director has to worry so much about the landscape, the context that you're being put in. He has to answer so many questions throughout the day, and very few of them are there to answer acting questions.
BSW: Were you intimidated at all when you started to work?
Sarandon: I'm always terrified when I start to do anything. I don't know if intimidated is the right idea; I don't think I was intimidated. I was respectful. I was scared. I don't ever take a job that doesn't frighten me in some way.
BSW: Did you find that most of your fellow actors were generous as far as helping or guiding you in the beginning?
Sarandon: No, not all of them. Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, as well as Billy Wilder, were very sweet and generous [on The Front Page]. And, at the same time, on the first day I worked them, [Wilder] fired somebody who didn't have the script down verbatim. That script was specifically written, and you didn't change even an article of that script. One of the character guys—a really well-known character guy—was not getting his lines, and he was gone. That was the lesson to everybody about Billy Wilder.
Billy Wilder directed with a stopwatch. He'd say, "That was great but that was 32 seconds. We needed to 22 seconds." I think there's something to be said for that. He wasn't discussing where my character went to high school; he was listening to the rhythm of the scene. When I started Bull Durham, Ron Shelton was directing for the first time. I said to him, "You know, it really doesn't matter to me which Beatle [my character] liked in high school. I can rationalize anything. I can motivate anything. But tell me faster, slower. What do you need to accommodate the camera? You don't have to create something for me; I'll fill in the blanks." I think you're lucky if you have somebody who even tells you that much.
BSW: Bull Durham was a pivotal experience for you, both professionally and personally. Did you have to fight for that role?
Sarandon: Well, yeah. I wasn't on the A list on that film, and luckily for me the women who were wouldn't go through the audition process, and so that opened up a slot for me. Ron Shelton was very adamant about hearing that part read. I was living in Italy with my daughter's father [director Franco Amurri], and when I read it, it was just so clearly something special. That part was unlike any woman I'd seen on film, let alone been able to audition for. So I swallowed my pride and got on a plane and had a number of hours to talk myself into a positive frame of mind and audition for it and turn right around and come back, because I felt it was worth it. It was worth fighting for. Luckily it paid off, because I think she is a really classic, wonderful role.
BSW: Did it open doors?
Sarandon: It was a great part in a hit movie, a part that people liked. She was really a thinking man's sex symbol. So I think it must have opened some doors. I wasn't being paid any more than I was before; so it didn't change that, but that seems to be really slow going where women are concerned. The bad news was that by the time that movie came out a year later, Tim and I were together and I was pregnant. So I didn't really cash in on whatever momentum the movie had given me. The timing for my personal life was great, but in terms of a career it wasn't something that I had followed right on the heels with another movie, because I took some time off. But I'm really so proud to have been a part of it.
BSW: Do you feel a responsibility in terms of the kinds of messages you project onscreen?
Sarandon: I think everybody should understand the impact films have on the people who are watching them. I certainly saw that with the dialogue that was caused by Dead Man Walking. One can only shudder at the thought of what some of these films do that are constantly reinforcing stereotypes and sexist and racist notions and violence connected with sex and all the other things that kind of stand my hair on end and that [most of us] don't notice because they're reinforcing the status quo.
When people say to me, "You do such political films," my answer to them is that every film is political. You only notice the ones that challenge the status quo, but every film tells you what's funny, what women want, what it means to be a man, some system of justice. Even The Nutty Professor is an amazingly political film. Saving Private Ryan is a political film. Braveheart is a political film. These films just don't get called political films, but they definitely define our notion of what it means to be a man or the honor of revenge. I believe that every film is political, and the ones that start some kind of a dialogue are really the ones I want to be a part of.
BSW: Most actresses dread turning 40—
Sarandon: I'm hoping to push it off a little further. Maybe now it's 50!
BSW: Still, so many female actors attach a stigma to aging, fearing that either the work will stop or they'll be relegated to playing somebody's mother. While you've been playing your share of moms onscreen, your career essentially took off when you turned 40 and is still going strong at 55.
Sarandon: This is the new 50, gals. Anything's possible and part of it is that we have to get more women writing stories that deal with all sorts of people. After Thelma & Louise, I think studios [became interested in women's stories]. In a way studios are like politics: They follow polls. When something makes money, they're going to do it again. So you had a little rash of female buddy films.
BSW: Chick flicks, as some people like to call them. Do you hate that term?
Sarandon: They don't call man films "dick flicks." So I don't know why they insist on calling films about women chick flicks. If it's a good story, it's not something that just appeals to women. Unfortunately it's still a white, heterosexually driven male business, and there are more big parts for men than there are for women. But there's a lack of good parts for men, too, and that lies with our storytellers and the fact that people are not writing from their hearts and from their need to tell a story.
BSW: You must feel blessed that you can wait it out for projects that matter to you. Still, most actors either cannot or do not—even some very well-known actors.
Sarandon: Well, it depends on how high your lifestyle is. It depends on how many French doors you need, how many cars you need. It's the difference between living large and making a living as an actor; there's a big leap in there. I think part of what happens is that when you start to become successful financially, you have a tendency to overextend, and then, before you know it, you're doing work to support your lifestyle instead of having a lifestyle to support your work. I think it's about finding what you do that's unique and banking on that instead of trying to define yourself in a way that's marketable.
BSW: Is there anything you would tell a young actor starting out?
Sarandon: It doesn't get easier; it gets better as you get older in some ways. But the business never misses an opportunity to humiliate you; that doesn't change. There's always the opportunity for humiliation. You're never safe, but why should you be? If you're looking for safety, you shouldn't be here. We are outsiders, and we can take solace from that because there's a whole community of outsiders that are there for each other.
I think you have to be determined to have fun. I worked with Paul Newman [in Twilight] and he's still curious. He's still asking questions. He's still enjoying himself. He's not bitter. He's not an alcoholic. He has a stable relationship. This is accomplishing a lot.
Acting is addictive; you can't get it right, and therefore you just keep trying. That's what life's about. It's about making mistakes and learning from your mistakes and getting to the next question. And so if you're in this business because you're interested in exploring and discovering in and of itself, I think you stand a better chance than trying to map out a career.
I mean, I've done everything wrong and here I am. None of my plans fell into place, but I had the sense to follow what did cross my path. I think you have to listen really to your heart and know why you're taking jobs. If it's to pay your rent, that's perfectly justifiable. If it's because you think this film is going to be the big film, watch out. Half the time you don't know why in the scheme of things, until 10 years down the line, you took that job. You realize, Oh, that's what I did that for. That's what I learned at that junction. There's no one person or one project or one encounter that's going to make all the difference, because if you're lucky, this is a long ride. Some of it's luck. Some of it's being true to who you are and digging in when you get an opportunity, however small.
BSW: While you did not set out to become an actor, are you happy with your choice of profession?
Sarandon: I love it all the time. I've learned so much in really bad situations. There have been some films that have just been nightmares. Most of it had to do with naïveté on my part, in terms of not having someone to stand up for me and not understanding my rights and not understanding how to protect myself. I remember when I was doing The Rocky Horror Picture Show calling my agent in New York from a pay phone on the street in London. It was raining and cold and I had pneumonia and I had no place to live [because the producers had not come through on their obligations]. It shouldn't get to that point.
But I can't complain. I would never have learned so much about baseball. I would never have gotten to know Sister Helen. I would never have identified my strengths and weaknesses. You get to put yourself in more than just somebody else's moccasins. I think that as you're developing on this journey—and this makes me sound like some old hippie, which I am—but as you're going along wherever it is that you're going, what better way to develop empathy and compassion and insight than to be an actor? People think actors have this unpredictable life, and it's true, but at least we've already embraced the fact that it's unpredictable and we carry our security within ourselves and our community and those few good friends that you make. I embrace that insecurity and I'm so grateful I can make a living doing this. If I'm lucky, as long as I keep finding things to challenge me and tickle my fancy I'll continue until they put me out to pasture. BSW