SUSAN SARANDON: 'MY
WHOLE LIFE IS RULED BY VENUS'
When I interviewed Susan Sarandon for Cosmopolitan
magazine in 1978, she had just finished playing Brooke Shields'
prostitute-mother in "Pretty Baby," and very few people
could have imagined that she would go on to become one of the major
actresses of her generation in such films as "Atlantic City,"
"Bull Durham," "Thelma & Louise," "Lorenzo's
Oil" and "Dead Man Walking," for which she received
an Oscar as Best Actress of 1995.
How much has Susan Sarandon changed over the years? You be the judge. --Guy Flatley
you in 'The Other Side of Midnight?'" asks a startled passenger
when he spots the familiar-looking blonde on the BMT local. "What
are you doing on the subway?"
It's true, Susan Sarandon was in "The Other Side of Midnight," playing
the spurned, sloppily alcoholic, nearly murdered wife of the sexually
callous John Beck. It is also a fact that the frugal, defiantly
informal actress provokes frequent double takes by sticking stubbornly
to her subway-and-corner-deli lifestyle.
"I try to maintain a low
standard of living so I can afford a high standard of freedom,"
Susan says, though an unmistakable twinkle in her huge hazel eyes
hints there are exceptions to her plain-as-a-nun rule. She has arrived
at the Manhattan apartment of a friend tonight sporting a gorgeously
campy bowling jacket with the name ARTIE embroidered on the back,
and now she sits--braless, in a low-buttoned white silk blouse and
dark slacks--using her elegant fingers to stir the ice cubes in
her Perrier. Susan Sarandon is hardly the classic picture of the
cosmetically correct Hollywood hopeful, fluttering aggressively
on the rim of superstardom, yet, in her peculiarly patchwork fashion,
this earthy ash blonde exudes the brand of compelling sexuality
classic movie goddesses are made of.
There is a distinct promise of emotional fire just beneath her cool,
candid chattiness and, coupled with a sturdy acting talent, this
suggestion of tentatively suppressed passion has stimulated behind-the-scenes
fervor for Susan, leading to increasingly challenging roles. Certainly,
there could be few parts as demanding as that of the neurotic New
Orleans prostitute who goes tricking with her 12-year-old daughter
in "Pretty Baby," the provocative new movie whose French director,
stepped into the role of Susan's lover once the cameras stopped
turning. Although she has never bothered to get a divorce from actor
Chris Sarandon, it would seem Susan feels perfectly free to follow
her amorous instincts. (Before journeying south for "Pretty
Baby," she lived with John Leone, the writer and director of
"Elegant John and His Ladies," a movie co-produced by Susan in which
she is also cast as a prostitute.)
"My whole life is ruled by Venus," explains Susan, possibly exaggerating
a wee bit. "I believe totally in love; that's definitely one of
my main themes." Perhaps so, but this enviably uninhibited philosophy
of love-and-let-love was hardly being preached to Susan some twenty-odd
years ago back in Edison, New Jersey, where she was one of the nine
kids in the Tomaling family, a clan no less Catholic than the pope.
"I went to a Catholic grade school and then to a public high school--which
is where my mother says everything went wrong. It was a rather rude
awakening to discover people could lead normal lives and still not
be Catholic. And I was exposed to things I had never seen before--girls
rolling on the floor, fighting and pulling one another's hair. Up
until then, I'd spent my days praying for the strength to stand
up to the communists when they came marching into the country to
hang Catholic children. No doubt about it, I was on a spiritual
The trip was derailed by public school and teen-age rigors, and
Susan emerged a superficially emancipated, emotionally terrified
young woman. "I had a job during the summer in a laundry. My ears
were pierced, I wore high boots, and my hair was down to my waist.
I remember coming home one night after work and walking through
the living room, where my sister was sitting with a friend. 'Who
was that?' my sister's friend asked. 'Oh, that's just my sister,'
she said. 'She's going through a phase.'"
After high school, Susan went to Catholic University in Washington,
D.C. During her freshman year she embarked on still another new
phase. "I met Chris, who was a graduate student at the time, and
that was the best thing that ever happened to me. I was seventeen
and away from home for the first time, and I can't tell you how
vulnerable, how terribly romantic and frightened I was. I hate to
say this, but I was a lot like the girl at the beginning of 'The
Other Side of Midnight'--a wise-mouth who kept people at a distance.
I was probably the oldest virgin I knew, and I was unbelievably
lucky to stumble upon someone who not only educated me but had the
patience to let me make my own mistakes."
The virgin married the sage in her senior year. Both longed to be
actors, and before long they were on to New York to audition for
agents and producers. "A lot of major decisions in my life--including
my marriage--were not planned. They just flowed. It was that way
with acting, too; in the beginning, I just went along with Chris
for the ride. I had absolutely no training. I've always done what
I do by instinct. Even today, I'm surprised to find myself an actress;
it was not a childhood dream of mine, although I did play the priest
in a all of the mock masses we put on."
just one week after arriving in New York, Susan landed an attention-grabbling
role in the movie "Joe." Yet she was not destined to become
a star overnight, despite the fact that her film and TV performances
have attracted a small but fervent following.
"Pretty Baby," however,
may well prove to be the vehicle that turns her into a million-dollar
name in the Hollywood marketplace. Ironically, she never really
expected to get the part of Brooke Shield's mother.
"Toward the end of filming
on 'Midnight,' I met Louis Malle and he interviewed me," Susan recalls,
smiling and toying with a strand of her long blond hair. "I didn't
hear a word for a long time, until suddenly I was asked to rush
down to New Orleans. I was convinced that when I got off the plane,
Louis would take one look and say, 'No, no. . .that's not the girl.
I wanted Susan Blakely!'"
Louis had the Susan he wanted, all right, and he recently confirmed
his unbounded enthusiasm for her. "One of the things I like about
Susan is that she has no system," the dark, soulful-eyed Frenchman
told me. "A lot of actors in this country go through schools where
they learn a strictly disciplined, highly intellectual approach--such
as the Method--where there is a lot of psychological interpretation.
This can cause you to lose a lot of the stamina, the spontaneity,
the surprise that is an essential part of acting. Susan reminds
me of Jeanne Moreau, who hardly ever reads her lines, even on the
night before a scene, because she wants to be completely open in
front of the camera. Susan, too, comes to a role fresh and innocent
There are other striking parallels between these two actresses,
aside from the coincidence that each has kindled a roaring off-screen
fire in Louis Malle. "Susan can look terrifically sexy," says Malle,
"but when she wants to, she can also look very ugly. She's not like
that...what's her name? Farah Fawcett--somebody who can be nothing
except the all-American gorgeous beauty-contest winner. Susan is
like Jeanne; in one scene she can be stunning, and in the next she
can look like someone who didn't sleep the night before."
Malle, of course, has had the chance to see shifts in mood and appearance
in Susan that the rest of us will never see. "It is difficult for
me to speak of Susan on a personal level," he says, "because it
makes everything I've said about her ability as an actress sound
weird, as if my feeling for her colors my judgment. But that is
not so--she is a fabulous actress. All I can say is that I love
Susan very, very much, and I am happy she is in my picture. Susan
is my good luck."
Good luck or not, it took Susan a long time to feel comfortable
in the part of a prostitute who works side by side with her own
daughter. In such an unusual part, there were some off-putting moments.
"There was one scene," Susan recalls, "where I was supposed to say,
'I have great breasts,' and Polly Platt, who wrote the screenplay,
turned to me and said, 'By the way, how are your breasts--do you
She does, though in most of her movies she has not been asked to
bare them. She was required to strip for "Joe," however, in which
she portrayed a wayward teen-ager who infuriates her father by taking
up with a drug-droopy drop-out. Susan's own father had mixed feelings
about his daughter's movie debut.
"He said the language
was rough," Susan says, with a smile, "but he didn't mention the
fact that I disrobed within the first few minutes of the film in
a bathtub scene with my boyfriend. I was convinced the scene was
necessary, and I thought it was just a question of strategic exposure--that
my hair would flow to my waist in just the right way, that between
the bubbles and the camera angles, nothing would really show. I
must say, the crew was very helpful--they bought me a Raggedy Ann
doll to take to the tub with me and said it would be just like any
other scene and, after a few minutes, it was. Do you know, when
I saw the movie, I was still convinced I was covered up? It wasn't
until I saw it again, recently, that I realized I was stark naked.
that I regret it," she insists. "I have no hang-ups about my body.
It's just that it's somehow unfair when you're the only one on the
set not wearing clothes. People choose clothes as a sign of the
identity they wish to have, and to strip off that identity means
you're exposing yourself in front of the world. It's truly a question
of how the situation is handled. For instance, Brooke Shields--who
was having a difficult enough time, as it was, just going from eleven
to twelve--had to do a nude scene in 'Pretty Baby,' and I told her
that if she was uptight about it, everyone else would be uptight,
too, and the scene wouldn't work. I gave her a Raggedy Ann doll,
and Louis gave her a Raggedy Andy, and everything turned out fine."
Susan's bedroom scene with John Beck in "The
Other Side of Midnight" didn't turn out quite so fine. "John came
onto the set totally dressed, in his uniform," says Susan, setting
her glass of Perrier down on the coffee table with a sharp click.
"And there I stood in nothing but my panties. 'Hey,' I cried, 'this
is going too far. Let's get serious--if I'm taking off my shirt,
so are you! Besides, it's dangerous being under you when you're
wearing all those medals!' I ended up very upset by that scene.
Anyway, for some unknown reason, they decided to photograph it in
the dark, so you couldn't really see what was going on. I had thought
this would be a good chance to comment on a girl's very first sexual
experience. The first time is never smooth, you know, and I thought
it would be great to show all the confusion mixed with strong desire.
But we lost all that in the dark."
Just how much of Susan was lost in "Midnight" remained a mystery
to her until she was working on "Pretty Baby." "When Frank Yablans
asked me to do publicity for 'Midnight,' I said that first I wanted
to see how it had turned out. So he sent a print to New Orleans
and I went to see it at a screening room at Loyola University. I
took Keith Carradine with me, since we were working together on
'Pretty Baby' and I knew I'd need company. It's always a little
strange when you see yourself in something--things become so out-of-proportion,
so grotesque. I must admit I was shocked when I saw it; I hadn't
done any scenes with Marie-France Pisier, and I had no idea she
was naked so much. And, of course, they had cut some of my major
scenes, so that certain parts of the action didn't always make a
lot of sense.
"Anyhow, I was glad Keith was there with me. I loved working with
him in 'Pretty Baby.' He reminds me a lot of Chris. He's not fighting
a male ego thing. You know, a lot of qualities that you need to
give a performance are considered to be feminine traits in our society.
That gives a lot of actors trouble; they can play meanness and brutality
easily, but when it comes to displaying tenderness, they have a
hard time. Well, Keith is willing to try things. I mean, just consider
the challenge of playing love scenes with an eleven-and-a-half-year-old
I suggest that perhaps it's easier when the tot is supposed to be
a prostitute, and the conversation centers on prostitutes for a
while. "I don't believe someone that age is capable of making decisions
about her body," Susan says, "but I see nothing wrong with prostitution
for women. It's certainly better than feeling you must go to bed
with someone simply because he's bought you a dinner--an idea that
seems to be quite common among singles today. There are so many
ways to be a whore, after all--there are women, all across the country,
manipulating men and using sex to get what they want."
Susan has never been known to knock sex between consenting adults.
"I totally support everyone's right to his sexual preference. I'm
afraid Anita Bryant has been squeezing oranges too long."
Though Susan is unquestionably a beauty, she hasn't always felt
like one. "I went through high school squinting, because people
were always looking at my eyes. I though it was because they were
so big and funny-looking, so I tried to make them small. It's taken
me a long time, but I've finally gotten to the point where I can
objectively consider my looks. And, oddly enough, I'm beginning
to like the way I look. I'm pleased, because I think there's more
character in my face than there used to be. I would like to grow
into a beautiful woman--interesting, not just pretty. Women who
look as if they never get messed up are women I don't trust. I want
to turn out like Ingrid Bergman, someone whose life shows in her
Not that clothes and good grooming are unimportant to the young
actress. "I do spend money on clothes, mostly when I'm depressed.
I think clothes should show a sense of humor; it should be fun to
dress up. I don't like to buy any one designer, because my style
keeps changing. For example, I used to jog in satin shorts I bought
in used-clothing stores, but now that satin has become chic, I don't
do that anymore."
Susan shed the satins, but not the jogging--which accounts, in part,
for her streamlined shape. "I've never had to diet," she says, curling
up on the sofa, "but I am a vegetarian. I love fruit and salads,
I don't really drink, and I try to run as much as possible, though
I'm no fanatic about it. I start feeling out of shape if I don't'
exercise; that's why I do tumbling and work out on the trapeze.
I believe you should spend a certain amount of time upside down--it
helps you to get perspective."
Maybe it even helps you get perspective on such perplexing matters
as the war-and peace-between men and women. If Susan were in the
market for a man, what special qualities would she shop for?
"Looks are not important--it
doesn't matter to me how tall or short a man is, or how young or
old. I do like a man who's not afraid to take a risk, someone willing
to give with no guarantee he'll get something in return, a man who
can live for the moment. I like a man who is relaxed, who does not
always have to be the dominant partner, who's bright and humorous
and at ease with his sexuality. You can tell when someone likes
his own body by the way he moves and walks."
Once upon a time, Chris Sarandon fit the bill. Why is he now a misfit?
"A lot of people have
speculated on our reasons for separating-some have even tried to
blame the homosexual role he played in 'Dog Day Afternoon,' but
that's not so. Only a man who was totally secure in his own sexuality
could have brought such dignity to that role. Our reasons for separating
are our reasons, and they are private. Chris and I are close friends
and we still have common property and a 125-year-old house in Westchester
County. Next weekend, he's driving me up to Maine to look for a
retirement home for my father. We have no plans for a divorce; since
I no longer believe in marriage, my concept of divorce is rather
hour is approaching the other side of midnight and the twinkle returns
to Susan's eye as she slips into her jacket. "I believe in love
and trust and commitment," she says, "but not in marriage. Marriage
may do something for lawyers and mothers, but not for husbands and
wives. I deal with reality, with the feelings I have at the moment.
And then I go on from there."
HERE TO READ GUY FLATLEY'S ONE-ON-ONE INTERVIEWS WITH
JACK NICHOLSON, BARBRA STREISAND, ROBERT DE NIRO, DIANE KEATON,
CLINT EASTWOOD, LIZA MINNELLI, AL PACINO, AMANDA PEET, VINCE VAUGHN,
CANDICE BERGEN, WOODY ALLEN, SAMANTHA MORTON, JACK BLACK, TUESDAY
WELD, RICHARD PRYOR, DEBBIE REYNOLDS AND OTHER TOP STARS.