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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


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"Weren't 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, Louis Malle, 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 trip."

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."

Astonishingly, 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 and flexible."

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 have any?'"

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.

"Not 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 girl."

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 face."

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 vague."

The 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."

 

CLICK 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.