Oscar-winner breaks the mold

Interview / Susan Sarandon

The great thing about being in the arts," says Susan Sarandon, "is you can use all that experience, all those roles, and spin it right into gold. That's the seduction of any of the arts."

As she sits on the couch, the late afternoon sun pours through the windows of her Manhattan living room. "My career has brought me much more than an Oscar [1995's 'Dead Man Walking']. It's given me an insight into other people's lives."

In recent months, she has played a Wisconsin housewife who feels that she and her teenage daughter, portrayed by Natalie Portman, are being stifled by their small-town life ("Anywhere But Here"). In her current release, "Cradle Will Rock," she's cast as Margherita Sarfatti, Mussolini's mistress. In a future film, "Joe Gould's Secret," she plays painter Alice Neel. She describes that role as "an hors d'oeuvre of a part - just seasoning for the movie. Again it's a period film, and it was an honor to work with [veteran actor] Ian Holm," who plays Joe Gould.

Obviously, Sarandon enjoys variety. "It's only in the last two movies [that] I got to wear makeup." It was without makeup, playing a nun, that she won a best-actress Oscar in 1996 for "Dead Man Walking," directed by her companion, Tim Robbins.

She had been nominated four times before - "Atlantic City" (1980), "Thelma and Louise" (1991), Lorenzo's Oil" (1992), and "The Client" (1994).

Sarandon stands up and begins to pace back and forth as she discusses her recent films. "Cradle Will Rock," set in 1930s New York about the art and theater world, was also written by Robbins.

"I didn't know that much about Sarah Bernhardt or that era in the theater," she says. They discussed several roles she could play, but she selected Margherita Sarfatti. "It was such a thrill to wear the wigs, the period [clothes], the high-button shoes, the whole thing," she says.

The part was a challenge. Sarfatti, a former mistress of Mussolini, used her charm as an art broker in New York. She raised funds for fascists by selling masterpieces to Nelson Rockefeller (played by John Cusack) and other men of great wealth.

One would have thought she'd choose the role of an actor campaigning for freedom of expression, for keeping the federal theater project open. "No, been there, done that," the actress acknowledges. "I only take parts that frighten me. Otherwise, I'd just get lulled into some kind of complacency."

Her best friends advised her not to do "Anywhere But Here," her other current release. They kept asking, "Why do you want to play this obnoxious character?"

When Sarandon read Mona Simpson's book, "Anywhere But Here," she immediately recognized the mother-daughter relationship. "This character wants all the right things for her teenage daughter, but for all the wrong reasons. When I did the movie, I thought, 'I'll practice making all the mistakes on film, so I won't make them in real life.'

"My 14-year-old daughter is a little like the character in the film. She's really smart, really funny, and a serious student. She knew her voice way before I did. She's practical. I named her well, Eva, after Eve, the first person who thought for herself," the actress says.

Sarandon took Eva with her to the first screening of "Anywhere But Here." The next morning they set out on a road trip, like the one in the movie.

"We had a blast. We began in San Francisco en route to Seattle, with no agenda. The only thing sure was the destination; Tim and our two boys were in Seattle seeing friends and fishing. We joined them and spent two months in Vancouver, where Tim was starring in [the yet-to-be-released] 'Mission to Mars' for Disney. The three youngsters and I had fun seeing the sights."

Eva had a walk-on part in her mother's picture, "Anywhere But Here," and also worked as a wardrobe girl. But in Vancouver she got a part-time job as a production assistant on Robbins's film. "More of a gofer," Sarandon explains. "You go for this, and you go for that."

Neither parent has objections to the youngsters entering the world of acting. Their sons, 10-year-old Jack Henry Robbins and six-year-old Miles Guthrie Robbins, are more interested in sports, especially hockey and soccer.

"You want your kids to be safe and happy, but you resist the temptation to let them go," Sarandon says. "You want to encourage them, but eventually you have to love them enough not to control their lives.

"Sometimes you just have to hold your breath and say, 'That's what life is about, making mistakes.' I hope they make them as quickly as possible and don't actually condemn themselves. A parent has to have faith they can bounce back, and disappointments become steppingstones."

Growing up as the eldest of nine children, Sarandon has always been out front and leading. She admits one of the most, if not the most, terrifying moment of her career was in 1992 at the Academy Awards. She took 30 seconds of her presentation speech to champion the rights of Haitian refugees interned at Guanta-namo Bay because of AIDS.

Recalling that chilling moment on stage, she confides, "I knew if I didn't say something, that would be a huge regret. As terrified as I was, Tim and I called attention to the refugees. Walking into the wings, people averted their eyes. The loneliness of those kinds of acts is so devastating to me."

Later the Haitians were released.

"The respect I've lost for myself is when I tried to finesse myself out of a situation," she says. When "I should have just stood my ground and said, 'That's wrong.' "

Then she takes a deep breath. "Wow, I didn't mean to get so passionate," she says, adding, "when something isn't true, I hope my children always have the courage to know it's a lie. No doubt about it, being a mother is the hardest and the best role I'll ever have."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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