Oscar winner Susan Sarandon has been dogged by Bette Davis and her legacy for years.
Sarandon, who played the eccentric cinematic icon in the FX series “Feud,” has been tapped to portray Davis multiple times and for many years, even through Davis herself.
“Originally, she approached me through a director when I was a kid and her daughter had just written that horrible book [about her], but there wasn’t a script and I didn’t have the wherewithal to make that happen,” she said when she stopped by The Times’ video studio.
Those were the early days. Another script about Davis over-staying her welcome while visiting a family in the Hamptons also came along, as well as a couple of plays, including one that involved Crawford.
“It’s been kind of following me,” Sarandon said.
But “Feud” showrunner Ryan Murphy’s way of telling her story in the context of Hollywood and through Davis’ volatile relationship with actress Joan Crawford drew her to this project. It was the poignant line — “You mean all this time we could have been friends?” — that hooked her and the fact that Murphy recruited several women to work on the eight-episode production.
Originally meant for the big screen, “they came back years later and stretched it out over eight episodes and it got much more interesting,” Sarandon said, “I just decided to jump in and finally do her.”
Sarandon was terrified for weeks and worked hard to embody Davis’ idiosyncratic look and speech, defiant chain-smoking and her “truck driver” gait. She shaved her forehead to better suit her wig and did her own makeup because Davis did her own makeup with the intention to “get her essence rather than imitate her.”
The painstakingly rich production easily could have crossed into campy territory, but was further heightened by Murphy’s sterling ensemble cast. Heaps of venom were exchanged between Sarandon’s Davis and Jessica Lange’s Crawford as they filmed their 1962 horror classic “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” but the friendly contemporary actresses had fun playing the feuding stars who chipped away at each other but also faced similar indignities, ageism and pressures to look a certain way.
“You survive in this business long enough and the ones that are left standing you kind of feel bonded with and that’s certainly [the case] with Jessica,” Sarandon said.
But even Sarandon was weary of some of the character’s over-the-top clashes.
“In the beginning, [Jessica and I] would turn into each other [and say] ‘are we just doing a series of memes, you know, what’s going on here, because we were so afraid of being overpowered by the kind of cliches of who these women were, especially Bette Davis who’s been imitated so drastically. So how could we make that live? I think we focused on that [and] making the scene work rather than what the animosity was. It’s always fun to fight when it’s not real. All those things you wish you could be bitchy enough to say, it’s really so much more fun to be Hook than Peter Pan.”
Sarandon also discusses the evolution of women in Hollywood, “Thelma & Louise,” “The Real Housewives” and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” in the full chat below:
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