For someone in the midst of a professional crisis, Susan Sarandon is the picture of calm as she sips tea in a private Greenwich Village club. A head of curls is tucked under a newsboy cap, and her delicate porcelain features are remarkably ageless. You could almost imagine her living as long as the character who is presently torturing her: Queen Marguerite in Eugène Ionesco's "Exit the King," the "ruthless cow" and abused consort for 283 years of the titular Berenger the First. That is, if the role doesn't finish her off first.
"A friend of mine told me that my body wouldn't take this kind of tension; it would just give out," the 62-year-old actress says with a laugh. "But I couldn't find out how to play her. I was literally distraught, sobbing. I chose to do it because I think it's good to do things out of your comfort zone." She rolls her eyes. "I didn't know just how much outside of my comfort zone it would be."
Sarandon's return to the Broadway stage for the first time since a featured role in 1972's "An Evening With Richard Nixon" was prompted by Geoffrey Rush, whom she'd worked with on the 2002 film "The Banger Sisters." The actor, who starred as Berenger I in an acclaimed revival of the 1962 absurdist drama in Australia, sent Sarandon a copy of the play with a letter imploring her to appear as his queen in the Broadway transfer, which opens Thursday. Sarandon says she was struck by the work's contemporary resonance and intrigued by its vertiginous tonal shifts, from slapstick farce to surreal alienation to elegiac lyricism.
"I love how Geoffrey is both Daffy Duck and Mussolini. But the queen, unlike the other characters, must constantly sit on her emotions," says the actress, known for her explosive sensuality in such films as "Bull Durham" and the emotional intensity she brought to "Dead Man Walking," for which she won an Oscar.
Conceived as a meditation on mortality, the rarely performed "Exit the King" is sent on its loopy way after Queen Marguerite, as a tight-lipped Angel of Death, tells her 400-year-old husband that he will be dead in 90 minutes. Trailed by his two wives -- the other, the young and more lovable Marie (played by Lauren Ambrose) -- Berenger rages with infantile impotence. Through his negligence, his kingdom has declined from more than 900 million subjects to a thousand and is on the verge of apocalyptic annihilation. Swimming pools are on fire, mountains are collapsing, and the washing machine has had to be sold "to bail out the treasury" -- a line greeted with laughter and applause at a recent preview.
Given Sarandon's well-known political views, it comes as no surprise that she equates Berenger with George W. Bush. "Bush is like the line in the play, 'I didn't have my mind on those things,' as though that's an excuse," she says contemptuouslyof the former president.But, unexpectedly, the actress adds that she was less attracted to the politics of the piece than to its humanity. Marguerite's campaign to get her husband to accept death, she says, is partly motivated by her desire to rid the land of a tyrant. But she is also driven by compassion and love for the old fool, despite the centuries of abuse. In fact, it was the latter approach that finally gave her some traction on the role.
"All my roles have been a love story of sorts," Sarandon says. "Marguerite does have a heart that beats. But it's a tough love. I only lose it once in the play, and it kills me. It's the only time that she's unguarded and then she backs up right away."
The actress tears up at the recollection of the scene. "It's just so difficult to play someone who doesn't touch and who doesn't like to be touched. I'm just so . . . touchy."
Indeed, this is where the earthy Sarandon -- the eldest of nine children born into a New York family of Italian and Welsh ancestry -- parts company most with Ionesco, the king of alienation. While the Romanian-born French playwright tartly questions the ability of love and art to transcend death -- "Art?" sneers Berenger. "It lifts you up, it drops you down." -- the actress has no such ambiguity.
"I agree with the sentiment that love does give meaning to life," she says. "I'm more like Queen Marie than Marguerite in that way. I really think that, at death, it all comes down to those who loved and those who were loved. It's easier for both those who die and for the survivors if this is the case. What's the point of being here unless you can be a part of something greater, of something outside yourself, whether it's children, a mate or a cause that you believe in?
"But I'm also a realist," says the woman who, since 1988, has been a partner to the actor Tim Robbins and mother to their sons, Miles, 16, and Jack Henry, 19. She also has a daughter, actress Eva Amurri, 24, by the director Franco Amurri. "When you're young, you think that love can conquer all. But the other person has to be open to it. You can't use love like a battering ram -- it's like using a newborn baby to smash open a door."
As far as art is concerned, Sarandon wonders how one can even begin to define the term. And she modestly demurs at first when it is suggested that a good number of her films may become classics. "You do have the ability, for better or worse, either to challenge the status quo or to reinforce it," she says of her iconoclastic choices. In that regard, "all films are political. I do find it rewarding when people come up to me and tell me that my work in some way has changed their lives. 'Dead Man Walking' opened up a discourse on capital punishment in their family, or 'Atlantic City' caused them to leave and pursue their dreams. But I don't equate that to surviving after my death." She thinks for a moment. "Maybe because I don't think I'm going to die, am I?"
She adds with a laugh. "I want to live to at least 100. My mom is 86 and still kicking ass."
Sarandon is quite happy, like the rest of society, to put off thoughts of death. "We've eliminated aging," she says sardonically of her Botoxed generation, "So why not death?" And she is too practical to take much solace in the fact that, as a film actor, she enjoys a form of immortality not offered to lesser mortals. Just as she had the opportunity to take tips from the films of Bette Davis playing Elizabeth I in order to interpret Queen Marguerite, so will others be influenced by her work after she is gone. "Yes, it is a comfort," she concedes. "And the trade-off is that you have no privacy and everybody thinks they know who you are and want to know who you're sleeping with, and your kids are tortured." She laughs. "There's always a downside to it. So you do it for the work itself."
As "Exit the King" ramps up to face the critics, Sarandon keeps reminding herself of advice proffered by a friend: "Look, you've chosen this role to make a fool of yourself, so just do it." Still, she wakes up anxiously these days. "Struggling to get through this process has been so incredible," she says with a sigh. "I should be able to play the fool more easily by now. I've made movies with no makeup, played bad guys, good guys, never thought of myself as someone who invested in a lot of what you think of as 'Hollywood star trappings.' Who knew my ego was so strong?"
Sarandon says she's fatalistic enough to realize that, success or failure, "Exit the King" is bound be one of life's great lessons for her. In fact, she has started keeping a diary about the experience. "It's so interesting that I pulled this play toward me at this point in my life," she says. "Once I get through it, and hopefully have some fun while doing it, I know it's going to change everything for me, personally and where I am in my life."