Cannes 2017: Susan Sarandon talks film, porn and politics

A screening of “Thelma & Louise” at a free outdoor cinema on the beach in front of the Martinez hotel in Cannes — introduced by one of its main protagonists, Susan Sarandon: For film fans, it doesn’t get much better.

The event, held on Thursday night, was part of a series of initiatives marking L’Oréal Paris’ 20th year as the Cannes Film Festival’s official beauty partner, including a pop-up shop offering red-carpet beauty looks under the creative direction of the brand’s new global makeup director Val Garland. Five other ambassadors are to present their film picks during the festival.

In the run-up to the screening, Sarandon, who was named an ambassador for the beauty brand last year, at age 69, sat down with WWD to talk film, sex and politics.

WWD: The Cannes Film Festival is celebrating its 70th anniversary. Did any particular film, or actor, inspire you to get into acting?

Susan Sarandon: Honestly, I completely fell into it. I never had any aspirations to be an actor, and I never took acting lessons. Chris Sarandon [her ex-husband] was seen by someone in a play and he needed someone to audition with him for an agent called Jane Oliver Sherry. I went along and did a scene with him and she said, ‘Why don’t you both come back and I’ll represent you.’ At that time, she only represented us, a brand-new Sylvester Stallone, and Perry King. She started submitting me for things and the first thing that I went up for was “Joe” [1970]. They asked me to do an improv — John Avildsen was directing the feature — and I didn’t even know what that was. I got the part on the spot, then I went into soap operas and started to learn how to work with cameras. I was kind of the girl that everything happened to. I was living in New York, and I never left New York to live in L.A., so I’m here because all my plans failed.

WWD: You had hoped “Thelma & Louise” would usher in a new era of film for women.

S.S.: It didn’t. But I thank Ridley Scott for putting us in this iconic, major framing in that place, because that had a lot to do with it. It was a small story that he made big. It was like being in a cowboy movie except with women and trucks instead of horses and guys, but I don’t think anyone had a premonition that we were backing into this territory that was held by men.

WWD: If woman’s place in cinema is not yet where it needs to be, what is your hope for the future?

S.S.: I hope that we tell more stories that are more diverse about all kinds of people, and certainly Ryan [Murphy’s] initiative [the Half foundation] is a great step. The fact that so many people are having conversations about it is a major, major step. I think it’s just a bad habit that we don’t tell more stories where women are the protagonists. I think it’s hard for a lot of male studio executives to identify with female protagonists, but now that there are more women in positions of power we can green-light projects. My last four films were with women directors, and I think that more female actors have the power to get things made, develop scripts, are doing their own projects.

WWD: Have TV series opened up more opportunities for female actors?

S.S.: Hugely so. TV has always favored women from the early days of soap operas, where the women ruled soap operas. Definitely these various platforms, the miniseries, etc., are offering women more juicy parts than you’ll see in the film world. Also, stuff on TV can appeal to a narrow demographic as opposed to films which, when they’re being pushed, cost so much money that they’re trying to please everyone, and so you end up homogenized.

WWD: Do you have any actor heroes?

S.S.: Vanessa Redgrave is a hero of mine — off-screen also. I love Agnès Varda, not as an actor, but she has remained so curious and brave. This film that she just made [“Visages, Villages”] sounds crazy and great. Marion Cotillard I think can do absolutely anything, then there are the obvious peers of mine that are great. Redgrave, from the very beginning was taking risks politically, which I like.

WWD: You’re a political activist, but you’re also an investor in a ping-pong club franchise. Do political activists get stereotyped?

S.S.: I think the stereotype – and it’s an odd stereotype considering that we’ve had a president who was an actor, and [Arnold] Schwarzenegger, the former governor of California, is an actor — but the thing you hear is: ‘Why should actors be involved? Why should we have to listen to them?’ You don’t, I mean, why should you care about who I’m sleeping with, either. But on the more progressive side, as an actor, as a celebrity, what you can do is shine a little light on something that is not being seen.

When I went to Lesbos [the island that has become a focal point of the refugee crisis in Greece] two-and-a-half years ago, I went because I was so sick of listening to [Donald] Trump and all these people who had been turned into a concept. I thought if I can go, maybe I can humanize the situation by getting stories and finding an outlet for it. That doesn’t mean I’m an expert on solving that problem. Shailene Woodley — nobody was covering Standing Rock until she got arrested. There’s so many of these issues that are not in mainstream media that should be covered.

WWD: You come from a family of nine kids, how did that help shape your character?

S.S.: Yes, I’m the eldest. I can deal with chaos, and I have no problem with not having privacy in my home. I think it grounded me. I had a habit of mothering everyone, which I had to break when I had boyfriends, but I think it was a good thing.

WWD: Tell us about your supporting role in Xavier Dolan’s “The Death and Life of John F. Donovan.”

S.S.: I loved working with [Dolan], he is very detail-oriented, very passionate and funny. He’s a real find, and the fact that the same crew has been working with him for seven years since he was 18 or something.…He reminds me a bit of [2017 Cannes Film Festival jury president] Pedro Almodóvar in the way that things are slightly heightened and kind of absurd, but somewhere there’s still a heartbeat.

WWD: I read that you want to direct female-friendly porn in your 80s; is that still in the cards?

S.S.: [Laughs.] The reason I said that was that porn has become so easily available on your phone, on your iPad, and kids are watching it to get an idea of what’s expected. I prefaced the conversation by saying that I’m not an expert on porn, but what I have seen doesn’t seem that friendly towards women. And also a lot of the acting is bad, and that always turns me off. So there must be some way in to discovering that, and I’ve had volunteers from real actors saying, “Well I’d be down for that.”

When I was being asked all the time to pose for Playboy, I started looking at what happens when women are photographed, and how do they lose their personality or become less sexy? What happens with women, why are they so objectified? And that got me thinking how Jeanne Moreau and Silvana Mangano, and all these people who are not perfect, those women seemed to say “yes” to life. And the European standards for beauty and sensuality — as opposed to “Barbarella,” because I was a kid when this all started — seemed to be so different. So I think sometimes, things can be really hot that really aren’t so gynecological.

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