Unmarried . . . With Children--and Values : Susan Sarandon, who has given older actresses and unconventional relationships a good name, talks of family virtues, politics, movies and men.
In the new and dark Paul Schrader movie, “Light Sleeper,” Susan Sarandon plays what she calls “a hair-do and hose part--Ivana Trump hairdos and lots of matching hose” with what she claims is “the shortest Armani.” So it was a jolt to find her at an Ocean Park cafe dressed like Mother Earth in baggy peasant clothes, without makeup and threatening to express breast milk during an interview.
Welcome to the real world of the working mother--and an unwed one at that. Three-month-old Miles is her third child, so the 45-year-old Sarandon is quite skilled at juggling infant and job. “I carry my pump around because what happens is, for instance on ‘White Palace,’ when my second son (Jack Henry) was 6 months old, I found that I was getting there just as he’d finished the bottle.” Not easy but it can be done, as this hard-working mom has shown: Both “Light Sleeper” and “Bob Roberts” (see article Page 20), in which she plays a cameo role, open Friday, and a third, “Lorenzo’s Oil” with Nick Nolte, is slated for release around Christmas.
In a political season in which the candidates of both parties strive to project a banal view of the family and its values, it is refreshing to hear Sarandon tout “Bob Roberts,” the current film of “my partner in crime,” actor-director Tim Robbins, the younger man in her life and the father of her two youngest children. Talk all you want about the women’s movement and a change in values, but is there any more startling sign of change than Sarandon running off in real life with the young pitching stud in “Bull Durham”?
But Sarandon is not merely unconventional. She is as serious about her politics as she is about her art, active in causes ranging from protecting First Amendment rights to speaking out on the AIDS epidemic. And she has attempted, as much as the movie industry will permit, to have a connection between her politics and her art.
But just as importantly, Sarandon has through her performances challenged bimbo culture and asserted that women, like men, are more attractive when they are smart and mature. In her portrayals of older and sexy women in movies like “Bull Durham,” “White Palace,” “Thelma & Louise” and now, “Light Sleeper,” Sarandon more than any actress since Marlene Dietrich has established that aging in women can lead to heightened sensuality. And in “Thelma & Louise,” she adds the component of power--the woman as the controlling agent setting the action.
Although the film was viewed by some as threatening, that is not consistent with Sarandon’s thinking. Sarandon wants it clear that she is not happy conforming to a caricature of feminism: “I think that feminism is a term that just makes everybody get defensive. I’ve never claimed to be a feminist. I’m really a humanist. In order to be a humanist, there were a lot of inequities that had to be addressed from the female side. But I just think that feminism is approaching it in a way that may not be as productive as they would like it to be. Because there are a lot of men out there who need to be championed as much as women. And it is much too easy to blame men.”
This from the woman who brought a seminal character in “Thelma & Louise” to life?
“The message in ‘Thelma & Louise’ is for women not to settle anymore, not to just accept their condition anymore,” Sarandon says. “That could be true for a lot of discrimination in all areas. Women have been manipulating men in a very backhanded manner for years and years and years and getting what they want. To come straight forward and meet as equals now is pretty scary.”
She insists that “Thelma & Louise” does not present a negative view of men and feels that people who rejected the movie are the ones with the problem. “It is certainly not a feminist film if the two women are still looking for men somewhere. I think that all the guys were representative of different aspects of men--just like in most films you find women who are fragmented. But I think that really it had some very nice moments of pathos for most of those male characters.”
Did she anticipate the reaction to the film? “I don’t think we understood how firmly the heterosexual white male was holding on to that territory of heroic movie maleness. To make women a little out of control and have violence as an option, to give a woman a gun and to have her feel things that excessively. Nobody wants to see that.”
Of the character Louise, Sarandon says, “That thing that worked for me was more her being in jeopardy than conjuring up some old outrage. I felt like it was more that she just wanted to shut him (the rapist Louise shoots) up. If she hadn’t had the gun in her hand she just would have hit him. But then when he says whatever he says, that pushes her over the top and she goes to shut him up. But the impulse was just to erase that insult rather than to assassinate him.”
In “Light Sleeper,” her first film since “Thelma & Louise,” Schrader explores the vagaries of the yuppie drug trade. Although Sarandon plays a cocaine dealer, she says she has always detested the stuff: “Cocaine didn’t interest me. Not at all. I’m way way back in the early pot, and mushrooms, organic, not all these chemical things that split you and do horrible things. They’re too antisocial.
“The only thing that is interesting politically about (“Light Sleeper”) is that usually in the films and news, drugs are always connected with people of color. You never see rich, white, upwardly mobile people. In this movie, that’s who I, the drug queen, sell to. (It’s) kind of a fast-food business, where you dial a number and someone delivers drugs to you.”
Sarandon says she doesn’t want to make strictly political movies because she thinks “that would be boring.” But she also clearly would rather talk about the more political “Bob Roberts,” which Robbins wrote, directed and stars in. “You’ve got to see it, it’s great,” she says, and arranges a screening.
The movie centers on the cloning of a right-wing candidate for the Senate and presumably later for President. At first glance, with Gore Vidal playing Roberts’ rival for the Senate seat and getting to convey his view of how the world is run, the movie might be thought to have a distinctly left-liberal appeal. Except that Robbins’ performance was apparently so convincing to some journalists who saw it at the Cannes Film Festival that they warmed to the character he was portraying. He recalls a French reporter coming up to him and asking, “What’s wrong with Bob Roberts for President?”
Robbins reports all of this with a bemused look at a small screening room in West Hollywood before dashing off to pick up Sarandon and the children at the rent-controlled apartment they had borrowed off Main Street, en route to a week in Hawaii.
Although Sarandon has only a small part as a TV anchor in “Bob Roberts,” she keeps bringing the film up during several interviews. Her part, she says, “shows how irresponsible the TV anchor people are. Like when I laughed through a report on the homeless. You know the way they do that chummy kind of thing when something is coming down. They probably had a few drinks before the show. But I must say, Peter Jennings loved the movie. So even though it made him uncomfortable, he was able to get past that.”
The close relationship between Sarandon and Robbins would be the envy of most married couples. Why don’t they marry? Sarandon’s answer is that it might just ruin things. Yet there is nothing in her background to suggest such a Bohemian temperament in family matters.
Sarandon grew up as a proper Catholic schoolgirl in Metuchen, N.J., went off to Catholic University in Washington, still resents the introduction of English Mass and married the first man, actor Chris Sarandon, she had sex with back in 1967 when she was 19. “That was just what you did if you didn’t want to get kicked out of school. If you wanted to live together, it was just so much easier. He was a really good friend.” The couple had no children and were divorced 11 years later. She has turned her back on marriage, though certainly not family and children, ever since.
“When you are not married, I think it is not as easy to take each other for granted. Because when you say ‘till death do us part,’ you don’t have to reaffirm your love for each other as often. I’m always fighting against seeing the other person as just a function of what the family is and not as a person. I don’t know if I’m a big enough, enlightened enough person to not see my partner, my comrade, my partner in crime, as just my husband once we get married. The only other thing that I can think of that is as homicidal to a relationship is appearing in the couples page in People magazine.”
But she loves children. “When I had my daughter, all over the papers they called her a love child. How fabulous. How great to have these children to be products of love.”
Despite her sassy and sexy movie roles, Sarandon is a one-man woman. “I am very romantic. For a women of my age and station, I have not been around very much at all. I’ve never developed that sportive kind of attitude toward sex. Thank God, as it turns out.” She considers this restraint a mark of female sensibility: “Men very often can see sex as a way of solving a problem, where women want the problem solved beforehand.”
Her views may be iconoclastic but she hesitates to strike the stance of the sexual rebel. “I think I could be seen outside convention. But I’ve never had affairs behind people’s backs the way it seems all of our political candidates have. I’m always quite honest about it.”
Sarandon sees the “family values” issue in the presidential campaign as “just a smoke screen for them not to deal with real issues that have to do with the fact that our infant mortality rate is the highest in the free world, that our literacy rate is so low. This is all just (expletive) to try to not deal with issues like the S&L; scandal, and what’s really going on in this country that’s really killing people. Neglect. What family values are they talking about?”
Not that she is herself valueless, and speaking of her legacy to her 7-year-old daughter Eva, she says: “I’m hoping that she understands that just as (much) a part of being born, just as being part of sitting down to this feast that we call life, you have some responsibility to help set the table and clear it. Not because you want to go to heaven. But because that is what being human is about.”
So where, as the President keeps asking, do the three little letters G-O-D fit in? “Every war that you can think of has been done in the name of some god. Surely my God, whoever she is, would be much more nurturing and much more encompassing with her arms than these war gods that we are given. So when I talk about family virtues, I mean virtues that are human virtues that respect humanity in everybody. I don’t see how some one could be close to God and want to kill homosexuals to cure them. You know, I’ve heard horrible things come out of Christian mouths. I just don’t think God is like that, whoever she is.”
Is it important to think of God as a woman?
“I don’t know if it is important to think of God as a woman, but it makes more sense to me than an old guy with a beard. Because a woman does give life. So the creative female energy to me seems a little bit closer to what it might be.”
She says she was invited to speak at the Democratic National Convention, but turned it down, implying that she was less than fully enthusiastic about the party’s candidate. “I think that Clinton is probably a vote to save the Supreme Court. But I’m furious with the Democratic Party, because at a time when the country has such clear-cut problems and when issues could have been really dealt with in a different way than the Republicans have, we’ve got the closest thing to a Republican in Clinton.” Not that she’s soft on Bush, whom she casually refers to as a “fascist,” and said it was important that he be defeated.
But she terms Clinton “gutless” for not speaking out against entering the Gulf War. Sarandon was one of the few who publicly criticized the Gulf War when it was going on and was verbally abused in public for it. “There I was with my baby in my arms and some huge stranger businessman comes up to me and calls me a commie (expletive), can you imagine? I didn’t even know him.
“It was a very scary time. It was the only time that I really felt so alone taking a stand on something and looked around and nobody else was there. Tim and I went to Washington and spoke and I got the message that it was definitely not the cool thing to do, especially from a career point of view. People were frightened, really frightened. I was working with the military families against the war. I kept trying to say we are supporting our families by asking questions they can’t ask.”
She says she and Robbins shared a common political outlook when they first met on the set of “Bull Durham.” “Tim had been doing political theater in L.A. years before I met him and it’s kinda nice to have somebody who agrees with me most of the time.”
Recently, Sarandon said, a reporter writing a profile of Tim Robbins called her and asked, “What is this guy about, we can’t figure it out because all he talked about was politics. I can’t believe that you guys sit around at a table and talk about this stuff.”
Sarandon says she replied, “What would you believe we talk about? You talk about politics as if it’s something that doesn’t affect our lives. We pay taxes, we care about the environment for our children, we have friends that are dying of AIDS, and then the homelessness is right outside my door in New York. So why aren’t more people outraged? That’s what you should ask yourselves. We have a good time. We have loving kids. We spend a lot of time laughing. But politics comes into our home in self defense.” So it is not surprising that Jesse Jackson christened Jack Henry at a march for the homeless. And she doesn’t mind comparisons with Jane Fonda, other then to make it clear that she rarely exercises. “I’m not like Jane Fonda. I do absolutely nothing. I work out running around taking care of my kids. My body is my body. So it just goes to show you that being 45 is in now.”
She doesn’t have stretch marks, “probably because I was so old when I had my kids there was nothing left to stretch. I just don’t worry about stuff like that really. I’m concerned about finding an interesting part, not finding a sexy part.”
Yet one of her many causes is an affirmation of “older women’s sexuality.” In “Bull Durham,” she plays a mature college teacher and baseball fanatic who acquires a different young player with each season and teaches him all the right moves. “That was a little bit cleaned up, " Sarandon recalls the part, adding with obvious relish, “but she was still borderline kooky.”
When it was suggested that there was an appealingly erotic as well as a kooky component, Sarandon seemed a bit uncomfortable, protesting, “But it is not explicit. I’m never naked in a movie.” But she is proud that her character broke new ground in thinking of sex as fun, was not punished in the end for her free ways and, she adds, “I chose the guys.
“It was a breakthrough . . . she was a character that you hadn’t seen in films before.”
Then a parting shot at the old double standard: “Well, I’ve played opposite young actors but they make it into a big deal. Why don’t they make it into a big deal if a man plays opposite someone 20 years younger?”
She chafes at Hollywood’s censorship, which is at best contradictory. The condom/safe sex issue is the new taboo, and she recalls, “When I did ‘White Palace,’ there was a whole disclaimer that was eventually cut about whether or not my character had been tested and if we were having safe sex. And I know when Geena did her scene in ‘Thelma & Louise,’ there were condoms all over the room. And it didn’t make any difference, people still said she shouldn’t have.”
“In ‘White Palace’ they were nervous about whether or not I had a beer bottle in (a scene that took place in a) theater. This, after showing both of us completely drunk and crashing into a mailbox and driving hysterically down the road. And then they didn’t want me to sit in a movie theater with a bottle of beer.”
Sarandon is more concerned about violence than explicit sexuality in movies. Although she is opposed to censoring either, she still has her choices to make.
She remembers talking to Clint Eastwood about a role in the 1984 movie “Tightrope,” a script in which she found “the link between violence and sex was very strong. I remember it quite clearly, because I was completely broke, and I was desperate to work. And I think that Clint Eastwood is actually a pretty interesting guy. And I met with him, and I said, ‘Aren’t you worried, especially you, who everybody thinks is like Man Personified, (that) when your character starts to do some of this stuff, that it’s going to have a link between sex and violence and treating women badly?’ And he said, ‘I don’t think that it’s my job to worry about that, I’m an actor.’ ” She turned down the role.
Asked if she bought the argument that sexually explicit material leads to crimes against women, she replied, with a reference to the Clarence Thomas Senate nomination hearings “It leads to a Supreme Court judge. Are you kidding me?”
But she does exercise parental discretion. “My kids don’t watch TV. My kids watch tapes and ‘Sesame Street.’ I have a 7-year-old, I don’t want her watching sitcoms. I can’t watch everything ahead of time and make sure whatever stereotypes she’s being fed and whatever ideas about what love is about, I mean, it’s not just sex and violence, I’m even afraid of the news and the slant that the news has. So we just don’t turn it on. But that is my choice.”
With Sarandon, it’s always a matter of choice.