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MOVIES : She’s Her Own Best Counsel : Susan Sarandon has always been an actress-advocate. Nothing different with ‘The Client.’ But the best part for her: It was shot during summer.

<i> Gene Seymour is a writer for Newsday. </i>

Day-care emergencies can do to a parent’s plans what flash floods can do to a car’s brakes. And this particular squall must be a doozy for Susan Sarandon because even her publicist is walking into the sunlit back room of a Greenwich Village Italian restaurant on an unspeakably hot afternoon carrying disposable diapers. Somewhere out front is the youngest of Sarandon’s three children, 2-year-old Miles, waiting--calmly, one hopes--for a backup baby-sitter.

It turns out the nanny canceled because someone in her family had a serious accident, thus pitching into potential chaos a carefully orchestrated day of interviews and photo sessions publicizing Sarandon’s latest film, “The Client,” which opens Wednesday.

But watching Sarandon coolly give the maitre d’ detailed instructions on what to do when the new sitter arrives, one senses it won’t take long for matters to achieve, at the very least, an exquisite simulation of stability.

With everything in place, she saunters over to a waiting table, her smile glowing as brightly as the sunlight engulfing the dining room. She seizes a reporter’s hand with a grip steely enough to make one reconsider using words like silky or willowy to characterize her physical presence. Sugar-cane tautness is more like it.

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Which isn’t to say she lacks magic. Far from it. It’s hard not to be impressed by those perfectly sculpted cheekbones, deep-dish hazel eyes and the expressive mouth that, whether at rest or in motion, conveys both sultry worldliness and wry intelligence. If anything, Sarandon’s casually worn composure in the midst of her dog-day child-care hassles only makes her more magnetic. And this is before she puts on her makeup for a photo shoot.

With or without makeup, Susan Sarandon, at 47, remains as alluring as she was in the 1980 film, “Atlantic City,” with its evocative sequence of Burt Lancaster’s gangster manque gazing longingly through his window at Sarandon’s oyster-bartender as she languidly squeezed lemons over her nude torso to kill the fish smell.

In the presence of such mythic power, who could blame director Joel Schumacher (“Falling Down” and the upcoming “Batman” sequel) for getting on one knee in the middle of a power lunch with Sarandon in New York, pleading with her to play “The Client’s” dauntless, overmatched attorney-heroine?

“I’ve been in love with her for years,” Schumacher says. “It wasn’t just a stunt. I wanted her badly. There were no second choices.”

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Sarandon was both embarrassed and charmed by Schumacher’s public display of wretched excess. Yet, as someone who covets candor in personal transactions, Sarandon was more beguiled by the rest of Schumacher’s rap, which he says went something like this: “I’ve got a lot to learn as a director, but I can cast a movie better than anyone. You’ll be cast well. You’ll be treated with respect. And you’ll have a lot of fun.”

“And I have to say that spoke to me,” laughs Sarandon, who had taken a few years off from movie-making for Miles’ sake. “I liked the idea of working during the summer, which is when I prefer to work anyway so I don’t disrupt school for the other kids. I was in Memphis. Tim was filming in Ohio. So we were able to get together easily for time off. It worked out just the way Joel said it would.”

“Tim,” by the way, is actor Tim Robbins, who’s been Sarandon’s Significant Other since they met on the set of 1988’s “Bull Durham” and is the father of both Miles and Jack Henry, 5. Her Eva, 9, was fathered by Italian director Franco Amurri, and lives in lower Manhattan with Robbins, Sarandon and the other two children.

“The Client” is Hollywood’s third attempt to make as much money off a John Grisham legal thriller as the books themselves have made. It’s also the riskiest since, unlike last year’s “The Firm” and “The Pelican Brief,” it isn’t being ridden into the multiplexes by box-office powerhouses like Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts.

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Industry pundits will be watching to see whether Sarandon, playing the central character in this, her 32nd feature film, can carry a movie on her own. But even with her credentials and presence, Sarandon may be too highly evolved a talent, to have real clout in today’s Hollywood.

“If pictures were made with interesting women as protaganists, she would have the same rank and commercial appeal as Bette Davis enjoyed for decades,” says author Gore Vidal, a close friend of Sarandon, whose 1972 satire, “An Evening With Richard Nixon” provided her first Broadway credit. “But movies now are mostly about boys and toys. And women stand or lie around in the margins.”

“The Client” is about an 11-year-old boy (Brad Renfro) who hears more than he should about the mob-related murder of a U.S. senator. A flamboyant federal prosecutor (Tommy Lee Jones) wants testimony from the frightened boy, who hires Sarandon, playing a recovering drug addict, estranged parent and struggling lawyer, to keep the feds and the Mob at bay.

Sarandon’s comfort level with the project was enhanced by the way Schumacher welcomed her input.

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“The way I’ve worked is to throw out lots of suggestions and I don’t expect all of them to be taken,” she says. “On (“Client”), I was listened to, probably, more than I’d ever been. Joel gave me so much creative license that by the time the film was over, my only anxiety was that I’d hung myself in self-indulgence.

“Like I thought, ‘My God! He actually let me stand on a window sill in my stocking feet when I make my first appearance! I actually pull a tape cassette from behind Tommy Lee’s ear. . . . All this stuff I would think of that wasn’t in the book. And I thought at any moment, Joel’ll tell me, ‘Stop it!’ ”

Schumacher, for his part, was happy to have the help. “She wanted the audience to see what kind of inner life this woman had before the boy comes to see her. The thing with the window sill where you see her struggling with this broken down air-conditioner was something she thought up to show how hot, tired and frustrated she was with her whole life. It was more vivid than the alternative: watering plants.”

Other directors, notably Paul Mazursky on “Tempest” (1982) and Ridley Scott on “Thelma & Louise” (1991), have been just as appreciative of Sarandon’s input. For instance, the haunting nighttime desert stroll in “Thelma & Louise” was Sarandon’s idea.

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She hasn’t always been so lucky. She cites a dispute over a line of dialogue in “White Palace” (1990), the May-December love story in which she plays a fortysomething fast-food waitress romancing James Spader’s twentysomething yuppie ad man.

“There’s this scene when she’s having Thanksgiving dinner with his friends. And she says, at one point, that Presidents don’t make poor people happen . I refused to say that line because it didn’t fit the character. She knew the minimum wage. She knew perfectly well that no President’s ever felt beholden to a constituency that’s poor. So I knew she didn’t care who was in the White House. And I was adamant about not saying that line.

“They said, ‘Well, Susan, she doesn’t have your politics.’ I said, ‘Well, clearly not from the way she lives her life, she doesn’t have my politics.’ But that wasn’t the point. The point was that the line wasn’t true to who she was. In that instance, not only wasn’t I listened to, I got into trouble.”

Politics is an unavoidable subject in dealing with Sarandon, one of the more committed, passionate and knowledgeable activists in the film community. She works with the Center for Constitutional Rights in fighting First Amendment violations and has campaigned against the AIDS epidemic and homelessness.

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Sarandon wears her politics so conspicuously that she often hears her challenges to a film’s purpose described as attempts to be “politically correct,” an expression she believes is “a really brilliant way to demean people who have been struggling for the truth.

“Any time they want to be dismissive, say, when you tell them that more African Americans should be cast in movies as lawyers, they say it’s ‘politically correct.’ And the fact is that there are a lot of people of color who are not drug dealers or hookers. It’s correct storytelling , not correct politics. But they don’t want to hear anything that goes against stereotypical thinking because if they go against it, they’ll be risking their profits.”

It’s partly because of the warped values she sees in the film industry that Sarandon is especially picky about the roles she accepts. She’s just finished playing Marmee in an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” and will be seen later this year in “Safe Passage,” in which she plays the mother of a soldier missing in action. She’s also been talking with Jane Campion (“The Piano”) about a part in the director’s adaptation of Henry James’ “Portrait of a Lady.”

But there are other, bigger reasons for being vigilant about her film career. Specifically, three of them, growing up together in her New York apartment. In fact, she agreed to do “Safe Passage” because it allowed her to work close to home during the school year.

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“My kids,” she says, “are so much more interesting than most of the scripts I read that it’s certainly not even tempting to spend more time chasing more work. My problem lies in finding enough people who feel passionately about what they do, that are trying to do something that’s different. Not political, but something that has its own voice . I’m not tempted that often. So real life to me is so much more compelling.”

Indeed, a big part of Sarandon’s allure, on-screen and off, is that she seems so deeply engaged by all aspects of life, even those pertaining to her beloved New York Rangers. While working on “Little Women” in Vancouver, she, Robbins and a couple of other Ranger fans ventured deep into enemy territory to cheer their team on in Game 6 of their championship series against the Canucks.

“It was real . . . interesting sitting in the middle of all those guys while wearing a blue Ranger jersey. If we hadn’t lost that game, we wouldn’t have been allowed to leave the stadium alive.”

She has fun. She’s got kids she likes. She’s near the top of her profession. (Did we mention the three Oscar nominations?) What more could anyone want?

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Well . . .

There are those like director George Miller, with whom Sarandon has worked on “The Witches of Eastwick” (1987) and “Lorenzo’s Oil” (1992), who suggest that Sarandon, for all her accomplishments, is something of an underachiever. Sarandon, Miller once told an interviewer, personifies perfectly an Oscar Wilde dictum: “Put talent in your craft and genius in your life.”

“Gee,” Sarandon says when told of the quote. “I don’t think I’m always a genius with my life. But it’s nice to hear somebody else say so. Thank you, George.”

And yet, it is suggested that buried in Miller’s praise is the implication that Sarandon could accomplish even greater things if. . . .

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“If I didn’t have a life?” Sarandon says, completing the thought. “I don’t know if that’s true. . . . I think life is so much bigger than my craft that I would rather invest my genius in my life. It has many more challenges, many more surprises. It may even demand more from the imagination.

“I mean, I don’t know how full a cup you can bring to a project if you’re not living a life. If you’re not drawing from real life, then all you’re doing is rehashing images you’ve seen in films. Even the images of yourself. And all that doesn’t interest me.

“I suppose if I were saving lives every day or close to a vaccine for AIDS, yeah, I would definitely put my genius in my work. But I don’t know if my work could contain my genius that I have in my life.

“And anyway,” she adds, “even from the time I started, I’ve always said that the work was always a means to a life. Not the life itself. I’m very grateful to be able to make a living this way. It keeps me on my toes, helps me overcome inertia. . . . I’ve been blessed with this ability to have no expectations, but to follow something through when it crosses my path. Like my children. Every one of them was a surprise, but an absolute gift and without hesitation I embrace each one of them.”

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