Bette Davis finally caught up to Susan Sarandon. After multiple opportunities to portray the screen legend, Sarandon was finally enticed by Ryan Murphy for his Emmy-nominated limited series “Feud: Bette and Joan.”
Facing off against old pal Jessica Lange as the equally formidable Joan Crawford was not an enterprise into which the Oscar-winning actress entered lightly, but Sarandon’s nuanced take on the iconic star resulted in an Emmy nomination. (Lange also netted a nod.)
We recently chatted with Sarandon about finally tackling the role and getting the balance of fear and fun just right on the set of “Feud.”
You’d been approached over the years about portraying Bette Davis, and you narrated a documentary about her. So, part of the appeal of “Feud” must have been being able to really stretch out in the eight hours of this project.
Well, originally, [Davis] approached me through a director when I was a kid and her daughter had just written the horrible book. And she said she wanted me to play her, but there was no script and I didn’t have the wherewithal to figure out how to make that happen. So that would’ve been the early days. Then there were a number of… [Chuckles] She went to the Hamptons once when she was older and stayed with the family to get an award and didn’t leave for months, disrupted the entire family. So that was a script that came to me. Then there were a couple of plays, one that involved Joan. So it’s been kind of following me.
And then Ryan. Originally, it was a film, and when I read it, I just said, “It’s just kind of a one-joke thing, you know? They’re bitchy.” But what’s interesting is the last line, “If only we could’ve been friends,” or whatever that is, “You mean all this time we could’ve been friends?” I said, “That’s interesting to me.” You know, if women band together, they’re so powerful and what a shame that this happened. So years later, he came and he said it was going to be all these episodes, and I thought, “How can he stretch that out?” And then he said, “Well, we’re going to look at it in the context of Hollywood and tell that story. And has it changed? And what about women?” And then it started to get much more interesting.
And you hadn’t worked with Jessica before, but you knew her.
Yeah, we’re East Coast gals and we’ve run into each other a lot. I had spent a little bit of time with my family, with her family in Mexico. And, you know, you survive in this business long enough and the ones that are left standing you kind of feel bonded with.
And you end up in these roles where people are in a feud, and there’s so much venom and vitriol going back and forth between the —
So much pain.
And that denouement of they could have been friends. They had so much in common. I’m wondering, if in between takes, you were doing some laughing and hugging to sort of, like, tamp that down.
Yeah, in the beginning, we would turn to each other and say, “Are we just doing, like, a series of memes? You know, what’s going on here?” Because we were so afraid of being overpowered by the kind of cliché of who these women were, especially Bette Davis, who’s been imitated so drastically. So how could we make that live? And so I think we focused on making the scenes work, rather than whatever the animosity was. But it’s always fun to fight when it’s not real, you know? Then all those things you wish you could be bitchy enough to say.
But I was terrified for at least five weeks. I couldn’t get the fear:fun ratio in my favor, just listening to the dialect coach, trying to get that very idiosyncratic pattern down. And she always chose to emphasize the weirdest words in every sentence. I like to have a good time. I mean, I love the collaboration of film and TV. That, for me, is everything. And I come from a large family and I like to re-create that. So for me to be uncomfortable, even though I knew I was doing it because I wanted to be outside of my comfort zone, it was just so much more uncomfortable than I had anticipated. And in the beginning, when Ryan asked me, I said, “I’m just really scared.” And he said, “Well, I’m scared too.” And for some reason, I found it very consoling. I don’t know why that made me feel at ease that he was terrified also, but…
It could’ve had the opposite effect.
It ended up being really fun, eventually. And I fractured my foot, so I was in a boot for about seven weeks of the whole thing, but luckily, her walk was like a truck driver, so it didn’t matter.
That brings up a good question. There were so many idiosyncratic things about her — her look, the way she walked, the way she talked — was there a specific thing that unlocked it for you?
Oh, well, Lou [Eyrich], it was just amazing what she did with the wardrobe, re-created so much, you know, the dress from “All About Eve” exactly. So many things that she found and even painted the fabric to look like it. And that certainly helped. And I shaved my head. She had a very wide forehead and I don’t, and so with the wigs and everything, shaving it to make it wider and more straight across I think helped a little bit. And, of course, when you can hide behind white makeup.
If they ever make a movie of your life, who would you like to see play you?
I was thinking of Tom Hardy, actually.
Tom Hardy can do anything.
I love Tom Hardy. I would like him to be me, or I would like to be him. But I think he could do just about anything.