During her celebrated 46-year career, Susan Sarandon has played a witch, a road-tripping waitress and a nun who leads a campaign to abolish the death penalty.
Now she’s gone after one of her most elusive characters ever: the tormented mother of the best-known sex symbol in movie history.
In Lifetime’s “The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe,” a two-part miniseries premiering Saturday, the 68-year-old Sarandon plays Gladys Pearl Baker, whose daughter Norma Jeane adopted the stage name Marilyn Monroe and was the legendary star of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” “The Seven Year Itch” and other film classics.
For Sarandon — who won an Oscar as Sister Helen Prejean in the 1995 feature “Dead Man Walking” — approaching the role was an education.
“I really didn’t know anything about her family,” she said of Baker during a recent interview in downtown Los Angeles, before the Lifetime movie was screened for an audience of industry professionals. What she learned, she said, was that Gladys and her clan suffered “one catastrophe after another.” Each of those left an impression on Monroe, who in the Lifetime version is played by Kelli Garner, in a breakout performance.
Gladys Baker was so mentally unstable that she was unable to care for Norma Jeane, who spent her childhood tossed between relatives and the foster system. By the time Marilyn Monroe was a celebrity, Gladys was hearing voices and being trundled in and out of mental hospitals.
Playing such a character posed its own set of challenges.
“The thing you worry about is just chewing up the scenery and doing a kind of generalized, generic ‘crazy person,’ ” Sarandon said. “So what you have to do is figure out where the voices are, who they are, when they’re heard, what her tics are.”
With Monroe, Lifetime is plowing familiar territory. It’s a tale that has been told many times before in books, movies (including the 2011 British film “My Week With Marilyn,” which won acclaim for Michelle Williams in the title role), TV shows and even songs. Many of the retellings linger on the star’s disastrous marriages (most notably to playwright Arthur Miller and baseball star Joe DiMaggio), erratic work habits and substance abuse, culminating in her death at age 36 in 1962.
Critics have seen Monroe as both a regressive throwback to an era of women as vulnerable sex objects and as a proto-feminist tragic heroine, a talented actor trapped by 1950s-era gender politics into embodying male fantasies.
By focusing on the halting relationship between the adult Marilyn and her psychologically scarred mom, “Secret Life,” which is based on a book by celebrity biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli, hopes to yield new insights into one of the 20th century’s most recognizable icons. The story is told through a series of flashbacks as Marilyn recounts her life to a psychotherapist.
“That’s why she overmedicated herself,” Sarandon said of the star. “She always lived with this fear that she would lose her mind like her mother.”
Casting Sarandon was a coup for the filmmakers. With starring roles in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” “Thelma & Louise,” “The Witches of Eastwick,” “Cloud Atlas” and many others, she’s instantly recognizable to a couple generations of audiences. Although the big feature roles haven’t come with the frequency they once did, Sarandon has kept working (she has three grown children, including actress Eva Amurri; her relationship with longtime partner Tim Robbins ended in 2009).
“I wrote Susan a letter explaining how much I loved her work and who I am and what I do,” said Laurie Collyer, the veteran indie filmmaker (“Sherrybaby”) who directed “Secret Life.” “We have very similar politics,” she added, alluding to Sarandon’s work as a liberal activist. “She’s done a lot of work around prisons, as have I.”
Finding a suitable Marilyn proved more difficult. Sarandon, who was cast first, read with several candidates for the role. Collyer pressed for Garner, her early favorite, who had a starring role on ABC’s short-lived 1960s-set drama “Pan Am” in 2011. But Lifetime executives weighed their options carefully.
“They made me jump for the role,” Garner recalled with a laugh. She researched by watching every Monroe movie she could get her hands on. But the hardest part was overcoming self-doubt: “Believing that I could actually do it, that I had the tools to pull this off,” Garner said. “It was a big mental struggle to convince yourself that you can tackle such a big role.”
Another struggle: capturing such large swaths of Monroe’s life in just 42 days of shooting, most of them in Toronto, which was chosen in a money-saving move.
“I’m not going to lie. The schedule was a bit unrelenting because of the budget,” Collyer said. But “it made me a better director … I had to cut four hours of a miniseries in, like, 24 days.”
Sarandon, who avoids watching dailies for fear they might influence her performance, still hasn’t seen the finished project. But as the performer who has brought to screen the most detailed interpretation yet of Monroe’s mother, she’s developed some strong opinions about the star herself.
“She was trapped,” Sarandon said. “There are some people who just have such charisma and personality as themselves … you’re encouraged to keep repeating that because it’s worked ….They’re iconic.”
Monroe “was smarter, probably, than the characters she played. She got trapped in this character, but she wanted to be legitimate. She evolved into a caricature of herself, which is what happens when you get these extreme personalities.”