Susan Sarandon is no stranger to suffering slings and arrows, but at least she wears them well: When I met up with the Oscar-winning actress over the weekend at a room in the Beverly Wilshire hotel, she hobbled over to meet me, a surprisingly chic leg brace offsetting her dress. "I fell down a mountain while hiking in Colombia," she explained, waving away the injury as though it were as inconsequential as a paper cut. If that fall didn't get much press, it's only because Sarandon herself has been dominating the headlines as of late, whether she's coming under fire for her cleavage or clashing with Debra Messing on Twitter after an MSNBC interview where Sarandon, a vocal advocate for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, was interpreted by the Will & Grace star as preferring even Donald Trump to Sanders rival Hillary Clinton.
Hopefully not lost in all the hubbub is that Sarandon has a movie coming out this week, The Meddler, that gives her a great, full-bodied film role for the first time in years. In the Lorene Scafaria–directed film, Sarandon plays Marnie, a sweet and sunny widow whose move to Los Angeles is perceived as an invasion of space by her sullen adult daughter (Rose Byrne). Marnie can't help but get involved, and neither can Sarandon, as she told me in our very candid chat.
It’s been a little while since you had the lead role in a movie. Was it exciting when you read the script, that this older woman could be the main character?
I was moved when I read the script. I wasn’t dying, I wasn’t helping someone else die. So that was good! [Laughs.] You know, you do get a lot of supporting parts as you get older. I listen to Helen Mirren, who told me, “I look and see where the character comes into the script, and then I go to the last page and I see if she’s still in the film at the end — and if she’s not, then I don’t even read it.” I thought that’s pretty good advice.
But you’ll still take supporting roles if you like the project?
I’m doing a small thing in Canada for Xavier Dolan next. But I really like him, and I loved Mommy. He’s really fun and he’s got interesting people involved. So it doesn’t always matter if it’s a small part as long as the character has good scenes or affects something. I learned my lesson, because sometimes you jump on films where they end up cutting out most of your part. You see the final thing and you’re barely in it. So you have to make sure that the function of your character is important to the movie.
Does that maybe also say something about how Hollywood regards female characters as expendable?
Yeah, definitely. Thank you for saying it so I don’t sound like I’m whining. And I think it is easier for women to imagine themselves in male leads than it is for men to imagine identifying with a film that has a female lead, and it's men that are financing films.
And if the status quo caters to your gender, you may not see how much everyone else is longing for representation.
That’s something that you have to think about when you hop on to a project. You’re asking people to identify with these characters. That’s why every film is political, because what you’re doing in The Nutty Professor is rooting for the cute woman to get the fat guy. That’s really subversive! So when a film reinforces ageism, sexism, racism, you maybe don’t notice it, but when it challenges the status quo, it’s important.
It’s nice to see your character, this woman in her sixties, get a romantic arc with J.K. Simmons.
You know, what is seen as being sexy onscreen is really about connection, rather than “being sexy.” When two people see each other onscreen and you believe they see each other in a way nobody else does, that is chemistry. It can be between a man and a woman, two men, two women — in The Client, it was me and the kid — but that’s what the audience tunes into, is connection. It translates as chemistry.
I was talking to George Miller a few months ago for Mad Max, and he said that when you worked together on Lorenzo’s Oil, you taught him something very interesting about screen chemistry.
Really? I never thought he heard a thing I said! [Laughs.]
He said that you told him that great screen chemistry comes when the actor has somewhat feminine qualities and the actress has somewhat masculine qualities. It creates a kind of frisson.
Also, for me, those sorts of actors are the ones that I’m interested in. All of the guys you think of as really charismatic, to me, have recognized and embraced their feminine side: Even if you’re a Sean Penn or a Brad Pitt or a Johnny Depp, you get the feeling that they’re not stuck in this masculine idea. For women, that’s true also. The great women actors that I know have that.
And why not? That’s what so exciting about living right now, is the fluidity of definitions and combinations. In the same way that gay marriage has helped to re-examine straight marriage in terms of role, I think transitioning and everything else that’s happening is going to force us to take a look at quote-unquote masculine and feminine qualities. It’s not something that should be threatening. Your crayon box isn’t challenged — it just means that you have more crayons to color outside the lines with.
So even J.K. Simmons, with that booming voice and mustache, has feminine qualities?
Yeah, because look at the way he looks at her! That’s really what’s so beautiful. He’s so quiet and centered and gentle. And that smile and those baby blues! You feel like she’d be safe with him.
And your character is so devoted to taking care of other people, it’s a relief to think this person might be willing to take care of her, too.
As a woman who is in the habit of nurturing too much myself, I understand that problem. The curse of the competent woman is that you get used to doing everything and then other people assume they don’t have to take care of you, and then you no longer say, “Could you get me this?” or “Could you call me about that?” You’re used to making reservations, you’re used to planning everything, it’s multi-tasking women gone amok. I mean, if someone says to me, “I’ll take care of that for you,” I’m theirs! If someone says, “I’ll drive,” then I’ll get in that car and go wherever you want.
Even in your earliest relationships, did that tendency to nurture come naturally to you?
I’m the oldest of nine children, so I was trained. Neither of my parents had families — my mom grew up in foster care and orphanages, and my dad’s father died really young and he was out on his own. Then they met, and my mom’s Catholic, so they had all these kids. So yeah, I always had a kid on my hip, but for me, it was really grounding. I was in my imagination a lot, playing with dolls still in eighth grade, so it was good for me to always have to think about those kids. But yeah, nurturing is a habit that’s hard to break. And I enjoy it!
What do you enjoy most about nurturing another person?
Well, the thing I miss about being in a relationship is really just being in love. I could definitely identify with Marnie, because I love doing little things for someone that I’m with, or writing little notes. All the things that are not cool, that you’re not supposed to do if you want to keep your man? I do them.
That’s why they are cool, Susan! Because they’re authentic.
I don’t know. Someone gave me a book called Why Men Love Bitches. Do you know this one? I thought, “Wow, I have done everything wrong my entire life. I’ve been too straightforward, I definitely talk about my needs constantly, I make excuses.” Yeah. I’m an over-nurturer.
One of the things I liked about this movie is that in the age of anti-heroes, it’s about a kind person.
It’s such an interesting thing in our culture that people would find that kindness to be negative. I remember someone saying once, “What is up with Mia Farrow adopting all those children?” I was like, “Really, that’s a problem? That’s something you’re going to fault her on? Can’t you talk about someone else who’s like a coke addict or something and leave poor Mia alone?” I do think that with my kids, the two things I have always talked about with them are authenticity and kindness. If you can commit to those two things, that’s a life well-lived, because we’re motivated so much by a place of fear. That’s how they sell everything, including our leaders.
So how do you deal with unkindness, like when Piers Morgan bashes you on Twitter for showing your cleavage? Do you think he’s motivated by a place of fear, too?
Yeah, I do. I don’t take any of that personally, I try not to take any attacks personally. Most of the time it’s ignorance. I mean, we extended Piers’s career with that! That went on for a while. That’s an interesting press approach, I suppose. It must feel really bad to be a person that’s mean. I can’t imagine that feels good; I just feel sorry for them.
But don’t you deal with that a lot online? You’re on Twitter, you recently got into an online argument with Debra Messing. Are people spamming your mentions with hate?
I look at the ones that come through my dog. My dog tweets, @mspennypuppy, and I see more of those. I don’t really read the ones that come to my other account, although I post on there. My assistant will tell me, “There was a reaction to this,” and I’ll say, “How bad?” or “Do you think we need to address it?”
In the case of those misleading headlines that were put on that interview, what was really disturbing about that is I got a peek into the way that people hysterically get their information. If you read or watched the interview, I didn’t say what the misleading headlines said. Everyone wants the most sensational headline to draw traffic to their site, so a news source can say anything. It became a snowball thing, and people are so irresponsible to put things out there without ever really looking into it, which was shocking to me.
So to clear the record, what are your thoughts on Donald Trump?
Well, Trump is probably less threatening than Cruz, because I don’t think Trump believes in anything.
That scares me too, though. Who knows where he’ll land?
But who’s gonna vote for him? A lot of Republicans are voting for Bernie Sanders. I’ve been in the states where they’re changing their affiliations. A lot of sane Republicans are not gonna vote for Trump. Half the population is female and most of them won’t vote for him. Minorities won’t, unions won’t, so who does he have? It’s been an interesting thing, and a scary thing, because he’s normalized hate and made it okay to be violent, and that’s not good.
But in terms of if he were the nominee, I feel like I could beat him. Seriously! This is one of the things I mentioned, that some people say, “Let him get in and then the revolution really will begin,” but that would be such an extreme situation, were he to get elected. I can’t believe that the Republican party, who managed to steal two elections, cannot make sure that Trump doesn’t get the nomination. But then who do we have? Kasich? I mean, Hillary Clinton is the best Republican that’s out there. She’s completely a Republican. Everything that she stands for and doesn’t stand for is Republican.
You’re questioning whether all those groups would vote for Trump, but it wouldn’t be the first time the Republicans have convinced people to vote against their own self-interest.
That’s so true. But it’s the discontent, it’s the frustration with the system, it’s the distrust of candidates that have given rise to these two options, Trump and Bernie Sanders. It’s like a Vonnegut novel. One of them is all light and about joining people together and not excluding anyone and being free of ties to these terrible companies — Big Pharma, fracking, Monsanto — and the other one is all about blaming someone, putting up a wall, dividing everyone. That just doesn’t work.