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Susan Sarandon on Death Row Stories, Ariana Grande, and Doing TV for the First Time

Photo: Venturelli/Getty Images

While the promos for CNN’s compelling documentary series Death Row Stories sometimes make it look like just another cheesy true-crime TV show, it’s actually a bit deeper than that. Produced by Robert Redford and Going Clear director Alex Gibney, the show actually has a mission beyond getting ratings: It regularly exposes the deep flaws in a legal system that sometimes seems determined to put suspects to death even when evidence suggests they might be innocent. The greater purpose may be why actor/activist Susan Sarandon will be back as narrator when Death Row Stories begins its second six-episode season Sunday at 10 p.m. Vulture caught up with her Thursday to talk about the the show, as well as the possibility that the death penalty might soon be reversed. We also squeezed in a few questions about her surprisingly busy week in the news — Sarandon spoke up for Ariana Grande in #Donutgate and she signed on to star opposite Nick Nolte in a new cable drama — as well as plans for next year’s 25th anniversary of Thelma and Louise.

Death Row Stories really does a great job dramatizing how so many inmates are in danger of being wrongly executed, even today, with all the technology we have to help determine guilt. You’ve been an activist on the death penalty at least since you starred in Dead Man Walking. How does this project bring light to the topic?
When you see these stories, you realize how faulty the justice system is. You have DNA evidence and you still can’t get a person out. Once [a prosecutor] makes a mistake and puts someone [on death row], they don’t want to admit they made a mistake. They postpone trials for years at a time. What the series has done is show how, even with the advent of DNA testing, still people can’t get out. And they lose their lives. Not only [by execution], but they die in prison and miss their families and their children growing up. What a tragedy it is. How unfair it is. People are shocked. That’s something the series has shown that people really weren’t aware of.

What’s also amazing is there’s always some lawyer or person who goes into prison and takes an interest, or a policeman who’s in charge of cold cases and realizes something doesn’t add up. And they spend years tenaciously trying to bring the facts to light. If it weren’t for those people —  you’re really pushing a huge boulder up a hill when you’re trying to get someone off death row. It’s just not in any way designed for the truth to come out. That’s the way it is, especially if you’re poor and don’t have access to a good lawyer. Once you’re in that vise, that’s it.

It seems like, even in the year since you and CNN started doing the show, there’s been a shift in momentum on the death penalty. Legislators in Nebraska, a very Republican state, did away with it. There’s been lot of attention paid to the executions gone awry because of issues with the drugs used in lethal injections. And even though the Supreme Court upheld the use of those drugs, some of the justices went on record saying they believed it might be time to revisit the constitutionality of the death penalty. Do you think opinion is changing?
I’m still close with the real Sister Helen from Dead Man Walking. She goes around the country all the time, and she definitely feels there’s been a shift. I don’t know that it’s going to happen because people suddenly feel more spiritually awakened to what forgiveness means, as exemplified by the families of those slain in South Carolina. That was just amazing, when they all spontaneously spoke of forgiveness.

I think what will happen is the change is going to happen because it doesn’t make sense. It costs a lot of money. The strongest arguments are of logic and financial conservatism. It’s expensive. It’s not a deterrent. It doesn’t give the victims, really, any kind of satisfaction — because, really, what would, except bringing the person that’s been killed back? It’s arbitrary and capricious.

If there’s any reason for optimism, it could be that we’re seeing a lot of Republicans and libertarians speak up now about the excesses of the criminal-justice and prison systems. There are cases now of Democrats and Republicans working together on these matters, particularly with drug sentencing. Maybe that will spread to the death penalty, as it did in Nebraska.
It would be a very hopeful sign if people reached across the aisle to solve problems and searched for justice. There used to be the ability for the Congress to act that way. But we’ve lost it with this huge polarization that’s happened, and this kind of locking yourself in to make sure nothing moves. It’s really brave when a person steps apart from their party line to do what’s right. I think this is an issue where we could encourage that. That would be great.

Are you hoping this might become an issue in the 2016 presidential election?
I’m waiting to see where everyone stands. There are a lot of things that I haven’t heard anyone speak out on, except maybe Bernie Sanders. People only speak out on things they think are going to make them popular. On anything a little bit trickier they stay away until they have to take a stand. So I’m hoping to see not only where the candidates stand but also where they’re getting their contributions from. That’s a great indicator of where they’ll stand in the future.

So I didn’t expect you to be in the news when we set up this interview, but you’ve actually made headlines twice this week. On the least important front, you got noticed for tweeting out your support for Ariana Grande. What made you speak up?
Well, I just worked with her. We did Zoolander 2 together, in Rome. She couldn’t be more professional or sweet. Her mom is great. Clearly [her remarks were] taken out of context. But of all the things — if only that energy was put to the study of the effects of GMOs, which affect your health a lot more than licking a doughnut. People should be outraged by what Monsanto is doing, not Ariana. She’s smart, and she’s a really great, very talented person. It’s just ridiculous they’re jumping on her the way they are.

The other news was more substantial: You’re going to star in a TV series for the first time, reuniting with Nick Nolte. Why did you finally agree to do weekly TV?
It’s something different for me,  so the chance of failure is always interesting.  And  Nick Nolte — I love. He’s really going to kill in this part. He’s just going to be so funny, and so moving. The creator/producer/writer came to see me, and they’re going to have all the scripts beforehand, which is always good. I did a number of [episodes of] The Big C and they kind of tell you the arc of your character, but you never really know how it’s going to unfold. So I’m going to spend some time going over the scripts before we start shooting. And it’s only ten episodes. That’s really the equivalent of a movie, which is three months. That made a big difference to me, because I don’t like the idea of committing six months to something like that.  

I’ve talked to a number of network and studio executives about when they were going to get you to do a TV series. They said there were always offers out there for you. You must have considered this for years.
It’s just basically that I’m a freewheeling sort of gal, and the idea of being locked in has never appealed to me. But I trust these guys, and I think we’re going to try to do something different. And like I said, I adore Nick, and they’re talking about other really great people to be in it. So we’ll see. It’s time to say yes to some things and new directions in my life. I’ve been doing some character acting, and that’s very liberating, too. So why not? I threw down everything I possibly could find to make it not work, and they kept coming up with a way to overcome it. I had some other offers this season, but this seemed like the freshest look at something. It’s kind of political. We’ll see.

You actually still get plenty of interesting film roles, but it’s discouraging to me how the major studios seem to be making fewer great movies for serious actors.
I got into a cab today, and the cab driver was really sweet. He was talking to me about some of the movies of mine he loves. And he said, “I’m so disappointed now. I don’t know what to see.” I mentioned Ex Machina and some documentaries that are really great. But a lot of the most interesting things that are being filmed are now small films and documentaries.

I was looking over your credits, and I just realized that next year is the 25th anniversary of Thelma and Louise.
I know.  Isn’t that crazy? We’re talking about doing some sort of reunion tour or something. I saw a screening a few years ago in Toronto, at their lovely theater up there, and the print was so beautiful. Ridley really put us in a heroic vista there. It’s just gorgeous, the film. You have to give Ridley credit.

Last question: How’s your ping-pong empire going?
We’re going into Chicago and San Francisco next. We just did a kind of redecorating of New York. We’re moving ahead. Hopefully we’ll have a ping-pong nation at some point, which would be so much fun.

Susan Sarandon on Death Row Stories