Susan Sarandon on Playing Bette Davis for Feud, Debra Messing, and Why Everyone Gets So Mad at Her About Politics

In a sense, Ryan Murphy’s latest show Feud stars four iconic actresses: Susan Sarandon playing Bette Davis and Jessica Lange playing Joan Crawford. The FX anthology series chronicles the real-life animus between Davis and Crawford while filming What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, as well as the ways in which they had been pitted against each other in a sexist and ageist Hollywood studio system. We spoke to Sarandon on the phone about the perils of playing the famously drag-friendly Davis, the firestorm around her remarks during last year’s presidential election, and her own Twitter mini-feud with Debra Messing.

At an FX luncheon for Feud, you said that being on set is a ratio of fear and fun, but that in this case there was a lot more fear in the beginning, when taking on the role.
Bette Davis is a person whose idiosyncratic speech patterns and gestures and sense of humor and acting talents brought her to the state of being an icon. And people are aware of her in a very exaggerated fashion. She valued the fact that she was imitated by drag queens and felt that she’d made it because she could be imitated. So how do you take someone that everyone knows in such an exaggerated fashion and fill it and make it real? Not just as a re-creation of a person that they think they understand and identify.

That was daunting. And on a purely technical level, just getting those gestures down, accenting the most bizarre words in every sentence, trying to drop the r’s, and at the same time not feel like you’re completely fake. For me, that was really scary. And I’ve played real people before — I’ve played people that are still living, I’ve played people that have already passed. But those characters were people that maybe the public wasn’t as familiar with. Not that many people know what Sister Helen Prejean was like, and if I got her accent down and wore those clothes, I could feel comfortable in that skin. But Bette Davis, who I grew to really respect and love the more I watched all of her TV appearances and her interviews and her appearances at film festivals, reading both of her books and her daughter’s books and the other books that were written on her, I heard myself very often in things that she said. She was very straightforward, she didn’t consider herself a movie star. She was interested in the work. She came from the East Coast. A lot of things that she said I’ve actually said in interviews, but I’ve not said them the way she said them. I just was like, How can I do this?

It had been chasing me for years, playing her. I’ve been offered at least four other films and two stage plays at different periods in her life. Bette Davis, after her daughter’s book came out, got in touch with me when I was just a kid through a mutual director friend and said she would like me to play her. I was flattered, and I talked to him a little bit about it. But nobody said, okay, let’s get a writer on this. I didn’t know how to do that. I didn’t have the wherewithal to figure out how to even get a script and follow through on that. My representation didn’t do a thing. I didn’t realize until then that when she took on the studios she was in her early 20s. And then through the years I kept being offered a lot of different projects that didn’t feel right.

What was different about Ryan Murphy and Feud?
Even when Ryan first approached me with this, it seemed like a joke about how bitchy they were and a lot of one-liners. Really, then, what was the point? What was it really about? And then it was years after that that Ryan came and said, “Okay, I’ve decided to do it as an eight- or ten-part series.” And I said, “Well, how are you going to stretch that out that many hours?’ And he explained to me that it would be in the context of what was going on in Hollywood and asking certain questions about how things have changed, which sounded really great. Then his decision to really make an effort to have more women directors and crew members was also very appealing. So it started to have more layers and become about something without being a polemic; it started to ask some more interesting questions and have more interesting characters. And I thought, “Okay,” but I still didn’t have scripts. So it really took a kind of Kierkegaardian leap of faith.

And I talked to Jessica [Lange], she’s been in the bunker with him for years. I said, “Have you seen scripts?” And she said, “No, just the first one.” And I said, “Well, how do we know?” And she said, “All I can say is that he’s very enthusiastic about it, and that’s a good sign.” And he does create very performance-oriented scenes. And I like her. We’ve known each other for years because there’s only so many of us that survived from the very beginning. So I decided to throw my fate in with Ryan, and before I did, I just said to him, “Look, I’m terrified. There’s no rehearsal. I’m going to need a dialect person, and I suggested this great guy that I’ve worked with before and he’s always busy but if you can get him, I need that.” And he said okay again. And I said, “I just don’t know how I can do it.” And he said, “Well, I’m frightened too. We’ll figure it out. And I’ll just get you time. If you’re not ready by the time we start shooting, we’ll shoot Jessica’s stuff.”

When did things start to even out in terms of the fear/fun ratio?
We started in September and we really didn’t have that much time, but I had everything on my phone. Tim would lay everything down as he got it, not for the performance, but just for the cadence and for the pronunciation. And then Ryan directed the first three and he pushed and kept at me. Then eventually I started having fun. The fear/fun ratio started to go in my favor, but it took at least a month or so before I really felt even comfortable at all. My speech is very slow; I’m much more toward the Joan end of the spectrum in terms of the way I talk. That’s why Southern accents are so easy for me. But her thing, she’s just so ballsy. From the very first word of every sentence she just blows in and explodes everything. And it took me a little while to own that.

As you mentioned, Bette Davis is beloved by drag queens. What do you do to ground the performance and make sure it doesn’t veer into camp?
I don’t know if I accomplished it really, I haven’t seen it. I just kept trying to believe it and try to find the emotional core and center it as much as I could. And tried not to get too hysterical and carried away by it. But it was always a challenge for me to fill it because it was so big. And she was that way; she definitely had a different kind of character when she did Baby Jane, it was much more coarse and unattractive sounding, than when you see her on TV. When you watch all the interviews, at a certain point she would get more relaxed and a little bit quieter. She had different levels of Bette Davis, but I am kind of a strangely introverted person for my business. It was alien to me. I guess I had to just trust Ryan, who I adore, and keep on it and hope that it did seemed filled in and not just a campy, funny, bitchy, shocking kind of person, but find a way to own it. I’m so afraid to see it. I haven’t seen it. I’ve seen little bits and pieces. And actually, the pieces that I saw, I thought, “Oh god, maybe I should have even been more.” So there you go.

Like Bette Davis, I do think of you as someone who is very straightforward, who is not afraid of being political or taking flak for controversial statements.
There’s a difference. I don’t think that you’re not afraid. I think there’s a certain need for authenticity, but it doesn’t mean that you’re not hurt when people shun you or say horrible things about you. Your need for authenticity is so strong, that the bottom line is you can’t live with yourself if you don’t say something. She was not passive aggressive, she was aggressive, whereas Joan is more passive aggressive. She also was an alcoholic and sometimes she got very ugly and combative when she drank. She never drank on the job, as opposed to Joan, but neither of them did very well in that department. And at times, in her relationships, she managed to choose people who were combative to the point of actually physically being combative. Which I am not. But she would escalate things, she and Gary Merrill had some real jaws-out fights, and with her other husbands also. I mean physical, bottle-throwing, cracking people over the head kinds of confrontations. So she had that side to her. She wasn’t sentimental, and she was very, very direct.

You recently got a lot of criticism for your support of Bernie Sanders during the primaries, and then of Jill Stein during the general election. It reminded me of the time when you were criticized for critiquing the U.S. government for detaining Haitians in Guantanamo who were HIV-positive. Why do you think people have such a vitriolic reaction to your political statements?
Well, I think those people are just at a loss of really examining what happened. And it’s easy to blame me. But I mean, seriously, there’s me and Viggo Mortensen against all the people that supported Hillary. That would mean that we outweighed Meryl Streep, George Clooney, Beyoncé, Jay Z, Katy Perry, Julia Roberts. I mean every single person. Does that make sense to you? You know what I’m saying? I don’t think it’s rational, it’s not based in anything rational. It’s just a way to not deal with reality.

Right, it feels very visceral.
Yeah, I don’t understand it. And honestly, I think the point is we can’t afford to be divisive at this point and we have to move on. I have a lot of things I could complain about in the primaries, but right now we can’t be in third grade and playing a blame game. We have to be dealing with very, very serious things that are going on, and we play into Trump’s hands by wallowing in this blaming thing instead of actually unifying and doing something about it. I just saw, today, that he signed something that would put transgender kids at risk in schools. So are we really going to spend the time going after me and not go after the people that we really should? I hope that all these disgruntled Hillary people, and I haven’t heard much from her, are paying attention to DAPL. I didn’t hear anything from Hillary when that was going on. Now all these people that march and have found themselves to be political, that’s so great, and it’s what they have to do now. She should be mobilizing her people to deal with all of these affronts to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, all the Democrats that are voting with the Republicans, paying attention to the specifics of what’s happening, and stop wasting our energy on this kind of empty blaming. It wasn’t about winning. It’s supposed to be about the issues. And now we have real issues and things that need to be addressed, environmentally and with civil rights. We can’t afford to be wasting our time and energy and taking on a few people and saying, “They were the reason.” I mean, that’s just absurd.

You suggested to Chris Hayes that Donald Trump could bring on the revolution. Do you feel like that is true or is that happening?
Absolutely. If you take DAPL, for instance, it got to the river over the last eight years. When you look at what happened with the deportation of people in this country, when you look at our policies in a lot of other areas, when you look at who has been in our government, money has been running our country for a long time, and this is not something new. Now we have a guy who is so clumsy and so obvious that suddenly people are awake, and that’s a very good thing. Do you want to call it the revolution? Certainly, there are many more people, because of Bernie Sanders, that are running for these local offices. In a way, there’s more transparency because he’s so obvious. That has given people a clear blueprint of what is wrong, and a lot of people who were quiet over the last eight years, because we had a cool guy president in, are now noticing where banks are spending their money. That’s a huge thing. There’s a huge divestment movement, and that’s really great. People have to be putting pressure on the people that we’ve hired, who are all lobbyists! You can’t have that and have the country represented in a way that’s healthy. So we have to get money out of government, and now it’s so clear to everybody that money is in government. That’s the only good thing I can say.

I’m certainly not in any way defending Trump, let me go on the record to say that, because people seem to want to say that I am. I think he’s a horrible person, and he’s really dangerous. But the good news about Trump is that he has exposed all the cracks that are in our system, and now the light can get in. We have to get rid of these cabinet appointees, and we can do it. And we have to get out and vote during the midterms, which nobody has been doing. You have 45 percent of the country that didn’t vote in the regular election, and in Michigan you have 90,000 people going to the polls and not voting for either person that’s running for president, but voting down ballot. There’s something really wrong. Now we have people in certain states, I think in Virginia, who went unopposed during the midterms. That has to change, and people are standing up to take responsibility on their local school boards. We have to do what the Tea Party did. We have to start at the bottom and get progressives in from the bottom-up. And then things will change. Look at what’s going on at these town-hall meetings that are erupting without any kind of organization from the top. The Democrats didn’t pay attention to the bottom; they didn’t pay attention to the country, and now the country is taking over. There’s no progressive party anymore that represents the working people. When you see these town-hall meetings where people are going and holding their representatives responsible and demanding answers — that, to me, is a revolution; you’ve never seen that before. That’s a really, really healthy sign. And I have faith in this country. Traveling all around with Bernie made me love this country more and more. There are patriots everywhere who are kind and generous and accepting and inclusive. The heart of America is not what you hear from his mouth at all.

Have you spoken with Debra Messing?
No, you know, no. I haven’t spoken to Debra, but I would certainly look forward to any opportunity to say hello.

*A version of this article appears in the March 6th, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

Susan Sarandon on Why Everyone Gets So Mad at Her Politics