Susan Sarandon Is the Real Deal
The Oscar winner and Movies for Grownups Lifetime Achievement Award honoree refuses to fake it
En español | It's 11 o'clock on a rainy night in New York, and Susan Sarandon is rocking out in Marty's Room, a live-music space within SPiN New York, a Ping-Pong nightclub she helped launch five years ago with a handful of partners. Among those partners is Jonathan Bricklin, 36, a film writer-editor linked romantically to Sarandon despite their three-decade age difference. On the stage singing her pipes out is an aspiring pop musician whom Sarandon hired a while back to staff SPiN's front desk.
Sarandon, dressed in work-style boots, leggings, a polka-dot sweater and a beret, is feeling the vibe. She swings her arms over her head and moves with the groove, comfortable dancing alone in the crowd.
It's not just the music that's got Sarandon juiced. It's the moment: After 67 years, the woman known as much for her social activism as for her acting understands what brings her joy. "It's the simple things," she says. Good food. Good friends. Sunsets and sunrises. "With age, you gain maybe not wisdom, but at least a bigger picture," she continues, wearing a safety pin in one ear and a silver ring on her thumb, "and you say, 'OK, these are the important things. The rest is just details.' "
With offshoots in L.A., Milwaukee, Toronto and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, the club, located a few blocks from Sarandon's loft, has turned the actress into a self-described Ping-Pong propagandist. "Ping-Pong cuts across every demographic, age and body type," Sarandon says. "Girls can beat their fathers. And even if you're old, you can play it forever."
The club has become a big part of the life Sarandon reinvented for herself when she and actor Tim Robbins, now 55, her partner of 23 years and the father of two of her three children, split in 2009. Though both have been vague about the reasons for the breakup, Sarandon points to an internal change launched by her performance in Exit the King on Broadway that spring. The play by Eugene Ionesco is about confronting mortality. "You can't do a meditation on death and stay in a situation that's not authentic," she says. "It made me examine where I was in my union and in my life, and to have discussions about making changes."
It wouldn't be the first time. Sarandon's quest for authenticity traces back to her youth. It has fueled her activism, defined her relationships and influenced her astounding body of acting work on more than 70 feature films, for which AARP The Magazine will recognize her with a Movies for Grownups Lifetime Achievement Award in February.
Susan Abigail Tomalin was born in Queens, N.Y., and raised mostly in suburban New Jersey. Her father was a big band singer, World War II vet and, eventually, advertising agency executive; her housewife mother, Sarandon notes, was "Catholic and incredibly fertile." The eldest of nine, Sarandon says coming from a large household had its advantages: "It makes you flexible; you're not used to privacy and can focus in the midst of chaos." She adds, "It's a primer for show business!"
Though her father died in 1999, her mother is now 90 "and still kicking ass," Sarandon reports. Her mom is also a staunch Republican, and Sarandon's siblings' politics run the gamut. "I have come to believe firmly in nature," Sarandon says. "We had the same parents, but everyone's very different." She cannot pinpoint the reason for her social consciousness. "I was actually very shy," she says in her familiar throaty voice. "But I had a need for justice starting with playing with my dolls and making sure I rotated the best dresses so one doll didn't have all of them. I think everybody tries to find their voice and to shorten the distance between when the sound doesn't match the picture."
She tried to find hers, but incongruity seemed all around her. "I was in trouble from the very beginning in school, not because I was a rebel but because I asked what were deemed to be inappropriate questions," Sarandon says.
"I remember in third grade being told that the only people who were really married were those married in the Catholic Church. I said, 'Then, how were Joseph and Mary married, because Jesus didn't create the church till later?' Original sin didn't make any sense to me. Limbo didn't make any sense. And, as I got older, a wrathful God didn't make any sense, or a God that would condemn someone to hell for their sexual orientation."
Still, in 1963, at age 17, Sarandon enrolled at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and there she participated in protests against segregation in the South, and the Vietnam War. "It was a time when the issues seemed so clear," she says. At the university, she was drawn to drama because it was another way of tapping into the compassion she had for others. "It does something wonderful for your soul to walk in another person's moccasins," she says. Also, acting suited her because it gave her freedom to try new things — though, in the end, somebody else was in charge. That, she liked: "To not have structure panics me. When I took art classes, color just overwhelmed me. That much choice! I can't go into huge department stores. It's just too much choice."
Her marriage during her senior year to graduate acting student Chris Sarandon was less a choice than a necessity, as the pair wanted to live together and Catholic University didn't allow male-female cohabitation.
"Though it was a marriage and I took his name," Sarandon explains, "I never approached it like this is for the rest of our lives. We said, 'Every year we'll visit it and see if we want to renew.' " Eventually, the couple settled in New York, where Sarandon landed her first film role, in Joe (1970), followed by The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and Pretty Baby (1978).
She also got increasingly involved in social causes. "I didn't see myself as a flamethrower or a convention breaker," Sarandon reflects. "I felt as if I was just Zelig in that I was a baby boomer, and I held on to some of the things that were going on then that some people lost as they became landed gentry. I certainly wasn't more moral. I tried to do what my core said was right for me."
Still, despite her work in front of movie cameras, Sarandon was reluctant to thrust herself on a political stage and speak publicly. She recalls a gathering for the Equal Rights Amendment in New York in 1981, with feminist luminaries such as Marlo Thomas and Bella Abzug. "There were TV cameras, and I said, 'I can't do this — I don't have anything to say.' And Marlo said to me, 'It doesn't matter what you say. The important thing is that it gets on the news.' " So Sarandon walked up to the microphones and simply declared her support for the ERA.
Meanwhile, her acting career took flight. Sarandon's role in Atlantic City (1980) earned her the first of five Oscar nominations for Best Actress. By then, she and Chris Sarandon had divorced. ("He wasn't a mean person. It was about my choosing myself.") She then had a tumultuous two-year relationship with director Louis Malle. "And I crashed and burned," she says.
In a back room at SPiN, Sarandon holds up her right hand and points to a delicate bracelet made up of the letters A-N-D-A-N-D inked around her wrist. The letters, she says, stand for "A new day, a new dawn." Though she got the tattoo just a few years ago, she reveals that it hearkens back to that emotionally draining journey in her 30s. After that, "I completely rebooted everything," she says. "I think a lot of people at some point leave behind their conditioning and examine fundamental myths they've been taught."
Sarandon next moved to a small town outside Rome with her then-boyfriend, the Italian filmmaker Franco Amurri, and their daughter, Eva Amurri Martino, now 28. While there, in 1987, Sarandon paid her own way to fly back to the U.S. to audition for — and land — the role of Annie Savoy in Bull Durham. "It was the first time that I had a part that was bigger than I was," she says.
The hit movie established her sultry screen image to this day. " 'Sexy' is the word that comes up when you think of Susan Sarandon," says Mark Harris, columnist for Entertainment Weekly and author of two books about film history. "Even when she was young, her sexuality seemed mature. There's a self-confidence to her. She knows who her characters are, and her characters know who they are."
It was on Bull Durham that Sarandon met Tim Robbins. "Tim had a sense of morality that I hadn't found in any actor," Sarandon says. "And he was very good as an actor. I definitely thought that he was pretty special." Though they never married, Sarandon and Robbins became partners not just of the heart but on numerous film and social-activist projects. They had two sons together, Jack Henry, now 24, and Miles Guthrie, 21.
Soon Sarandon was doing some of the best acting work of her career, in Thelma & Louise (1991) and Dead Man Walking (1996), on which Robbins served as screenwriter and director and for which Sarandon won the Oscar for her portrayal of anti-death penalty crusader Sister Helen Prejean. (Just two years earlier, she and Robbins had been banned from the Academy Awards stage after they had made an impromptu plea for the release of HIV-infected Haitian refugees at Guantánamo during an awards telecast.)
Still, Sarandon immersed herself in being a mom, the role she says she most loves. "I was very hands-on," she says. With three kids under age 7, she determinedly hauled them with her to work. "I might have been smarter to get more help," she says. "I was cleaning out the office the other day and found a list — Pampers, apple juice, Cheerios — all these things I had to have ready ahead of time when I went on location. I look back now and go, 'How did I do it?' But it was worth it."
Sarandon's daughter, Eva, an actress now living in Los Angeles, stands in awe at her mother's ability back then to balance work and parenting. "She made our Halloween costumes and was at our basketball and soccer games," Eva says. "And she exposed us to a lot of people and the idea of giving back."
That was a choice Sarandon and Robbins made together. "Raising them in the city, being around so many different kinds of families, languages and religions — the whole thing has paid off, because my kids are very grounded, adaptable and not judgmental, which gives them a huge advantage," Sarandon says. "And they're funny, so funny."
Perhaps that is why as her nest empties (only Miles still lives at home), Sarandon is struggling with the change. "It's been hard for me to let go of thinking of dinner at 6 o'clock," she says. She's going through her household items to give what she can to her kids to help them live better on their own. "I want to see them in places where they can pay the rent, and then I'll feel that's done." Meantime, she's trying to be comfortable with having unstructured quiet time for herself, something she's never been good at. She long ago gave up on organized religion, but she nurtures her spiritual self. "I can't say I meditate twice a day," she says, " but I definitely use meditation, because my mind is fast and full, and I fight that all the time."
It's approaching 12:30 a.m. at SPiN. The Dirty Dozen tournament, in which Ping-Pong pros compete, has wrapped up, and a dance-off is about to begin. "We invite the audience to get up," Sarandon says. "It's fun, like a wedding or something."
She walks over to the bar, where her friend Jonathan Bricklin, wearing khakis and boat shoes, stands nursing a drink, looking collegiate. Sarandon puts her arm around his waist and whispers in his ear. She is coy when asked about the status of their relationship. "Jonathan and I collaborate on different things," she says. "That means a lot of things." When asked if that might mean romance, she says, "Yeah, I think so."
Though she doesn't address their age difference, Sarandon admits she does worry "now and then" about getting older. "I'm getting that sagging thing," she says, pointing to the skin under her eyes, which, she confesses, she had suctioned 10 years ago to remove the fat. She says she's personally opposed to fillers — "they make everyone start to look alike" — and hasn't had Botox. She's maintained her good Italian (on her mother's side) skin tone by avoiding the sun — "not because I was thinking of my skin, but it bored me to lie there baking" — and eschews smoking, except for marijuana. "I would much rather my kids smoke weed than drink, except that it's illegal," she begins, launching into a discourse about cartels, victimless crimes and mandatory minimum drug laws that crowd our prisons.
Catching herself, she steers back to the topic of wellness. Yes, she's more forgetful than she used to be, she concedes, but she tries to counter that with a healthy diet and exercise. She boxes to stay in shape. "And I laugh a lot." Often at herself.
"No, I'm really funny," she insists, sensing disbelief. "I know people would like to believe that I'm just someone walking around making everybody feel guilty. But I'd like to do a myth-busters thing and tell you that people who are serious about social change are very joyful."
Actress Melissa McCarthy, 43, who stars with Sarandon in the coming summer film Tammy, says her new friend's upbeat spirit and stamina are virtually unmatchable. "I do not have the energy to keep up with her," she says. "I was in New York, and we made plans. Susan's like, 'Dinner at 10:30! Then we're going to the club to play Ping-Pong, and then probably we'll go to another club afterwards.' I'm like, 'Are you serious? I can't even go to dinner with you. I'm too tired.' "
As the night grows longer, Sarandon becomes reflective. For all the romantic heartaches she's suffered — and backlash she's endured for her political activism — she says she has no regrets: "It's better to have made decisions that turned out badly and learn from them than to feel as if you had no choice and are resentful of the turns that your life takes." She believes the quest of her lifetime is still to be authentic and kind, and though Sarandon says that's never easy, she's better at both now " because I'm not as distracted."
She's excited about the future. Thanks to some new management hires, Sarandon will soon dial back on her work duties at SPiN. "I've learned so much about business," she says, "but I don't like being the one who's policing the bathrooms."
She and Bricklin just announced the formation of a cause-related film production company. And her daughter, Eva, recently created a sitcom called Growing Ivy, which would star her and Sarandon. It will go to pilot in March, and if NBC picks it up, Sarandon may be temporarily moving out west. "I wasn't anxious to be on TV for a potentially long commitment," she says, " but I can't imagine anything more interesting than getting to work with your grown child." Further down the road, Sarandon envisions being part of a film project that would involve not just Eva but film-school grad Jack Henry and Miles Guthrie, who works as a DJ and plays guitar in a rock band.
Through the years, Sarandon has become braver. "The only thing I'm really afraid of is death," she says. "I still haven't gotten to the point where I think that's cool." She begins to laugh. "My life has been filled with happy accidents. The thing that's served me well is being able to change onto a different track when it's presented itself."
With that, she makes her way toward the crowd gathering around SPiN's center court and cheerfully kicks off the dance contest.
Meg Grant is West Coast Editor of AARP The Magazine.