Susan Sarandon la dolce vita
With an incredible career spanning more than a quarter of a century, iconic actress and activist Susan Sarandon is still regarded as one of the most respected A-list names in Hollywood. I was lucky enough to get up close and personal with Susan during her recent visit to Melbourne, where she candidly shared some of the most remarkable moments of her stellar career at an intimate gathering at the Regent Theatre.
From the moment she walked on to the theatre stage you could feel her presence. Here is a woman who has graced our screens and impacted our lives through the diverse roles she has played over the past 40-odd years. From her role as Janet in the cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show to her portrayal of Louise in the 1991 Hollywood blockbuster Thelma and Louise, Susan Sarandon is a master of her craft and has truly earned her reputation as one of the best in the business.
Born in New York in 1946, Susan is the eldest of nine. Raised as a Catholic, with a strong Italian bloodline on her mother’s side, she grew up in a working class suburb of New Jersey.
From an early age, Susan had a love of drama and acting, and after finishing high school went on to the Catholic University of America, graduating with a Bachelor of Drama in 1968.
Married at just 20 years of age, Susan got her first big break when she went to a casting call for Joe with her then-husband Chris Sarandon. He didn’t get the part but she was cast as a major role.
“Chris was doing theatre and I had just graduated, when I met him,” says Susan. “I went in to read a part the day of the casting and the director asked me back to do an improv and I landed a lead role. I thought it was hilarious because it was distributed by Cannon Films, who up until then had only ever produced x-rated movies,” she laughs.
But it was her role as Janet in the 1975 cult classic film, The Rocky Horror Picture Show that put Susan firmly on the map and launched her long and lucrative career.
“I heard Tim Curry was in town and I went to say hello,” says Susan. “He asked me why I hadn’t auditioned for the film and I said, ‘Because I can’t sing’. I had grown up being told I couldn’t sing and I had such a phobia about it. Everyone I knew at the time was auditioning for Hair the musical, but I didn’t dare. Anyway, I got the part and we recorded the soundtrack beforehand. I remember I spent the whole time apologising about my singing.”
One of the most talked about films of all time, it was ahead of its time and resonated with the youth of the 1970s, when issues such as ‘gender bending’ were still unusual.
“‘Don’t dream it, be it’ was the motto throughout movie,” says Susan. “It drew a community of people who were a little bit different – it was a place they felt safe.”
Susan and Chris divorced in 1979 and she was romantically involved with director Louis Malle and singer David Bowie, before dating Italian filmmaker Franco Amurri, with whom she had daughter Eva in 1985.
“I was in Italy working on a project about Mussolini with Anthony Hopkins and Bob Hoskins and I started an affair with this young guy, Franco Amurri. We had a great summer and I fell pregnant with Eva. I was 39 and told I couldn’t have children so it was a medical miracle.
“She couldn’t have come at a better time in my life. I was happy with my career but I was trying to find more meaning in my life. I wanted to try something I wasn’t qualified for and motherhood was certainly that. “Although Franco loves her very much, I was pretty much a single mum,” says Susan.
It was during the filming of Bull Durham in 1998, Susan met her long-time partner Tim Robbins, who is father of her two sons, Jack Henry and Miles.
“We were together for 23 years when we parted in 2009. We never married because I never really saw the value in it. I thought we would be together forever but sometimes things change.”
As a proud mum and now grandmother to Eva’s daughter Marlowe, with another one on the way, Susan says her three children always came first throughout her acting career.
“I really enjoyed my kids – I had them late so it wasn’t like they were keeping me from anything. I wasn’t going to leave them behind when I was filming, they would come on set with me until they got older and didn’t want to come anymore.”
Not one to keep silent about her political and social beliefs, Susan has been an extremely vocal champion and liberal activist for decades (against corporate greed and the war in Iraq, for the fundamental rights of women to choose what happens to their own bodies and as an advocate against capital punishment), and she is just as respected for her social activism as she is for her film career.
In fact, following her academy-award-winning portrayal of Sister Helen in the critically-acclaimed Dead Man Walking, directed by her then-husband Tim Robbins, Susan and Sister Helen became good friends and have recently been working together with an alleged murderer on death row, who they believe to be an innocent man.
“I remember first meeting Sister Helen; she knew I was half of Thelma and Louise, she just didn’t know which one,” she laughs. “She trusted me and I wanted to do her justice in the movie, which was based on the book she wrote. She is an incredible woman and I am honoured to be working with her.”
I really enjoyed my kids – I had them late so it wasn’t like they were keeping me from anything. I wasn’t going to leave them behind when I was filming.”
At almost 70 years of age, Susan has aged incredibly well. Donning a slick black pant suit, she is the epitome of classic elegance. Passionate about older women continuing to work in the movie industry, Susan says it’s encouraging to see more women her age continuing to be cast, despite it still being a male dominated and incredibly ‘ageist’ field.
“To me ageing gracefully means you are still recognisable and not a female impersonator of yourself,” she quips.
“When I was coming up through the ranks, 40 was the cut off. If you had kids, that made you even less desirable, but these days, things are changing. One of the big breakthroughs is the rise of comedian female writers, which have created a lot of lead parts for women. The likes of Melissa McCarthy, Tina Fey and Amy Schumer – they are really strong and bright and prolific.”
It’s obvious Susan hasn’t lost any of her pizzaz and something tells me we will continue to see her on our screens for some time yet. In the meantime, the controversial actress is living the good life and enjoying precious time with her grandchildren.
“I try to corrupt them as much as possible,” she says with a cheeky grin.
With all of the stories she has to tell them, it shouldn’t be too difficult.