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||Right-wing radio thinks SUSAN SARANDON is anti-American.
She hates Hillary, but has a thing Sean Penn.
Her aunt Doris, strong and sensible, is her hero.
From Pretty Baby to Igby Goes Down, Sarandon has held a place in the American pantheon. In this special index interview, Rachael Horovitz asks her about what it's like to be an everyday legend.
(Sarandon spoke to Horovitz from the West Village home she shares with her partner, Tim Robbins.)
RACHAEL: Do you read your press?
SUSAN: It's good to know if the hate jocks are calling for my death, but beyond that, no.
I try to keep abreast of what's happening, but I've been around long enough to understand the unpredictability of the media.
RACHAEL: Do you see a connection between your activism and your acting?
SUSAN: Acting really exercises your empathy and your imagination, which are valuable gifts that everybody has, and they are also the crux of activism. Once you can imagine what it's like to lose your child or to be discriminated against once you feel that isolation how could you not step forward to help? You know how, when you're a kid and somebody is making fun of the fat kid on the bus, this little voice inside you says, "This is not right"? Well, that little voice stays there, and you spend your whole life
trying to shorten the gap between that internal voice and what you actually say. Sometimes you don't even understand the ramifications, but you just can't live with yourself if you don't say something.
RACHAEL: What have been the defining moments like that for you?
SUSAN: Certainly the Academy Awards when I spoke about the Haitian refugees was a tough one.
RACHAEL: I remember that in 1993 you and Tim used your time as presenters to speak out about HIV-infected Haitian refugees who were being detained by the U.S. government in Guantanamo.
SUSAN: I am so happy that I did that now. The refugees were dying. Amnesty International had been trying to get them released, but it wasn't working because the situation wasn't getting any press. But after the coverage that speech received, the Haitians got out the next day.
RACHAEL: Was it a spur-of-the-moment decision to speak out?
SUSAN: No, we spent a lot of time trying to figure out what to say. We didn't tell anybody beforehand, because we didn't want anyone else to be punished after it happened. When we walked back to our seats past all these people wearing red AIDS-awareness ribbons, not one of them would make eye contact with us. There was a
campaign of hate mail, but we got through it.
RACHAEL: But it seems like a message has gone out to artists in the public eye that if they take a stand they are going to have a hard time.
SUSAN: Worrying about whether or not you lose work for speaking out is like worrying about your slip showing when you're fleeing a burning building. At the end of the day, you have to be able to say to your kids, "I asked questions. I tried." Otherwise you can't live with yourself.
RACHAEL: The understated delivery of your message at this year's Academy Awards flashing a peace sign was such a marked contrast.
SUSAN: I feel that I failed at the Oscars this year the ceremony was so discouraging. I had all these different peace buttons, but people were terrified of wearing them. One person who shall remain nameless said, "It doesn't really go with my necklace." I just kept thinking, "I've been so outspoken at marches and on TV, what am I going to say that's new?" Some people were furious with me for giving the peace sign, but a lot of people expected me to do something outrageous which was probably one of the
reasons I didn't.
RACHAEL: I think it was so effective.
SUSAN: I made it clear where I stood, but I could have utilized that time to pass on something more useful I see myself as a tiny bulb that can illuminate information that people don't have. I saw the other day that Johnny Depp and Harrison Ford criticized the war in Iraq. They've joined the ranks of "anti-Americans" like me.
RACHAEL: What kind of thing do you wish you had spoken about?
SUSAN: I wish I had had the statistics on the Bush administration's twenty-five-billion-dollar cuts to veterans' health care services. The veterans' administration is one of those organizations, like the police force or the fire department, where it's not really within the context of their job to publicize their problems. Here is a president so anxious to send our kids to another country and put them in harm's way, while he simultaneously takes away their protection if they're lucky enough to come back. It's a bipartisan problem it doesn't have anything to do with where you come down on the war.
RACHAEL: Is there a chance you've lost jobs because of your outspokenness? Do you think there's a blacklist?
SUSAN: Janeane Garofalo once said the only Hollywood blacklist is for actors who get old and fat. [laughs] There might be some people who just don't like me and that's their prerogative, but I don't think it's plausible that there's an organized blacklist. The communication channels are just too open today. People in positions of power know they're being watched.
RACHAEL: Has press coverage ever really affected the reception of any of your films?
SUSAN: Occasionally. I remember one really stupid review of Little Women in which the critic accused me of putting my politics into the character of the mother. But Mrs. March was the first social worker in the United States. She taught black kids coming up from the South through the Underground Railroad. I consider her the first American feminist. The character has a real history, if you just take the trouble to look it up.
RACHAEL: You've been making films for over thirty years now a lot of people see you as a movie legend.
SUSAN: [laughs] I'm sitting here in dirty sweats. I don't have a concept of how people
see me. Somehow I'm still here, despite taking breaks for my family and having a rather
unpredictable career. I really admire Paul Newman, Gore Vidal, Vanessa Redgrave people who are still questioning things. They're not playing it safe. That's the way to live your life, to always be figuring things out.
RACHAEL: Who were your heroes as a kid?
SUSAN: I went to a Catholic school where I was taught about saints, but the message to women was that it was admirable to endure suffering women were not encouraged to step forward. So my hero was my Aunt Doris, who was really strong and sensible. She remained single, traveled when women didn't travel, worked at the state home for girls, and was a nutritionist before people were interested in that. She was someone who didn't look to men to define who she was.
RACHAEL: How do you feel about Hillary Clinton?
SUSAN: Hate her! The only thing she's going to be remembered for is standing by her man, and that is really sad. She had a shot, and she really blew it. She gave Bush the keys to the car while she was wagging her finger and saying, "You better not drive it, because we're going to be watching." She turned out to be just another politician, which was really disappointing. I also think she lost a lot of support. I know a lot of people who write very large checks who have told her, "That's it for us, don't come back."
RACHAEL: Your daughter Eva just started college, didn't she?
SUSAN: Yeah, she's there now. I am so excited for her. She also has a movie coming out in February, Saved, with Macaulay Culkin and Jena Malone. She's so much stronger and smarter than I was at her age she found her voice much earlier than I did.
RACHAEL: Probably in large part because of you.
SUSAN: I don't know. With each of my kids it was so clear who they were early on. My job as a parent is just to recognize and celebrate their passions and what makes them special, because no amount of coercion will change who they are. I suppose my kids have a sense of possibility from seeing how many jobs in the movie industry aren't gender-specific. They've been treated as peers by a lot of very interesting, smart people. And they've been able to travel I'm a big advocate of understanding and embracing
different cultures. Growing up in New York is great that way.
RACHAEL: Do you have any specific hopes for their future?
SUSAN: Having kids that are coming of age at this time scares me, but it also moves me, because I think they're up to the challenge. Thank god for the internet I never thought
I would say that because I can't even use it. But it allows kids access to so much information. You just keep your fingers crossed and hope they discover what's going to make them happy.
RACHAEL: I recently rewatched Dead Man Walking. It's based on the true story of a nun who helps a death-row inmate, played by Sean Penn, prepare for his execution. Throughout the film, even in the most difficult conditions, your character, Sister Helen, has this serene little smile.
SUSAN: If there is a smile there, which I really haven't noticed, I suppose it has to do with me constantly trying to find the center of that character. Sister Helen's love is not contingent upon the prisoner being innocent, it's not contingent upon getting something back. As an actor I had to surrender to that, allowing it to work on me without knowing where I was going. It was a life-altering experience.
RACHAEL: So you came to the part with a lot of humility.
SUSAN: It definitely wasn't a flashy part. It crossed my mind that going around saying, "Let us pray" could get a little boring, especially since I was acting opposite Sean Penn, who is amazingly skilled and had such a great role. I had to fight against the tendency to compete with Sean I had to keep myself from trying to make the character more interesting. I just surrendered to who Sister Helen was, and to who Sean's character was. I had to commit to him.
RACHAEL: There seemed to be such a connection between you and Sean in that movie.
SUSAN: I adore Sean. I don't think I realized how close we had become until we'd nearly finished filming. I had only a little bit left to do, and he went upstairs and shaved off his beard and came down looking like a completely different person. I remember feeling threatened and shaken, because I had grown so used to seeing him in that ridiculous, crazy prison look.
RACHAEL: You were the person who pushed the project from the start, encouraging Tim to direct the film and finding funding. It seems so fitting that you won an Academy Award for your role.
SUSAN: Well, I'm sure I wouldn't have won if it weren't for the fact that every nun was praying like crazy for me. [laughs] I definitely had god on my side to win that award. We never anticipated that the film would even be seen by that many people. It was a real surprise.
RACHAEL: Are you still in contact with the real Sister Helen?
SUSAN: Sister Helen is very much a part of our family. She stays with us whenever she comes to town.