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SUSAN SARANDON - Sex, song and cigarettes

 Life has so much more of an imagination to do things than I do. I think one of the reasons that my life - once I got past the really difficult, difficult part of it, like all my identity crises and everything in my twenties - kind of fell into place, was that I stopped trying to put my expectations onto what things were going to happen and was more open to everything. 'I’m here because all my plans failed' - that’s what I like to say. I’m here because I was open to following my life where it led me, and to making choices that were new choices out of what was dealt to me. But I wouldn’t have ever seen it turning out this way.

Is this [Romance and Cigarettes] your first musical since the Rocky Horror Picture Show? 

“Well, I suppose it’s the first thing that’s called itself a musical. I have sung and danced in various other capacities. Even as a nun I sang in Dead Man Walking. But here I sang, and in Anywhere but Here I sang, in Shall We Dance I danced -- you know, I seem to be constantly singing badly in films! But this is different from the Rocky Horror Show in that we had to make Dusty Springfield and Janis Joplin enter into our context, with their iconoclastic weight. So instead of performing I had to kind of act it, which makes you feel a bit more vulnerable. Somebody said to me recently, ‘Do you think you could have sung better so that you didn’t all have to be singing other people?’ which kind of missed the point, you know? It’s not that we were bad singers. It was the idea that bringing Tom Jones in was much funnier. If you heard [Christopher] Walken just singing it on his own it would have been minus one dimension.  

“And I don’t think I really, for instance, understood that [Janis Joplin] song, Take a Little Piece of My Heart, until I had to prepare for the context of that scene. I just sang it but I didn’t get it, like my kids do when they’re singing these horrible songs about drug addiction and everything else, and they’re 10, and you’re like, ‘Do you know what you’re talking about?’ They just do it. I kind of just did that but I didn’t understand that she was saying, ‘I have given you everything and you have just fucked over me. Now why don’t you just come and take the rest? Take it. Just come on and just take it.’ I didn’t get that until I did it.  “I’m sure there were ways to be more kind of Beyonce about it, but instead of doing that you kind of have to stay in the context of this seamstress and do it, which was an interesting predicament, really.” 

Are you a fan of Janis Joplin? 

“How could you not be? There’s this movie [Festival Express] I saw about their trip across Canada, where they did a concert, and I saw footage of her I hadn’t seen before, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, she just kills you’. She has her heart on her sleeve. You know, anybody that can just be that open . . . it kills you. Bette Midler does the tune a different way but she just gives so much and is so out there. I think every actor is jealous of performers.”  

What do you think is the most daring thing that you ever did on screen? 

“I think giving a blowjob in White Palace took a lot of guts. That was really hard [laughs]. Because you really have to trust that the director’s . . . you know exactly what you don’t want that scene to be but you just have to hope. Anything to do with sex is pretty iffy.” 

Like your scenes with Catherine Deneuve, for instance, in The Hunger? 

“No that was much more graceful. I had never been with a woman before and any time that you’re naked, I think with anybody, it’s scary. And then by about the second day, the crew’s not even interested anymore. They’re like, ‘Pht! God, what time are they going to be finished?’ I think that some of the other stuff was harder. Just the logistics of trying to figure out what you’re doing and when is hard. And I don’t think there had been a legitimate actress that had done that on film at that time, so I was kind of worried about ramifications of the thing with Jimmy Spader, because it was so sexual. But that was what it was about. That scene is kind of a map of the entire film [White Palace] and what happens in the rest of the film, literally. I had been offered that script and I had turned it down. Then when Luis Mandoki was doing it and asked me to do it, I saw the movie that he made, which I can’t remember right now [Gaby: The True Story], but he had a love scene with two people in wheelchairs in which they fell out of their wheelchairs, and I thought, ‘My God, if he can pull that off, and it’s not funny. . .’ I mean you can describe that to somebody and they’re kind of like ‘What?’ But I thought it was so great the way he did it, I thought this guy could handle that.” 

Romance & Cigarettes and Elizabethtown both involve you dealing with death and bereavement and I wonder whether doing them made you think about your own mortality. 

“Everything makes me think about mortality. I am just constantly going [bangs her head with her palm], ‘Wake up! Look around you! Just remember that is so fleeting and get in your life!’ Anything I can do to remind myself of that, I do. But I think that they’re both biographical films, they both [writer/directors Cameron Crowe and John Turturro] felt passionately about telling those stories. You know, I had a big burden of playing both of their mothers, which is hard. A lot of these guys have these family stories that they want to tell. I think John has had this script [Romance and Cigarettes] for a long, long time, and I think I was probably the first person that signed on, and I saw it go through so many changes as they tried to find the financing for it. So, you know, everything is either about life or death. Or getting laid. Those are the three things [laughs].” 

Do you believe in the after life? 

“God, it’s late in the day for that question. I believe that there is energy of a person that is not destroyed, because energy is not destroyed, it transforms into something else. I believe that I’ve, you know, that the connection with my kids that couldn’t have started at their birth. They’re too familiar to me. And they have said things when they were tiny that was creepy about each other, or about choosing me, stuff they don’t remember now, but things that they said before they were three that’s pretty amazing. I believe that somehow you choose your family, as torturous as that might be. That people come into your life for very specific reasons.  

“One of the things I love about my profession is that it puts me in touch with people who sometimes are really why I am doing a film, not because of the film. You know? Just the way I see myself draws certain themes to me when I’m working on certain things in my life that feel inevitable at that time. Life has so much more of an imagination to do things than I do. I think one of the reasons that my life, once I got past the really difficult, difficult part of it, like all my identity crises and everything in my twenties, that it kind of fell into place, was that I stopped trying to put my expectations onto what things were going to happen and I was more open to everything. I’m here because all my plans failed. That’s what I like to say. I’m here because I was open to following my life where it led me and making choices that were new choices out of what was dealt to me. But I wouldn’t have ever seen it turning out this way. I wasn’t supposed to have any children, couldn’t physically have children, you know, it’s just something that’s happened.  

“Just what has been dealt to me has been so interesting and the nature of my work puts me in touch with people that have so many gifts. I don’t mean necessarily even actors, but just people thematically.  I think acting is kind of like living a lot of different lives. So I’m reaping the benefits of reincarnation while I am here. And it really does develop compassion as a kind of muscle, because you realise that given circumstances, you can think and feel and act in ways you never thought yourself capable of, and it becomes much more difficult to judge other people.” 

Why are your social activities so important to you? 

“You know, sometimes when people ask me that it kind of sounds like this is my hobby. It’s not at all social activities, it’s more this is my world and these are people living in boxes on the street, and I’m passing them. Do I pass them every day or do I do something about it? It’s just my world is a bigger world than maybe some people’s. And because I’m connected to media, I get more information than some people. And once you say, ‘Alright, I’m ready to be a mouthpiece for you’, then everybody offers you information and asks you to do things.  

“I actually do much less than I wish I could. But I think that imagination and empathy are the two tools of my profession, and that’s the basis of activism. If you can imagine yourself as a mother whose child is in this circumstance, how can you not act on that? So, it’s just who I am. It’s who I’ve always been. And now that I’m a little bit more visible, stuffing envelopes is maybe not the best thing that I can do, you know? But I really don’t have any choice about it. It’s just kind of what I’m supposed to do, I think. And as my kids get older, and I have less responsibility where they’re concerned, I think I probably will be much more active. If anything I just feel guilty that I do everything so half-assed, because I’m so scattered and I probably should just say [bangs her fist on the table], like Bette Midler, ‘I’m just going to do the gardens in New York’. But it’s so hard for me to say no when people ask me. Maybe I’ll end up just doing UNICEF or just doing half a project in a much more thorough way, and I won’t feel so irresponsible.” 

[This interview took place against the backdrop of news reports about Hurricane Katrina] What do you think about what is happening in New Orleans right now? 

“You know, I’ve worked there a number of times, I have friends there, I’m devastated and I’m furious. I’m heartbroken. I’m hoping that there will be an investigation. I think it’s a very scary thing what it says about the infrastructure of the United States that with five days’ warning on a natural disaster this still happens. It’s just unforgivable.” 

Do you think there is racial component to the fact that the Federal Government did take so long to respond? 

“I don’t think that they sat around and said, ‘These are black people; these are expendable’, but there’s a systemic racism that exists in the United States and of course that played into it. It plays into just the words they use when they’re describing the situation on TV. It plays into, you know, how could we all not pay any attention to Rwanda? Why do they test Haitians coming into the United States for HIV and not Russian Jews? There’s systemic racism, that’s a fact. Let’s hope that we learn from this and let’s hope that something comes from this, because I think it’s going to have consequences for years and years and years.  

“When we did Dead Man Walking there was a hurricane and a tornado, and my son is still traumatised when it rains. It flooded – flooded up to our house – the car flooded, Tim [Robbins, her partner] had to walk home through the rain; we had people staying in our house for a few days, everything shut down, it was incredible rain and wind and everything else, but it was nothing like this. I know for years, when it would start to rain, my son would run and want to know where people were, because he was two at the time. So I can’t imagine what these families that were on opposite sides of roofs are going through, I mean it’s biblical what happened down there. It’s horrible.” 

You live in New York and at the first Tribeca Film Festival you were on a panel discussing the impact of 9/11, and you said at the time that as your children grew up, you would find out what the lasting effect of that tragedy was on them. Several years later, what has been its effect? 

“Um, well first of all, they hate it when people feel bad for New Yorkers. They’re very pissed off when someone says, ‘Are you OK?’ In the early days of 9/11, my little guy said, ‘I wish they’d stop asking us that. They don’t know what it means to be a New Yorker.’ They’re also incredibly committed to the city since then in a way they weren’t before. They don’t want to leave. I mean don’t even bring it up. They’re very disillusioned about the media. They went to great lengths in New York to study Islam and everything else, so they certainly know much more about that culture than they did. They have many non-English, non-Christian kids in their schools, and I think nobody certainly knew where Iraq was. They hate George Bush. They’re very, very frightened that he’s in charge, especially my youngest one. When he got re-elected he was devastated. He has seen that piece of film of him, that seven minutes [where he is reading a children’s book, apparently stunned, after receiving news of the 9/11 attacks], and it just took him a long time after he was re-elected to feel safe or to move on. He was just terrified. So things like that.” 

Why do you think there are so few American movies that bring up these kinds of contemporary political subjects? 

“I think it’s really hard to write a movie that’s an entertaining movie that has a slant on it. You don’t just want to do a documentary. So how do you figure out what that movie’s about? Is George Clooney’s movie [Good Night, And Good Luck] about the press a way to get into it? It takes a while to assimilate stuff. And, you know, it’s not easy to write a movie. But I think all movies are political. I think The Nutty Professor was incredibly political. It gets you to root for that guy to stay fat; it redefines what it means to be a man, all kinds of things. Every movie has a message. You don’t notice the ones that reinforce the status quo. You only call movies that challenge the status quo political. But, really, every movie reinforces myths, -isms, sexism, ageism, what it means to be a man.  

“You know, I am so sick of these movies where the guy’s at war and he doesn’t kill somebody, and his whole platoon gets killed as a result. Enough already! Jesus! Can’t you come up with another idea of what it means to be a man? I blame Hollywood for a lot of all this talk. You listen to talk that’s going on in the States about the war all through Bush’s reign, and it’s all like some kind of bad war movie. Everything’s a war on something. He doesn’t have an idea. It’s just a war on drugs, a war on poverty. You know, what’s the plan? There’s no plan. It’s just all this macho talk, completely John Wayne kind of stuff. Now we have to start redefining humour and, you know, give guys something they can get behind which is an interesting idea of what it means to be a man and allows guys to be more than just this cliché. I feel bad for you guys.”    

You have had such a long career. What are your thoughts on how Hollywood has changed in the last couple of decades? 

“I don’t think it’s in the nature of any establishment to change. I don’t think Hollywood’s ever going to change. I think in the old days there were maybe less business people running things and maybe some of those people really had an interest in movies. They made many, many more movies per year than they do now. I think there’s a lot of bankers that make up the lists of who’s allowed to be in films now. It’s pretty amazing when you see the list when they’re going to cast something of who they consider to be bankable. You can’t figure it out. You just can’t figure it out. So maybe that’s changed slightly. But, you know, it’s like any other industry. It’s not going to change form the top down. The interesting stuff will come from the bottom. Occasionally you have somebody who’s really powerful, like maybe Robert Redford or George Clooney, or Steven Spielberg that can take a movie that people don’t think is bankable and they’ll allow them to do it because it’s not a big movie, it’s not a lot of money, blah, blah, blah. Most of the time the original films are going to slide in and then you just have hope they find distribution.  

“That’s why film festivals are really helpful. A film like Romance & Cigarettes, you know, if it gets a buzz on it at festival, people go, ‘Oh let’s look at that one again’, because they don’t really get it. But if they see other people get it then they’ll pay attention. Or just sometimes the public finds something that’s really original and, lo and behold, it turns into a hit. Then everyone’s like, ‘Oh yeah, it was clever of us to pick that one up’. In fact they picked up eight films and it just happened that that one caught, and then they get on it. So, you know, I don’t think you’re ever going to see Hollywood become anything other than what it is, which is a fairly efficient distributing mechanism for certain films that have already been done before.” 

You made a film called Irresistable in Australia. What was that experience like? 

“Um, fast and furious and, you know, low budget. I had never been to the Great Barrier Reef and I like Melbourne a lot, and Sam Neill was great and Emily was great, so we’ll see.”