With nearly four decades of films, an Academy Award and four other Oscar nominations to her credit, she is among the most accomplished actresses in history. When it comes to Susan Sarandon, however, her actions off-camera have caused almost as much of a stir as her myriad on-screen roles. Whether campaigning for AIDS awareness and African causes, or railing against the war in Iraq, the mother of two still speaks out as unabashedly now as she did at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. With four films in production for 2008 and beyond, Sarandon took time to chat with MovieMaker about her past and future as an activist:
Paul Tukey (MM): You’re on MovieMaker’s list of 25 “Moviemakers of the Planet” and someone I’ve really been pushing to talk to personally, because I know that when people think of Hollywood activism, you are at the top of their lists. That leads me to my first question about your personal legacy. When people remember you at the end of time, will they think of your first as an activist or as an actress?
Susan Sarandon (SS): Oh, gosh, I don’t know because I’ve been doing both for my entire adult life; I was definitely an activist before I became an actress. I came of age at a time when being young and believing in things meant that the natural path was to be active and question authority. At the end of the 1960s and early ’70s it was part of sex, drugs, rock ’n roll and activism. It just seemed like the natural thing to do and, back then, the issues were so clear. You didn’t quite have the double-speak we have now. We had real pictures of the Vietnam War; we had real pictures of the ugliness of the desegregation of the South.
You knew, as a woman, that you were inventing a new language and asking for things that hadn’t been asked before and that was part of being 20, being young and having hope and energy—and that didn’t stop when people started paying attention to me as an individual. It wasn’t something that came about because I was media connected, it was something that was already in motion and then it just took on a whole new weight when I started using my celebrity instead of being used by it. It was always a part of who I was—I don’t know if I was a product of the times—and it just continued.
MM: A lot of folks in your industry have reached a certain point in life, in their careers, and they back down a bit; they don’t speak out as often or as brusquely. I know that Tim Robbins has been quite critical of your Hollywood brethren who are afraid to speak out. You’ve always been willing.
SS: Well, in all fairness, the who’s-with-us-or-who’s-against-us mentality that ends up as a kind of shunning is a very scary and lonely place to be and it’s hard on your family. I think the most you can do to encourage other visible people is to give them information and then let them decide on their own how much of a risk they want to take. For me, at the end of the day, it’s just harder—and maybe this is some kind of hubris on my part—but it’s just harder to look back and live with myself knowing that I was silent, or that I didn’t question or that I didn’t ask.
I’ve never pretended to have the answers, but I’ve known there were questions that needed to be asked. It just comes with the territory. As a celebrity, you’re kind of like a little flashlight that can shed some light on information that people aren’t getting and then the people have the opportunity to make their own decisions. But until the press is more responsible and are actually journalists and not cheerleaders for the government and gossipmongers . . . If they would go back to the days of actual investigating and reporting — that’s not to say there aren’t some good people out there, the Amy Goodmans of the world — but until then, it’s up to us, the ambassadors. I mean, it’s been celebrities who have made Darfur into something that needed to be dealt with.
I remember one of my first trips to Tanzania at the end of this very difficult tour, emotionally and physically, after hours in a car going all over; this was the beginning of the information of AIDS in the sub-Sahara in Africa and nobody was talking about it and so I decided to take a look at that. So I go on the trip for about a week, lugging journalists around with me. At the end, when I was answering questions — we’d been to villages that had absolutely nothing and we’d seen the malaria and polio, HIV, and the orphans and the whole thing, right, and I was educating myself so I could speak intelligently about it and bring back those pictures so I could get those pictures on the news — and all the German news team could seem to focus on was why I stayed in a hotel and not one of the lean-tos. I asked them, ‘Where were you before I got here, why weren’t you covering this story?’ They wanted to make their story about the fact that I’m in a hotel. There were no four-star hotels, mind you, but they were more like flooded-out boxes. You always put yourself in the position where it’s an easier story to criticize you just because you’re a celebrity. Even when you’re very well intentioned, when you’re just trying to bring some light on to some issues that haven’t made it into the news. There’s always someone who’s willing to twist it and question your credibility because you were drinking bottled water. The press will focus on some ridiculous, unimportant detail that I guess makes it more of a People magazine or a gossipy kind of thing than a real hard news story. So people in my profession are afraid to put themselves in that kind of position and I understand that.
PT: Has the activism harmed your career in any way?
SS: That’s a question that we get a lot and I don’t know how you judge that. I always say it’s kind of like worrying if your slip is showing when you’re fleeing a burning building. I don’t know that you worry about that. Has it been hurtful at times to my family? Definitely. When the Post starts writing stories about my kids that are untrue. When they call you a Bid Laden lover and make my children frightened for me, it’s damaging. In terms of my career? Well, both Sean and Tim got an Academy Award right after our isolated resistance to the build up the (Iraq) war. I don’t think that Hollywood is political; I think Hollywood just cares if you make money one way or another.
I think if people believe you’re sincere, you’re OK. By now, even many of the people who don’t agree with me have told me they respect me for being consistent and for trying. So that’s lucky for the most part. I have had really scary, angry letters and things said to me that are frightening because you don’t know this person and for them to have such strong feelings about you when they don’t know you is disturbing. Really, though, I’d rather not go to a paranoid place where I worry about that. People do ask me why I think they should listen to me and I say, ‘you’re absolutely right, whey should you listen to me. And why should you care who I’m sleeping with and why should you care what I’m wearing or any of those things. I agree completely. But as a citizen, I want to participate in my Democracy.
PT: If you and Tim have proven anything to Hollywood, it’s that you can speak out, speak loudly and if you’re good, you’ll still get work.
SS: I’ll tell you the sad thing that is most upsetting. After the Academy Awards (in 1993) there was our little speech about the Haitians in Guantanemo, which took all of 29 seconds. We got them out (of prison), by the way, but it’s incredible to me to this day that when we headed back to our seats that night, all the people with red ribbons (for AIDS awareness) wouldn’t even make eye contact. You feel like you’re right back at the Garden of Eden and who’s going to take the first bite of the forbidden fruit. It’s like the Matrix; which pill are you going to take? It’s disillusioning to look around in the early days of the build-up to the war asking questions, trying to slow things down and there we so few people involved, because you wonder what that says about the future, your children’s future. When there’s an election in Russia and things are iffy and people are standing in the snow and rain for four days to protest the results and then something happens in the United States and everybody here just rolls over. That’s a little scary to me, not because of what would happen to me, but about the future of human race if our technology and greed and racism careen ahead. Where are our leaders? What are we going to tell our kids who have grown up to see so much cowardice and lies. Where do they find the courage to be involved?
PT: Well, to your credit, there are many younger people on this list who we talked to who mention you as a role model. I spoke to Rosario Dawson who holds you up as one of her heroes in this world and, at least partially because of you, there is a dynamo like Rosario now taking up the cause.
SS: Some of these kids working today in our industry are so much better informed than I was at that age, partially because of the Internet that has been a godsend. Let’s pray that does not get taken away from us. I am moved by the people I meet in grass roots movements and that’s where I get my strength to keep going and why I’m ultimately hopeful. When I see the young people in this business who do take a chance I am very moved. As an actor, the two things you use are imagination and empathy and what clearer path to activism is there than that?
PT: Before we finish up, I wanted to talk about Charlie Chaplin and Jane Fonda, some of the people who came before you in this industry who had something to say either in their actions or the movies they made. Did those people inspire you the same way you have inspired others?
SS: Well, I learned a lot from Jane Fonda and I learned a lot from Jane Fonda also in what not to do. I went to Nicaragua, for example, in 1984 to see what was going on. We brought baby food and milk and I met all these fabulous women who were trying to hold their families afloat. I knew not to go anywhere near guns and be photographed in that way because you’re so easily manipulated. I learned from Jane’s mistakes (in Hanoi). You have to really weigh every trip that you take and every stand that you make because you have to weigh that in terms of your effectiveness later. She was just in Washington and we were speaking together at the last demonstration about the war and I think she’s great to keep at it.
PT: I think that’s a fair assessment and one Jane has made herself in her own autobiography. But that, of course, begs the same question for you. Any mistakes? Anything people should learn from you about what not to do?
SS: My mistakes? I’m not sure they are really mistakes, but I do think of raising children. My family has always come first. I don’t know how Angelina Jolie does it, bebopping around the way she does. My regret is only that at times I couldn’t give as many hours and put my body on the line as much as I would have liked to. I guess that’s what will fill my empty nest as time goes on and the kids are gone and on their own. I’ll be able to dive into the thick of things much more completely and I look forward to that.
PT: So we’re not done hearing from Susan Sarandon?
SS: Oh, no. No. No. I seem to be in a very heavy workload now, but I think there will come a time when I’m serving as an activist at least as much as I’m acting. I mean, no one can sit back and wait for someone else to take up a cause. In all these stories I’ve done about real-life heros, Sister Helen (Dead Man Walking), Michaela Odone (Lorenzo’s Oil), the quest began with a question. It doesn’t start out with anyone thinking they’re going to change the world; they just ask a question and then it just snowballs. Lorenzo’s Oil began as a question about an illness and evolved in a journey that led to a cure. It started because a woman wanted to know. I hope that we’re raising kids that want to know and not kids who want to just dilute themselves constantly.
(COMING NEXT: A Conversation with Ben Affleck)