Put up your Dukes!

Susan Sarandon dishes about playing feisty heiress Doris Duke on HBO, Ralph Fiennes' "matinee idol" looks and her old gay boyfriends.


Heather Havrilesky
February 7, 2008 5:00PM (UTC)

Over the course of 37 years on the big screen, Susan Sarandon has played the strong, unflappable matriarch and the outlandish loose cannon with equal enthusiasm and conviction. Although it's impossible to forget her Oscar-winning turn as Sister Helen Prejean in "Dead Man Walking," Sarandon may be most remarkable when she's playing devious, eccentric characters, from the rebellious housewife of "Thelma and Louise" to the playful muse of "Bull Durham." Maybe that's because she brings an intrepid air to even the flakiest character; she can be playing a woman who's fragile or unhinged or capricious, but when she fixes you with that penetrating gaze, a genuine but tenacious quality shines through.

With such a rich and successful movie career, it's hard to imagine why Sarandon would choose to appear in an HBO original movie about the curious relationship between billionaire Doris Duke and her trusted butler, Bernard Lafferty -- that is, until that first moment of "Bernard and Doris" (premieres 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 9, on HBO). Sarandon breezes into the frame, the embodiment of this careless, distracted aristocrat most of us have read about, and we're transfixed. Bringing both an unpredictable edge and a feeling of genuine warmth to Duke, Sarandon resists the temptation to fall into either hysteria or cartoonish frigidity -- two of the more typical choices for those portraying the unfathomably rich.

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While Ralph Fiennes is convincing and sweet as Bernard (Sarandon helped to convince him to take the role), it's Sarandon who has us by the throat from start to finish. As Duke, she dances from self-involvement to longing to rage to sweetness with such flexibility that, if we hadn't seen such agility from her before, we might consider this the performance of a lifetime. Most of all, Sarandon transforms Doris Duke, the unknowable, seemingly aloof diva, into a sharp, fascinating, flawed human being.

When I spoke to her on the phone the afternoon after the State of the Union address, Sarandon (who supported John Edwards until he dropped out of the race) garrulously bounced from one topic to another, from her interest in the intimate connections between characters to her disbelief over the emptiness of President Bush's comments: "I can't even tell one from the other. It's all the same State of the Union ... It just translates to 'Blah blah blah.'"

Your take on Doris Duke was so memorable. When you read the script, what was it about this character or story that drew you in?

I find the act of reaching out to another human being and making an effort to be intimate in any way such a courageous act that I've always been drawn to stories that are love stories of one kind or another. I just thought, here are two damaged, problematic, difficult people who, for some reason that is probably inexplicable, form this bond. Clearly she trusted him, and he was completely dedicated to her and couldn't live without her once she died. [Lafferty died three years after Duke at the age of 51.] They were so opposite and, at the same time, they found some common ground, and I just found that so interesting. I thought, here's a story that most people know the outside story, you know, all the glitz and glam, and it was different than anything that I've ever played, and I thought, well, let's tell the inner story instead.

And I have to say, it was all predicated on who was going to play Bernard, because I wasn't desperate to do that part without the right guy. Initially the script needed some work. It was just a kernel of an idea and somehow it ended up just coming together.

Ralph was at the top of the list, and he said yes immediately. He called me from Italy and said, "Are you really going to do this? The script isn't completely there." And I said, "I think it'll get there, and I trust [director] Bob [Balaban] and I've been with him on occasion when he's had to deal with script, and he's very good with it. And you know, if you do it, I'll do it." And then when we sat down, all of us, at a table, and I had my good friend Joe Aulisi doing wardrobe and my good friend Franckie Diago doing the sets, and they were both working with budgets of about $35, I thought, what have I gotten these people into?

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But we had a lot of fun, and I'm fond of it. I'm a little nervous about sending it out to the world. When it was just ours and it wasn't out there for public consumption, I just kind of hoped that it would survive and be treated well. It was such a personal experience. It was like acting camp, everybody out in Long Island and moving very quickly, and people bringing in clothing, Donna Karan opening up her warehouse and making the wardrobe possible. It was a very different kind of filmmaking, which is always trying, but at the same time, kind of exhilarating.

Based on your performance, it seemed like you had a lot of empathy for Doris Duke.

Well, I think she was a bit of a monster, but I thought she was really funny. I don't know that I could play anybody who I didn't like -- at least some aspect of them. I've certainly played people who, if you're going to examine them morally, were unsympathetic. I mean, I didn't really worry if she was going to be sympathetic or not. Part of the fun of her is that she says and does things that people who have any kind of empathy or social conditioning would feel uncomfortable saying and doing. But she was so isolated growing up, and she was so privileged and grew up with so much entitlement and at the same time, so little affection, so little love, so little companionship. You know, for the early part of her life, she just had a nanny and a tutor that she became close to, and she was gawky and tall. She was close to her dad, but then he died, and the mom really didn't like her. Everybody's got their family problems, but certainly that family, when I started reading about it, the money really exacerbates and accentuates any kind of eccentricity or any kind of addiction -- you know, things that would prove more difficult for ordinary, even middle-class people. You could indulge yourself -- in men, or places, or real estate.

And at the same time, she had this fear of being taken advantage of all the time. So she was really miserly with her staff and full of contradictions. And then this guy comes along that obviously loved working for celebrities, and had his own demons, and some kind of weird friendship -- and more -- developed between them.

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The friendship that develops between them actually feels organic and makes a lot of sense, based on what we see of both of their lives.

Well, that's good!

And slowly, we see what a headstrong and vibrant personality she has, through her relationship with Bernard. It becomes clearer how difficult and isolating it would be to have that kind of a life.

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You know, her one child died, and she didn't really have a family or people around her that stayed for that long because she went through lovers and husbands pretty quickly. She was very loyal, but he [Bernard] became the witness to her life, and she became the witness to his life, so what I like about the film is that we really tried to make what was important happen between the lines. She might be talking about her lover who's in bed but looking at Bernard. She's sharing the joke. She's sharing the journey with him all the time. And that's kind of what they found in each other.

I think that's, in my old age, something that I really appreciate: the people that are witnesses to your life, who know you. Because really, what does one life matter in the big scheme of things? It's only through those people who you touch that your life has some meaning. So something struck up between the two of them.

I was concerned that what she gives to him is less obvious than what he gives to her. But I thought, if you don't get a feeling that she has changed him somehow, that she has brought something to his life, then it just becomes this creepy kind of obsessive thing on his part.

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Bernard seemed to come into a new way of seeing himself through Duke's appreciation of him.

Yeah. And at the same time, what I love about Ralph [Fiennes as Bernard] is that he has so much dignity, and he's somebody that you really believe could run that house, and at the same time, he's not a cliché. When he starts to get freer and freer, it's so sweet. He does it in such a sweet way, and yet he's so matinee-idol handsome that you can see why she would keep trying to make it something else -- especially during those times, when the definition of what you were wasn't quite so stringent. There weren't so many labels. You know, I had gay boyfriends in the '80s and the late '70s and it didn't seem like that big a deal, really.

Really?

No! People went back and forth all over the place. It wasn't seen to be such a major accomplishment one way or another.

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So people didn't define themselves as clearly, sexually?

I don't know that it was asked of you to define yourself as clearly. It was a more generous kind of time sexually -- maybe that translated for some people as promiscuous. But it was also just a generous ... the drugs were more generous. Everything was more generous! What was going on was kind of an empowering thing, and so the antithesis of that is to make everybody kind of dig in and proclaim their limitations. There were so many stories of people who started out married and ended up becoming gay, and people who were gay getting married and having kids. It wasn't so tough on you. You didn't have to give a label. Now people give so many labels to everybody, which I guess is OK, but -- what does she [Doris Duke] say at one point? "You have to leave yourself open to the possibilities" or something. "Life is full of surprises!" Kind of giving him [Bernard] a hint that, you know, things he hadn't thought about could happen [between them]. But he just gets embarrassed.

We really had to go back and map out those pauses, to make sure that they were there, because so many times, that's where the interesting thing happens.

Do you find yourself choosing small films because they give you the freedom to tell more interesting stories? This feels like the kind of film that might've been in theaters 30 years ago, but this sort of intimate story doesn't get distributed that often anymore.

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Well, that is the problem. They get made, but the distribution is a problem since there are hardly any independent theaters anymore. Back in the old days, there were a lot of these little houses that you could count on.

But I like to do it all. I loved doing "Speed Racer" because it was surrendering to a completely different kind of thing. Certainly I've done a lot of being the emotional core of the movie -- meaning you're the least interesting person that holds the film together -- in my career, so it's fun to do something where you're really out there and you're proactive and you can make mistakes. Those parts seem to be in smaller films. And also, the amount of interference is proportionate to the budget. There definitely is a correlation between how many people are at the monitor and how many hundreds of thousands of dollars you have.

Speaking of monitors, how do you feel about the writers' strike, and how is that affecting your work?

There are a lot of issues. This strike is not whimsical. I'm hoping, since the directors found a way around it, that maybe their example will have some suggestions for the writers, but I completely support them and I think it's been confusing because there have been so many different ways to slice participation in the strike for so many people. It's been a little muddy. And I think it's done a lot of damage and it's been really, really hard. But I think there was no other choice. You just cannot give away future participation in all the technology that's coming. That's a really, really important thing, and it's going to be important for the actors, too, so of course actors are watching with great interest, because our [contract negotiations] come up in June.

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It's nuts how many films are trying to go ahead, and they're all very shaky. They have to finish by mid-June, so everybody's dates are crazy.

Are you swearing off the Academy Awards?

I've used up a lot of those coupons. [Laughs] Certainly if the writers' strike isn't finished, I don't think anybody can go, unless they do some kind of a deal.

Do you seek out tough, self-possessed female characters? Because you seem to play them a lot. Or do these roles just find you?

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You know, that's funny, because I have that reputation, but I have to say that it's only in hindsight that these women are strong. Even "Thelma and Louise" -- she was literally on the edge of the abyss. She's having a nervous breakdown in that film. What's interesting to me are people who move forward through their fear. You know, the gal in "White Palace," even though she's going to lose everything, she wants her dignity and she ends up leaving the guy. But she's not a strong person; she's fragile.

Most of the characters I've played are pretty fragile. In "Romance and Cigarettes," she [the lead character] is tough with him, but she's a mess. I just did "Lovely Bones" and she's really tough. But underneath all that, when you're doing them [these characters], they feel very fragile. It's only by the end of the movie that you say, OK, well, she managed to do this, but they don't feel like strong women.

But women are like that too, you know? You do what you have to do because you have to do it, but it doesn't feel so strong when you're making those choices, and when you're showing up, or going without sleep, or getting a second job, or leaving the abusive guy. These are strong things to do, but it doesn't feel strong when you're doing it.


Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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