INTERVIEW

Susan Sarandon on life, career and politics: "It is getting pretty biblical out there"

The actor spoke to Salon to share her wisdom about motherhood, aging and defying expectations without trying

By Gary M. Kramer
Published August 1, 2021 8:00AM (EDT)
Susan Sarandon in "Ride the Eagle"  (DECAL)
Susan Sarandon in "Ride the Eagle" (DECAL)

We should all listen to Susan Sarandon. Not just because the actress, who won an Oscar playing Sister Helen Prejean in "Dead Man Walking," is an outspoken activist, or an icon who starred in films ranging from cult classics "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" and "The Hunger" to modern-day classics "Atlantic City," "Bull Durham," and "Thelma & Louise." We should listen because she engenders trust. Her signature voice can project confidence or hesitation — sometimes in the same sentence, and that quality only makes one listen more closely: Is she going to inspire us, warn us, or break our hearts?

In her genial new film, "Ride the Eagle," Sarandon plays Honey, a woman who abandoned her son Leif (an affable Jake Johnson, who cowrote) when he was 12. Now dead, Honey leaves her Yosemite cabin to Leif on the condition that he completes a handful of tasks she assigns him. As Leif begrudgingly goes canoeing and fishing and scatters her ashes, Honey encourages him from a videocassette recording she made to do what he loves and for himself. 

"Ride the Eagle" is one of many "mom" roles Sarandon has played over the years. One of her best was her Oscar-nominated turn in "Lorenzo's Oil," as the mother of a diseased son, but Sarandon has given luminous performances as a striving, irresponsible mom in "Anywhere but Here;" a controlling mom in "Igby Goes Down;" a dying mother in "Stepmom;" an anxious mother in "Safe Passage;" the matriarch in the 1994 version of "Little Women;" a comic, meddling mom in "The Meddler;" and the widow in "Jeff Who Lives at Home," among others. She even appeared as Mom in "Speed Racer" and in the Lonely Island video, "Motherlover." Whatever the genre, Sarandon always etches distinct matriarchs who feel lived in. 

The actress spoke with Salon about the lessons of "Ride the Eagle" and motherhood and her decades in the business.

Honey wants to pass on important lessons to her son Leif, whom she is estranged from. She talks about regret and holding grudges, tells him about expressing emotions, rekindling love, and fighting for what one cares about. What lessons guide you in your life? 

You're going to make me think first thing in the morning?! I will try to rise to the occasion. What guides me? Well, I can only think of what I tell my kids — be authentic and kind. I'm lucky the business I'm in is just forced empathy, because you are constantly putting yourself in the shoes of somebody else. It's a collaborate art, storytelling. I'm incredibly lucky to still be doing this and earning a living at my age after 50 years in the business. I'm not on drugs or alcohol, or bitter. I still love what I do. Striving for that has worked for me. And that's the guiding [force]. I do feel I have an additional sense of responsibility because I am adjacent to information and sources and am able to spread information that people aren't getting. I can be a voice for people who need a voice. I accept that responsibility. 

You have played strong and caring mothers, controlling mothers, irresponsible mothers, anxious mothers, and a meddling mom, among other mothers. What observations do you have about motherhood? 

I just am in awe of women and women that choose to mother — whether it's having their own children, or being a teacher, or a nurse, or someone who advocates for kids. The more I work grassroots and the longer I live, my respect and awe for women and what they can do grows and grows. I tried to have fun as a mom. It came to me very late in life. I am the oldest of nine, so I mothered as soon as I could stand, pretty much [laughs]. I always had a kid on my hip. It grounded me, and triggered all my nurturing talents, which, as the years went on, I had to learn to not apply to every guy I was with! I enjoy being a mother. I really got into it. My kids constantly blew my mind.

My parenting style was a little bit loose in terms of systems to keep the house impeccable and defrost the refrigerator. I didn't have an enormous amount of help. I dragged my kids with me when I worked until they were old enough to give a substantial argument against going — which was around high school — and at that time, they were happy to see me leave to go on location. [Laughs] I'm blessed with amusing, smart, difficult kids, and to this day they are educating me. It's been so much fun to learn about new books, and movements, and music, and see the world anew through them. It finally pays off when they are older and you're older. That's why you have them — to get that playlist!

What are your thoughts on playing mother roles, which is something almost every actress faces in their career?

I loved this tiny part in "Ride the Eagle" because a lot of what she says is pretty wise. As a mom, you have to keep apologizing when you screw up, and admit that you're human, and give them boundaries and at the same time listen. Sometimes, as a parent, you go into a whole other personality that is about restricting freedom, and we have to give as much energy to listening and encouraging them to be whatever and however they see themselves.

Where you get into trouble is where your kids do things that don't seem to lead to the most stable life. It used to be that if your kid was gay, that was something that scared you because how would they survive in a world that was so hostile? Now that's getting somewhat better. But what if your family is full of doctors, and you want to be a musician? That's equally threatening.

It's turning out now that the kids who survive are the ones who are flexible, resilient, adaptable, and think outside the box. The world is changing so quickly. The systems that were in place that guaranteed you a place to make money are no longer true. A college education gives you a huge amount of debt, but not necessarily a guarantee of a job. Trying to reimagine what success means in terms of a fulfilled life, a joyful life, the ability to be intimate with people, a sense of empathy — that's what we need to tell our kids: to lead a life of curiosity and satisfaction, and not necessarily that makes a huge amount of money. The definition of what success is has been so tied into productivity and capitalism

Honey tells Leif, "there is no success without struggle." You've had a very successful career, but surely not without some effort. You have been an iconic actress. But I especially love your work in "Atlantic City," which I just saw last month on Criterion, and "Joe Gould's Secret" — which I recalled when I went up to see the Alice Neel show at the Met in New York. 

Neel's so great, right? There is someone who just painted for the love of painting and didn't become commercial at all for years and years and years. She brought her neighbors into her kitchen and started painting!

Can you talk about your struggles and successes?

I've certainly had disappointments. I'm so grateful to have been able to make a living and work with so many fun people and be so many different people. It's really enlarged my world. I can't lie — I have to admit: Would I like to get top-tier directors all the time, and projects that have big budgets? The problem when you do small films, they use your quote for the next film, so it's hard to keep your price up. At the same time, I'm very fortunate to have lasted as long as I have in this business. It is different to start at 20 than to come in at 26 and as a leading lady. When you start out as an ingenue, a lot get left behind.

It's true that a lot of my characters now are dying or helping someone else die. That seems to be my niche at the moment. [Laughs] But I love telling stories. Even though I've had disappointments, and I haven't been able, at times, to get considered for things I would have loved. At the same time, I've got to say I'm very grateful. I feel I've contributed a lot to the films I've been in. It's like throwing a pot: You have an idea of what it's going to be, and it changes size and the color isn't quite what you thought. In film, there are so many more ways for things to go wrong than right.

A long time ago, I learned to I let go of expectations —  whether the studio will stand behind it, or whether the music will ruin it, or whether it will open in the middle of Hurricane Sandy — there are so many different ways for a film not to be appreciated. So, I just focus on the process, really, and the connection with other people. It is a group effort. I really, really love that. Theater is horrifying and terrifying for me, but you are more in charge of final product, for better or worse, so that has a certain allure to it, but it's scary for me to be on stage. Occasionally I find something I want to do on stage. 

Your character Honey is described as "unpredictable." In what ways do you think you defy expectations?

I guess I do it all the time because I don't know what expectations are. Being able to change gears when something presents itself is my strong suit. I don't have any idea how I'm perceived. I've never thought of myself as an iconic movie star. I'm boringly grounded that way. My lifestyle and focus, my career, is a means to an end, but not an end in itself. People are constantly telling me that I'm surprising. I guess I'm just not conscious of — that doesn't sound very evolved — but I'm not very conscious of how I am perceived. It's always a surprise to me when I show up and there are tons of people, or when I'm far away from the United States and people recognize me. 

I think it's that quality that I never know what you're going to play next. 

I think I survived because I see myself and approach this business as a character actor. I think that's true. There are women who are more beautiful, and people who have charismatic, strong personalities tend to get paid more, because they have a more identifiable persona. I see myself as more flexible. That's the fun of it. I try not to repeat myself and find way to stretch. I'm not good at something if it doesn't scare me. I chose things that will frighten me. Then I know I'll be awake! Otherwise I get lazy. I am burdened with inertia that way. [Laughs] 

I think you have the inertia where you always keep moving. I respect that about you!

As I've gotten older, it has been more difficult for me to find older men and women who are still curious. I find myself in the midst of people who are much younger. Because a lot of people who get to be 50 or 60 just want to maintain — either politically, and not look around at what's going on that's new — or maintain in terms of ideology. I want to be around people that are still asking questions and are open. 

In my introduction to this interview, I emphasize that we must all listen to Susan Sarandon. What pearls of wisdom can you share to guide us in these uncertain times? 

What we have to do now is take it a day at a time because I don't think there is going to be anything stable for the rest of our lives. 

Yes, I'm still worried . . . 

Cautious. The environment from now on is going to be completely unpredictable and whatever ramifications that has, for the long term or short term. People are so shocked, but they have been telling us this forever! How about the flooding? We are so lucky if you are housed and fed and someplace where you are not on a breadline. I had a friend in Santa Fe and there was hail the other day, which is very unusual. We're going into biblical — I don't want to say end times, because I'm not on that side — but it is getting pretty biblical out there.

"Ride the Eagle" is in theaters and on digital as of July 30.


Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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Interview Movies Ride The Eagle Susan Sarandon