In Gaby Dellal’s hot-button Toronto International Film Festival debut “About Ray,” Susan Sarandon plays Dodo, the grandmother of Ray (Elle Fanning), a transgender teen seeking to begin hormone treatment. As Ray and his mother, Maggie (Naomi Watts), fight to get Ray’s estranged father to sign the paperwork, Dodo tries to convince her daughter and grandson to rethink the transition. An out lesbian and an old-school feminist, Dodo struggles with what she sees as the “loss” of her Ramona, wondering aloud “why can’t she just be a lesbian?” The role serves as a kind of on-screen proxy for older progressives who might still struggle to understand trans issues.
While her character has some learning to do on-screen, in person, Sarandon has no such stumbling blocks. It’s no surprise that, as the fight for trans viability ramps up in our culture, that Sarandon would be on its cinematic cusp. From her iconic feminist revenge opus “Thelma and Louise” to her then-groundbreaking lesbian love scene with Catherine Deneuve in “The Hunger” and her outspoken support of LGBT rights over the years, Sarandon has long been on the front lines of sex and gender politics both on- and offscreen as just one facet of her outspoken progressive activism, which has included a vocal campaign against the Iraq War and a recent crusade to end the death sentence.
We sat down with the legendary actress at TIFF, as she nursed a jug of tea -- she explained that her recent trip to Burning Man wreaked havoc on her throat -- and discussed LGBT politics, that time she said she wasn’t a feminist (she didn’t mean it) and her adventures in Black Rock Desert.
The following has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Why did you feel this was an important film to make right now?
I felt there was a possibility that it could start a dialogue that I felt was very necessary. Though it’s not a documentary and doesn’t explain everything about this issue, it raises first of all certain questions that people have, like when my character doesn't understand the difference between gender identity and sexual preference, that’s a really basic thing that needs to be explained. I think it shows how important the support of the family is for someone, and at the same time, anybody who’s had kids who are struggling to be authentic — which is their job, as it's every adult’s job — [they] will very often come in conflict with the parent. Because parents have ideas about what will make their kids safe, what will prepare them for the world, and the fear of stepping outside, off that track, the bottom line [for the parent becomes]: who will love them? Who will love these people? And what will happen to them? And so I think that’s a genuine fear that’s based in love.
Even when one of my kids decided to quit school in his first year at Brown to be a musician, I found myself going, no, we came this far, not now, can’t you just finish? But it wasn’t meant to be, and I couldn’t come up with a good argument, but I felt my need to feel safe by knowing he finished school — which was irrational, because a college degree doesn't guarantee you anything. So I think that, as a parent, that’s something everyone can relate to.
So the movie did two things: It explores the family and the transitions that they are all going through, and it also gives voice to what some people’s fears are. Which is so important now, because so many people are identifying [with Ray's] situation, and what’s lucky is you can go online now and find like-minded people, you can find doctors, you can find clinics, you can find support groups, and it happens to 4-year-olds.
Which I imagine can be tough for parents.
Well, it is hard for a parent — but I think in some ways it’s easier than getting to the point… it’s easier to cut a little girl’s hair, let her call herself Steve, talk to her teachers, let her dress as a boy and see what happens, and see how happy he now is, as opposed to someone that’s going through surgery and shots and everything else, [that] feels a little bit less reversible — so you have a little bit of time. And it is easier for people to transition if they know before they go through puberty.
I thought what was nice about the film was that it didn't dwell a lot on his discovery. When we met Ray, he was already very certain of himself.
He is the clearest. He has already transitioned psychologically, he just now wants to finish it off physically. And I think you see that the grown-ups are trying to catch up.
A lot of liberals of a certain generation who consider themselves progressive may identify with your character, where there are some new ideas [about gender identity] that people haven’t quite caught up with. Did your views change at all in the process of making the film, in the way your character’s did?
I’d already produced a documentary about a woman who was transitioning to a boy in the South [2015's "Deep Run"] and I — no, I was well inundated in all of this years ago. But speaking of that, what seems like a contradiction, Caitlyn Jenner, the other day on "Ellen," was talking about how she really couldn’t support gay marriage. And she says she’s attracted to women, so what if one day she wants to marry a woman? I don’t think she’s completely transitioned. So this isn’t something [where] everything goes into neat little boxes — there's not five primary colors anymore, there’s now 12. So I think it can manifest itself in very broad ways: "OK, she became a guy, but now if that guy wants to be with a woman, is that a lesbian?" They’re looking to put everybody in boxes and it doesn’t work that way anymore.
So the reverse of that is liberation and freedom for all of us, for the definition of what’s possible for women and men who aren't transgender, and marriage that is between heterosexuals is definitely influenced by gay marriage, because the gender-designated roles have broken down. So I think it couldn’t be a more — I love the idea of fluidity and I don’t think it could be a more exciting time.
It’s exciting to see films like this, and we are seeing more films with queer characters, more films with women on-screen and behind the screen. Obviously you’ve been in the industry a very long time and have been held up as a role model who has portrayed very influential female characters. How has the industry changed when it comes to creating opportunities and writing interesting for roles for women on-screen?
I don’t think the industry has changed, I think there’s a lot more female actors who have gotten the power. And a lot of this has to do with the Amy Schumers and the Amy Poehlers, the comedians that have emerged have gotten the power to create projects: Mindy Kaling, the Meryl Streeps of the world, the Sigourney Weavers, whoever, these women who have voices can now get projects that they can support.
I think that it’s very hard for the male-dominated Hollywood… Let me put it this way, whereas a woman can look at a movie that stars a guy in a proactive role, a woman can look at that and say, "I can do that." But I don’t think there’s many men who can see a woman in the lead and say, "Oh, I can do that." So I think it’s hard for them to create movies, unless you really, really push for it. So I don’t think that’s changed. I think on TV, there’s more major parts for women. I think it’s a conversation that just has grown old, I mean, now everyone’s talking about it as if it’s something new. And race hasn't even entered in it.
I just think now, whether anything has substantially changed, we’re seeing more women speak very vocally about their experiences — Maggie Gyllenhaal being told she was too old to play the love interest of a 57-year old man. I think a lot more women in Hollywood are speaking out about their experiences with ageism, with being objectified, with being typecast.
Well, that’s really good. That’s really good. And I think there’s been a lot of discussion for a long time — the word "feminist" was seen as something that’s negative, which is ridiculous. And now I see younger actresses not at all afraid to say they’re feminist. So that’s also very good. I mean, little by little, I think it comes more from the actors even than female executives.
You said in an interview a few years ago that the word "feminist" felt “old-fashioned” to you. Is that something that has changed?
No, I didn’t mean that it was old-fashioned. I was saying there are some people, some women, who rejected the term "feminist" because it felt strident to them, they associated it with this strident thing, and they had already inherited the benefits of feminists. But now that there’s a conversation about it, and men can be feminists, really all feminism means is equality. I don’t know why there was such a backlash against it for a while. It’s not anti-men, we need men and men need women — we came from a woman.
Can you talk a little bit about working with Elle? Because that is a very difficult role for a young actress. What was it like watching her transform?
Awesome. She’s this funny dichotomy; in person she’s this giggly, gangly, enthusiastic, open, funny baby giraffe. And then all of a sudden she swoops herself into this zone and this focus and just delivers. And she did her homework and we all had a great opportunity to talk to mothers and kids. Transgender kids shared a lot with her and really helped her prepare. It was always startling. We all got along so well, we got along like a family, so it was really easy in that sense.
And you know, you don’t always get to work with so many women; sometimes they have like two per film or something. And those two usually hate each other for some unspoken reason. So it was very important who the family members were. I’d always been a fan of Naomi’s — I’d talked to her before but I didn’t know her that well. So we were thankfully all on the same page when things needed to be sorted out or written or changed. And that helped a lot. But Elle is phenomenal. And having worked with Dakota, they’re so different. Dakota’s also really really great but much more, kind of, intellectual and cerebral. Not that she can’t be emotional, but she comes from a heady place, she’s very graceful.
Last question — I followed your recent Burning Man experience where you went and paid tribute to Timothy Leary. What appeals to you about Burning Man, and will you go back?
I was curious about it the first time I went, and I’d never been — the desert and the art is huge. And the changing light and the changing climate and the dust storms and everything else. But the first time I only stayed five days and I thought, well, what could I give if I came back? Then I remembered I had Timothy’s ashes. And the next year I didn’t go because my daughter was having a baby so I was with her for all of August and afterwards. So I thought, OK, I’m going to bring [the ashes], and I thought I’d do something little and then it just organically grew into this collaboration with Michael Garlington, who’s this artist I saw the first year I went. And he just got on it and went with it, and then the place I was staying, unfortunately in a tent, which was not very dust-proof, they decided — Stefan organized the procession and the musicians and everything, so I wanted to go for the build, to see what it was actually like to build this five-story structure, and be there before the people get there because they only let in 15,000 people instead of 70,000. And that was so beautiful, to be able to toodle around on your bike and hardly anybody was there.
But eventually we had two days of white-out and 75 mile per hour winds and the tents ripped and I sewed it and I wore a mask and everything, but I just got the lungs. Luckily last night I ran into somebody who says he has the cure; there’s a doctor who knows how to help with this. So I think I’m done for a little while now. Really, I had a purpose and to put it in context was really great and I loved working with Michael and Natalia. But I’m on a break now for a little bit till I get another reason to go back. I think I’m going to take a little. And only in an RV, and not for that many days. And my own toilet. Those are very important.