Susan Sarandon: ‘Hollywood is more upset about people getting fat and old than about politics’
Since being kicked out of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, in 1993, for her politics, the Hollywood star has become one of the most influential activists in the US
Susan Sarandon: “Hollywood isn’t political. Hollywood is about profit. Photograph: Jake Chessum/New York Times
Thelma & Louise: Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis in Ridley Scott’s 1991 film
Susan Sarandon: the actor stars with JK Simmons in their new film, The Meddler
Dig around a bit and you will find footage from 1974 of Susan Sarandon discussing Richard Nixon on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Unmistakably wide eyed and clean of diction, she parks herself beside the actor and comedian Jonathan Winters and discusses a letter she wrote to the then president. “Even if he was innocent and had an uncanny amount of bad luck, surrounding himself with all these bad men, he should still step aside and think of the country,” she says.
More than 40 years later Sarandon is still calm, resolute and (as we shall see) unstoppable in her determination to make the radical argument.
In 1974 she was barely on the first rung of the ladder. Raised in Queens and New Jersey, and educated at the Catholic University of America, Sarandon had appeared in a few soap operas and the odd offbeat feature. Proper fame came in the 1980s with Atlantic City, The Hunger and Bull Durham. She hooked up with Tim Robbins, star of that last film, and they became a two-person political roadshow.
After the 1993 Oscars the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences scowled at them for mentioning the US government’s treatment of Haitian immigrants during the broadcast. Was pressure exerted elsewhere? Did she get the sense that Hollywood would prefer them to shut up?
“Hollywood isn’t political,” Sarandon says. “Hollywood is about profit. There are people within Hollywood who are powerful and who support different candidates. But Hollywood is more upset about people getting fat and old than it is about what party they support.”
Yet the Oscars organisers don’t like too much controversy.
“I was kicked out of the academy when we did that bit about Haiti,” she says. “Bit I don’t think Hollywood is really political.”
Quite so. After all, just two years later she won an Academy Award for playing Sr Helen Prejean, campaigner against the death penalty, in Robbins’s Dead Man Walking.
Sarandon, who is now 69, has worked furiously over the following decades. She went on to make hits such as Thelma & Louise and The Client. She broke up with Robbins. Yet, between the acting and the activism, she somehow managed to raise three children, all now over the age of majority. Her charming new film, The Meddler, feels, among other things, like a treatise on the art of communicating with grown-up children. Sarandon plays a woman who can’t stop sticking her nose into her daughter’s business.
She must know what’s coming. Promoting such a project, she’s bound to be asked about her own ability to leave children well alone. “Oh, I am not self-conscious about how people view me or about how the world looks at who I am,” she says, laughing. “In interviews I have to stop and think: What do I think about that? How did that influence my life? I try to frame the interview as an opportunity.”
So does she lurk over her children’s shoulders? “I wouldn’t use the word ‘lurk’. That’s a loaded term,” she says with a hint of a scold. “I believe making mistakes is a very good way to learn, and I have confidence in my kids. I do deliver bagels to their doorstep. But I have a job that takes a lot of time. So I am not available to meddle as extensively as my character does.”
She goes on to note that her children are now at the stage where they “meddle back”.
“I follow their lead and don’t push them in certain directions,” she says. “I have been very laid back. I let them have it their way. Maybe I should have pushed more with all the experience I have. When I started to date they definitely had opinions about that.”
Steely personalityJohnny CarsonSusan TomalinChris SarandonPhillip TomalinLeonora Tomalin
“There was no time for her to be delivering bagels,” Sarandon says. “We are at very different ends of the political spectrum. There is not much conversation between us beyond: how are your roses going? That’s a lot of kids to have with no real help apart from us. So, no, there wasn’t a meddler thing happening with her.”
So this legend is true: one of the United States’ most famous radicals is the daughter of a hugely conservative mother who supported George W Bush and the Iraq War.
“We just don’t talk about it,” she says. “I think that’s the way to go. If you have a parent who’s a rabid Republican and you’re a rabid progressive . . . Look, my mom’s 93. She’s not going to have an epiphany on any subject now. She is who she is. So she has an army of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. There is a lot going on in our family aside from politics.”
Isn’t the symbol of the Republican Party an elephant? How appropriate. Sarandon could, it seems, chat amiably about family and career for the rest of the afternoon, but she knows that there’s a hugely tusked pachyderm in the room.
Sarandon has usually had something to say about each presidential election. In 2000 she was cochair of the steering committee for Ralph Nader’s run. In 2004 she got behind John Kerry. To nobody’s surprise Sarandon has, this year, been an eager cheerleader for Bernie Sanders. So have many actors and film-makers.
In March Sarandon ran into controversy after an interview with Chris Hayes on MSNBC. By this stage it was looking likely that Hillary Clinton was going to beat Sanders in the race for the Democratic nomination. When Hayes asked whether she would, in that circumstance, support Clinton, Sarandon allowed herself to equivocate. “I don’t know. I’m going to see what happens,” she said. She then said that a Trump ascendency might inadvertently trigger revolution. Somehow, swathes of the media took this to mean that Sarandon might vote for Trump.
“Something very interesting happened after that, and I learned something,” she says. “The Daily Beast, the Hill and a lot of other sources ran incredibly misleading headlines. ‘Sarandon endorses Trump,’ for instance. That drove a lot of clicks to their site. It monetised their site. I understand that. That’s been going on for a long time. I have had interviews about my personal life that were taken from other sources and given a sensational headline. When you read the story it didn’t say what the title said at all.”
She doesn’t sound angry. She doesn’t sound sad. She sounds determined and focused.
“What shocked me was the number of people who didn’t read the article or watch the interview and then went crazy. They started attacking me and asking how could I vote for Trump. Blah, blah, blah!”
When Chris Hayes “asked me if I would support her I said, ‘I am waiting to see,’ ” she says. “I’m supporting Bernie, and I am still waiting to see what happens.”
The Republican establishment swallows Trump, then spits him out and pokes him suspiciously around the plate. Meanwhile, the liberal cadre seems more willing to unite behind Clinton – who is, nonetheless, by some reckonings still the second-least-liked candidate ever to receive the nomination for a major party. (Guess who’s at number one.) Listen to a lifelong leftist like Susan Sarandon outline her suspicions and you will begin to understand why. There is real fury out there.
“Is Hollywood political?” she asks again. “Well, we elected Reagan and Schwarzenegger. In this campaign there was an enormous amount of shaming. The Hollywood thing is to get behind Hillary. You ask people three reasons to support Hillary other than she is a woman and she has such a hard time. I can’t find anybody who can explain to me any of the policies they’re behind.”
Sarandon is picking up momentum here. And she’s making sense. What would Clintonism look like?
“What did she do as secretary of state that was so great?” she continues. “Her record is the bloodiest record ever. She sold all these arms to Saudi Arabia. People aren’t very knowledgeable. If you point out policy problems or her record you are considered to be bashing a woman. I see that as very sexist.”
Meanwhile the media continues to follow the great orangutan and his travelling circus.
“Trump the clown is constantly there,” she says. “He’s never held to account. We don’t know what he’s for. We only now what he’s against.”
Flick back to the video from 1974 and the similarities are striking. Almost no other activist in Hollywood has maintained so consistent a tone of disciplined rage. Nixon is now Trump. Maybe Nixon is now Clinton. Both have a fearsome enemy.
The Meddleris at cinemas now
Unstoppable: Five other famous Hollywood liberalsHarry Belafonte Paul RobesonJohn F Kennedy
Warren Beatty Beatty has long been a campaigner for liberal causes. In 1972 he stepped up a gear and helped organise social events and benefits for the Democratic Party nominee George McGovern. He brought in millions for the liberal, but McGovern managed to win only two states.
Jane Fonda Now a much-loved American institution, Fonda was once the most controversial woman in the US. Many of her contemporaries campaigned against the Vietnam War, but her decision to visit Hanoi alienated even supporters. Later admitted that she would regret “to my dying day” her decision to pose with a Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun.
Barbra Streisand There was, in the 1970s, no greater honour for liberals than a mention on Richard Nixon’s notorious “enemies list”. Streisand secured the nod following relentless campaigning for the Democrats. “I want Hillary Clinton to be president,” she said recently. “We need a woman president, we need compassion.”
Sean Penn In 2002 Penn placed an open letter in the Washington Post berating President George W Bush. Became friends with Hugo Chávez. Helped out in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Conducted a peculiar interview with the Mexican drug lord Joaquín Guzmán, aka El Chapo. Starred with Susan Sarandon in Dead Man Walking.