Susan Sarandon: ‘If Hillary Clinton had won, we’d be at war’
The actor talks Clinton, Trump, sexism, female empowerment and Bette Davis
Susan Sarandon at 71 is bright-eyed and airy, and perhaps shyer than she can publicly seem. When I walk into the room – a private members’ club in downtown New York, where she sits with a small dog at her feet – she doesn’t say hello or make eye-contact, giving what I suspect is a false impression of rudeness. It may also be that she is uncertain of her reception.
For a long time Sarandon was despised by the right, her protests against the Vietnam war and US aggression in Nicaragua and Iraq making her the kind of target that, for progressives, is an affirmation of sorts. Her latest unpopularity, by contrast, comes exclusively from the left and is much tougher on Sarandon. “I’m not attacked from the right at all,” she will tell me.
Instead, she is accused of not checking her white privilege , of throwing away her vote on a third-party candidate (the independent Jill Stein) during the US presidential election, and of recklessly espousing a political cause that let Trump in through the backdoor. Liberals in the US, it seems, can summon more hatred for Sarandon right now than they can for Paul Ryan.
Most infuriating of all, to her critics, is that she won’t admit her error. Sarandon’s very physiognomy suggests defiance; she looks indignant even at rest. She also looks a lot like Bette Davis, so much so that Davis herself, in her dotage, approached Sarandon to play her. That project never happened, but in the new eight-part Ryan Murphy series Feud: Bette and Joan, about the battle for Hollywood supremacy between Davis and Joan Crawford, Sarandon gets her chance.
The two leads are terrific: Jessica Lange, by turns monstrous and pathetic as Crawford; Sarandon steelier, smarter, less obviously vulnerable. She sees a lot of similarities between herself and Davis.
“We’re both east coast,” she says. “I didn’t consider myself a star; I was a character actor from the very beginning and not really sold as pretty, which is probably what’s allowed me to survive as long as I have. I have this broader phase.”
Sarandon is working well beyond the age at which women in Hollywood’s golden era could expect to carry on – “besides playing witches and bitches,” she says. The interesting thing about Feud is that it tells an unavoidably feminist story about two women who would have abhorred that particular term.
A few years ago, Sarandon herself said : “I think of myself as a humanist because I think it’s less alienating to people who think of feminism as being a load of strident bitches.”
“And then suddenly it became OK to say feminist,” she says now. “That’s been very recent. There was a period when that wasn’t really happening. So now there’s been an opportunity to include men as allies. And I have to say, I remember going to the ERA [Equal Rights Amendment] march where there were 100,000 women and we were going around talking to senators for this vote and I got on the elevator, and the women were like: ‘We’re going to show them what the fuck we want.’ And I kept saying: ‘Calm down, that’s not the way we’re going to get things done.’”
You thought it was counterproductive to be that angry? “It was counterproductive, clearly. But that image of the shrill woman became the definition of a feminist for a long time. And women had a right to be angry, and to feel empowered. But that was just one glimpse of a fairly emotional and strident definition, and there was a period when young women didn’t want that label.”
And now? “It’s come back, and it’s gotten warped, especially with the election, where if you’re a woman you have to support Hillary Clinton. ”
Now, of course, no one in Sarandon’s industry would get caught dead having a flaky opinion on sexism in Hollywood. Still, the actor is cautious. One gets the feeling that the Harvey Weinstein business simply isn’t very interesting to Sarandon, that there are other causes – the Keystone pipeline , fracking, oil and gas money in politics – that she considers more urgent.
She is no apologist for the Weinsteins of this world, but she can, at times, sound positively libertarian about where the responsibilities of the women involved lie.
“There are a lot of people who did say no,” she says. “I think the big question here is that if Harvey Weinstein exposed himself to you when you were on a yacht in Cannes and you told everybody – this is Angie Everhart’s story – and everyone said: ‘Well, that’s just Harvey’ and it wasn’t a big deal – those are the people who are perpetuating it, too. Now, I’m sure there’s a lot of men who were much smoother at seducing than” – she bursts out laughing – “James Toback and Harvey Weinstein, who a lot of women felt very flattered to be sleeping with, even if they didn’t get the job.
“There’s just a culture, starting in the 60s and 70s, where there was a certain amount of liberation that made it possible for those things to happen without even seeing yourself as a victim.”
One of the questions currently being asked is whether what Sarandon describes – the inability of many women even to conceptualise themselves as victims – is a function of “liberation” or internalised misogynistic denial.
For Sarandon’s part, nothing post-Weinstein has made her reassess her own past. “Certainly, I experienced both having people come on to me and being told that I wasn’t interesting enough to get a part, or sexual enough, once they found out I was married,” she says.
She also admits she was lucky; that, unlike many of the women coming forward today, Sarandon’s resolve was never put to the test. “In my case, I just said no, in many clumsy, stupid ways, but the people didn’t push on. They didn’t show up in my room. They didn’t corner me, or batter me, or get on top of me. It was an invitation: ‘Yeah, why don’t you spend the night now that you’re here in the middle of nowhere on location?’ And I said: ‘No, I gotta get back to my room.’ But I didn’t feel super offended, because it wasn’t a thing that became super difficult.”
There were other hard things. “I remember another really famous actress saying to me: ‘Well, don’t have children because that’ll really change the parts that you’ll be available for. And you won’t work past 40 anyway.’ And a lot of that has changed. And a lot of women are assessing how they feel; were they victimised or did they feel that it was their own choice?”
There is no question, she believes, that there are more choices today and that this is slowly correcting the imbalance of power. “More and more women are able to greenlight their own projects. My last few films have had women directors – they’re not the big blockbusters, but I’m not sure those big blockbusters are very interesting to direct.
“But there is definitely more power in the hands of women than there was – the Reese Witherspoons, who are getting books, putting together projects, telling women’s stories. I think that’s where the difference is. The culture itself is ... it’s a tricky thing because you are selling yourself using sex, and your looks, for the most part.
“And I think that when you have these men in positions of power, they assume that [sex] goes along with it. And until you get women to have an economic power base – I mean, look at Brit Marling’s article [in the Atlantic] , where she talks about being able to walk out of an uncomfortable situation with Harvey even though she hated herself for going in the first place, because she knew she could write and produce and direct.
“So when people see themselves as having their own power base, it becomes imaginable that you could turn somebody down and still survive.”
It is often overlooked that in 2001, Sarandon supported Hillary Clinton’s run for the Senate. There are photos of them posing chummily together, grinning. Then Clinton voted for the war in Iraq and it all went downhill. During the last election, Sarandon supported Bernie Sanders, then wouldn’t support Clinton after she won the nomination, and now all the moderates hate her, to the extent, she says, that she had to change her phone number because people she identifies as Hillary trolls sent her threatening messages.
“I got from Hillary people ‘I hope your crotch is grabbed’, ‘I hope you’re raped’. Misogynistic attacks. Recently, I said ‘I stand with Dreamers’ [children brought illegally to the US, whose path to legal citizenship – an Obama-era provision – Trump has threatened to revoke] and that started another wave.”
Wait, from the right?
“No, from the left! ‘How dare you! You who are responsible for this!’”
I ask if she’s aware that Katha Pollitt recently called her an idiot in the New York Review of Books and she looks momentarily taken aback. “I’m flattered,” she says. These people are furious with you, I say.
“Well, that’s why we’re going to lose again if we depend on the DNC [the Democratic National Committee]. Because the amount of denial ... I mean it’s very flattering to think that I, on my own, cost the election. That my little voice was the deciding factor.”
Is it upsetting to be attacked?
“It’s upsetting to me more from the point of view of thinking they haven’t learned. I don’t need to be vindicated.”
But it’s upsetting that they’re still feeding the same misinformation to people. When Obama got the nomination, 25 per cent of [Hillary’s]people didn’t vote for him. Only 12 per cent of Bernie’s people didn’t vote for her.”
But she didn’t advocate voting for Hillary! Come on.
Didn’t she advocate voting for Jill Stein?
“I didn’t advocate people voting for anything. I said get your information, I’m going to vote for change, because I was hoping that Stein was going to get whatever percentage she needed – but I knew she wasn’t going to make the difference in the election.”
Does she have any sympathy with the critique that casting a protest vote is the luxury of those insulated from the effects of a Trump presidency? “It wasn’t a protest vote. Following Bernie wasn’t a protest.”
Voting for Jill Stein was, by any definition, a protest vote.
“Well, I knew that New York was going to go [for Hillary]. It was probably the easiest place to vote for Stein. Bringing attention to working-class issues is not a luxury. People are really hurting; that’s how this guy got in. What we should be discussing is not the election, but how we got to the point where Trump was the answer.”
(We should also, she says, inching towards the space where the extreme right meets the left, be discussing how “you can’t judge by the mainstream media what’s going on in the country. How did we lose all our journalists and media?”)
Has she lost friends over all this? “No. My friends have a right to their opinions. It’s disappointing but that’s their business. It’s like in the lead-up to Vietnam, and then later they say: ‘You were right.’ Or strangely, some of my gay friends were like: ‘Oh, I just feel bad for [Clinton]. And I said: ‘She’s not authentic. She’s been terrible to gay people for the longest time. She’s an opportunist.’ And then I’m like: ‘OK, let’s not talk about it any more.’”
Still, I think while there was vast political error on both sides, the inability of Sarandon and her ilk to embrace the lesser of two evils permitted the greater of the two evils to rise.
And yet I like Sarandon. It takes real courage to go against the mob. Her inconsistencies are a little wild, but in the age of social-media enforced conformity, I have never met anyone so uninterested in toeing the line.
Did she really say that Hillary was more dangerous than Trump?
“Not exactly, but I don’t mind that quote,” she says. “I did think she was very, very dangerous. We would still be fracking, we would be at war [if she was president]. It wouldn’t be much smoother. Look what happened under Obama that we didn’t notice.”
It seems absurd to argue that healthcare, childcare, taxation for the non-rich wouldn’t be better now under President Clinton, and that’s before we get to the threat of deportation hanging over millions of immigrants.
“She would’ve done it the way Obama did it,” says Sarandon, “which was sneakily. He deported more people than have been deported now. How he got the Nobel peace prize I don’t know. I think it was very important to have a black family in the White House and I think some of the stuff he did was good. He tried really hard about healthcare. But he didn’t go all the way because of big pharma.”
It’s tempting to read some of Sarandon’s fervour as a reaction against her own family’s Republicanism – during the Bush years, her now 94-year-old-mother was interviewed by Bill O’Reilly, and encouraged to speculate on where she went wrong with her daughter. (Sarandon’s mother would probably have voted for Trump, she says, but “I don’t think she got out to vote.” She smiles. “We didn’t facilitate that.”)
All of which makes the actor’s position on feminism more puzzling. Sarandon is close to her three children – Eva Amurri, whom she had with the Italian film-maker Franco Amurri, and Miles and Jack, her two sons with her former partner of 23 years, Tim Robbins, with whom she is reportedly on good terms.. It was her daughter, Eva, who as a teenager didn’t like the word feminism, says Sarandon, because “it seemed redundant to have to say you were a feminist”.
But it wasn’t.
“No, but she grew up in a house where she had a mother who earned her own money and was powerful and she’s in a progressive city, with other progressive kids – she wasn’t even exposed to the more Republican part of Manhattan. So she was in a progressive bubble. I think the secret is maybe now we have to just say no one is going to fix it for you. It’s up to you to fix it. You have the strength.
“You shouldn’t turn to be validated by anyone, male or female. You carry your power within you, and if you surround yourself with people who respect you, that will happen, be they male or female.”
It is a strange statement from someone who believes that structural inequality requires political solutions. Earlier, she makes the point that Clinton’s refusal to back the $15 minimum wage, “tells you she’s not a feminist, when 50 per cent of the households in America are headed by women.” Clinton espoused a $12 minimum wage, with scope to raise it to $15 in metropolitan centres, but that’s not the point. The point is self-validation doesn’t pay the rent.
After the interview, we leave the club and walk towards the subway. “What was her name?” she says. “In the magazine?”
“Katha Pollitt,” I say. We part at the corner of Seventh Avenue and Sarandon disappears up the street, dog under one arm, hat pulled low, assistant at her elbow. “Will I get a load more hatred when this article comes out?” she shouts, looking back over her shoulder.
“Probably,” I say.
I have a hunch she can take it.
– Guardian Service
Feud: Bette and Joan starts on BBC Two on Saturday December 16th, 9pm