The Meddler: Actress and Activist Susan Sarandon Rolls With the Punches

Susan Sarandon.

Susan Sarandon. Michael Lewis

What do you think of, when you think of millennials? Do you go for the classic archetype, the wayward, willful 20-something? Do you, as The New York Times Style section does, imagine the “tendency to overshare on social media,” or the “frankness verging on insubordination?” Maybe you look to the polling numbers, and to the unprecedented, passionate support for Democratic nominee Bernie Sanders?

Is there any chance, any chance at all, that you think of film star Susan Sarandon? I mean, probably not. The 69-year-old actress has been an onscreen staple for decades, amassing an impressively consistent career spanning 46 years, four Emmy nominations and an Academy Award. But if age is only a number, and experience an opinion, then Ms. Sarandon checks all the required boxes. An activist as much as an actress, her frankness is well-documented. As is her avid support for Mr. Sanders, whose ideals she agrees with across the board.

She even, as of recently, has her own online feud. Fellow actresses Jamie Lee Curtis and Debra Messing used social media to criticize Ms. Sarandon’s interview with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, in which the actress seemed to insinuate she would vote for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton.

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Susan Sarandon. (Photo: Michael Lewis for Observer)

To top it off, Ms. Sarandon’s Twitter response was—depending on your definition—as “millennial” as it gets: “LOL that I would ever vote Trump.”

A week after that dustup, Ms. Sarandon sits across from me in an upstairs lounge of the Norwood Club in Chelsea. We’ve met to discuss her most recent project, The Meddler, in which she plays intrusive mother to Rose Byrne’s independent daughter, but of course, the Twitter fracas comes up immediately. It’s clear that the experience, which the actress simply calls a “horrible thing,” is still something of a sore subject. As is Mr. Trump himself, whose complicated relationship with the Observer is familial and thorny. “Oh, yeah, I wasn’t so sure about that,” Ms. Sarandon tells me almost immediately, flashing both her trademark honesty and eyes just as darkly piercing now as they were in her 1970 debut in Joe.

That’s just what it’s like to speak to Ms. Sarandon, whose low purr of a voice and genuinely pleasant demeanor often mask some hard words. Simply put: If Susan Sarandon disagrees with you, she’ll damn sure let you know. And she’s tough. Despite arriving at our interview sporting a heavy boot over a severely sprained ankle suffered on a recent trip to Colombia, Ms. Sarandon insisted we climb the stairs to Norwood’s second floor. Quieter up there, away from the artsy, invite-only crowd. On the table between us was a tea kettle; the spout ended with a pair of red lipstick-covered lips that were, from the mouth of Janet Weiss herself, “so Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Ms. Sarandon also isn’t shy about her issues with the media. “I think part of what gave us Trump is the irresponsibility of the press. After that Chris Hayes interview, you had The Daily Beast, The Hill, the Young Turks, Hollywood Reporter, so many outlets…it was labeled in a way that was misleading,” she said. “People didn’t read the article, they just saw ‘Susan Sarandon votes for Trump.’ That was the headline. And it’s not so much disillusionment about the press, because I’ve had that before, but to have so many people that I thought were smart to get crazy without actually reading the article. That’s the way people are making decisions these days. They’re only seeing headlines.”

But as any true millennial could tell you, a week is nearly a lifetime in the social media age. Twitter in its never-ending ADHD has moved on and so, it seems, has Ms. Sarandon. The edge has already left her voice when she calls the whole thing “an interesting experience.”

She pours from the kettle between us. The effect of the tea spilling through fake, fiberglass lips is actually, in true Rocky Horror fashion, kind of unsettling. It doesn’t faze Ms. Sarandon, though. Actually, that’s another thing you learn over any time spent with the actress. Not much does.

***

“Oh, I just adore Susan,” actress Geena Davis told me by phone. Twenty-five years ago next month, with nothing but a 1966 Ford Thunderbird and the open road, Ms. Davis and Ms. Sarandon set the benchmark for the Katniss Everdeens and Imperator Furiosas of the future as the titular duo of Ridley Scott’s feminist road trip, Thelma & Louise. And though the film’s iconic freeze-frame ending sealed the characters’ fate, the two actresses share a bond that lives on to this day. “Part of it was that [Thelma and Louise] were the two most fully realized female characters that a lot of us had ever seen. They were so complex and multilayered. The fact they loved each other so much and were loyal to each other, was also really significant. I think they were very special to us, and certainly a high point for me. Afterward, it was kind of like, ‘Well, now what do I do?’ ”

For both actresses, the answer to that question has been found in humanitarian pursuits just as much as it has in choosing their next scripts. Since Thelma & Louise, Ms. Davis, through her Institute on Gender in Media and its Bentonville Film Festival, has campaigned tirelessly for the inclusion of female-driven cinema in the industry. A fiery passion that she says owes its spark to time spent on-set with Ms. Sarandon, “Just sitting in that car, waiting for something to get set up. A lot of chance to talk, and to bond. A couple of times Susan would lean over and say ‘See how much fun it is to work with women?’ And it was like, ‘Yeah, I really do.’ ”

“‘Who are these celebrities to have opinions?’ ” Ms. Sarandon mimics. “Well, also, who are they to become president of the United States? Or governor of California? Maybe just bad actors are allowed to do that.”

For her part, Ms. Sarandon’s activism is nearly as wide-ranging as her IMDB credits. She was appointed goodwill ambassador for both UNICEF and FAO, consistently donates to gay rights campaigns and speaks out—against the war in Iraq, student debt and gender inequality. And yet, because this is 2016, Ms. Sarandon maintains the internet poses the same question to the famous: “‘Who are these celebrities to have opinions?’ ” Ms. Sarandon mimics. “Well, also, who are they to become president of the United States? Or governor of California? Maybe just bad actors are allowed to do that. I don’t see myself as having the answers, though. I see myself as having a little flashlight that lets you get information that you’re not getting, and then you make up your mind yourself how to act.”

Just this past Christmas Ms. Sarandon directed that light toward Lesbos, Greece, where the actress spent the holidays among refugees fleeing across the Aegean Sea from Turkey. “I went independently just to find out who these people were, and give anyone that couldn’t go there an opportunity to hear their stories,” she told me. “All the press in this country is so fear- and hate-based. I just couldn’t stand it any longer.”

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Susan Sarandon. (Photo: Michael Lewis for Observer)

Ms. Sarandon’s acting career and long-running activism streak are, according to her, firmly intertwined. Acting is “all about imagination,” she says. “When you have imagination you have empathy. When you have empathy it’s pretty hard not to be involved.” This empathy, too, this innate need to reach out, is also what has led Ms. Sarandon to support Mr. Sanders for president from day one of his campaign.

Our interview in Chelsea took place 10 days before New York’s primary election—in which Ms. Clinton beat Mr. Sanders by more than 15 percent—a discussion that, truthfully, covered politics more than Hollywood. But I did not notice that although she’ll name every character she’s ever played, Ms. Sarandon referred to Ms. Clinton throughout solely as “she,” Mr. Trump as “he,” like the political equivalents of Lord Voldemort. But Mr. Sanders? “Bernie’s a miracle,” Ms. Sarandon says. “A fucking miracle.”

“I feel like this country has been in a bad relationship. And our self-esteem, what we feel we deserve, has become so small,” Ms. Sarandon says, leaning back, smiling. As if on cue, her cellphone rings—a reminder that she has somewhere to be, and soon: Greenpoint, Brooklyn, to host a rally alongside Mr. Sanders. She silences the phone, not missing a beat. “It’s time for us to break up with that last guy.”

***

The role of Marnie Minervini, Ms. Sarandon’s character in The Meddler, was an intensely personal one for writer and director Lorene Scafaria. Marnie is the quintessential overbearing mother—even moving from Jersey to L.A. to, well, meddle in the life of her screenwriter daughter, Lori (Rose Byrne).

Marnie also happens to be closely based on Ms. Scafaria’s actual mother, Gail—so close, in fact, that the director convinced financiers to greenlight The Meddler by filming the first 10 minutes of the film with her mother as the star. The decision to then eventually flesh out the part with Ms. Sarandon, however, came far more naturally for Ms. Scafaria. “Susan is so warm, and maternal,” the filmmaker tells me by phone. “And such a wonderful humanitarian. A giving, generous person. So it’s kind of like Susan Sarandon in real life is what Marnie the character fantasizes about being.”

I ask if any moment on-set sprung to mind where the character became less Gail Scafaria, and totally owned by Ms. Sarandon: “The scene where Marnie, on drugs, is walking around the Grove [in Los Angeles], we didn’t close the place down. Everybody you see there is a real person at the Grove. We basically put Susan Sarandon on one side of it and said, ‘We’ll follow you around. Have fun, do whatever it is you would do. She was so game, and so brave to put herself out there, literally out there in public to get this right.”

“I feel like your mistakes are so valuable. And I tell my kids, make big ones. You have to be brave. If you’re not brave at 18 or 20, when can you be?”

I recognize the scene, a beautiful one, stylistically shot: Marnie, after circumstances force her to ingest a full bag of uncooked weed, sort of casually strolls down L.A.’s Grove Drive mall. Later, when I mention to Ms. Sarandon that my experience with eating raw marijuana was far less idyllic, she nods sagely. “Right, right, because it’s a body high. And it’s not cooked. Any edible I’ve done has been cooked.”

Ms. Sarandon is full of moments like this, both soothingly maternal and as surreal as you expect discussing edible etiquette with an Oscar-winner to be. “There are bigger and badder things to worry about than marijuana,” she says later. “That there are kids [in jail] for these ridiculous charges for years and years is crazy. ‘Just say no’ is ignorance. There are drugs you have to really be afraid of and aren’t worth trying even once, but marijuana isn’t one of them.”

Ms. Sarandon is herself, after all, a mother of three, as well as the oldest of nine siblings. Even her ardent activism, she says, is an extension of deep-seeded, natural motherly instincts. Where then, I ask, is the line between her and Marnie Minervini: the difference between “meddling” and truly caring for someone? “It took me a while to understand that sometimes you don’t bail people out. I was so used to nurturing,” she responds. “I feel like your mistakes are so valuable. And I tell my kids, make big ones. You have to be brave. If you’re not brave at 18 or 20, when can you be?”

That isn’t to say she doesn’t have specific ideas for fostering the younger generation, some more practical than others. “I was thinking I should start directing porn by the time I’m 80,” Ms. Sarandon says, with very little indication as to how much she’s joking. “It worries me, this idea of kids becoming educated about sex online. It’s unfair to young boys to think they have to be that, or that young girls want that. It’s a shame. So if it hasn’t, by that time, figured out some interesting, sexy, but nonviolent approaches to males and having sex…I’ll take that up.”

***

“That woman has been filming us this entire time,” Ms. Sarandon says in the tone, simultaneously bemused and bored, exclusively used by celebrities. We’re outside Norwood now, waiting for the corner signal, because once again despite a severe foot injury Ms. Sarandon chooses to walk. She nods down a block to where, sure enough, iPhone shamelessly extended, there’s someone desperate to film a famous face hobbling down Broadway. Is there any getting used to this? “It’s strange that people feel so personal, so comfortable,” Ms. Sarandon says over the sound of traffic. “When me and Tim [Robbins] split, I had people telling me, ‘Oh, you broke my heart, you were so perfect together.’ ” She puts a palm to her forehead. “Really? Because I think my heart was broken a little more.”

She blows her red hair off her face. “But you do get a sense that your job is connected to people. It would be hard to lose that.”

It’s an optimistic view. But that’s Susan Sarandon. At the tail end of our conversation, after talk of pot and porn, Donald and Bernie, Twitter and teapots, I remark what a strange world we live in. Ms. Sarandon’s response is immediate. “It’s a fabulous world, though.” She repeats: “It’s a fabulous world.”

“I wish I knew that I had another 40 or 50 years, because I’m so curious about what’s going to happen. I mean, I do intend to live to be 100.” She laughs at this, deep and gorgeous.

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