Oscar winner Susan Sarandon — on getting woke, portraying Bette Davis and her career in activism
Maybe gay people are customarily compelled to thank Susan Sarandon for her longstanding advocacy, because that’s how I begin my frank, anything-goes conversation with the 70-year-old screen legend and activist. After all, no matter where you stand on Sarandon’s divisive decision to vote for Green Party candidate Jill Stein in the recent presidential election, we can all agree that the Oscar winner has used her massive screen-icon prestige to aid in the advancement of LGBT rights. She’s been a staunch supporter through the AIDS crisis and the fight for marriage equality — even in times when vocal Hollywood allies were scarce.
Reinforcing Sarandon’s pro-queer stance is a breadth of bold, iconic and uninhibited film roles dating back to 1970: Sarandon had sex with her co-star, Catherine Deneuve, in a lesbian-favorited scene that steamed up 1983’s vamp flick The Hunger; as Janet, she got her freak on in the cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show; in 1987, teamed up with Cher for The Witches of Eastwick to, presumably, offer fresh fodder to every late-’80s drag queen. Later, in 1995, Sarandon appeared with many of her industry peers in the acclaimed documentary inspired by gay activist Vito Russo, The Celluloid Closet, which examined depictions of LGBT characters in Hollywood.
The next step in being a gay icon, apparently, is playing one: Starring alongside fellow acting dynamo Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford, Sarandon portrays beloved Hollywood leading lady Bette Davis in Ryan Murphy’s Feud: Bette and Joan. Sarandon was fresh off the set of the FX series when she dished on Feud, and numerous other aspects of her storied life and career.
“I’m just getting back and acclimated,” she told me, dramatizing her experience shooting Murphy’s latest creation. “I’ve been gone for a very long time. Once I joined this cult, I didn’t get out.”
Free from Feud and any canned-answer pretense, Sarandon refreshingly freewheeled through revelatory discussions about her “up for grabs” sexual orientation, the gay actor she once romanced, and her impassioned response to critics (“to blame me is not productive”) who challenge her political convictions.
— Chris Azzopardi
Dallas Voice: Between Feud, your film career and your LGBT activism, I’d say you have more than earned your queer cred. Susan Sarandon: Well, I hope so! I mean, I feel like an outsider myself. My people, my family for all these years, have always been my allies and have always been very, very important to me, very dear to me through the AIDS crisis and everything. It’s just a natural, very easy extended family for me.
You grew up Catholic in New York City. Would you say LGBT people felt like family then, too? Well, not in my high school; I had 500 in my class. This was ages ago. But sure, in college, of course if you’re in a theater department or in any of the arts, that’s just part of the landscape, so there wasn’t any delineation as I became an adult. It was just natural. And, honestly, the people who I made friends with in my early day in New York in the ’70s are still my friends.
I find the guys who don’t stick with you are the guys that you’ve had affairs with or marriages… or whatever! It’s very rare that those guys — once you’re not involved in a relationship, it’s hard to maintain those ties. So, really, my friends I’ve had forever and ever and ever are gay men and women.
That makes sense, unless you’re having affairs with gay men. Well, I did at one point have a very successful and very loving and wonderful affair with a man who then wasn’t with another woman after me, and that worked out fine! I don’t think you had to declare yourself as rigidly as you do now in terms of having to declare yourself almost politically about your sexual preference.
You were in a romantic relationship with another actor who was gay? Yeah. Philip Sayer [who also starred in The Hunger] — he was a wonderful actor. He passed away, but yes, he was gay, and we had a great relationship in every way.
Is your sexuality more or less rigid these days? Basically, should we be welcoming you to the family? Well, I’m a serial monogamist, so I haven’t really had a large dating career. I married Chris Sarandon when I was 20, and that went on for quite a while — each of my relationships have. I haven’t exactly been in the midst of a lot of offers of any kind. I’m still not! I don’t know what’s going on! But I think back in the ’60s it just was much more open.
Are you open regarding your sexuality? Yeah, I’m open. My sexual orientation is up for grabs, I guess you could say. [Laughs]
The great thing about Feud is having you, a gay icon, play a gay icon. I can’t think of many things gayer than that. Well, I hope the appeal seems to be broader! I’m hoping we reach out across the aisles to heterosexuals also, because what I think the story is about is a really interesting examination of all kinds of things: power and roles and misogyny and ageing. Have you seen it?
Not yet, but I’ve seen What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? countless times. Oh, you’re gonna love it then! Although it’s not all about that. We do move on, so at least you don’t think I’m wearing gobs of makeup [the whole time]. There are some younger folks who haven’t seen Baby Jane who are like, “What is up with that? Does she do that through the whole thing? I don’t get it.” But we had a lot of fun recreating gesture for gesture, voice pattern for voice pattern. And some of the little snippets of the scenes were very tough.
Shifting to politics, some LGBT people were disappointed in your decision to cast your vote for someone other than the predicted winner, Hillary Clinton. If you would’ve known that Trump would be elected, and that we’d currently be experiencing such a threat to human rights, which I know are so important to you, would you have voted differently? This is the thing: To have the conversations about “woulda, shoulda, coulda” opens up everything about the primaries and all kinds of things. The important thing right now is that we stop harping on [assigning] blame. I was not the person who brought Trump into power. The DNC has a lot of… there are already suits all over the country about how that was rigged, the primary.
So, to talk about this, for me, is a waste of energy. I think right now we’re about to appoint Scott Pruitt, which is the end of the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency], and we’ve got this gal, [Betsy] DeVos. People have to get over what happened, take some personal responsibility for being in a bubble and not paying attention to what was going on in the country, and start applying their anger and their energy to rectifying what’s going on.
We’re at a moment in history where a revolution is taking place. We have a guy in there who is so obvious that he gives you very clear targets. This didn’t happen overnight. In the last eight years, the Democrats have lost thousands of seats. In the last eight years, we’ve put fracking and Monsanto and everybody in place. In the last eight years, there were tons of people deported. This guy is horrible. But this didn’t happen overnight.
So what are we gonna do now? This is a moment where we have to start using our energy and the time that we have and the media to divest from our banks that are building these pipelines all over the place, not just in Dakota, which are going to bring down this country. Fracking is going to go full speed ahead. We have to stop that. And we have to protect those who are vulnerable under this administration, and that’s not gonna happen until we let go of what happened before and really dedicate ourselves to making phone calls, putting our bodies in the street and, most of all, taking our money out of organizations, banks and networks that are supporting the actions of this guy.
Now that everybody is awake, we have to take that and that fear, and we have to not indulge our depression — not indulge on pointing fingers — and get out there and work with some of the people who are going to be betrayed by Trump who voted for him and use that as a force for real change, because now it can happen. And we’re in a moment in history where you’re gonna either be on one side or the other, and to be quiet or to be depressed or to blame me is not productive, so that’s what I would say about that.
What’s the closest you’ve come to a Bette/Joan-type feud? I think I’m just a little too young to see women as my adversary. I think that changed. I really haven’t experienced that. I think women just a little bit older than I am tried to align themselves with power, which were the men, and saw every woman as a threat. With my generation and slightly younger, you might be jealous that someone is getting all the good parts, but it’s just a different time — you don’t see them as your enemy. So, women are producing more projects, are finding things on their own. I feel very comfortable with all the women that are my competition.
There was someone that came [to Feud] for two seconds who was not particularly collaborative, and I didn’t get rid of her, but that was just not the tone. She kind of announced herself, and she was gone in two days. Because Ryan is responsible for having a wonderful environment with a very collaborative atmosphere, and it starts at the top. He just doesn’t tolerate anybody who isn’t part of that family, and looks at the bigger picture. And that was it. She was gone.
But it wasn’t about women against women — it was just about somebody who came in, sat down and announced that she was going to be difficult. I’m sure that came from a place of fear, in all fairness to her, but there wasn’t time or interest in developing a relationship with someone who isn’t a team player. Everybody was a team player on this. And I’ve seen men go at it on films, but I’ve never had an experience myself. It doesn’t work for me to work in an environment where there’s tension. I go out of my way to make sure there’s not.
Can you imagine throwing your guts out there and you have to be brave and you’re in a hostile environment? It’s just impossible. You open up your heart and all your energy, and you can’t do that if you’re in a protective mode. There’s a line that I found in one of Bette’s books where she said, “I would rather have a go at something I feel, and be hurt, than always be protecting myself — that way, one does not really live.” And she did that in romance, and I think she did that in her work.
That’s definitely where our philosophies align. You can’t live your life according to just what looks good on paper. I think the most interesting things happen when you’re out of your comfort zone, and this was way out of my comfort zone. It took me a good five weeks working with Ryan and working with Tim Monich, my dialect coach, to really get the fear/fun ratio to a place where it was in my favor [laughs]. I was just terrified! I said to Ryan, “This really, really scares me. I just don’t know.” And he said, “Well, I’m scared, too. We’ll find it together.” And that made me jump at it.
How do you explain the gay fascination with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford? Well, I can’t speak for Joan, I can only speak for Bette. But, first of all, being some kind of outsider — she was an intruder at the time, when she was trying to get good parts, because she wasn’t your classic Hollywood beauty. So, she started off as an outsider, and I think that she had a secret, and in the early days of being gay — and still in some places — that has to be a secret. I think she had a lot of secrets, and you sense that she was trying to do things that were not easily done as a woman and as an artist, and she was a very straight shooter. When we were working on it, our biggest challenge was trying to make it grounded in reality because they’re so big. Her gestures, everything — I felt like, “Here goes another meme!” The question was, are we able to make this into something that people are actually moved by? It’s very funny, obviously, and interesting.
Do you think audiences might come away with more empathy for Bette as we watch this? I hope so. In watching all of her interviews and TV appearances, and in reading all the books she wrote and that her daughter wrote and other people wrote, she was pretty special in her focus to find good work that [gave her] some control over her choices at a time when you were given the protection of the studio in exchange for your freedom. Now, of course, if you do episodic TV, you’re right back in the same kind of contractual bind. Films have been liberated, but not these seasonal TV shows, because you really don’t know what they’re going to do with you. You sign away for years at a time, which was exactly what she was fighting against.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition MARCH 3, 2017.