Susan Sarandon sees herself at last

August 21, 2012


When I mention to Susan Sarandon that the first time I interviewed her, it was for the 1981 film “Atlantic City,” she smiles ruefully.

“We were both babies back then,” she says.

She curls into the couch of the hotel room where we’re talking, for a piece for the New York Daily News. This is the first of the interviews she’ll do this day, to promote the film “Robot & Frank,” which opened in limited release Aug. 17. Though she worked for less than a week on the film, her character – a librarian named Jennifer – proves pivotal in a plot that revolves around a book-loving but aging cat burglar named Frank (Frank Langella) and the robot caretaker who tends to him, in a plot set in the near future.

Sarandon, however, is momentarily thinking about the past. Casting back to “Atlantic City,” the film that catapulted her into a new rank of actresses and earned Sarandon her first Oscar nomination, she says, “I really didn’t understand myself back then.

“I didn’t understand the assets that I had,” she continues. “Physically, I didn’t think I was good-looking; I never thought I was particularly beautiful. But I’ve been having these tributes at festivals and the most fun part are the montages that they put together. It’s been so long since I’ve seen some of those movies.

“I look at them now and I was barely invested in that person being me. It’s like having your whole life rush by in front of your eyes. And I think, ‘I had no idea what I looked like’.”

But Sarandon, now 65, admits that she also wasn’t particularly savvy about what direction her work should take. Having started as an ingénue, she wasn’t quite prepared for the opportunities – or the pitfalls – that came with becoming a leading lady. Though “Atlantic City” put her on the map, it took until the late 1980s and early 1990s – with films like “Bull Durham,” “White Palace,” “Thelma & Louise” and “Dead Man Walking” (for which she won an Oscar) – for Sarandon to truly take control of her career.

“I was never that serious about my career, in terms of firing agents, pushing for jobs, things that like,” Sarandon says. “Kids today are a lot more savvy. I was happy with what came along. I was always kind of an outsider, living in New York – it was sort of half-assed. And my agents were not very strong.

“It was a point in my life where I didn’t do a lot of the expected things, the practical things: things like living in L.A. or having a publicist. I was asking a lot of metaphysical questions, instead of practical questions. I think I understand a lot more about the commerce end of it now. When I didn’t get a part back then, I’d be disappointed but I didn’t give it a priority. It was a means to a life, instead of a priority.

“I crashed and burned at one point but that was just a thing that happens to you before you’re in your 30s. That’s when you’re trying to figure out who you are and the difference between the way the world is sold to you and the way you want your reality to be. At some point, you have to crash and restructure that.”

As for the future – or at least the present, with its onslaught of the Internet, smartphones, tablets and the like – Sarandon says, “I’ve been pulled kicking and screaming into this world because of my children. They stopped answering the phone, so I had to learn to text them. They wouldn’t tell me how to capitalize words at first. Now I’m on the iPhone and I’m pretty good. I just used Facetime with my son, who’s in Iceland. I could see him and talk to him. That was fun.”

Sarandon has three children: daughter Eva Amurri Martino (whose father is director Franco Amurri), and sons Jack and Miles, whose father is Sarandon’s long-time partner, Tim Robbins, from whom she split in 2009 after 23 years.

“I still have to learn how to use a computer,” she says. “Although my dog tweets. I’m not interested in reading blogs about myself because I’m afraid I won’t bounce back, especially through times of heightened gossip.”

She’s speaking, of course, of the period in 2009 when she and Robbins announced their split. The news sparked a media feeding frenzy of sorts.

“I wasn’t surprised because I knew we meant a lot to a lot of people,” she says. “I knew it by the magazines and all the misinformation that was out there. There was a lot of discussion. And I knew it from meeting people on the street. Then Tiger Woods came along with his problems – and that was that. There’s always someone else with a more interesting scandal.”

Sarandon has made the transition from leading lady to graceful eminence, from starring roles to supporting parts or surprise cameos and walk-ons (like the one she did in Adam Sandler’s “That’s My Boy”). She works more often – but for less time on each film.

“It’s different than being the one who carries the film for two and a half months,” she says. “It’s not bad as long as you don’t mind being a supporting actor. I think that’s easier for women than for men. I think that move takes more of a toll on men. As long as I’m having fun and collaborating, I’m fine.

“My career – I felt lucky to keep going, because every time I had a kid, I took a year off. Then I thought I’d never be able to come back. Now I’m getting all kinds of different parts because I see myself as a character actor. That’s given me longevity.”

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