Susan Sarandon has a bad reputation among the younger set.
“I’m known as a big drag by my kids and their friends,” she says sardonically, “because I’m so vigilant about how much television they watch.” Sarandon, 55, is the mother of three children: Eva, 16, daughter of Italian film director Franco Amurri; and John, 12, and Miles, 9, sons of her longtime partner, actor Tim Robbins.
Sarandon herself didn’t watch much TV as a child. Raised in Edison, New Jersey, she is the oldest of nine children. Her acting career began in 1970, when she won a key role in the controversial feature Joe. Since then, she’s appeared in more than 30 films, including The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Bull Durham, and Thelma & Louise. In 1996 she won an Academy Award for her starring role in Dead Man Walking, a film directed by Robbins.
A hallmark of Sarandon’s career has been her commitment to social causes, including her arrest while protesting the shooting of African immigrant Amadou Diallo by New York City police officers (photo left, at the protest). In December 1999, Sarandon was appointed special representative for UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund. “My intent is to speak on behalf of those whose voices are less readily heard–children and women at risk,” Sarandon said when she accepted the post. “We can’t go on with business as usual.”
But activism, to her, is not just a happy side effect of being famous. “Everybody can take responsibility for making the world a better place,” she says. “I know I sound like a scold, but we all have the power to make a change just by doing the best job we can–no matter what that job is. That’s all I’m trying to do.” Sarandon spoke with senior editor Andy Steiner from her home in New York City.
What is your favorite quote?
There’s one I’ve got taped to my mirror. It needs a little explanation. An intern once asked the photographer Sally Mann how she managed to raise three children and do her art at the same time. She responded: “What’s the difference? Both are fraught with peril, both are alternately exasperating and exhilarating, and to paraphrase Wendell Berry, “Both are a vexed privilege and a blessed trial, absolutely necessary, and not altogether possible.”
What was your childhood media diet? Is it different from your children’s?
Back when I was growing up, TV wasn’t something you automatically turned on if you were bored, like people do today. I did read as a kid, but most of the time I was just in my head. My kids are different. Maybe it’s because they’re growing up in the city. They also have traveled quite a bit, so they have a big view of the world. And Tim and I have taught them to question authority. Still, we do limit our kids’ TV. They’re allowed to watch one and a half hours every week. They have to tell us what they are planning on watching. One son is a big Simpsons fan, and they also like Friends.
Where do you get your news?
I read The Nation, Extra!, The Progressive, sometimes Mother Jones. I like Adbusters, and the Resist newsletter, which focuses on activist organizing. I also scan the headlines on tabloids like the New York Post. I do that all with skepticism, and I view all media with skepticism, which I believe Mark Twain said was the duty of a patriot.
Are there any media trends that inspire you?
I love those stories about people doing amazing things with the Internet, using it in the way in which it was intended, to connect people and make a difference in the world. When Tim and I were campaigning for Ralph Nader, we saw the power of the Internet firsthand. Even though Nader couldn’t get any coverage on mainstream media, he was still selling out these huge venues all over the country because of the publicity he was getting on the Internet. It was heartening.
What books are you reading right now?
The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes, and Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich. I’m trying to put together a project based on that book.
Which actors do you most admire?
Actors who are important to me include Vanessa Redgrave–anything she’s in is just wonderful, she’s such an incredibly powerful actor–Sean Penn, Jack Nicholson. If I sat down and thought about it, the list would be long. There are a lot of really good actors out there. They just need to have a part that allows them to be courageous.
What kind of music do you enjoy?
Because I’m surrounded by teens these days, I have to acknowledge their influence. My kids are into rap, hip-hop, everything from Pearl Jam to the Beatles and even some R&B like Otis Redding. When I’m on my own I’ll put on Buddha Bar III, or the sound track from DeadMan Walking. I also love African music. And then there’s Britney Spears. She’s great for exercising to. If you need inspiration while you’re working out, you can think of her body.
Who do you find to be the most interesting thinkers right now?
Off the top of my head, there’s historian and activist Howard Zinn, the Dalai Lama, green architect and designer Bill McDonough, Indian writer Arundhati Roy.
How do you rest and recharge?
These days I’m trying to build time into my schedule to be with my girlfriends. I don’t know if restful is the right word to describe the feeling I get from being with them, but it definitely is an opportunity to recharge. Right now I don’t have very much restful time in my life, time when nothing’s going. When I do, I try to go away alone with a good book. I look forward to the time when my kids are a little bit older. That’s when I plan to practice the discipline of simply doing nothing.
Do you have a hard time blending your social activism with your work?
I don’t see the two as separate. I think that people notice my activism these days because I’m a celebrity, but that’s always been part of who I am. I’ve always been involved in my community, in the PTA, in politics. It’s just that my influence has become broader, and so I carry a light with me that brings attention to causes I’m interested in. That commitment is not at odds with my work. I really believe that every film is political. What I learned from Dead Man Walking is that film has an amazing potential for starting a dialogue. That in itself is powerful.
Still, you’re talking about a film with a clear political subtext. What about “light” films or comedies?
No, really, any film is political. For instance, I think Eddie Murphy’s version of The NuttyProfessor was incredibly revolutionary. By the end, everybody in the audience was rooting for this guy to stay fat. What’s more radical than that? Sure, sometimes the political agenda of a movie is more obvious, but I believe that in a film any kind of action, or any movement toward action–whether you agree with it or not–is political.
So that means that as an actor you carry a lot of responsibility on your shoulders.
I’m very aware of how the messages in the films I make affect people. It’s not that I have to play characters I like. I don’t have to agree with their politics. But I would find it difficult to be in a film, for instance, where the link between sex and violence is titillating. That’s always been my policy, because I don’t want to be responsible for putting that message out in the world. I think you are responsible for what you contribute to the psyche of the nation or the world.
Do you have any advice for would-be activists?
People single me out for being an activist, but I always say that the impulse is inborn–it just needs to be nurtured. It starts when you’re little, and you see some kids being unkind to another kid on the bus. Maybe you do something. Maybe you don’t. But there was that little hint in your brain that something was wrong, that you weren’t comfortable with the situation. Throughout your life, you have the opportunity to learn from that experience, to react to that little voice inside of you that says something has crossed your moral bottom line, to ignore what others are telling you to do and honor your impulse. The very core of being an activist is being true to yourself.