Susan Sarandon: A face full of life and power

Since her break-up with husband Tim Robbins, actress Susan Sarandon has carved out a new life for herself -- keeping busy with work, a new 'collaborator' and ping pong. The secret of her youthfulness, she tells Chrissy Iley, is living -- and not just existing

Susan Sarandon

Susan Sarandon has never become a homogenised version of herself. She's never let herself be dull or diluted. In her latest movie Jeff, Who Lives At Home, she plays the uptight mother of two very different and equally annoying sons played by Jason Segel and Ed Helms.

What you notice is she's not afraid to let the camera come in for an extreme close-up. The whole screen takes in her face and you are devoured in it. You think there's something defiant about this, you see bravery, you see good skin, lined yes, but you don't notice that. You notice a commanding presence.

Her face itself is incredible. Unbelievably, she's 65. She's not had Botox or eye lifts. She had lypo on her jaw some time ago, but her face is as vibrant as it was 20, 30 or even 40 years ago. She's not afraid to let you see all the emotions flash through it.

When we meet, I am struck by how dainty she is. She is wearing dark navy, skinny jeans, a loose, silky, creamy top, no shoes and a shiny, scarlet pedicure. Her hair, in chestnut waves, floats beyond her shoulders and her eyes are like orbs and exactly the same colour as her hair.

She has a gravelly purr when she speaks. She hasn't yet seen the movie or her impressive close-up. She puts her relaxed screen presence down to how much she enjoyed working with the Duplass brothers (directors Jay and Mark), who work largely from improvisation, something which she enjoys because it keeps her on her toes.

"They don't set up a long shot or a medium shot. They don't say these are your close-ups so you are not even aware of them. There's not a self-consciousness or a loneliness. Whenever I'm in a close-up single (she means close-ups taken after the scene) I'm thinking 'where is the other person?'.

"They use more than one camera. Jay operates one and Mark watches the monitor. Mark is a little more outgoing in terms of his notes. Both my boys came to visit me and immediately hit it off with both of them." By her boys she means her sons Jack Henry, 22, and Miles, 19.

She has an extremely close relationship with all of her children. She has always been interested in them. She told me once that they came out of her womb exactly how they are. Jack was very loud and came out quickly, "he is a people person, whereas Miles is more like me. My daughter (Eva, 27) could have been an alien she was such a strong presence." She told me then in her house there were no followers, only leaders.

"Jay ended up being a great mentor to my son Jack Henry when he was at USC. He looked at his film and was inspirational."

Jack Henry and Miles still have a space in the family home, but they are not like Jeff in the movie, who lives in the basement, smoking weed in his basketball shorts.

The movie takes place all in one day where Jeff (Segel) looks for a sign that might change his life and make it mean something. He doesn't connect with his mother or his older brother Pat, played by Ed Helms, who feels his life will mean something now he's bought a Porsche he can't afford.

"Jack Henry got a job making a documentary going across country looking at the different demographics of homeless people." Jack Henry seems already politically aware like his parents. "At the moment he's in New Orleans (where Jeff was shot) and coincidentally Tim ( Robbins) is directing the TV series Treme there. He'll be back in New York with me when he finishes that, probably for the summer.

"Tim had a house in New Orleans even before we split."

Miles (her other son) is at Brown [university] but comes back to New York to DJ in the city. "It's not an empty nest. My kids are still in the basement," she says with a mixture of relief and pride.

She can say the name Tim Robbins without any emotional resonance or weirdness. It is two and a half years since they split after being together for 21 years having met on the set of the movie Bill Durham. Sarandon was 40 when she got that part of a sexy, intellectual baseball groupie. She's never allowed herself to be labelled too young for this, too old for that. She played her first mother when she was 31 in Pretty Baby directed by Louis Malle, with whom she was also having an affair.

Although she never seemed part of a couple because she's such a strident individual, while she won acclaim for Thelma And Louise and won an Oscar playing a nun opposite Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking, it seemed a given that hers and Robbins' was an equal and loving relationship.

The world was shocked when it broke down. One blog post read: "Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins have split up. Has the world come to an end?"

Sarandon and Robbins defy all the various theories that were tossed around at the time. Particularly the one that she, being 11 years older than him, wanted a quieter life. If anything the opposite is true. She never wants to be quiet. She's working on more projects than ever including parts in Robot And Frank with Frank Langella and Liv Tyler, The Company You Keep with Robert Redford and Julie Christie, and Arbitrage with Richard Gere and Tim Roth, and recurring roles in 30 Rock and The Big C.

"It's important to be interested. I thought I was going to take a few months off and then things kept coming up. I only pick parts that I really want to do. Often they're not major parts but they're things I haven't done before or people I want to work with, like 30 Rock. It was a reprise of something I'd done before and those people are talented, fun. If a part is the kind of person I'm not comfortable with it's all the more fun. The world opens up to you if you do these things. Somebody said 'does it get easier?' I don't think it gets easier, but it gets better. It's a little scary but I feel like I'm living an authentic life right now. I feel happy. I feel I have more options because the kids are older and my situation being what it is. I feel like travelling more. We did a trip down to the Grand Canyon, my kids and some friends. We camped under the stars. No phones, nothing. It was crazy," she says savouring the word.

A couple of years ago she opened a ping pong club in New York called Spin and got obsessed with it because girls could beat boys and old ladies could beat jocks.

At the time of the split with Robbins she told me that she was "excited and terrified in equal parts". How is she now? "I think I'm about there, maybe slightly less terrified but I think so much is new and the kids are going through new stages, they are kind of educating me. It's definitely different. Everything scares me. When I take a part, I take a part because it scares me. I'm used to being scared. I find that a good sign. Life is massive, you need to be awake." She looks right at me, almost through me, to make her point.

I have read stories, I tell her, that say she is definitely dating her ping pong partner Jonathan Bricklin, and other stories that say that's not true. I have no idea what to believe. "Yeh," she says, in a kind of pleased with herself growl. So which is it? "I'd say we are collaborators in a lot of different areas." I laugh. "We have a lot of projects in different areas."

So ... does she like him? "He's a great guy but I hate that expression 'dating'." I agree with her it's an awkward euphemism which she imagines I won't find a way round. There's nothing else for it. I ask her is she f***ing him? She smiles, all coy. "Don't you like the word collaborating?"

The thing is, no matter how brilliant an actor Sarandon is, and she is, she cannot lie. "I'm not a good liar, so say whatever you'll say." Collaborating in many areas is a good phrase. "Unless it's the war and you are French."

If it was the war and Sarandon was French she would definitely be in the Resistance. She loves a cause and she would fight it with all her heart. She's a committed liberal in every possible way. Rather the opposite to her character in the movie, who is very irritated that her son is still living at home.

"Because of the economic situation these days you could have two degrees and still not have a job or be able to afford rent, or you get a divorce. So families live together. In Italy, in Israel, there's a lot more families living together. Even if you're married, you save up to get a house. It's never been seen necessarily that these people are slackers. The problem is children returning home that are twentysomething and they still want you to do their laundry and their friends come over and trash the place. Sharon (her character in the movie) is worn out because Jeff is in the basement smoking weed." And her own boys would never do such a thing? "I don't know about that. But they do their own laundry."

She seems to like the idea that she never had to face empty nest syndrome. Her children didn't so much rebel against her but with her. She's very proud of the fact that she got her tattoo before her son Jack.

How old was she when she left home? "I left home at 17 and never came back. My spot got completely disappeared. I got married when I was 20 after my senior year. Chris Sarandon was a graduate student. He already had a job, so I went where he went. Crazy. What was I thinking?"

Why did she get married? "I got married to say thank you. He was the first man I slept with and he was so kind and so patient and at that time to stay in school and live together was impossible at Catholic universities. Things have changed, but now it seems like there's an influx of people who want to get married, including my daughter," she says slightly incredulous.

Sarandon never married again. Her daughter Eva's father was film director Franco Amurri. Their relationship was never intended to last. She got pregnant early on, at 39, because she came off the pill having been told that she had endometriosis and couldn't get pregnant. Shortly after, she met Robbins, the father of Jack Henry and Miles. Sarandon has always enjoyed passionate consuming relationships. "Even ones that nearly killed me," she once told me.

Is one marriage enough for her? "Oh yeah. I really can't imagine it. Even when I got married we never said it was going to be forever, it was a kind of practical decision. I don't think I ever thought of it as something that would be a huge deal. But every year we renewed. We decided, not with an actual ceremony, but just said 'should we go through the next year?' Actually I think it's good relationship strategy. We should revisit this before we have children to see if everybody is still on the same page and you have established that you have an option of it being nobody's failure."

Did she renew frequently with Tim? "No, we were not married. It wasn't about renewing anything. I felt married, I felt committed."

There's a slight pause here, a slight little nag at her heart. "If you have children they are never out of your life."

She takes a sip from a brownish-purple looking juice. It's a cold fruit tea "to keep up my strength instead of caffeine. I crash after coffee."

She has a ring on her thumb which says in French, 'One must live, not just exist'. "I bought it for myself and it was delivered to me on the day of Louis Malle's memorial, which I thought was interesting since he was French and I'd been with him for a number of years."

She was with Louis Malle for two years in the late seventies. The relationship with Malle was turbulent. She felt that she was the one who had to permanently surrender to him because she was the actor and he was the director. "I always believe that lovers and certain people come into your life, as well as certain jobs, for a reason. Even if it may not be clear at the time."

There isn't any victim energy about her, yet she's always managed to be vulnerable. That takes power. Even the pain she seems to have utilised. In fact, she rather enjoys embracing huge and raw emotions. Like her ring says, she doesn't want to just exist.

"This is the Cartier bracelet my daughter gave me for my 60th birthday. She saved up for it. I can't take it off that easily. I did a number of episodes for The Big C and wore it because it means so much to me. It reminds me of my tattoo." The tattoo round her wrist looks like a strand of barbed wire but it actually says "a new dawn a new day" to remind her to live in the present. Round her neck is a piece of glass that she found in a street in New York that is the shape of a heart. In her ear is a gold safety pin and the other ear has a diamond hoop.

"This is my daughter's baby pin. Someone gave it to me." One ear says Pirate, the other ear says Punk.

"The virgin and the gypsy," she says as she curls her feet under her looking effortlessly sultry. I can't imagine that she was ever a virgin. "But I am over and over again every day." I'm wondering if this idea comes because she wants to constantly renew everything or because of her Catholic upbringing. "One doesn't recover from that childhood."

In her case, she's never stopped rebelling against it. Recently she caused a furore at the Hamptons Film Festival, calling the pope a Nazi. This movie includes a girl-on-girl kiss. "It was a starter kiss." Sarandon is an old hand at lesbian screen sex. In The Hunger she was full-on with Catherine Deneuve.

"Someone asked me the other day was that upsetting (for her to kiss a girl) and I said I guess you never saw The Hunger. The Hunger love scene took four days and there was much more body contact than that. In the beginning of the film I was much more uncomfortable. Just being that uptight and nasty all the time was uncomfortable. But I guess it will cause somebody to say now you are going to get the religious right down on you again." In actual fact it's quite romantic.

"Did you know it's a big trend for women who are divorced to get together with other women and start a new life? I don't know how much sex had to do with it. The question is about the courage it takes to be intimate with another person. It's not about your age, colour or gender, it is do you ever want to be vulnerable and expose yourself to that vulnerability. It takes courage to put your hand out to the other person and say 'let's see what happens'. It's huge," she says.

She is mesmerising when she talks about this. I can't help but wonder is she talking about herself and the courage it took her to, er, collaborate.

She says she doesn't have any new tattoos but her daughter just got a very big one of a hummingbird. They are a tight-knit bunch, the family that gets tattoos together. "I went with Jack to get his. And when I got the one on my back Eva got one that said 'Conscious' meaning being awake.

"Both my boys are very sweet. Miles is thinking of getting a smiley face but he's not quite sure. I think he'll get one," she nods approvingly.

Most children get tattoos to rebel against their parents, but she got hers first.

"I know it's horrible. Jack was a little upset that I got one before he did. Maybe it's bad for kids when they don't have anything to rebel against. There were things that I was strict about, but not tattoos."

What were they? "I was strict about how much time they would spend watching TV when they were growing up. Violence in films. Sex, not so much. I was worried about the double standard. I wanted my boys to understand that blow jobs do ruin a girl's reputation and that they were responsible as much as she was and they had to understand the ramifications for other people involved. I was strict about them keeping in touch when they go away and about them being kind to each other."

Once again the opposite to the character she plays. "I just don't think she gets her son," she says incredulously.

"Often the woman is the Wendy to everyone else's Peter Pan. You get tired with that. At one point I rebelled and stopped wearing a watch. I know nowadays everyone has a phone but then it meant 'I'm not going to keep telling you you have a game, you have to start to figure out what time to be there'. Why does it have to be me that keeps nagging?"

Partly she has always taken responsibility for other people and been the facilitator because she is the oldest of nine. It was expected of her. There's a sense that she's done with all that and feels freer.

"I remember reading the book that said the mum is the entrée and dad is dessert. He's not around as much and everyone wants dessert. I was the one that dealt with the school forms, the schedules, the packed lunches, the shopping. And that's the curse of the competent woman. No one opens the door for them."

She flicks back her hair looking decidedly uncursed.

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