Oscar-winning rebel SUSAN SARANDON reflects on her 50-year career and colourful life – and for the first time tells Cole Moreton about her last conversation with former lover David Bowie.
We should have met sooner, but a hurricane struck New York. ‘There was a lot of flooding,’ says Susan Sarandon of the chaos and panic that Hurricane Ida caused as it swept through her city on the day we were due to speak. Roads turned to rivers, the subway was shut down and at least 13 people died. ‘Where one of my sisters lives, they didn’t have power for a very long time. I heard of restaurants and houses exploding because of gas leaks.’
Not even a Hollywood legend with an Oscar for Dead Man Walking and fame and fortune for hits including Bull Durham and Thelma & Louise was immune from the fear caused by this sudden epic storm. ‘One of my sons got flooded out in Brooklyn and called me to come and take the dog. I said: “I can’t! We’re in the middle of it and there’s no way for me to get there. Call your brother.” So my other son, who also lives in Brooklyn, went out, which made me very nervous.’
Miles and Jack, aged 29 and 32, are her sons with the actor and director Tim Robbins. They were together for 20 years and Susan stayed in their glorious 1920s Manhattan duplex with views of the Empire State Building until last year, when she downsized to a smaller apartment in Greenwich Village.
Susan has just turned 75, although you’d never know it to look at her face framed by fashionable big black-rimmed glasses and the familiar tumbledown auburn curls. ‘I have a complete disconnect with my age. I’m not old. I don’t feel 75. It’s crazy.’ She has that edgy, open, wide-eyed way of talking we have seen in so many of her characters over the years, from young innocents to knowing, sexually confident middle-aged women to mothers and martyrs. ‘Honestly, I’m happy I made it to 75 because I know there are a lot of people that have been less lucky.’
She’s lost loved ones over the decades including the legendary David Bowie, about whom she tells a very touching, unheard story. They starred together with Catherine Deneuve in a Gothic vampire movie called The Hunger in 1983. They were lovers, weren’t they? ‘Yeah.’ Susan has only ever said one thing about this in public before: a brief, enigmatic quote seven years ago suggesting it was a very serious romance that ended because Bowie wanted them to have a family together and, as she put it: ‘I wasn’t supposed to have kids’. This turns out to be a reference to endometriosis – a subject we’ll return to.
Bowie went on to marry the supermodel Iman and have a daughter called Lexi, settling not far from Susan’s own home in Manhattan. So, I know this is personal, but were they ever in touch again? ‘Yeah. Not that we hung out a lot – he had a number of health issues to deal with – but we did.’
And slowly Susan reveals that they had the kind of touching reunion former lovers sometimes do when the end is near for one of them. ‘I was fortunate enough to be closer to him right before he died, the last couple of months. He did find me again. We talked to each other and said some things that needed to be said,’ she says. ‘I was so fortunate to be able to see him when he told me what was going on with him.’
Her tone suggests she still cared deeply for him after all those years. ‘I love his wife Iman, someone who was so equal in stature [to him]. That was clearly who he was destined to be with. I was so happy that she was with him through all of that. And I’ve kept in touch with her. The last time I saw him was at the premiere of his musical Lazarus.’ That was in New York in early December 2015, a month before Bowie’s death from liver cancer.
‘After the show I went to Lesbos.’ Susan has been a campaigner all her life, and was using her profile to highlight the refugee crisis on the Greek island. ‘That was the toughest thing I’ve ever done: a never-ending stream of desperation with no recourse and no way to fix it. The camps were horrific. I wasn’t sleeping and I knew that I had to get up early to start meeting the boats as they came in, so I took some Ambien, a pretty strong sleep aid. And I had this dream that David had called me and that we’d had this conversation and as I hung up I thought [in the dream]: “Nobody’s going to believe me, that David Bowie called me in Lesbos.”’
She woke up, marvelled at how vivid the dream had been and got on with her day. ‘Then later, I thought: “Did he actually call me?” And I went to my phone and he had. I have no recollection of what that conversation was.’ Their last intimate contact was an agonising blank to her – and still is. ‘He died a week later. It’s all so frustrating.’ Her husky, sassy voice is tender now. ‘There was a double rainbow in New York on the day that David Bowie passed.’
So Susan is full of gratitude for reaching 75, if unable to quite believe the passing of time. ‘Physically, I have been getting signals I’m not 25, and I have accepted that. Mentally, it’s a strange thing. When we did the Thelma & Louise 30th anniversary [screening] in the summer, it didn’t register. On the other hand, I do think: “How many years do I have left to see my grandkids?”’ She has three by her first child Eva, her daughter with Italian film director Franco Amurri, who was born in 1985. ‘They are aged one-and-a-half, five and seven.’
Some people feel liberated as they get older. Is that true of her? ‘If ever I was going to burn bridges it should be now. What, at this point, do I have to lose? So that is freeing. I don’t give a f***.’ She’s talking about issues and politics now, because there have been times when her peers have balked at her strong views. Susan was banned from the Oscars in 1993 for using the stage to make a political point, but they had to let her back in a couple of years later when she won Best Actress for playing a nun befriending Sean Penn’s Death Row inmate in Dead Man Walking.
Liberal Hollywood was probably OK with her campaigning to end the death penalty and opposing the war in Iraq, but some thought she went too far in branding Pope Benedict a Nazi and refusing to back Hillary Clinton against Donald Trump.
‘For me, the most difficult times have been when I’ve been ostracised and cut off from my tribe and the loneliness of that.’ Now, though, she is ready to care less. ‘My kids are stable and grown and don’t need my protection as much. They will not be as damaged if stuff comes out in the paper attacking me or if people make threats. They’ll deal with it.’
Does this new freedom apply in the rest of her life as well? ‘Yeah. And I think about death a lot more than I did. It seems like every single acting part I get, I’m dying!’ She laughs, having recently played a mother bringing her family together for one last time before euthanasia in Blackbird, with Kate Winslet. ‘Every single script, I’m either dying, I have Alzheimer’s or I’m helping someone die. That’s my oeuvre at this point. But it’s a healthy thing to have to think about all that.’
Susan was born in Queens in 1946, the first of nine children, to her Italian mother Lenora and father Phillip Tomalin, a TV producer. Having been raised a Catholic, does she have any faith left for when the end comes? ‘I really wish I did. I know energy can’t be destroyed, so there could be something around. But my DNA is out there in my kids and grandkids, and that’s enough.’ She’s ‘up for’ the idea of reincarnation. ‘But I’m not for getting my rewards much later – I’m trying to get them now!’
By the age of 20 Susan was at the Catholic University in Washington DC and married to an older student, Chris Sarandon. She fell into acting by accident when he was asked to audition for an agent. Susan went along for support, the agent spotted something and asked her to try out for a film called Joe, about a conservative construction worker who goes on the rampage against hippies he thinks are bringing the country down. ‘That was everybody’s nightmare at the time, so it became the Easy Rider of that year. It’s a pretty terrible film.’
It got her a lot of attention, though. Soap operas came next, then a Broadway play and the role of Janet in The Rocky Horror Picture Show and, suddenly, Susan was a proper actor. ‘I was, like, “God, this is what I do now.”’ She kept her surname after divorcing Chris in 1979 and won her first Oscar nomination two years later for Atlantic City.
The Hunger came next in 1983 and with it the aforementioned relationship with Bowie, after which she moved on, because, ‘I wasn’t desperate to have children. I felt I had been a mom to my younger siblings for quite a while. So when I was told I couldn’t have children without operations [because of endometriosis], I thought: “That’s OK. There are so many kids in my family.” I never felt that’s what I needed to complete me. So I went years without using birth control.’
It was a shock, then, in 1984 when she found out she was pregnant, by Franco Amurri. ‘I was feeling overqualified for the parts I was being asked to play and thinking I wanted to become an aid worker. I went to Nicaragua and was getting deeper into that, then all of a sudden I was pregnant. I was like: “It’s a miracle!”’
Eva was born in New York but spent a lot of time on sets as Susan recommitted to making movies. The Witches of Eastwick did well, followed by Bull Durham, which made her a huge star. Susan said at the time: ‘It was so empowering to play a woman who was smart and sexual and didn’t have to die at the end of the movie because of it.’
So have things improved for women in Hollywood? ‘Well, I don’t think you could get away with some of the things I saw, and also the way women writers were fired from projects. There’s an awareness now‒ because of litigation and the expectations young women have ‒ that things have changed.’
What about the way women are portrayed on screen – wasn’t Thelma & Louise supposed to change everything? She and Geena Davis play two women who go on the run after killing a would-be rapist. They choose to go out on their own terms, evading the armed police by driving their 1966 Ford Thunderbird over the edge of the Grand Canyon to briefly soar free. This tragic but strangely uplifting movie was hailed as the start of a revolution in 1991, but Susan frowns.
‘The Thelma & Louise thing has never broken through. They thought there would be so many more women-led films after we did the movie and I don’t think that happened, but there definitely is a demand.’
Change is happening at long last because of streaming, she says, as the networks give women more control than the old-fashioned movie companies. ‘You get somebody who can write, direct and star like Michaela Coel with I May Destroy You. That’s just one of the most amazing performances, as well as a surprising way into the topic [of sexual assault] that would never come from a male studio. I think it’s a good sign that those kind of things can get made.’
But some of the change does make her uneasy. ‘One of my sons is a writer and a director and he’s had people say: “I really love this script, but we can’t hire any white men now. We just can’t.”’ Really? ‘Oh, absolutely. So that’s the way it’s changing, but I think it’s good to have more women hired and on sets. The worst thing is when you get female executives and they behave with the worst qualities of men. What’s the point of that? Then I feel really betrayed.’
Susan has been single since her last relationship – with filmmaker Jonathan Bricklin – ended in 2015. She made headlines at the time by suggesting her sexuality was ‘up for grabs’. Is that still true? ‘Yeah. I’m open to persuasion. But busy as hell and with lots of wonderful friends and grandchildren,’ she says. ‘Everybody is somewhere on a spectrum, and I like the fluidity we have now. For me, it’s all about connection, curiosity, passion.’
Has she dated women, though? ‘I think women are beautiful, their bodies are amazing, but for me to open that window I would have to have some kind of connection and there just hasn’t been an instance where that crossed my path,’ she says. ‘I’m not really looking. I feel fulfilled and happy. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. In the meantime, I am dancing in my kitchen.’
I have to ask, how does she manage to look so young? ‘First of all, you do not smoke. I drink a lot of water. I do yoga. I’m very lucky to live in New York so I’m walking all the time. I have to thank my mom for her bone structure. That’s all I can say.’
There’s one other thing. ‘All my tattoos are in places that won’t sag.’ She shows me a couple of birds on each arm and says there are letters and symbols all down her back for her children and grandchildren. ‘I didn’t start getting them until I was 60.’
As we near the end of our time talking, I ask her how she thinks her life has turned out. Susan fishes out a quote from the writer Howard Zinn to sum up how she feels. As she recites it I am surprised to see she is weeping. Tears are flowing as the last sentence comes: ‘“To live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that’s bad around us, is itself a marvellous victory.”
‘You have to do the best you can with what you have. I tell my kids the most important thing is to be kind,’ she says after composing herself. ‘Injustice has always disturbed me. From the time I was little I was rotating my dolls’ dresses ‒ in case they came to life at midnight‒ so one wouldn’t wear the good dresses all the time. So it’s hard right now.’
She sounds overwhelmed for a moment. I try to console her by saying she has clearly done her best, both as an activist but also as an actor whose movies have changed the way people think and feel. ‘Thank you,’ says Susan with a small but determined smile. ‘That will be a good epitaph: “She gave it her best shot.” That’s all you can ask for. Show up. Just show up.’
Susan is currently filming the TV series Monarch which will be broadcast in the UK in the new year