Susan Sarandon Talks Insta-Fame, Reality Shows and Stage Moms' Issues
Susan Sarandon is a major stage mom — not to daughter Eva Amurri, but to Dakota Fanning, who portrays teenage starlet Beverly Aadland in The Last of Robin Hood, opening Friday. Directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, the Samuel Goldwyn Films release casts Sarandon as Florence Aadland, who watched — and encouraged — her daughter as she became the object of affection to swashbuckling movie star Errol Flynn (Kevin Kline), and then cashed in on his passing with her own book.
The real-life Lolita story has Sarandon reflecting on the dark sides of Hollywood's bright lights — her character was an aspiring actress herself until an accident left her with an artificial leg and her questionable Tinseltown dreams to her 15-year-old daughter, at any cost. "She didn't want to know what was going on, and once they don't need her anymore to be this beard, she loses all the trickle-down fame and parties and everything," explains Sarandon of Florence's obsession with fame, a quest pursued too often today, she says. "These are people who haven't found a way to generate themselves a sense of self esteem and are needy for that, and the way that it translates now to being worthy is being newsworthy, and however you do that, you're worthy. This is the barometer of success — success has been separated from satisfaction or accomplishment."
The Hollywood Reporter sat down with Sarandon as she deconstructed her character's conflicts, semi-saluted Kris Kardashian's business sense, pondered the appeal of the Real Housewives and Bachelor franchises and mentioned a way to combat the constant need to be liked online.
Florence has always been positioned as one of the first notable stage moms.
Mothers do this who aren't stage mothers — her definition of what's gonna be a good life for her child is not necessarily her child's view. It's the way parents are in denial about wanting your kid to be a lawyer because that will make a good living over being an artist, or wanting your kid to be straight because it's not gonna be as problematic as gay, or wanting your kid to marry and have children because that's what you did, but maybe your daughter or son doesn't want to have kids. It's such a challenge as a parent to let go of what worked for you or your generation, or what in your mind is easier or difficult, and just accept and listen to your child, and not feed your dreams to them. Certainly, this is an extreme case, plus the fact that she had her own career so dramatically taken away from her. Hollywood at that time was so romanticized, and he was such a romantic figure. It wasn't corporate the way it is now, so you bought into the dream of Hollywood. So for me, it was very interesting how you delude yourself and how you write your story, as everybody does.
I've worked on films where those kids have eventually emancipated, where you saw very, very sadistic relationships. Very scary —not letting their daughters eat, scaring them so much that they couldn't function on the set. I think a lot of directors weigh very heavily the mother before they take the kid because it can be so disruptive.
What was your on-set relationship with Dakota Fanning?
I love Dakota, she's such a pro. I didn't try to mother her! She's an adult, so I didn't feel like I had to take her under my wing or anything, we had an easygoing, fun time. She did not get into the business with a stage mom; she wanted it. She definitely chose it and she likes it, she knows what she's doing. Dakota is so elegant and so mature, and radiates that, that I don't think it seemed as creepy as it would if it was somebody that was doing it like a Lolita.
Florence becomes very unlikable as the film goes on. If anything, what do you admire about her?
She's a fighter — she could've just completely given up after she loses her leg. In recordings, she referred to it as "my so-called disability" — people said they didn't even know she had lost her leg because she had managed that so well!
She was very convinced on some strange psychic spiritual level that this was almost like the Dalai Lama or something. That this child — because she had lost another child during a careful pregnancy and then wasn't as careful with the next one — was a perfect child here to do something. Almost a compensation for her leg.
I certainly don't admire her mothering, but given the circumstances she had, I think she really believed she was doing the right thing [in encouraging Beverly to get involved with Errol Flynn]. When [Flynn] says, "Come on, you knew what was going on," I think she really is shocked, because she didn't want to know what was going on. And once they don't need her anymore to be this beard [and accompany Beverly to events and vacations with Flynn], she loses all the trickle-down fame and parties and everything.
How dangerous is it now that Hollywood is giving parents such fame?
Everyone's getting shows these days. Any car wreck is getting a show — it seems like people are having children just to keep the season going! And the Housewives thing? I did watch some of them, I have a writer friend who's on the New York Housewives, but it seems like nobody has a storyline except getting drunk and fighting, and then talking about the fight, and then deciding you're not gonna be friends with that person, and then deciding whoever is friends with that person is not gonna be your friend — that's like five episodes right there!
I worry more about why we want to watch them, the way we do with fascination with anything that's tragic. One of the things that happened during the shoot is Dakota was watching The Bachelor, so I started watching. And the next day in the trailer, everybody would talk about it. I realized it's kind of a safe way to talk about your own moral bottom line, because you're not at the water cooler dishing on someone in your office, you're saying, "How could he believe her? She's totally psychotic!" or, "I don't know, he seems so duplicitous — have you ever gone out with anyone like that? How can anyone decide in two months if they're gonna marry someone?" It maybe has a function to have discussions after you see these people.
But I just find — God bless them — the Kardashians to be the most interesting phenomenon because of ,first of all ,the way it started, and then, I mean, I saw one [episode] where someone was at the gynecologist! I’m trying to imagine what it must be like, for years on end, to have hardly any time where you're not getting ready for the crew to arrive. It's so interesting, isn't it? And that mom — that mom, whoa. She didn't apologize, she just made it an industry. Gotta hand it to her for that. I mean, they're all set now, right?
In your opinion, what is the most dangerously attractive part of fame by association, as Florence had?
I think there's an inflated sense of worth that unfortunately you haven't earned in a lot of cases because you don't do anything except be in the right spot at the right time or something, so there must be an enormous amount of anxiety attached to that because, at some point, the secret's gonna come out. These are people who haven't found a way to generate themselves a sense of self esteem and are needy for that, and the way that it translates now to being worthy is being newsworthy, and however you do that, you're worthy. This is the barometer of success — success has been separated from satisfaction or accomplishment. If you do movies that nobody sees, but you do a good job and the movie is really good, you have to focus on what I learned from it, who I collaborated with — you have to be proud of it for the sake of doing it.
We're living in a world where mediocrity is rewarded. If that's not your focus, then you're looking for the heat, to be validated by people you don't necessarily respect or know, and so you've got yourself in a difficult, self-perpetuating, crazy ass feeding cycle. I've worked with a lot of young actors on the brink, and you can definitely see the difference between someone like Jake Gyllenhaal who is always interested in the work and do character parts, or Brad Pitt who could've gotten by just being pretty, who are really serious about trying different things. They like being an actor. It's not just being famous. And I think we help people become famous for ten minutes now — it's not even fifteen — so easily and constantly, that the goal has switched from finding something that you like to do to being famous. I think it's great that people are posting all kinds of things that they do, but some of them are just not really very worthy for that rush of all eyes on you, and I guess that's why people have 2,000 "friends" that they're showing their life to, and Catfish and all these things that are happening. I even find myself, since my dog has a Twitter account, an obligation to post every now and then. It becomes like a whole other pet or something that you have to feed and be aware of! It's such an interesting time in terms of what media has done.
I don't know if this will get in your article, but one of the reasons I'm such a champion of the legalization and regulation of marijuana is that I feel that people need to disconnect from constantly being on — checking all the time, all the time, all the time. Twitter and all these different outlets in themselves aren't bad, but it becomes very hard to be present, and that's what the goal has to be: to be authentic, kind and present, and if you could accomplish those three things, I think it's a life well-lived.
Editor's note: This Q&A has been edited and shortened.