'Feud' Star Susan Sarandon Opens Up About Finding a Kindred Soul in Bette Davis

"Women now see other women as allies and understand that together we’re stronger; partly because our consciousness has changed but also because the power structure is no longer completely male," the actress tells THR.
Prashant Gupta/FX

[This story contains spoilers from Sunday's Feud.]

The story of Bette Davis' and Joan Crawford’s infamous feud came to something of a conclusion in Sunday's penultimate episode of FX anthology Feud: Bette and Joan. With Bette (Susan Sarandon) pushing Joan (Jessica Lange) to her limits and Joan halting production on Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte with her fake illness, 20th Century Fox finally fired and replaced Joan with Bette’s friend Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones).

It led to both women going off on their separate, but not-so-happy ways. For Joan, it meant being left alone, as another fit of her infamous anger resulted in her longtime sidekick, Mamacita (Jackie Hoffman) leaving. For Bette, it meant another strain in her relationship with her daughter, B.D. (Kiernan Shipka), who announced her intentions to marry her much-older boyfriend.

With one episode to go, The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Sarandon to dissect getting into Bette Davis’ mind-set, the relationship between Davis and her daughter and whether things in Hollywood have changed over the years.  

What was your biggest revelation about Bette Davis after playing her?

I didn’t know that much about her philosophy. I had seen her movies and I knew the derivative information about her. But in preparing for her, I had to watch tons of TV performances, talk shows and appearances at festivals where she was interviewed all over the world. Finding out more about her philosophy and her attitude toward her work and her life; I didn’t know anything about that. What was shocking was that she said things that I’ve said in my interviews about the business. I found out that I was more aligned with her approach to surviving in this industry than I knew. My work is a means to an end, not an end in itself; for her it really was the end in itself. Her whole raison d’etre was what was going to survive after everything. For me, that’s not true. Otherwise coming from the East, seeing myself as an actor other than a beautiful movie star, not really fitting into the role of a star the way that Joan Crawford did, the way that other people do.… I was much closer to her in that aspect than I had realized. I just didn’t know that much about her personality, I just knew her work. Which I’m sure she was all right with that.

What were some of the things you both have said in interviews?

That she was an actor and not a movie star. Even my daughter [actress Eva Amurri] got into a fight in kindergarten saying, “My mom is not a movie star, she’s an actor.” Even she knew at five the difference. Not being completely comfortable in Hollywood and the Hollywood glamour scene. She didn’t find joy in having to dress up. She definitely wanted to be recognized, but she was a workhorse. That’s how I see myself; I’ve always seen myself as more of a character actor and so did she. I got the odd parts that no one knew how to cast. Even if the girl was pretty, it was the odd combination of characteristics where I was a shot to have the part. She definitely saw herself that way because right from the get-go, there’s a quote in the series, where she says, “Who would want to
f— that?” She definitely said publicly, “Who’d want to go home with her at the end of the picture?” So she knew from the get-go that they tried and tried and tried to make her a starlet, and glamorous, but she was never comfortable with it and she didn’t really do that well.

Did you ever have the opportunity to meet her?

No I never did, but when I was a kid and after her daughter’s scathing book came out, she got in touch with me through a director that I had worked with and wanted to know if I would want to play her. Of course I said yes. Then I talked to the director and asked what it would be, the early days and her fight with the studio. I had a few conversations with him, but I just had no idea how to facilitate that. I had no manager. My agents at the time were pretty lame and it just kind of disintegrated. That was the closest I ever came to any kind of exchange with her. At that point I think she was living in Hollywood and I have always lived in New York. Our paths never crossed socially.

How would you compare the relationship between the characters you and Kiernan play with what you know of the relationship between Davis and her daughter?

We don’t see as much as I wished we had seen of Kiernan and that relationship in the series. She went everywhere with Bette; that’s how she met her husband, she was in Cannes with her. The son went off to boarding school, the other daughter was institutionalized and B.D. became her companion and, in a way, her keeper. She did have a drink ready for her when she came home at night. Sometimes when they moved around she picked out the houses that they were going to live in and rent. It was a burden for B.D. to have that responsibility and Bette Davis was very straightforward.… B.D. claimed later she always had to have some kind of conflict and I think she always did. Or was very undiplomatic sometimes in getting what she wanted or needed. She also was a lot of fun, and she wasn’t a very pleasant drinker. That definitely made her marriage to Gary Merrill really violent. Both of them were pretty violent and the toll that took on B.D. It’s hard for the daughter of a famous woman, especially an actress, to fulfill that role. We didn’t really get much of that complexity.

How did the relationship change following B.D.’s marriage?

When B.D. met this older guy at Cannes, Bette not only allowed her to get married but supported her by giving a huge wedding. She was incredibly romantic, strangely enough. At the reception, they told her they had already gotten married for taxes or something. We put that information in the scene that took place during the planning of the wedding. So it didn’t unfold, we didn’t see the complications. There were fights. If you read My Mother’s Keeper, what she complains about is Bette coming to visit and being self-centered when the kids are sick and talking about what she brought for dinner. Kind of minor things. Bette Davis didn’t have a business manager and she was famous for just buying people houses. She gave them a lot of money and you don’t see that because our story ends before that. But she had no money because she was always giving it to all the ex-husbands and her daughter and spending it without any kind of supervision. One of the reasons she kept working and never retired was her financial responsibility. But the main reason was that’s what she did and that’s who she was. What else would she do? When Joan Crawford got older, she stopped going out because she didn’t want to be seen that way, like Greta Garbo and some of the famous beauties. But Bette just kept slugging along. She did all these pilots that weren’t picked up and the movies. She was at a film festival when she died. That was it for her. When everybody else abandoned her, she tried to hold onto her work. When her choices became fewer, that’s why it was devastating. That’s where she put everything, was in her work. I wished that we had seen more of B.D. and Kiernan. Her daughter’s betrayal was huge. She never recovered from the book she wrote. It’s ironic because Joan’s daughter wrote that book, too…you would think that could have been somewhere where they would have bonded.

What were Bette’s motivations as a producer in treating Joan the way she did, coming across as almost nitpicky and taking away whole scenes?

It’s not nitpicking when you’re trying to make something better. As a producer, she was voicing what producers voice. I mean it’s not a good movie. She was chiming in the way people do as producers to try and make something better. But she wasn’t very tactful. I think she went through the director more than we show, I don’t know that she actually gave her notes directly but she did chime in on the script. She wanted Joan to be better, she honestly felt that the things she was saying would make the movie better and would make Joan better because she needed it to be better. To sabotage Joan would have been to sabotage herself. But she just wasn’t very tactful. Why go into it in the first place if you’re going to sabotage it? She felt she was in a position as a producer to be heard and that’s what she fought for. What I love about the process is the collaboration. I think the only project I’ve ever been in that didn’t have a rewrite was Bull Durham. Thelma & Louise we changed things around and cut things on the set. Dead Man Walking we cut out huge sections…that’s part of the process. The problem wasn’t her notes, but the way she gave them. They were walking into a loaded situation and it was done wrong in very vulnerable, very volatile atmosphere.

Given the fact that Hollywood’s treatment of women as they age is such a big theme of the show, how have you found the landscape changing over the years?

Women now see other women as allies and understand that together we’re stronger; partly because our consciousness has changed, but also because the power structure is no longer completely male. You don’t have to align yourself with men in order to get things done. There’s so many more female actors who are producing projects. People did try to do it back then; my company just did a documentary on Hedy Lamarr, and when she was being aged out she became a producer with her money and she did a project. It did happen every now and then but not the way it’s happening now where so many women are able to put projects together and have the power to get the money built on their participation. There are always situations where you’re envious of someone getting a part or where you say, “Oh my God that performance was so amazing, I’m jealous,” in a kidding kind of way, but you don’t need to get rid of competition. You don’t see women as competition anymore so that’s changed. I think there is more opportunity to put together projects now without being dependent on male structure. Even though Hollywood still is male dominated. Is there ageism? Oh absolutely. Is there sexism? Oh absolutely. The fact that we’re having the conversation is the first step. If you make it a priority the way [Feud creator] Ryan Murphy has, things will change more quickly. It’s a habit almost and lack of imagination that these parts are cast in such cliche ways.

Feud: Bette and Joan airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on FX.

Twitter: @amber_dowling