'Feud' Star Susan Sarandon Talks Equal Pay, Apprehensions About Playing Bette Davis

"I'm not political — except in self-defense."
Courtesy of FX
Susan Sarandon

Ahead of the 2017 Emmy nominations, Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange find themselves in a much different scenario than their Feud alter egos Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were in after the 1962 release of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. Unlike the famously divided screen icons, both Sarandon and Lange are considered safe bets for awards love.

Sarandon, like Lange, just got a promising nom from the Television Critics Association for her work in the limited series. And while Feud's brief eight-episode run is long over, the FX mini is likely going to be part of the awards conversation through next year's Golden Globes. What's more, Feud's themes of female representation are part of a continuing Hollywood dialogue that should outlast any kudos. Sarandon recently spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about her decision to tackle Davis for the Ryan Murphy project — and also sounded off about her thoughts on the growing clout of women in entertainment, equal pay and making her press appearances more political.

Do you think women in Hollywood are better off than when you started your career?

Personally, I feel that power is moving into the hands of more female executives and actors. Women are less likely to think that they have to align themselves with men than before. That, in itself, shifts things.

Who's helping shift them?

There are great examples of people using their imagination and breaking the old habits that kept women down. Reese Witherspoon has had an amazing run of developing projects from books — some of which she's been in and some of which she's just produced — and that have been very successful. Ryan Murphy's Half Foundation, his promise to hire more women and diversity in very aspect of a project, shows that if you having the intention it's completely possible. Even a dialogue can have a direct impact. Geena Davis goes into studios, reads through scripts, points to a character and says, "Couldn't this be a young woman instead of a boy?" Very often, they're open to it.

What's your take on the equal pay conversation that gathered steam in the last few years?

It's still very hard to tackle equal pay in this profession. How do you decide how much anyone gets paid, anyway? If it has to do with worth, longevity or experience, then all of these character actors working for nothing would be getting paid a lot more. In any other profession, after you put in a certain number of years, you get a certain status. From an age point of view, let alone a gender or minority point of view, that's just not the way it works in Hollywood. It's completely subjective. Jennifer Lawrence said her own wage gap was her fault because she rolled over. It's an agent's fault for rolling over.

Bernard and Doris, which I did in 2006 with a tiny group of people, cost $500,000 and took 21 days to shoot. HBO end up buying it, and that money mostly went into getting the music, but we divided what we made by that sale. It was a perfectly fair way to go about getting that movie made.

Does pay dictate the kind of roles you take?

I think you often have to fight for the things that matter to you. And the framing that you often have to use is whether or not you're making things that you care about — not how many roles you get or how much you get paid for them. If you have the agency, give diverse performances and tell interesting stories that aren't just about white, heterosexual males of a certain age. When the really interesting projects come, and they're tiny low-budget films, not getting your quote can mean the picture not being made. They do look at your last quote, so you can be fenced in by that. I now have to ask myself if I want to do two green screen movies in a row, hope that they're big hits so I can get my price up, and then maybe not be able to do a small film that obviously can't pay that salary.

What's interesting to me is that what Bette Davis fought for, and what Olivia de Havilland ultimately made happen, was to keep the studios from holding you to a contract for so long. But television contracts today are exactly what they fought to get rid of in film. You sign up for a TV series, you don't see the scripts ahead of time or get any sort of approval, and it could go for seven years. We're right back where we started.

Can you tell me a little about your professional relationship with Bette Davis, in terms of the comparisons that have always been drawn between the two of you?

I've had offers to play her from the time I was in my early 20s, when she approached me through a director I'd worked with. This was after her daughter's book had come out, and she wanted to do a movie. But there was no script. It eventually just ... disintegrated. There were also two offers for plays and another movie. They just never came. Even Feud, when it first came to me, was a film. It seemed like a one-joke pony. They're mean and bitchy and that's funny — but is that all it was really about?

What turned you around?

I couldn't understand how you could stretch the making of Baby Jane into eight or 10 hours. But Ryan said it would be about Hollywood — what has changed and what hasn't. Suddenly it became a lot more textured. Still, I saw a pilot script but that was it. Finally, I called Jessica and asked her if she had any more scripts, because they were trying to close my deal, and she said, "All I can tell you is that Ryan is really enthusiastic. He loves these people, and that's a really good thing."

Did you have any lingering hesitation?

She's just so indefinable that I was terrified. Ryan said, "Well, I am too." I don't know why but that made me feel better. I needed a dialect coach to be there. Even if I got the Yankee pronunciation right, the idiosyncratic stressing of weird words and sentences and her rhythm is so specific. So he agreed to have Tim Monich on set, which was an enormous help. Ryan actually does a pretty good Bette Davis — and Joan Crawford — so we had him to help us too.

Your press appearances often veer towards the political. What inspires you to use the platform for stuff other than promotion?

First of all, I'm not political — except in self-defense. [laughs] I'd love to not have to discuss any of these things publicly. But I'm a citizen. And when journalists are not covering certain issues, I feel it's important for me to shine a little light on information that people maybe aren't getting — like Standing Rock, for instance. I think it's one way that I can use my career and not have it use me. I unabashedly and unapologetically would bring things up for some time. Now people bring them up with me, which is great. I think everything else is just so boring.