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“As we recognize power in the hands of women, there’s no need to write off other women,” says Susan Sarandon, one of two Oscar-winning actresses, along with Jessica Lange, who portray feuding Oscar-winning actresses of an earlier generation — Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, respectively — in Ryan Murphy‘s FX limited series Feud: Bette and Joan, as we sit down at the Empire Hotel in New York to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. “I think the generation [of women] before me was very guilty of targeting other women and making sure that they [didn’t get ahead], but I don’t see it,” she continues, shooting down any notion that she and Lange mirrored the behavior of their characters during the six-month shoot of Feud. “If you’re opposite a guy they say you’re fucking him, and if you’re opposite a woman they say you’re fighting them, so that’s just a cliche. We needed each other.”
One of the most respected actresses of her generation, Sarandon is a five-time Oscar nominee who won best actress honors in 1996, and a seven-time Emmy nominee who is nominated this year both for best variety series, as one of Feud‘s producers (Lange is another), and best actress in a limited series or movie. As it turns out, she had actually been recruited to play Davis multiple times, for various projects, over the decades before Feud — even by Davis herself — but she always was “terrified” by the prospect. The result of her overcoming that anxiety and diving fully into the part is, critics agree, one of the most impressive performances of her career, although she cannot comment. “I haven’t seen it,” she confesses, noting that it would be too painful to see which scenes were cut. “The thing that I’m most proud of is that eventually I did have fun.”
(Click above to listen to this episode or here to access all of our 173 episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Meryl Streep, Eddie Murphy, Lady Gaga, Robert De Niro, Emma Stone, Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Louis C.K., Reese Witherspoon, Harvey Weinstein, Natalie Portman, Jerry Seinfeld, Jane Fonda, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Taraji P. Henson, Justin Timberlake, Elisabeth Moss, Michael Moore, Kristen Stewart, J.J. Abrams, Helen Mirren, Denzel Washington, Brie Larson, Aziz Ansari, Stephen Colbert, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Warren Beatty, Jessica Chastain, Samuel L. Jackson, Kate Winslet, Sting, Tyler Perry, Amy Schumer, Jay Leno, Mandy Moore, Ricky Gervais, Kris Jenner & Jimmy Kimmel.
Sarandon, who is a very youthful 70, has been in the business for 47 years. She stumbled into it quite by accident, never fully bought into it, but undeniably has made her mark on it. Raised in a religious Catholic home, she went to Catholic University where, at 17, she met Chris Sarandon, a graduate acting student six years her senior, married him and ultimately accompanied him to an audition to serve as his reading partner; then, through a “serendipitous” series of events, she herself landed a part in a film called film Joe (1970). She and Chris divorced shortly thereafter, and it took her a long time to accept that acting was her profession. (“I never saw it as an end, I always saw it as a means,” she says.) In fact, she never moved to Los Angeles.
Over the years, Sarandon began making her name in a wide cross-section of films. Overcoming a singing phobia, she starred in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), of which there still are midnight screenings; “Nobody was behind that choice,” she recalls. Filming Pretty Baby (1978), she and her much older director Louis Malle embarked on a relationship, and reunited shortly thereafter on Atlantic City (1981), for which she garnered her first Oscar nomination, for best actress, and through which she and lemons forever became associated. The Hunger (1983), Tony Scott‘s directorial debut (one of many first-time helmers she’s worked with), is best remembered for a sex scene her character shares with Catherine Deneuve‘s. And Compromising Positions (1985) marked the first time she got top billing.
But the most remarkable thing about Sarandon is that almost all of her best film roles came after the age of 40, contrary to everything that is supposed to be true for women in Hollywood. Bull Durham (1988) was the best script she ever read, she says, and she fought to be a part of it, paying her own way from Italy to L.A. to audition for Kevin Costner. It was worth it: “It was really a turning-point for me,” she says (not only professionally, but also personally, as she entered a 21-year relationship with co-star Tim Robbins that produced two of her children). And while Sarandon surprisingly was snubbed by the Academy for that performance, she shortly thereafter scored four best actress Oscar nominations in five years — for Thelma & Louise (1991), which caused considerable controversy (“It got a lot of backlash, that we were [allegedly] condoning suicide and violence against men,” she recalls, but “we didn’t think of it as radical”); Lorenzo’s Oil (1992), which reunited her with George Miller, who previously had directed her in The Witches of Eastwick (1987); The Client (1994), during the making of which she first crossed paths with Sister Helen Prejean, a nun who befriended a man on death row; and Dead Man Walking (1995), in which she portrayed Prejean, en route to an Oscar win.
Over the 21 years since, Sarandon has finally caught up to other actresses of her generation in terms of discovering the harsh realities of the film industry towards women of a certain age. She has laughed about the fact that offers to play mothers have become offers to play grandmothers; that she’s increasingly dying in movies; and that meaty leads have almost entirely given way to thinner supporting parts. But she has adapted, concluding, like many of her peers, that TV is now the place to be. “They’re looking to tell stories, and they don’t have to appeal to everybody,” Sarandon explains, recalling her initial disappointment upon learning that her film Bernard & Doris (2007) would go out to the world via HBO, and her subsequent realization that it would reach many more people that way. She returned to HBO for You Don’t Know Jack (2010). And, after having turned down a film version of the Feud story that Murphy had pitched her, agreed to take it on when it was reimagined as a limited series. “Then it started to get more interesting,” she says.
Sarandon still was “terrified” of playing Davis. Davis’ cadence and vocal delivery frightened her, as did the potential campiness of the project; in fact, she says of Lange, a contemporary and Murphy regular of whom she knew only casually before this collaboration but came to love through it, “We would finish a scene and Jess and I would look at each other and say, ‘Have we just done, like, a series of memes?'” Murphy told Sarandon he shared her fears, but provided her with the tools she needed to overcome them — a dialect coach, for instance — and eventually things began to mesh.
In the midst of the shoot, Sarandon, who always has been politically outspoken and was very disappointed that Bernie Sanders was not the Democratic Party’s 2016 presidential nominee, took massive heat for suggesting that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were comparably bad candidates and then endorsing Jill Stein, a candidate who never had a realistic shot at winning. Particularly after Trump won, people directed a lot of their anger at her. “It has been tough,” she confesses, before adding, sarcastically, “I mean, it certainly is empowering to think that I, alone, against all of Hollywood, was responsible for Hillary’s defeat. That has been pretty unbelievable.” Sarandon extremely dislikes Trump, but still believes his election may serve a purpose — “This guy is such a bozo that everybody’s noticing what’s been going on. It’s a dangerous way to motivate people, but there’s such an outpouring now” — and she’s still not biting her tongue about those who oppose him. “The establishment Democratic Party is a nightmare, and they’re still not learning, and they’re gonna end up with the same situation,” the actress laments, noting that she thinks Sanders would be their best bet in 2020. “If he wants to run, I’m behind him,” Sarandon says. “Bernie, after the [2016 Democratic] primary, went to more states than [Clinton] did. He did his part.”
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