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FX’s Feud isn’t the first time Susan Sarandon has been approached to play Bette Davis.
As the Oscar winner herself tells The Hollywood Reporter, Davis reached out to Sarandon personally about portraying her in the ‘80s when Davis’ daughter B.D. Hyman released the infamous tell-all My Mother’s Keeper.
“I was too young and didn’t have the wherewithal to know even how to make that happen because at that time I didn’t know anything about developing something and my agents didn’t seem to, either. So it just kind of evaporated,” she recalls. “But she’s been in my life in one form or another since then.”
Over the subsequent years, Sarandon said she received a “number of scripts” about Davis, which is what made finally stepping into her shoes for Feud so special. “It was great to have an opportunity to do something that was so large because these gals were so large and everything else that had come to me didn’t really do her justice,” she says.
Sarandon talked to THR about her original hesitations about doing Feud for TV, the biggest misconception about Davis and her favorite responses to the project thus far.
How were you approached about the project?
Originally, when Ryan [Murphy] talked to me it was a movie, and that was years ago, and it just seemed like a one-joke kind of story. And then when he told me he wanted to do it as a series, and by that time he had become the master of these miniseries, and I didn’t understand how you could possibly do eight or 10 episodes about the making of Baby Jane. he said, “No, no, it will be about Hollywood, the context, asking the question, ‘Has Hollywood changed that much? What are women up against?'” — all of these very interesting takes. So that was so appealing, and Jessica [Lange, who plays Joan Crawford] and I have been talking about it for years, it kind of bounced around for a while, and when we started, we only had a couple scripts so we weren’t sure what the deal was going to be, anyway; we had to take a giant leap of faith.
Looking at this character, what would you kind of say was the biggest misconception about Bette Davis?
I didn’t know anything about her but her work, really, and this exaggerated version of her, and she seemed like a really no-bullshit kind of gal and a work horse and everything, but we don’t see too much of her vulnerability in the series, but I was shocked to learn of how many ups and downs and heartbreaks she had. She really was a romantic, believe it or not, and gave herself to a lot of disappointing affairs, and then of course the biggest blow was the antagonism of her daughter, which without any judgment, I can just say that really caught her by surprise. She suffered the rest of her life because her daughter had been everything, was really her companion in so many ways and suddenly at 16, she just disappeared and then there was a real power struggle within that now-triangle. I didn’t know anything about that.
She had actually, when B.D. wrote the book, Bette Davis had gotten in touch with me through a mutual director friend that she wanted me to play her, and I was too young and didn’t have the wherewithal to know even how to make that happen because at that time I didn’t know anything about developing something and my agents didn’t seem to, either. So it just kind of evaporated. But she’s been in my life in one form or another since then. There’s been a number of scripts that have come to me, so it was great to have an opportunity to do something that was so large because these gals were so large and everything else that had come to me didn’t really do her justice. So as overwhelming as the project was, it did give me an opportunity to hopefully show people a little bit more of her history and what she was about. I was surprised when I saw a lot of her interviews [to see] that we said a lot of the same things in interviews, almost verbatim, that was kind of strange because I do consider myself a character actor and never really lived in Hollywood, I wasn’t one of the beautiful leading ladies. I think my career has lasted this long because I did do a lot of character actor kind of parts, and she had the same approach. She was never comfortable with thinking of herself as a star the way Joan definitely was. She was the most beautiful woman in the world, and that was a lot to hold on to as she aged. Bette said the one thing that was always there for her was the work, and that’s why she continued to do supporting parts. It was her world, it was her passion.
Looking at the public reaction to Feud, what reactions from fans or from Hollywood surprised you the most? What stands out to you?
The whole reaction to it has been so warm. Someone told me that actually there were viewing parties where people were acting out while we were acting out — which is kind of like The Rocky Horror Show screenings — and these people would come together in groups and chat rooms as it was airing and people would be commenting and then acting it out. That was pretty unusual. But I’m just really happy that people have received it so well. I haven’t seen any of it except when I’m doing a TV show and they’re showing a clip, so I’m just happy to dine out on everybody’s reactions.
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