In her new film "The Meddler," Susan Sarandon plays a mother whose world revolves around her daughter. She turns up unannounced on her kid's doorstep with bagels, leaves her dozens of rambling voice mails and even starts seeing her therapist.
Sarandon's relationship with her three children is a little different. Often, the actress says, they're the ones meddling in her affairs. Especially since she split from Tim Robbins, her partner of 20 years, in 2009.
That's when she started dating a guy three decades her junior and filming a revealing AOL reality Web series with him. She visited Burning Man, the annual psychedelic gathering in the Nevada desert frequented by millennials high off their rockers. And she started talking publicly about how much weed she smokes, revealing that she's been stoned at nearly every awards show she's ever attended.
"When they got out of the house and I started being free to travel and have a boyfriend, it was quite shocking to them, because your kids know you as the person that came into being when they did," said Sarandon, who has a daughter, 31, and two sons, 26 and 23. "They were like, 'Who are you?' And I said, 'Read the press from before you were born. I was a different person, but then I was your mom, and I curtailed some of that because I wasn't that interested. But now I am, and I'm enjoying myself. You should be happy that I'm not calling you 20 times a day!'"
She also started paying more attention to her career. While she was raising her kids, she said, she was a "very hands-on" mom — she took them everywhere, reread books they were assigned in school. "It was my art form for a long time," she explained. "I really got off on it. I found them much more interesting than most of the stuff that was coming my way."
She was sitting in a ridiculously large suite here last week at Caesars Palace, where she'd been put up to receive an Icon Award from a group of cinema owners. The prize had caused her to reflect on her career and her place in the movie business, which she believes has shifted significantly in the years since "Thelma & Louise" and "Dead Man Walking." At 69, she said she's mostly offered supporting parts, like the kooky grandmother in Melissa McCarthy's "Tammy," or the four different roles she had in the Wachowskis' "Cloud Atlas."
"I've always seen myself as a character actor, which helps, because then you're not humiliated by taking a smaller part," she said, propping her foot up on a chair. (She'd recently broken her ankle). "It's not a horrible thing not to carry a movie. You go in, you have your fun, you leave. I never saw myself as a leading lady or an ingenue — pretty. And maybe that's why I've survived. ...It's not easy to go from 20 to 70 and still be in the business."
But Lorene Scafaria, the writer and director of "The Meddler" — which opens Friday — missed seeing Sarandon in heftier roles. When the TV spots for "Tammy" kept playing a couple of years ago, the filmmaker was reminded of how funny Sarandon was. "I was like, 'God, we forget how funny she is because she's so beautiful and an unbelievable dramatic actress,'" recalled Scafaria, who at that point had already been trying get her film greenlighted for a couple years. It's a personal film for Scafaria, about her relationship with her own mother, Gail, who moved from New Jersey to Los Angeles following the death of her husband. In the movie, Gail — renamed Marnie — starts to fall for a retired motorcycle cop played by J.K. Simmons. And not many studios, Scafaria found, were interested in a sexagenarian love story.
"To have a couple of actors of a certain age actually getting to play some sort of romantic scenes together is fairly unusual," acknowledged Simmons, 61. "Though I think 99% of the straight males in the United States would certainly agree that Susan Sarandon is a romantic lead. Whether she knows it or not, she's been an object of desire for a long time."
Of course, Sarandon has shown off her sultry side plenty of times before: There was the often-talked-about sex scene with Catherine Deneuve in "The Hunger," and she proudly displayed her figure in "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" and "Atlantic City." Still, Sarandon was surprised when "The Meddler" came her way. She watched a short film Scafaria had put together depicting her mother going about her daily life in L.A. —shopping at the Grove, listening to Beyoncé in the car, talking on the phone in her thick accent. She liked how specific the character was, and started working with a dialect coach to nail Marnie's heavy New Jersey accent. (Even though Sarandon grew up in Edison, N.J., she had to turn it up for the film.)
Eventually, Sony Pictures Classics would acquire the $3-million production, and when it debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall, critics were besotted with Sarandon's performance. But in the months leading up to the movie's theatrical release, those reviews have been largely overshadowed by other headlines about Sarandon and her political beliefs. A lifelong activist, the actress has devoted the majority of her time recently stumping for Bernie Sanders, traveling the country in an effort to persuade voters to pick him as the Democratic presidential nominee.
"I do whatever they need," said Sarandon, who often tweets about Sanders and even got into a public spat online with Hillary Clinton supporter Debra Messing. "In the beginning, I was introducing him to thousands of people when he wasn't getting covered at all. And when the auditoriums would be full, he would go outside to talk to the thousands of people that were outside. I think that people want to know that they count."
Meanwhile, Scafaria has received a handful of messages on her own Twitter account from anti-Sarandon people who claim they're boycotting "The Meddler" because of the actress' politics. "The only thing that would bum me out is if people didn't come to the movie because they disagree with her political view," said the filmmaker. "It's so separate. It would just be a shame. But I'm not really that worried, because I'm trying to have faith that people will get over themselves."
According to Sarandon, no one in Hollywood has ever asked her to be less outspoken for the sake of a film. In fact, she sometimes will not sign onto a project before she has an assurance that she can voice her opinions. Before she agreed to be one of the faces of L'Oréal Paris, she said, "I told my reps, 'I hope they don't have any problems with who I am.' And they said, 'No. We chose you because of who you are.'"
"If you're challenging the status quo, everything you do is going to be inappropriate," she continued. "But by now, I think people forgive me because I've been consistent through the years. Even if they don't agree with me, they know I'm sincere."
Still, she's not immune to the "online haters," who love to tell her how washed up she is.
"People will say, 'You haven't had a hit movie in 15 years.' And I think: 'Haven't I? Did I? I don't remember.' That kind of stuff doesn't bother me," she said. "The good news — and the bad news — is that Hollywood really isn't political if your films make money. There are a lot of really difficult people who keep being employed. Sean Penn has always worked. It's funny, because no one seems to remember that we had a president who was an actor. No one said to him, 'You're not allowed to have an opinion.' And then we had an actor who was a governor, and nobody seemed to mind that. It seems to only be the Democrats — the actors that are more progressive — that aren't supposed to speak out."