There aren’t many mothers who leap up and down in excitement at the prospect of seeing their daughter strip off on television. Fewer still would help their offspring prepare for an acting role by taking pole-dancing classes. But then again, Susan Sarandon isn’t your average mum.
Ask the Oscar-winning actress about 24-year-old daughter Eva Amurri’s nude scenes in the controversial ‘sex, drugs and vomit’ saga Californication, and her eyes light up. “I support her completely,” she says. “Eva has one of the most beautiful bodies God has handed out. I am so proud of her. We went to pole-dancing classes together. It was actually very hard. You have to be so strong to dance like that.”
Eva plays a student-turned-stripper in the third series of the show that created a storm when it first aired two years ago. Lobby groups in Australia and New Zealand called for an advertising boycott, complaining about a scene in which star David Duchovny smokes dope, has sex and then throws up.
And while some parents might have a problem with the show’s content, Sarandon has no such qualms. After all, she shot to fame in 1978 as the seductress mother of a 12-year-old prostitute – played by Brooke Shields – in Pretty Baby and went on to have a graphic lesbian romp with Catherine Deneuve in The Hunger.
Sarandon’s view is, if you’ve got it; flaunt it. And the voluptuous mother of three, who looks years younger than 63, is more than happy for Eva to follow in her footsteps. “She had a really good time with the sex thing,” she says. “She plays a woman who, as far as I ▶ can tell, is really in charge of her life and is not a victim. So it sounded to me like it would be a blast.”
Sarandon’s latest acting role sounds a little more staid. She plays Grandma Lynn in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Alice Sebold’s novel The Lovely Bones. The story of a young girl who has been murdered and watches over her family from heaven. But being Sarandon she’s playing it her way. “I’m kind of the comic relief,” she says. “And as it is set in the 1970s I get to wear excessive hair, eyelashes and jewellery. I don’t think I opened my mouth once without having a cigarette and a drink in my hands.”
Rachel Weisz and Mark Wahlberg play parents trying to make sense of their daughter Susie’s rape and murder. Susie – 15-year-old Atonement star Saoirse Ronan – keeps an eye on them and her killer neighbour while weighing up her desire for revenge.
Sarandon’s role begins halfway through the film when she moves in to care for the falling-apart family. She spent six weeks filming in suburban Pennsylvania and admits she was disappointed that she wasn’t needed when the production moved to New Zealand, where the ‘heaven’ scenes were shot. “I love New Zealand,” she says. “I love the spirit of the people, the Māori traditions and I like a lot of the politics.”
She is a big fan of ex-Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark and has several close Kiwi friends, including actor Cliff Curtis. “We went one Christmas and loved it so much that I wish we’d bought a house,” she says. “We looked at property because it is so far away from New York we thought it would be nice to have a base there. I wish now we had at least bought some land.
“I would also love to do more work for Peter Jackson. He kind of owns New Zealand and I love the way he has made his life pleasurable by having his work team, his partner and his kids all in the same place. The Wachowski brothers, of Matrix fame, are the same. I really admire people who can combine all aspects of life together. Peter works with his wife Fran Walsh and all the people he has known for a long time. I really like the way he has combined everything.”
Jackson, who made history with The Lord of the Rings trilogy by becoming the first person to direct three major movies simultaneously, shares writing and producing credits with his wife on The Lovely Bones. New Zealand screenwriter Philippa Boyens and Australian director of photography Andrew Lesnie are again part of the Jackson team.
Sarandon, who has just been seen in Larry and Andy Wachowski’s Speed Racer, has rarely stopped working since The Lovely Bones wrapped. She slotted in our meeting at New York’s chic Four Seasons Hotel immediately after finishing You Don’t Know Jack – a look at the life of suicide advocate Jack Kevorkian – with Al Pacino and in between shooting the long-awaited Wall Street 2 with Michael Douglas. But she makes a point of always having time for her family – long-time partner Tim Robbins, their sons Jack and Miles and daughter Eva.
Unlike many parents, New York-based Sarandon isn’t at all scared of empty-nest syndrome. Eva, whose father is director Franco Amurri, lives in Hollywood; Jack, 20, is studying film at university in California; and music-mad Miles, 17, is expected to head west once he finishes school.
“The great thing about acting is that we have so much flexibility,” she says. “I can’t wait for my empty nest as I am more than happy to visit them. Tim and I have been putting off lots of things we’ve wanted to do until they have all left home. Miles has a band and is about to put an album out. He isn’t sure where he is going to go to university yet, but it won’t be long before he is off too.”
She met actor-director Robbins on the 1988 set of Bull Durham and they have worked together on numerous projects, most notably Dead Man Walking for which she earned an Oscar playing a nun who consoles a death-row inmate.
And talking to her about 51-year-old Robbins and her children, it is clear that her family takes priority over everything else. The Thelma & Louise star says that came home to her while filming the TV movie Ice Bound about a doctor forced to treat herself for breast cancer while trapped in the dead of winter at the Amundsen-Scott research station on the South Pole. The doctor, Jerri Nielsen, was estranged from her three children when she decided to spend a year at the Pole, something Sarandon admits she found difficult to comprehend.
“That was weird,” she says. “I could not imagine spending a year away from my family. I am so attached to my children and so involved with them that I can’t imagine being away from them for so long. I didn’t get to meet Jerri because there were a lot of problems with her family – there were certain aspects of her story we could not tell. She also made it clear that she wanted Meryl Streep to play her, not me.”
Ice Bound was based on Dr Nielsen’s own book about how she discovered a lump on her breast while marooned at the Pole through the winter of 1999. After a daring supplies drop, she managed to operate and give herself chemotherapy before finally being rescued. Sarandon says she was shocked when Nielsen died in early 2009 at age 57. To her it re-enforces the fact that family life is precious.
Sarandon is the eldest of nine children. Her father Philip Tomalin, an advertising executive by day and a club singer by night, was staunchly proud of his English, Irish and Welsh roots. Her mother Lenora was a feisty Italian. She recently found herself re-tracing her family history for the TV series Who Do You Think You Are? to Wales, Italy and Sicily. Discovering the distances people were prepared to emigrate for a better life surprised her – something she feels she has in common with the millions who left Europe for Australia.
“My great-grandfather on my mum’s side came from a tiny village in Italy where there were just over 100 young men. Fifty of those went to New York and 50 went to Chicago,” she says. “It was unlikely that any of them ever returned to their home again. “There were people that came to America – and Australia – as immigrants who didn’t speak the language, who left their support system behind and their culture and could never afford to go back to visit. That is incredibly brave.”
Sarandon grew up in New York and, like Robbins, describes herself as a lapsed Catholic. She won her first acting role by accident after accompanying her then husband Chris Sarandon to a casting call for the film Joe in 1970. He failed to get the part but she was cast as a rebellious teenager. A brief role on the soap opera A World Apart followed before the 1975 cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Nominated five times for Oscars before winning the coveted best actress trophy for Dead Man Walking, she has worked almost constantly for more than three decades.
Robbins also grew up in Manhattan in a household similar to Sarandon’s. His father Gilbert was a publishing executive, night club owner and folk singer. His mother Mary was an actress. He won an Oscar for Mystic River and was critically acclaimed for his roles in The Player and The Shawshank Redemption before turning to writing and directing. Until recently, both he and Sarandon supported the Green Party’s Ralph Nader for president.
Sarandon famously threatened to move to Canada if Republican John McCain was elected president last year and she hopes to make a movie about anti-Iraq war protester Cindy Sheehan, who camped outside George Bush’s Texas ranch after losing her son in Iraq. Robbins and Sarandon, who have never married, are avid humanitarians and active in the fight against globalisation.
In 2003, the couple found themselves on an unofficial blacklist at the Oscars – along with Sean Penn, Vanessa Redgrave, Meryl Streep, Dustin Hoffman and Michael Moore – when organisers were determined to keep anti-Iraq war comments out of the 75th anniversary ceremony.
Sarandon and Robbins used their presenting role at an earlier Academy Awards ceremony, to appeal for HIV-positive Haitians to be allowed into the US. The speech did not sit well with the selection committee but Sarandon doesn’t give two hoots about that. As a UNICEF goodwill ambassador who works tirelessly for HIV and AIDS victims, she sees it as her job to keep those issues in the headlines. It is her way of giving back to society for the charmed life she leads.
Sarandon has also turned her love of table tennis into a fundraising sport. She recently invested in a private members ping-pong club in Manhattan and was on hand to help boost money for ovarian cancer research on opening night. After discovering that pal George Clooney and Edward Norton, her co-star in the upcoming movie Leaves of Grass, were ping-pong fanatics she decided the time was right to open an exclusive club with seven tables and a full bar. On opening night she swanned around sipping tequila, explaining that the Park Avenue club was a place celebrities could play without being hassled.
Ever down to earth, she cheered on her children and explained: “I love the feeling of having so many people play here. Even if there are celebrities here, I would hope that they’d be able to play and not be bothered. There is a private room, but I would prefer not to be in a private room.” Her friends say that is typical Sarandon – she doesn’t think of herself as a big star. She’s a mum first, activist and actress second.