It’s the first cold day in an otherwise unseasonably warm January, and New York is teeming with bundled pedestrians who seem even more impatient than usual to get where they’re going. But Susan Sarandon is happily restful, curled up into the corner of a plush couch on the main floor of Norwood, a five-story private club to which she belongs in downtown Manhattan. While wisps of steam rise from her cup of green tea and evaporate into the air, she runs through the various ways that table tennis athletes can improve their game. “I think pingpong is the only sport where the thing you use makes such a huge difference to what you’re able to do,” says the Oscar-winning actor, who launched the New York outpost of SPiN, a 15,000-square-foot bar-training facility hybrid, in 2009.
She lists off the reasons for using short pips (or “pimples,” the grooves in the rubber coating on a paddle), and the unfair advantages of connecting the sponge to the blade with a specific type of glue that contains VOCs (volatile organic compounds), which increase spin and were deemed illegal by the International Table Tennis Federation in 2008. With the 2012 Olympic tryouts only a few weeks away, things are “getting a little serious.” Just as she’s about to launch into the intricacies of a serve (“It’s like a baseball pitch—there’s hardly any time to react”), Alan Linn, the portly British owner of Norwood, walks past.
“Did you get my invite?” he asks.
“No,” she replies, lolling on the word with an affected Cockney accent.
“Dinner next week,” he says. “It’ll be a really good mixture of people.”
“If I’m in town, for sure,” says Sarandon, who’ll travel to Emeryville, California, tomorrow to speak on a panel at The Intersection: Where Innovation Meets Social Change, a daylong event inside the Pixar Animation Studios. While there, she’ll also meet with someone who’d like to open a West Coast SPiN.
“They like to curate these nice little dinners. Before I had children I used to do that, get people together,” says Sarandon, who has a daughter and two sons. “I wonder if Louise Bourgeois had any kids,” she says about the sexually unabashed French artist who hosted weekly Sunday salons at her Chelsea townhouse until her death two years ago at the age of 98. “I never went, but they sounded amazing.” With a playful grin, she says, “I would like to grow up to be her, for sure.”
Whereas many women of a certain age resign themselves to conversations about broomstick lace and milk of magnesia, Sarandon, 65, whose sharp gaze suggests a fierce intellect beneath soulful brown eyes, speaks with vigor about protests, pot, and the road less traveled. “I’ve never had a plan,” she says. “Never in a million years did I think I was going to be an actor.” How, then, did the eldest of nine children from Edison, New Jersey, grow up to become one of Hollywood’s most beloved—and controversial—screen legends? In many ways, it’s a tale of mothers.
I. MOTHER SUPERIOR
Susan Abigail Tomalin grew up as the firstborn in a conservative house- hold run by her Irish-Welsh father, the late Phillip Leslie Tomalin, an advertising executive, and Lenora, a stay-at-home mother of Italian descent. In the third grade, during catechism at her Roman Catholic school, she wondered aloud how Joseph and Mary could have been married if Jesus hadn’t yet invented the church, and was promptly informed by her nun instructor that she had an abundance of original sin. (Although she was initially devastated by the news, it’s since become a source of pride.) She was often exiled from class and made to sit in the halls—not because she was especially rebellious at the age of 8, but because she found herself questioning certain tenets of Christianity that most students digested as fact. She refused to “go with the program,” something she’d been encouraged to do for as long as she can remember.
She didn’t acquire these seeds of dissent from her parents, but they’d been sowed nonetheless, and as she grew, so did the volume of her antiestablishment outcry. “It just seemed like Jesus wouldn’t be excluding people,” she says of the paradoxical xenophobia that’s long plagued a religion predicated on acceptance. “I started asking questions, and I suppose I never stopped.”
Chalk it up to an act of God that Sarandon would later go on to earn an Academy Award for her devastating portrayal of Sister Helen Prejean, one of America’s leading advocates for the abolition of the death penalty, in the 1995 film Dead Man Walking. Of Prejean, her close friend and an honored guest at her daughter’s wedding last October, Sarandon says, “Believe me, Sister Helen can show you so many passages in the Bible where Jesus was totally, totally down with gay relationships. The Jesus and Blessed Virgin I knew were welcoming people.”
II. SINGLE MOTHER
While studying drama, English, and military strategy at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., she met a graduate student named Chris Sarandon, an aspiring actor. The couple married during her senior year, in 1967. While accompanying her husband to an open casting call for Joe, Sarandon, who hadn’t intended to audition for the film, was asked to read for—and then offered—the part of Melissa, a privileged young woman from the Upper East Side who descends into a world of drug addiction.
It was the catalyst she needed to break into Hollywood, which she stormed with her inimitable mix of sex, strength, and smarts. Over the next decade, she starred in 15 movies, including The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the notoriously randy cult musical; Pretty Baby, an his- torical film about the last days of legal prostitution in New Orleans; and Atlantic City, a romantic crime drama for which she earned her first of five Academy Award nominations.
Sarandon ended her marriage in 1979, and soon began dating her Pretty Baby and Atlantic City director, acclaimed French filmmaker Louis Malle, with whom she shared a three-year relationship. “I had a complete meltdown in my mid-30s. I was trying to leave a marriage and feeling guilty about it, I was trying to understand who I was, and I was trying to find my voice. I crashed and burned in a big way,” she says. As if it hadn’t occurred to her before, she adds, “I don’t know about you, but I don’t trust anyone who hasn’t had a major crisis for at least a year.”
In 1984, Sarandon traveled to Italy to film Mussolini and I, a made-for-television film costarring Bob Hoskins and Anthony Hopkins. “I’d been having a good time,” she says, “But I couldn’t shake the feeling of, Really? Is this all there is?” Sarandon had recently returned from an epiphanic trip to Nicaragua with MADRE, a nonprofit organization for the advancement of women’s human rights, where she delivered baby food and milk to new mothers during a time “when we weren’t talking about the fact that we were the ones blowing up their ships.” Back in Hollywood, magazines were derisively calling Sarandon “Hanoi Susan,” comparing her to fellow actor Jane Fonda, who’d outraged many Americans by being photographed while sitting atop an anti-aircraft battery that North Vietnamese soldiers had been using to attack U.S. military. “I was kneeling in a chapel in the middle of Verona, asking for a sign,” she says. “I was so desperately in search of direction. The next thing I knew, I was pregnant.”
Although she’d been swept up in what would become a four-year love affair with Franco Amurri, an Italian filmmaker 12 years her junior who still lived with his parents, the news came as a shock to Sarandon, then 38, who’d been told by doctors that she couldn’t have children. “It was a bona fide miracle,” she says. “Suddenly, everything made sense about my body—everything made sense about everything. It was a huge turning point in my life because it separated me from some people who thought I was insane to have a baby on my own and at that age. ‘You’ll never work,’ they told me. ‘You won’t be sexy anymore.’ People actually said these things.” Determined to raise her unborn baby with or without Amurri, Sarandon said to him, “If you want to participate, you’re welcome to, but I don’t expect anything of you—which isn’t the best way to enter into a relationship, by the way.”
On March 15, 1985, Sarandon gave birth to a baby girl named Eva. “It’s not by chance that I named my daughter after Eve,” she says. “We’ve been told since the beginning of time, ‘Don’t eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Don’t ask questions or your Dad will no longer take care of you.’ There’s a really basic resistance to empowering people and giving them information.”
Sarandon came of age during the ’60s and ’70s, a time of unprecedented social and political change in this country. “If you had half a brain, you were screaming in the street. It really was about sex, drugs, and rock and roll—people doing mescaline, hugging trees, and being naked—something that’s reflected in my earlier movies, although I do look at some of them and think, Why did nobody put a bra on us? But more than anything, there was a general feeling at the time that you were empowered and you could make a difference because the Vietnam War was over. I was getting into trouble before I was a celebrity, but it just meant more when I became recognizable,” says Sarandon, who was arrested in 1999 with 218 other activists who’d been protesting the police shooting of an unarmed African immigrant named Amadou Diallo.
The spark of outspokenness that Sarandon exhibited as a young girl ignited into a fireball of political fury when she met her activist match in actor Tim Robbins on the set of the 1998 baseball film, Bull Durham. For 23 years, she and Robbins (with whom she has two sons) became a united front against all manner of injustices—an oasis of angry awareness in Hollywood, where empathy is often in drought.
While Sarandon was lauded for her magnetic turns on the big screen (she earned three more Oscar nominations—in 1992, 1993, and 1995—for her performances in Thelma & Louise, Lorenzo’s Oil, and The Client, respectively), off camera she was—and continues to be—the target of death threats and public outrage because of her political ties. After heading to Washington in 2002 to protest the possible U.S. invasion of Iraq, the United Way of Tampa sent her a letter telling her they’d no longer need her keynote speech at a benefit she’d earlier been asked to host. When, in 2003, she and Robbins voiced their discontent over President Bush’s “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” Dale Petroskey, the former president of the Baseball Hall of Fame, canceled an event in Cooperstown that was meant to celebrate Bull Durham’s 15th anniversary. He wrote to Sarandon and Robbins, saying, “Public figures such as you have platforms much larger than the average American’s, which provides you an extraordinary opportunity to have your views heard—and an equally large obligation to act and speak responsibly.”
According to Sarandon, even the New York Post once referred to her as “Bin Laden lover Susan Sarandon—I’m not sure what the exact quote was.” Of that particular attack, she says, “People were so psychologically shattered because of 9/11, and so for them to…” She trails off, shaking her head in dismissive disbelief. “Actors who do something unexpected can be threatening,” she admits. “It’s like finding out that the loafers you bought turned out to be boots.” She can’t understand, however, why anyone would lambaste celebri- ties who attach themselves to specific causes. “Do you really think there aren’t easier ways to get press than going to Darfur?” she asks. “Wouldn’t it be easier to just go to the Golden Globes? You’d do better to have a sex tape. You’d get further! But if you stand up for gay rights, you’re running a risk. If you stand up for the right to choose, you’re running a risk.” Sarandon stood up in support of both causes. “Fuck yeah—because they’re right.”
One could fill a book with the overwhelming number of enemies she has accrued over the years: MasterCard (who “misplaced” her tickets to the World Series following her participation in the commercial actors strike in 2000); a talk show audience member (who said to her, during a taping of Donahue, where she discussed the Haitians who were being held captive at Guantánamo Bay, “Why should I listen to you? You have children and you’re not even married!”); Governor Scott Walker (whom she labeled an “idiot” during a rally in Wisconsin to protest his budget repair bill); and the Anti-Defamation League (who referred to her as “hateful” and “vindictive” when she called Pope Benedict XVI, a former member of Hitler Youth, a “Nazi”), to name a few.
Her most vocal opponent, at least in recent years, has been Bill O’Reilly, who actually flew Sarandon’s mother to New York from her home in Florida to have her appear as a guest on his show. “She’s a fan of his, so she went on the show and Bill O’Reilly asked my mom, ‘How did this happen?’ meaning me—how did I happen. And she said, ‘I don’t know! My husband and I are both Republicans!’” On that same episode of The O’Reilly Factor, its host “ran this, like, Top 10 Un-American Activities voiceover thing,” Sarandon says. “They showed a video of me—with no audio, mind you—where I look like a lunatic, ranting as if I were on a platform at a protest. But when I looked closer, I realized that it was a video of me cheering at a hockey game with my sons at Madison Square Garden. That’s an example of Bill O’Reilly’s ‘journalism.’”
IV. DEN MOTHER
One week earlier at SPiN, a man in his 30s, wearing a saggy pinstripe suit, commands the attention of a packed room while performing what looks like a cross between the Running Man and a drunken cha-cha-chá. Next to him, throwing some serious shade, are two limber young women, his opponents at the club’s weekly Friday night dance competition. Sarandon stands close to her 34-year-old business partner and one of the club’s four founders, Jonathan Bricklin, with whom she’s been romantically linked since her unexpected split from Robbins in 2009. Enrapt by the scene, which owes more to Paris Hilton than Paris is Burning, she shakes her good arm in the air (the bad one isn’t injured, but rather protecting a tequila cocktail) and screams like a banshee on a bender.
Throughout the evening, Sarandon provides running commentary on the ragtag group of pingpong players, many of whom come over to give her a hug or a high-five. She wor- ries about Mark, an enthusiastic young competitor who used to wear a “Superman onesie” while playing, about whom she says, “I’m pretty sure he’s a virgin.” She raves about Dora “The Destroya,” a female pro from Hungary who urged her to read Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow, a book about how to achieve happiness through consciousness. She lovingly rolls her eyes at Ernesto Ebuen, an older player, when he objects to being pitted against an athlete half his age. “He has such a temper,” she says, laughing. “He’s probably afraid he’ll lose.”
Sarandon has become an almost maternal figure among the group of athletes who assemble in her club to train and compete. “It’s one of the only places in the world where these wonderful, nerdy kids can come and feel like rock stars,” says Sarandon, who hopes to expand the existing SPiN network (New York, Toronto, and Milwaukee) into San Francisco, Los Angeles, Berlin, and Vancouver. Despite being an avid spectator and an energetic cheerleader, Sarandon doesn’t often pick up the paddle. On a 2010 aid mission to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, she fell in the rain and “popped my toe. They had to put a new joint in, and the thing swells, and it’s generally quite unpleasant, but in the grand scheme of things it’s not a big deal.”
V. JEFF’S MOTHER
Sarandon filmed her latest project, Jeff Who Lives at Home, while hobbling around in a recovery boot. “It was really hard,” she says, “but I just had to work it out.” In the Duplass brothers’ stirring new dramatic comedy, Sarandon plays Sharon, the stifled, adventure-hungry mother of Pat (Ed Helms) and Jeff (Jason Segel), who, as the film’s title sug- gests, refuses to fly the coop. Instead, he spends his days taking hits from a bong and watching M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs on a loop.
It’s not entirely unfamiliar territory for Sarandon. Back at Norwood, her youngest son, shaggy-haired, 19-year-old Miles, enters the room to meet his mother for lunch.
“Hi, sweetie,” she says, standing up to give him a tight hug. “Your hair! It’s so wet.”
Shrugging, he says, “I just had a shower. Did you have any of the cheesecake I made?”
Miles, who’s back home for a few days from college, where he’s currently in his second year of Contemplative Studies, has taken up baking—“rugged, man baking,” he clarifies. “It seemed like a good idea when I was stoned.”
Sarandon’s 26-year-old daughter Eva, an actor with whom she’s appeared in a number of films (The Banger Sisters, Middle of Nowhere), recently bought her first house on the outskirts of Los Angeles, with her new husband, Fox Soccer broadcaster Kyle Martino. Her middle son, 22-year-old Jack, has been traveling the country while filming a documentary about homelessness in America.
Presumably, the house must feel a bit lonely. “I’ve got Rigby and Penny,” she says, referring to her two dogs, a Pomeranian-Maltese mix puppy and a Pomerian poodle, respectively. “Penny is an angel, but Rigby is a drug addict. When my kids, who compare them to Audrey Hepburn and Anna Nicole Smith, are home, inevitably there will be a leftover roach or a bit of pot lying around, and Rigby will eat it. We’ve been to the emergency room at least three times with her—once she ate a whole pack of Nicorette. Rigby is one overdose away from dog rehab.” Laughing, she adds, “But seriously, the kids haven’t left—not really!” Miles, she says, comes back on weekends. Jack spent the summer at home with seven of his friends. Eva sleeps over when she’s in town.
“In terms of empty nest syndrome,” she says, “I think they’re having difficulty with the fact that I’m now exercising my freedom, because I was very much at home up until about two years ago—when Tim and I split.” Following the release of Jeff Who Lives at Home, Sarandon will star in a staggering number of films scheduled for release over the next year: Robot and Frank, a futuristic buddy comedy opposite Frank Langella; Arbitrage, a financial thriller with Richard Gere and Brit Marling; I Hate You Dad, a wedding farce with Adam Sandler; The Company You Keep, a political thriller directed by Robert Redford; The Big Wedding, another nuptial-themed project starring Robert De Niro and Diane Keaton; and Cloud Atlas, the highly anticipated Tom Tykwer–and Wachowskis-helmed post-apocalyptic odyssey. If that wasn’t enough, later today she’ll be meeting with Septien director Michael Tully, who’d like her to star in his next film, which is about table tennis in the ’80s. She’s also meeting with the creators of Showtime’s The Big C, to discuss a possible multi-episode arc, which would film into the middle of March.
“As you can see,” she says, smirking defiantly, “I’m so busy, I don’t even have time to get a face-lift.”
Styling by Danielle Nachmani.
Photography by Catherine Servel