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The Lovely Bones - Susan Sarandon interview

Susan Sarandon in The Lovely Bones

Interview by Rob Carnevale

SUSAN Sarandon talks about playing her first grandmother in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lovely Bones, working with Irish actress Saoirse Ronan and how she pitched the performance of her comic relief character.

She also talks about her own experiences of being a mother and being there for her children, as well as some of her charity work – which she hopes to be able to do more of in the future.

Q. Is this the first time you’ve played a grandmother?
Susan Sarandon: I guess it is! I think everyone’s making such a fuss about it, so it must be.

Q. Is that a big step for you?
Susan Sarandon: I think playing a nun was a bigger step! I think you can’t think of yourself as a generic anything. You have to think of yourself as a specific person. I’m certainly old enough to be a grandmother. Actually, I’m praying my daughter and son won’t be having one soon! We have bets in our family about who’s going to have a grandchild soonest.

Q. Why don’t you want them to have kids yet?
Susan Sarandon: Because I want them to have some freedom! They don’t get what happens when you have a child – that’s forever! They do a thing in New York schools where they give you a melon to carry around… or an egg. With a couple, when they’re 14 or 15 they say like: “OK, you’re in charge of this for the next week!” It’s something that’s fragile. They have to keep handing it over. But it teaches them in a little way about having a commitment. It’s not just a fun thing to have happen. But I look forward to being able to spoil my grandchildren. I’m supposed to do all the things that they [mum and dad] don’t let them do. It’ll be fun… and I get to hand them back at the end of the day!

Q. You’ve said in print that you had been brought along to the company as the comic relief. But your character is much more than that, she holds things together when the family is threatening to crumble, doesn’t she?
Susan Sarandon: But in a drunken kind of way. I’m happy to be the comic relief, I think that she says a lot of the things that you wish you could say sometimes in a very insensitive way and that’s always fun as an actor, to be able to do the things that you normally can’t get away with. Peter and Fran wrote me a really lovely letter when they offered it to me, and I think she is important at that one moment because I think she does – very unexpectedly – hold the family together because she’s the least likely person that you would think would rise to the occasion. But sometimes you get a second chance. She seems like she’s failed miserably with her own daughter, but now she has a chance to step in and maybe at that point in her life she’s more qualified to be a better mother and to understand some of the pain and how you have to keep pushing through it.

Q. Where did you find the clue of how to play your very mercurial character? And had you read the book already?
Susan Sarandon: I read the book a long time ago and strangely enough it resurfaced at 9/11… that was the book that a lot of firefighter families for instance gravitated towards because for all of its difficulties it’s somehow reassuring. That was one of the things that I was hoping the film would also be at the end… that it talks about these ties, this energy that never dissipates, this connection that survives. So, I was a big fan of the book a long time ago. I don’t know if it’s because at the very beginning she says: “My name is Susie Salmon and I was murdered…”

But there’s something about that in the book and I think in the film also that makes you understand that somehow she’s okay before you go into all of this horrible stuff. There’s a declaration that she seems somewhat in control because she’s the storyteller. So, you don’t feel this voyeuristic exploitation of a horrible crime. And the fact that it’s not shown and not shown in the book, that somehow she disassociates herself [from it]… I was a big fan of the book. And my kids expect me to be a wacky grandmother at this point so I guess it wasn’t a huge leap. I’ve asked my kids, because their grandparents are not the best, what should you be to be a better grandmother. This woman is the opposite of that. I liked the fact that she was pro-active in her stumbling way. I think you really have to have moments where you can laugh. And everyone has their own way of mourning. You need her at one end of the spectrum of that process too.

Q. You’ve worked with younger actresses before, such as Brooke Shields early in her career. Now you have Saoirse Ronan… so what makes her so special?
Susan Sarandon: I think she’s fierce, you know. She’s really strong. I credit her family. There’s a lot that’s given talent but also she has great parents who are very down to earth. When they asked me to do this, they sent me her audition tapes and she was amazing. She’d done them with her dad and he was a really good filmmaker. So, she wasn’t just sitting in a room, she was acting. It was very clever. She actually did City of Ember with Tim [Robbins] in New York so we had met her before with her family. But she’s changed so much, even in a year. But she’s also very funny, and very curious and she has an amazing amount of energy… I didn’t work in New Zealand. I was done when they left for Christmas break, but she went on and on. She was on this movie for a long time, but she kicks butt.

Q. You once said that you looked forward to being older when looks weren’t so much the point. Is that still the case for you?
Susan Sarandon: What’s the alternative [laughs]? I think that’s a better attitude to adopt than being stuck… I don’t like looking in the mirror and seeing gravity taking its course. I’d be lying if I said I was embracing every double chin that I get. I’m definitely aware of where the camera is. But I’m looking forward to this time. I was a mum really late by most standards and I had a great time. It may not be for everybody but I was very happy that I did it. I don’t want to take my kids for granted, but by this time I think I would notice if they had any huge, huge problems. But they all seem to be pretty connected to bliss and joy and have certain strategies – some better than others. But I feel like they’re cool.

Q. Do you see them as your greatest achievement?
Susan Sarandon: I feel like they came in pretty well equipped. I wish I could say I’d achieved something with them. But I was definitely there and I was able to be there because of my job. I was very lucky that I had time… I could do my films and then not work for a while. I had already done so much that it didn’t really bother me not to work when they were little. So, it wasn’t a sacrifice at all. But now, while I feel as though I have a few good years left, I feel like I’m really ready to either be more hands-on politically and take the trips that I haven’t wanted to do. In a way, they do want you to be there still, even when they’re teenagers and pretending that’s not the case. They’re really shocked if you’re not there when you come home. So, in a way I felt like I had to be more vigilant when they were older almost, because they can tell you what they need when they’re little, and when they’re older you have to be really observant or else you miss it when they’re in trouble.

Q. You’ve always used your fame in a positive way. So, what’s your secret?
Susan Sarandon: I don’t know. I’m pretty verbal so there’s probably no secrets left, actually. Very early on, it was just very clear that this was a means to an end, not an end. And maybe it was just the time I came of age, between sex, drugs and rock ‘ roll… there was also the kind of drugs that were very spiritual in a way. Maybe because I never had a dream to be an actor, and kind of fell into it, I just always thought it was a great way to keep moving, and to learn about people and all of those things.

But the other stuff seemed to be somewhat of a distraction. I guess you could call me political, but I was always involved in the world around me and so it just made sense to use it instead of letting it use me. It helps to live in New York and not LA, because I think there’s a certain core desperation that happens in LA, because the town is only about that. And it’s very anti-ageing. I have really great girlfriend that I’ve had since I got out of college, and they all different kinds of things. They’re not actors. I have a lot of great gay guy friends… so I have a community that’s really helped me to stay who I am in a way.

My daughter also sees herself as a character actor. I never really pushed my kids to be political, but she’s already started to extend herself on her own. So, I’m really happy. I think a lot of people when they think of me think of me as this downer kind of guilt tripping person that’s going to remind you of all the problems in the world… but that’s not the way I am. So, it was great that I left them [my kids] find their own way.

Q. Do you think it’s a good thing that so many celebrities have started working for good causes?
Susan Sarandon: Yeah, more from the point of view that everyone’s vying for the same money and people need to be educated. Until journalists start covering stories and not celebrities, then the celebrities have to go to get the attention on those areas. The organisations that have the money are in the news, but the little ones are really struggling. They don’t have access to the pot unless they get somebody that can be their spokesperson or takes a trip to Darfur. That’s the only way, unfortunately.

I remember when I was in Tanzania a few years ago… it had this Aids epidemic and I was with a news team. The main documentary guy was German and we’d been on the road together for a long time, but at the very end when I went to do my interview they said: “So, you were staying in a hotel, not in a hut, so why are you here?” But I was like: “Why weren’t you here before I got here? How dare you attack me for staying in a hotel, which by the way wasn’t a great hotel, and you didn’t think to come here when this has been going on for years?” But that’s the state of the world. And I don’t just blame journalists – it’s the newspapers; they’re pulling their camps in all these countries now because their newspapers are going under. Everybody is vying for the gossip thing, so it makes sense to pull out some old celebrity to get people there. It’s unfortunate.

But George Clooney is f**king amazing. He’s really smart and he really knows his stuff. He’s gone to some really difficult areas that are trickier than paediatric Aids or something, where nobody is going to get on your case.

Read our review of The Lovely Bones

Read our interview with Saoirse Ronan