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Q&A: Susan Sarandon Talks Bernie Sanders, 'The Meddler' and More
Susan Sarandon’s debut feature was as a hippie in the landmark 1970 film Joe, starring Peter Boyle as a disgruntled blue collar worker who goes on a shooting spree against counterculture denizens of Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. While Joe would probably vote for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential race, Sarandon is on the stump for Sen. Sanders.
Sarandon is well known as an activist who has used her celebrity to support and bring attention to many causes and candidates, including 2000’s Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader. At the dawn of Bill Clinton’s presidency, while Sarandon and her then- partner, Tim Robbins, co-presented the Best Film Editing Oscar, they wore red ribbons and spoke out on behalf of people with HIV in Haiti and America. On the March 29, 1993 live telecast Sarandon said, “we’d like to ask our governing officials in Washington to admit that HIV is not a crime and to admit these people into the United States.” They went on to hail the contributions women made to the art of editing.
Nominated for four Best Actress Oscars – including for 1991’s Thelma & Louise, which is widely regarded as an iconic feminist film – Sarandon scored the Academy Award for portraying the real life anti-death penalty activist nun, Sister Helen Prejean, in 1995’s Dead Man Walking, for which Robbins was Best Director-nommed.
Sarandon has campaigned against capital punishment and also appeared in The Exonerated, a 1995 fact-based TV movie about wrongfully convicted death row inmates. A UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, Sarandon has long advocated for peace and LGBT rights and last Christmas went to Lesbos, Greece to support and welcome refugees.
The New York-born Sarandon played the female female lead in the 1975 gender bender cult classic and perennial midnight screening favorite, The Rocky Horror Picture Show – yes, 20-something Susan was “Dammit Janet!” at Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s (Tim Curry) cross-dressing lair, “do[ing] the time warp again.”
Among her many screen credits, other highlights include: Louis Malle’s 1980 Atlantic City (for which she and co-star Burt Lancaster were Oscar-nominated); portraying the daughter of Italy’s fascist tyrant in 1985’s Mussolini and I TV series; 1989’s anti-apartheid drama A Dry White Season; 1999’s stellar, pro-union, anti-censorship Cradle Will Rock; as Susan B. Anthony in the 1993 miniseries Freedom: A History of Us; portraying heiress Doris Duke in 2006’s Bernard and Doris; 2007’s anti-Iraq War In the Valley of Elah; Oliver Stone’s 2010 Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps; etc. Sarandon also produces films, including her son Jack Henry Robbins’ 2015 documentary about homelessness, Storied Streets.
In this candid conversation the activist/actress Sarandon discussed: why she’s feeling the Bern; dissent; gender issues; corporate media; disaffected Bernie voters; third party politics; her newest movie, The Meddler (no, it’s not about U.S. foreign policy); and more.
Let’s talk about Bernie. Do you have any specific title in terms of your association with the campaign?
Susan Sarandon: [Laughs.] No, I don’t. That’s such a funny question. I guess early supporter. Our paths have certainly crossed many times in the past over social justice and environmental issues. Bernie really won my heart in that hysteria leading up to the war in Iraq when everyone was so traumatized and anyone who asked any questions or tried to slow things down was really attacked. It was a very, very, very difficult time for me, because I was one of those people and I was getting appearances canceled, death threats and hate [radio] jocks were saying horrible things. My relatives were getting pressured and my children were having bad articles written about them in the [New York] Post. It was just a very tough time to be separated from the tribe. Any time they could they were calling me a “Bin Laden lover” in the papers.
And then there he was – if you Google that speech Bernie made when he voted against the war it’s so clear and has become, unfortunately, so true, every point that he made. I still feel emotional when I remember – I fell to my knees in my living room and just was so grateful because you start to feel like you’re just insane.
It’s so lonely when you take a position that everyone else is against – not that everyone was against. Senator [Robert] Byrd, I remember watching that speech, and [Congresswoman] Barbara Lee and the few people who had the courage at that moment to stand up to this wave. At that point I really was just so, so grateful to have Bernie Sanders in the world. When he said he’s going to run I immediately called the campaign and said I’ll do whatever I can.
I remember that period very well, I wrote a book called Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States, and I documented the harassment and threats you received for your outspoken, courageous stand. You’re on the cover of the book making the peace sign.
Susan Sarandon: Oh my god. We’re related now.
What are you doing for the Bernie campaign?
Susan Sarandon: I’m doing whatever they ask me to do. Personally, I’m putting onto social media anything I find that is interesting to me. Especially in the beginning, when the press was completely ignoring Bernie and not giving him a voice. I did whatever I could to support information getting out there. I went to Iowa and Indiana. Iowa, was the first stop, I believe. I went to Massachusetts and Maine…
If they want me to speak, I speak to small groups. I’ve introduced him on a number of occasions [at mass rallies], which is always lovely. I’ve gone to conferences in Iowa and across Iowa, to little storefronts and offices that were setup. You know, 15,000 volunteers came into Iowa and that was really before the press – I mean, it was Iowa [where Sanders virtually tied with Clinton in the nation’s first caucus contest] that made the press finally have to deal with Bernie.
All those people that came from out of state and all the people from in-state, the volunteers. I have to say it’s been such a gift to be able to see an America that I really hadn’t seen, being from New York…
To see the dedication and the people who were so ready to be engaged and taking back the America we know and believe in and just empowerment that happened. So that Americans across the country were saying we want money out of politics. We want to have education and healthcare and all the things Bernie talks about. That we’re ready to participate again, we understand we have to vote in the midterm elections and this doesn’t end right here, because it’s a movement.
And all different ages of people – obviously, it started with millennials, who got their information from the Internet so they were many beats ahead of those of us who were looking at establishment media. It’s really been so moving and has renewed my faith in the spirit of what made this country great. It really has.
… I did some work in New York before I left to come out here [L.A.] I talked to other celebrities, we made little videos… So basically, I just do whatever I’m asked, wherever I can help. Little things, big things, traveling whenever I can. His organization is doing a great job but it’s [laughs] definitely how can I put this? – spontaneous. Like one of my sons just did an event last night in Brooklyn that wasn’t under the auspices of the campaign. I helped, Danny DeVito, Tim Robbins and Michael Stipe [of REM] went, so if I can call people to try to coordinate when the campaign is too busy to do that, I do it. Apparently it went really, really well. I had a great conversation with Tim who ended up being a Bernie supporter and took off and just went everywhere and has really been empowered, also.
If I can cross-pollinate ideas, I do that. If I can go on Bill Maher, I do that. Because I’m doing a lot of press for this movie opening, sometimes Bernie comes up and I’ll do that. I did turn down Megyn Kelly because I felt [laughs] there wasn’t really very much to be gained from going on that [Fox News] show…
How much money have you personally donated to the Sanders campaign?
Susan Sarandon: He won’t take more than $2,700 – the maximum personal donation… Obviously, people have questioned me about certain things.
What about the gender issue?
Susan Sarandon: Especially receiving such pressure as a woman to vote for Hillary. Being shamed and having people attack me. I mean, I think it was really important for other women to see that they didn’t have to fall in line under pressure. That’s been a big thing.
Of course, a lot of Bernie’s message involves income inequality. A number of prominent female stars, such as Jennifer Lawrence, have raised the disparity of income between male and female actors. What do you think about that issue vis-à-vis Hollywood?
Susan Sarandon: Obviously, there is pay disparity. I just saw something online today about how at the Clinton Foundation the men are all getting paid much more. So they haven’t even rectified that – in top positions within the Clinton Foundation. You should look into that.
Hollywood – that’s absolutely true. But it’s a difficult thing to talk about pay inequality in a business that is so subjective in terms of pay to begin with… I think it’s great that Jennifer Lawrence talked about it and took responsibility for saying, “I should have been tougher when I negotiated.” But we’re talking about the top whatever percent of actors that are even working, that are getting these huge salaries. So it’s kind of a hard issue to tackle within the Hollywood community…
The last three or four projects I’ve done have all been directed by women, but you also can’t force someone to hire anybody, male or female. It’s hard to legislate that you should hire by gender, that’s a tough thing to do.
What do you make of the stir over your assertion [supposedly made on MSNBC’s All In With Chris Hayes program] that a lot of people wouldn’t vote for Hillary over Trump? Might you vote for Trump over Hillary if Bernie is not nominated?
Susan Sarandon: Well, that’s ridiculous. The thing that’s really interesting about that quote blurb is that it was never said in that interview. If you looked at or read the interview you’d know that all of those headlines that said that were trying to get more clicks. And it was very disappointing but very educa- – very eye opening to see how this kind of hysteria informs the information people are getting.
Because first of all, The Daily Beast, The Hill and The Hollywood Reporter would know they were falsely representing what I said, just to get traffic to their sites. That they’d do that was not that surprising but the fact that so many people started attacking me, conversations with so many followers, when they clearly hadn’t read the article. That’s the indication of how people are getting their information and what’s going on in this election cycle is just a lot of misinformation and manipulation of people that doesn’t have to do with facts.
It’s a very important thing [Hayes] brought up in that interview, which was to say that a lot of people won’t vote for Hillary. But that doesn’t mean they’d vote for Trump. And this is a very important thing to understand – Bernie Sanders is a very ego-less person and I’m sure he will tell everyone, should that happen [he loses the nomination to Clinton], to vote for the Democrat.
But he has engaged and excited a lot of independents, first time voters, environmentalists, none of whom would have voted Democrat, and are now wanting to vote for a Democrat because of him. So if it’s not him [who is the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee], why would they go ahead and support somebody who is the antithesis of what they stand for? Who supports fracking, who supports private prisons, who supports Monsanto, that’s taken millions of dollars from Wall Street and all of the interests that are contrary to their progressive beliefs?
They’re not going to just rollover. So the DNC has done everything to shut Bernie Sanders out has to deal with that reality. And that’s probably why he’s ahead [of Clinton] in every poll to beat all the Republicans. She can’t count on that fan base necessarily – something’s going to have to happen to earn those votes. That’s what I was saying.
Now, to be so simplistic as to say if an independent is disappointed in who the nominee is and… it means he’s going to go vote for Trump, is just idiotic. And I don’t even think Trump is going to get the nomination. But, you know, that’s the kind of simplistic leap that fires up just drama -but not any kind of fact based reality in a voting cycle.
Might those disaffected voters create a new party [if Bernie loses the nomination]?
Susan Sarandon: I don’t think they’ll do it this cycle. I think they all have their own parties. I don’t know what the kids will do. There’s lots of kids I talked to in New York who missed the opportunity to vote in this primary because they had to switch to the Democrats in October and they didn’t realize that. And I think they’ll stay independent… But I don’t speak for them. It’s definitely naïve to think people who are very principled and very passionate about Bernie and have not voted Democrat, before for one reason or another, are just going to slide over to Hillary.
Where are you speaking from now?
Susan Sarandon: I’m in L.A.
I understand you’re going to do Bill Maher’s HBO show Friday?
Susan Sarandon: Um, I guess you’re right. I don’t know, I’m taking one day at a time. I know I have it coming up. Today is my premiere, then I go to Vegas and then I come back.
Premiere of what?
Susan Sarandon: The Meddler, it’s a film I did together with J.K. Simmons and Rose Byrne that I also produced. So I’m doing everything for it… [Laughs.] Then it’s at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Like you, J.K. Simmons is a great actor.
Sarandon: Oh my god. You have not seen him before in something like this. He plays my potential love interest, and he’s so solid, sexy and sweet. It was right after he won the Academy Award [for Best Supporting Actor playing a driven music instructor in 2014’s Whiplash] and it’s a smaller part in a small movie with no financial compensation, really. And I thought we’d lost him – but we didn’t, even though he’s become a huge success. So, I’m very happy.
Anything you want to add?
Susan Sarandon: [Laughs.] No, I’m very excited about what’s been going on now in terms of the discussion that’s been happening. Even though it seems crazy. I’m very excited about what’s been going on because a lot of things have been talked about that wouldn’t have been talked about. Bernie has forced Hillary to really – look what just happened with the $15 minimum wage, which she said was absolutely impossible.
That was one of her main points in explaining how naive he was and how pie-in-the-sky Bernie Sanders is, and now it’s gone through in California and New York, and she rushed to [N.Y. Gov. Andrew] Cuomo’s side to sign that bill. Where she’s been saying all along that wasn’t possible. A lot of really good things are happening now in terms of actually having to deal with social justice issues, racism, all the fabulous work Black Lives Matter has done have really made all the candidates deal and define their positions – or if you try to get them to define their positions on a lot of issues – she still hasn’t really done anything about fracking, except say she supports what’s already happening in New York. But that’s a really big issue.
Keep up the great work…
Susan Sarandon: Keep up the good work.
L.A.-based film historian/critic Ed Rampell co-authored “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” (see: http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/).