Oscar winner Susan Sarandon is one of Hollywood’s finest actresses. In Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones, she plays boozy, straight-talking Grandma Lynn, who brings some much-needed levity to the home of her daughter Abigail (Rachel Weisz) and son-in-law Jack (Mark Wahlberg) after their daughter Susie (Saoirse Ronan) goes missing. (The Lovely Bones, adapted from Alice Sebold’s bestseller, goes wide this Friday.) In an interview with Rotten Tomatoes, she discussed her propensity for starring in movies about death, her approach to supporting roles, and how one never knows which performances will resonate with audiences.
RT: You’re playing the comic relief in a pretty dark movie.
Susan Sarandon: I had so much fun. Well, you know, it was a great look, and I like what she stands for. I’m always very playful — I don’t know if you were down in the press conference just now. Somebody asked me a question, and I said, “You know, even when I was doing Lorenzo’s Oil, just the way I worked to stay really loose — because I think that you find more things when you’re playful — I’m always fooling around and figuring out ways to relieve the tension.” Even when I have to be sad, because I just can’t stay all mooded up. You just get numb after a while. But in this one, it was part of my job to have fun — funny business. You know, put the booze in your purse, have your ashes everywhere, drinking, smoking constantly. And so it was like a dance for me. We had some more serious scenes that didn’t make it into the movie, Rachel and I. But even then, they were kind of… You know, I was drunk. [laughs] Or drinking, I should say. So I had a really good time. And I’d done the other parts in a lot of films, you know, really serious, losing the child, or you’re dying, or they’re sick, or whatever, so I was very sensitive to what Mark and Rachel had to do. But I had a good time.
In a lot of your movies, like Elizabethtown, In the Valley of Elah, and Igby Goes Down, there are characters dealing with loss.
SS: Oh, Moonlight Mile, even Dead Man Walking, Lorenzo’s Oil; I’ve had a death oeuvre going for a number of years now. And then Exit the King on Broadway, and then I did the Kevorkian thing recently with [Al] Pacino. That’s a very interesting time, how people deal with their mortality and the challenge of loss. When I was doing Moonlight Mile, she was very angry, which I thought was great. I’ve never seen that in a film. The other one, Cameron ‘s movie [Elizabethtown], she starts tap dancing. There’s so many ways to grieve, and none of them are right or wrong, but it certainly is an interesting time. But I’m over that now — I’m looking for non-dying parts.
Lightening up a bit?
SS: Well, romance, you know. But definitely, I don’t think I want any more children in jeopardy, or death. There’s a lot of other things to talk about now, so I think I’m going to take a little break, anyway, for a while from death, from the big D.
Sarandon in The Lovely Bones.
You read The Lovely Bones before you did the movie. Do you ever read a book and say, “If I got this role, this is how I would do it?”
SS: No. I mean, I read the book not thinking in any way of making it into a movie. It was way before that. And then, I don’t know if I would have identified with the mom, maybe, when I was reading the book, more than the grandmother a number of years ago. I don’t even think I would have thought about grandma. And then, Pete[Jackson] and Fran [Walsh, who was one of the screenwriters] wrote me a really flattering, seductive letter explaining what Grandma Lynn’s significance was, and why they thought I would be a great person do it, along with Saoirse’s audition tape. It seemed to me like they would be fun, and they respected that little part in the film, so I said yes, and I was just outside of New York, so it was great.
When you’re playing a supporting role, do you try to bring the same energy that you’d bring to a lead role?
SS: I think the downside of playing supporting roles is when the reason that you did the film doesn’t appear in the film. You think, “Oh, this is only four scenes. They can’t possibly cut two of them.” But that’s not necessarily true. So when you do something, especially for no money, and it’s a supporting part, and they cut some of your character’s more interesting lines or plot points, then that’s very frustrating. Whereas if you’re in the entire movie, like in Dead Man Walking or Bernard and Doris, you know if something’s cut, there’s still going to be enough there to carry the essence of your character. That’s the only thing. I kind of like not carrying the entire film. It’s also, in some ways, nice not to be there every single day, and when you see the film, you can enjoy it much more because you never can relax when you’re on screen. So it’s surprising to see Heaven and to see what Saoirse was doing and Stanley was doing when I wasn’t involved. So that’s the process and the downside.
So you go in and create a sort of instant zone.
SS: Yeah, and the bad news is if you’re only there for two weeks and it takes you ten days to relax, then you’re just starting to get cooking by the time it’s time for you to leave, so you have to really hop on. Wall Street [2: Money Never Sleeps, due in theaters later this year] I only worked on for a few days, so I had to be like shot out of the cannon, ready to do that. I didn’t have any time to ease into it. If you’re going to surrender, which you have to do, to the part, it’s really helpful to be surrounded by a crew that you feel safe with, a director that you feel safe with, so you always go to great lengths to try and make that environment, and if you have to do it in twenty minutes, it’s a lot harder than two weeks. Luckily now, I’ve been in the business for so long that I’m working with a lot of the same people. It’s not the same director, but the same sound department, the set guys, whatever, so that I have a little bit of familiarity and feel somewhat relaxed.
Sarandon in In the Valley of Elah.
Do you ever not know what the film is going to end up looking like?
SS: I don’t think you ever know what it’s going to look like. It’s the funniest thing, because you sit down, and when you’re talking to somebody about if you want to do the film, I always ask a director, “Why do you want to do this? Who would be your ideal cast? What do you think the movie’s about? Pretend you’re in a junket and answer these questions.” So that I get some sense of the director’s vision and where it’s going to go, and what they say. And then you see the final thing, and you go, “Well, what did we talk about?” It never seems to end up really what you thought it was going to be, and sometimes that’s great, because ultimately the director, in the end, has to go with what he gets, and sometimes the casting makes magic some way you didn’t expect, and other plotlines, you just don’t need them any more, or something’s redundant, or whatever. It’s like throwing it in a pot, and it comes out a little bit different size, maybe not the same color. And I guess that’s part of why you have to work to accomplish what you’re trying to accomplish in the moment, and not count on the result being a certain way, or you just end up a bitter alcoholic.
So you wouldn’t finish, say, Thelma and Louise and think, “I’m sure it’s going to hit a nerve with women,” or make Rocky Horror Picture Show and think “They’re going to be acting this movie out in theaters for years?”
SS: No, no, no. No idea. Just not at all. I believe with Thelma and Louise, I thought, “This is like a cowboy movie with women and cars instead of guys and horses.” You know, how much fun to play kind of like a renegade bad girl? But I had no idea we were backing into this genre, or this land, that was held so firmly by white heterosexual men. I just had no idea it would cause that. Not at all. Because I think you have to believe in your character and you have to suspend your judgment in order to go there. We thought Dead Man Walking would end up, you know, on video or something. I didn’t know people would want to watch that film more than once. It’s so scary, and I guess the redemption aspect of it made people watch it over and over and over, the least likely people. So I think you have to just do it because you want to work with those people, you like your character, you like the story, you’re curious about something, you find it scary or challenging, and then you go from there. And if it ends up managing to get distribution, managing to be released in a way that people will find it, scored in a way that doesn’t ruin it, and it’s still fairly intact, you just go, “Wow, that’s great.” You know, that’s like a bonus.
Sarandon in Elizabethtown.
So you’re not thinking about Oscars or anything like that.
SS: I would love to get a nomination, but the problem is that very often, the supporting category is crowded by people that are actually in lead parts, and so people that are in supporting parts don’t get a shot, so I don’t know what’s going to happen with that. But I would love to get a nomination, just because it’s fun, and I think Saoirse deserves it. I would love to see Stanley [Tucci] get one; I’ve worked with him twice before this [in Joe Gould’s Secret and Shall We Dance?] and he’s done such great work, and he’s such a pro and such a good guy.
So it never gets old.
SS: No. I mean, I don’t want to dress up and go just for the hell of dressing up and going. I’ve used up my coupons for that. Even getting it all together to present, depending on what’s going on, is sometimes too much. It takes a lot of energy to get out here and find a dress and, depending on if the studio’s helping you or not, it’s expensive. So, I’m interested when there’s people involved that I care about. That makes it more interesting for me.