Balancing an Oscar-winning career with a lifetime of political activism, Susan Sarandon has learnt a lot. She’s also nice enough to share said wisdom with Stylist’s Helen Bownass.
This is my third encounter with Susan Sarandon this summer. The first was at the Cannes film festival. I was at dinner on the terrace of the Hotel Martinez and she walked past, a vision of cool in a petrol-blue pyjama suit and giant cat-eye sunglasses. The second was at a dinner in Berlin where I was sat opposite her, entranced. Highlights included a debate over whether the red wine was meant to be fizzy and chatting about infamous Berlin nightclub Berghain.
The third occasion is at Soho House Berlin in her role as part of the MBcollective, a group of creatives and influencers brought together by Mercedes Benz. She’s wearing a gold nameplate necklace saying ‘Honey’. “My daughter [Eva] had it made for me by somebody that does bling for rappers,” she explains. “When she was having her first baby, we were discussing my grandma name, and one of my hair guys said, ‘My grandma was Honey’ so now that’s what [her granddaughter] calls me. It’s so cute.”
Susan Sarandon as your grandma; I can’t imagine a cooler family dynamic. The 70-year-old, who was born in Queens, New York (one of nine children), started acting in 1970 and is one of the most rebellious and iconic figures in Hollywood (“I once got called a ‘commie c**t’ and I started crying,” she says). She has a long history of activism, from Vietnam demos in the Seventies to getting arrested in 1999 for protesting about the shooting of African immigrant Amadou Diallo.
More recently she was criticised for refusing to support Hillary Clinton after campaigning for Bernie Sanders and has travelled to Lesbos with her MBcollective protégée, documentary maker Bryn Mooser, to highlight the plight of refugees. From her lengthy list of films, Dead Man Walking and Thelma And Louise are career stand-outs, although you could argue for at least half a dozen more.
Sarandon undoubtedly is a woman who has embraced life in all its many variants, who has a lot to say on so much. And so Stylist asked her about the most important lessons she’s picked up on her journey.
Activism starts at home
“Start in your neighbourhood, on your school or college board, in your local [political] office. Hold people responsible. Whatever moves you is what’s going to be the most successful. It’s also a great way to meet really cool people. It’s tribe versus bubble.”
“The mainstream media isn’t covering half of what’s going on around the world. I look at [independent news outlets] The Young Turks or Unicorn Riot or Democracy Now on my phone in the morning. Millennials know not to trust mainstream media but still it’s totally 1984 where the same phrase is repeated over and over and no-one asks for validation and then when they’ve been proven to be wrong, it’s too late.”
Never give up
“The lead up to the Iraq war was really isolating. The country was so traumatised, that even asking a question was anti-American. That’s when it got to me, getting death threats and articles about my kids and events cancelled. [What kept me going was] I thought of the mothers sending their kids off to war and the women and kids in Iraq and what was going to happen to them. I’ve always regretted what I haven’t said or done rather than what I have done.”
Find your people
“I’d already been arrested before the [1993 Academy] awards when Tim [Robbins her former partner] and I made a speech about the Haitians that had been locked up in Guantanamo. We’d done everything we could and it still hadn’t changed anything. What I found hurtful was these people in the audience would not make eye contact. The few, like Richard Gere and Robin Williams, who did [stand up for them] were punished for that. We were kicked out of the Academy for a number of years. We clung to the people who were also ostracised.”
Never believe that all is lost
“I don’t despair of humanity. I’m in touch with so many people who all say the same thing: there’s more of us than there are of them. There are a lot of people now standing up to have their voice heard because the [US political] situation is so exaggerated and so comical. A lot of women, a lot of minorities – already some trans women have gotten elected; I find that very encouraging.”
The best defence is to listen
“When people are riled up all you can do is say, ‘I hear you,’ and not argue back. I stayed down at Ground Zero after 9/11 for about five months and had a run-in with a policeman who was very aggressive. I kept trying to talk to him but he was screaming at me. Afterwards, I talked to Sister Helen [the real life nun Sarandon played in Dead Man Walking] and she said, “Nobody listens when they’re emotional. What you have to do is give him a number and say, ‘If you want to talk about this over a cup of coffee later…”’
Balance fear with fun
“Fun is very, very important. I don’t understand why you would do any job where you can’t have fun, but at the same time, I’m so lazy that if it’s not somewhat fearful for me, I don’t pay attention, There’s a fun-fear ratio that you want to get at least even, if not tipping into the fun area.”
Escape into literature
“I like to touch a book. I like to hold it. The Untethered Soul is a great book for getting perspective. I love Sex At Dawn, about early cultures, where women were in charge, but also where people took care of each other and each other’s children. I always tell people to read George Saunders’ short stories and my boys [Jack, a filmmaker and Miles, a musician] and I will always re-read [Haruki] Murakami and [Kurt] Vonnegut.”
Keep tabs on your family
“I talk to my mother almost every day. She’s always, ‘Oh, you made my day.’ She’s 95. I also speak or text with my kids pretty much every day. My daughter has a blog and her Sanpchats [sic]… is that the thing? [Laughs] I see what she’s eating. I see the youngest ones starting to stand up. I know she had to turn [her son’s] sleeping thing around because he unzipped it yesterday. I know everything.”
Susan Sarandon appears in chapter two of the #mbcollective Fashion Story launched at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Berlin.
Photography courtesy of Mercedes-Benz
Additional images: Rex Features