Liberal thesp takes her citizenship seriously

While Susan Sarandon has earned a name for herself playing strong-willed, vocal women onscreen, she’s just as outspoken in real life.

As a left-of-center political activist and celebrity spokeswoman, Sarandon has held rallies for social justice and has supported hunger-relief efforts, children in need, women’s issues, and people with HIV and AIDS. Unlike some actors who are content to simply write a check, attend a benefit or wear a colored ribbon, Sarandon places herself in the trenches to support the causes in which she believes.

In 1993, while serving as a presenter at the Academy Awards, Sarandon spoke out on behalf of Haitian refugees infected with HIV who had been interned at Guantanamo Bay. The controversial move angered some attendees who felt it wasn’t the appropriate occasion for politics.

Though she received a slew of hate mail after her speech, Sarandon doesn’t regret taking a public stand — especially since the refugees were released the very next day.

“It was inappropriate, but by definition the only way you can change the status quo is by being inappropriate,” says Sarandon. “This was a matter of life and death. The real question is whether I could have lived with myself had I not taken a stand.”

While she’s worked steadily since, Sarandon believes her vocal support of liberal causes has had repercussions on her career. “Vanessa Redgrave experienced a blacklist and there are people who won’t work with me,” she says. Her equally committed companion Tim Robbins, who directed her in “Dead Man Walking” and “Cradle Will Rock,” isn’t one of them.

Less-than-popular causes

Others in the industry admire Sarandon’s fearless support of some less-than-popular causes. “She’s knowledgeable and passionate,” says writer-director Burr Steers, who directed Sarandon in “Igby Goes Down.” “When you’ve got an audience and something you care so deeply about, I think you’re obligated to say something.”

A die-hard New Yorker, Sarandon volunteered at the emergency center set up in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. She went on to serve food at ground zero, visit firehouses and appear in free crisis counseling ads on television.

“After 9/11, I feel like even more of a dedicated New Yorker,” says Sarandon. “I’m one of those people who hope we never go back to normal because I think the loss and the shock and the horror has not only galvanized New Yorkers but shown them to be a breed apart from everybody and has brought out the best in us.”

Sarandon devotes an enormous amount of time to the various organizations she supports — whether she’s planting community gardens or bringing food to homeless people. In 1999, she was named a special representative for the United Nations Children’s Fund. In that role, Sarandon visited Tanzania and India to raise awareness about HIV.

She’s also done work for Amnesty Intl., Conservation Intl., the Pediatric AIDS Foundation, the Children’s Defense Fund, City Harvest, the Heifer Project, the Million Mom March and the Green Party, among many other organizations.

“She really is the ultimate example of a celebrity advocate. She not only cares about the issues, she understands them,” says Robin Bronk, executive director, the Creative Coalition, a nonprofit arts advocacy organization that Sarandon co-founded in 1986. “Just because she is a celebrity doesn’t mean she checks her citizenry at the stage door.”

Responsibility of spotlight

And if necessary, she’s not afraid to get arrested. In 1999, Sarandon was arrested for disorderly conducted during a protest in New York over the shooting of unarmed African emigrant Amadou Diallo by four policemen.

Sarandon dismisses critics who say that actors should act and not serve as spokespeople for various causes.

“They belong to the Leni Riefenstahl style of artistic endeavor where you don’t take any responsibility. As an outsider, its an artist’s job always to give people a perspective they don’t have and to question what’s going on,” she says. “Just because you’re an artist, you shouldn’t give up your obligation as a citizen.”

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