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Seasoned Susan

More in demand than ever, Sarandon also remains grounded

New York — With three movies released within three weeks last month, Susan Sarandon has been a ubiquitous presence on the publicity circuit and all of the attention is making the veteran actress uneasy.

“I’m one of those people who really doesn’t like talking about acting and really has an abhorrence of talking about myself, so for me doing press is not only difficult but risky,” says the actress, who stars in “The Banger Sisters,” “Igby Goes Down” and “Moonlight Mile.”

Maybe so, but get her started on the topic of New York and Sarandon will gladly rattle on about the city where she was born and which she has called home since 1970.

“I’ll always read a script that can be shot in New York before any other script because it’s been my policy to try not to leave during the school year,” says Sarandon, who lives in Chelsea with her companion actor-director Tim Robbins and three children.

“I know everybody in my neighborhood and everybody knows me,” she says. “In New York, you’re just a piece of the mosaic. People might stop and talk to you about your work, but you don’t feel like you’re a movie star. You feel like you’re an actor.”

Strictly Gotham

While it would be more convenient to live in Los Angeles, Sarandon says she could never make the westward leap. “I can’t deal with the isolation of Los Angeles. They have big beautiful homes, fresh fruit and nice weather, but I miss the serendipity of New York. When you’re at a loss and you take a walk in New York, something interesting crosses your path — whether it’s a film or a museum or a friend. When you run into someone unexpectedly in L.A., you hit them with your car.”

Because L.A. is such a company town, there’s also the pressure to look the part of a star. “In L.A., I always have this fear that when I go to the supermarket in my sweatpants I’m losing work. In New York, I never put on makeup,” says Sarandon.

Of course, at the moment, Sarandon doesn’t seem to have any trouble getting work. In addition to the three current releases, she’s playing the evil Princess Wensicia in the television miniseries “Children of Dune” for the Sci Fi Channel that will air next year.

‘Rocky Horror’ roots

Since being cast as the hippie daughter in the indie film “Joe” in 1970, Sarandon has amassed an eclectic body of work. To some fans, she will always be known as the prudish Janet in the cult classic “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” But it was Louis Malle’s “Pretty Baby” and “Atlantic City” that earned her international acclaim, with the latter film garnering her first Oscar nomination.

Ironically, it wasn’t until her mid-40s — when most actresses begin to have a difficult time finding work as a leading lady — that Sarandon landed herself on Hollywood’s A list. Thanks to a feisty performance opposite Robbins in “Bull Durham” in 1988, Sarandon was more in demand than ever.

And if she wasn’t already a household name, “Thelma & Louise” landed Sarandon at the center of a cultural tempest. The 1991 film earned her yet another Oscar nomination, and she garnered two more in quick succession for “Lorenzo’s Oil” (1992) and “The Client” (1994).

A-list player

After more than 30 years in the biz, Sarandon enjoys the kind of gravitas afforded an elite handful of veteran American actresses that includes Meryl Streep, Jodie Foster and Sigourney Weaver, and she now wields enough clout to get a film off the ground.

“Some actors are worth money in terms of financing. Some are worth distribution. Some, like Susan, are worth both,” says “Igby Goes Down” writer-helmer Burr Steers. “She was central to getting ‘Igby’ made.”

In “Igby,” Sarandon plays a nasty Waspy matron — a dramatic contrast from the down-to-earth grieving mom she depicts in Brad Silberling’s “Moonlight Mile” or the pre-ERA feminist matriarch in “Little Women.” And as a former groupie-turned-uptight suburban housewife in “The Banger Sisters,” Sarandon acts opposite real-life daughter Eva Amurri.

Sarandon, who turns 56 this month, defies the conventional Hollywood wisdom that middle-age women don’t exhibit sex appeal or attract younger audiences. “In the real world, it’s not unusual. I’m not atypical being vital in my 50s,” says Sarandon, who adds that she’s “getting a little superstitious because I’m afraid now the work will dry up.”

Bob Dolman, writer-director of “Banger Sisters,” says Sarandon “keeps her sexuality very much alive. She’s just a beautiful woman who seems very much in touch with herself.”

It’s this combination of groundedness, self-assurance and compassion that has become a kind of trademark for the actress, and contributed to her finally taking home the Oscar for her role as Sister Helen Prejean in 1995’s “Dead Man Walking.”

“When I looked out into the audience and saw the Jack Nicholsons and Meryl Streeps and they seemed so genuinely happy that I had been nominated so many times and finally won, I felt accepted and recognized by my peers,” says Sarandon. “That meant more to me than even the statue itself.”

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