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Susan Sarandon on Acting and Activism Early in Her Career

Oscar winner Susan Sarandon’s first mention in Variety was for a review of a 1969 production of Tom Stoppard’s “Albert’s Bridge” in D.C., alongside her then-husband, Chris. Those days, she recalls, laid the groundwork not just for her career as an actress on stage and screen, but also as a political activist.

What do you remember about that production?

I was in college! Judging from the review, I was particularly memorable. (Laughs.) I had fun working with Michael (Michael Cristofer, credited as Michael Procaccino at the time, who played Albert).

What was that era like?

I was working on the switchboard in the drama department at Catholic University when the riots and burning of D.C. happened, when Martin Luther King was assassinated. James Brown went on local TV and calmed everyone down. It was great to be there in the midst of all the war protests and Civil Rights demonstrations. It was empowering. It seemed completely natural and the only way to respond.

The world has changed since 1969.

Everybody’s so visible now. Every new building in New York is made of glass, so you can watch every move, and everyone’s posting details about every meal they’re eating. It worries me because the goals have switched. It’s about getting 15 minutes, but that fame is unearned. I wish we would regroup and make the goals about goodness and authenticity, rather than “how can I get 2,000 friends.” The advantage is that you can go outside the system and create your own work. That’s happened in the indie music scene, and now it is definitely happening with film.

Do you read reviews?

I try not to read reviews for anything, especially something I’m in. I am definitely curious, though, so I ask whoever is handling a film — the studio, maybe my agent: “How are the reviews, can you give me a scoreboard?” I often agree with the review, but sometimes they’re so personal. I made the mistake of reading one review (Pauline Kael on “Pretty Baby”), in which she called me “a ruminating cow.” Even the good ones stick in your brain and don’t help; they get in the way for me. I remember sitting in the back of a small screening room and some critics, as if looking down from the heavens, were discussing a director’s latest work and why he made that (career choice). I thought “That doesn’t have any bearing on the work.” I admire directors who try different things. I much prefer that to people playing it safe. That was a real eye-opener.

Which of your films gets the most reaction from fans?

That’s one of the things I love about the haphazardness of my choices — different films mean a lot to different people. “Rocky Horror” and “Thelma and Louise” tell people, “Don’t settle. Don’t dream it, be it.” Many girls talk to me about “Stepmom”; and “The Client” has meant a lot to people who are alcoholics. The lesson is: As an actor or director, you have to take your choices seriously. If a film registers positively with people, think about the effect of a film that reinforces status-quo attitudes that are racist or sexist or homophobic. You have to know what a film is saying, and be aware of the responsibility of choosing a film that you are putting into the zeitgeist.

What are your thoughts on theater?

I’m thinking of doing a play again. I love theater. The difference between film and theater is the difference between masturbation and making love. On film, it’s working to get one little moment but in theater you can really get in there and experience the whole thing.

Your character in your new film, “The Last of Robin Hood,” is so removed from you.

She’s not that different from some of the stage mothers I’ve experienced! She’s the classic stage mom. She has this golden girl and deludes herself into believing this guy (Errol Flynn) is going to help her. She loved being as near to the heat of celebrity as she can get.What’s interesting as a parent, and what I could relate to, was the concept of letting go of my ideas about what would make my kids happy as they get older. For example, I was determined all my kids were going to graduate from college. I had to look at my own motivations, and think, are these goals based on nothing but my own ego? I used to joke, “I want my kids to grow up and be the kind of person I want to have dinner with.” And now they are!

So parenthood is the toughest role?

There’s no way you can be overqualified for that job, and it’s a job that never ends. There are so many more ways to go wrong than right. As a mom, there are so many different stages you go through. It’s a struggle that is so relevant to discovering who you are and who they are. At the same time, my kids are going through a big adjustment to who I am.

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