"I came of age at a time when it was very clear where the injustice was": Susan Sarandon. Photo: Eventcepts, La Dolce Italia and Creative Talent Management.
An interview with Susan Sarandon comes with a list of off-limit topics - politics, the church and anything with a whiff of Woody Allen. But Sarandon does not do bland or saccharine. Politics is at the heart of everything she says.
Only a few minutes into our conversation, Sarandon launches into a diatribe about deregulation of the US media, lambasting both former Democrat president Bill Clinton and 2016 Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump.
I don't vote with my vagina. It's insulting to think you would follow a candidate because she's a woman.
"You know, I came of age at a time when it was very clear where the injustice was," she tells me down the phone from her home in New York.
"This was before Clinton deregulated everything, before the media was taken over by just a few people. You were seeing what was going on and if you had any empathy [you spoke out]."
Sarandon, 69, is one of Hollywood's most adored actresses but it's her political drive that makes her legendary, and what irks her most is being misquoted in the media. As a veteran activist who has campaigned in several US presidential campaigns, she wants to know the right message is getting through. Clickbait, she says, is undermining democracy.
"People take so much of their news from these little short bits, so everybody gets in an uproar. It's very easy to get people hysterical and very negative about somebody and there's no truth to it, or it's exaggerated or inaccurate."
Of course, Sarandon's name usually guarantees sensational headlines. In recent months, she's spoken out against Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, weighed in on child sex assault allegations against the celebrated film director Woody Allen, and threatened to direct porn films when she's in her 80s.
She reserves special venom for Hillary Clinton and remains a staunch supporter of Clinton's defeated rival, Bernie Sanders. "I don't vote with my vagina," she tweeted in February. "It's so insulting to women to think that you would follow a candidate just because she's a woman."
Recently, she reportedly said that a win in the US presidential race for Donald Trump would lead to revolution.
"But I didn't say that," she snaps.
"I said there are some people who say they can't vote for Hillary because she doesn't stand for what they stand for, especially in terms of the environment and big business. And that if Trump were to get elected, the Green party and the independents would find it difficult to get behind Hillary, so that would keep people in the streets. But as far as there being some kind of revolution, I'm not saying that."
So what is she saying, then?
"I think it's a very interesting time when things are so obvious," she says. "When there's so much voter fraud and the veil has been pulled down on campaign financing. The Democratic Party is making a huge mistake to not let people in who will re-energise the party in a progressive way. Hillary Clinton is not progressive."
Sarandon got her big break in the 1975 cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show and went on to cement her reputation with roles in Atlantic City, Thelma & Louise, Lorenzo's Oil and The Client, all of which garnered Academy Award nominations. Her latest role is as a sassy mum in The Meddler, playing opposite Australian actress Rose Byrne.
It's hard to believe that next month marks 25 years since the Australian release of Thelma & Louise, the radical road movie starring Sarandon and Geena Davis as two friends who liberate themselves from their male-dominated world. It won an Academy Award for its screenwriter, Callie Khouri, and Oscar nominations for Sarandon, Davis and director Ridley Scott.
Sarandon was surprised by its success at the time. She told Harper's Bazaar in April that the duo were cast "in the kinds of roles usually played by guys".
Two girls with guns, in jeans and cowboy boots, weren't supposed to be a feminist statement. But that's what audiences saw - and still see. In May, US magazine The Atlantic called Thelma & Louise a "visionary feminist fable: a dark comic fairy tale that unapologetically placed two women at the center of its story and refused to dismiss them as mere princesses".
Ironically, Sarandon doesn't call herself a feminist. She describes herself more as a "humanist" and says the women's movement needs rebranding. "For a while the word 'feminist' was very strident and people didn't want to use it," she says. "But I think we have to not lose our focus by spending a lot of time debating what word to use. I think everybody is for equality and men should be feminists too."
The role she holds dearest is Sister Helen Prejean in Dead Man Walking. The 1996 film was a hard-won project for Sarandon, who fought to have it made after reading Sister Helen's book about her experience working as a counsellor on death row in US prisons.
Sarandon's then partner, Tim Robbins, directed and wrote the screenplay, and Sean Penn starred as the death row prisoner Matthew Poncelet. Sarandon won a best actress Oscar and Robbins a best director nomination. Penn won best actor at the Berlin International Film Festival; his character's hobbled walk to the electric chair remains one of the most chilling scenes in cinema.
Sarandon and Robbins, 13 years her junior, parted ways in 2009, after two sons and 23 years together. She speaks about him and their two sons, Jack and Miles, with enormous warmth. (Jack is a film director and Miles a musician who's known for wearing dresses and embracing his feminine side.)
"We just have very open conversations," says Sarandon. "You know, there wasn't anything to guide. I just was very supportive and all my kids are very interesting kids."
Sarandon will appear in Melbourne next month as a guest of the La Dolce Italia film festival and her two in-conversation appearances will be fundraisers for the Bully Zero Australia Foundation, which advocates a zero-tolerance response to bullying.
While Sarandon was never bullied as a child, she says she saw it in her children's lives - both as victims and as defenders of victims. At the Quaker school where one of her sons was bullied, she called the teachers out for failing to respond adequately. "Just suspending the bullies isn't going to do anything," she says, still passionate.
"I suggested that the bullies all write an essay from my kid's point of view.
"What's amazing is that bullying is an arbitrary exercise of power. It's not actually that they have some kind of a vendetta with that particular child - it could change the next day to somebody else. But it's the way that these kids figure out power, and it's very interesting."
Grandparenting is Sarandon's latest passion. Her eldest child, daughter Eva, recently returned to New York and Sarandon is close to Eva's daughter, Marlowe Mae.
Her children and granddaughter keep her from spending more time in Italy, which she considers a second home.
Eva's father is Italian director Franco Amurri (Sarandon has admitted that Eva was conceived on Rome's Spanish Steps) and the actress has Tuscan and Sicilian heritage on her mother's side.
"I love everything about Italy," she says. "I lived there for two years after Eva was born and I love the food and the people, they're so welcoming.
"I've got to know different areas recently. I've thought of when I'm old, where would I go? Would I go to Italy? Is that a place I want to live?"
It's de rigueur to ask older female actresses how they deal with ageing. Sarandon knows the drill and chuckles.
"Well, I'm still dealing with it, you know. What's the alternative?" she says. "The important thing is to keep strong and healthy, because the change in you is inevitable. So I think what you have to do is focus on what makes you from the inside, not from the outside. And try to feel empowered."
She says that living in New York, the city of her birth, makes the transition easier than it would be if she were based in Hollywood.
"In LA, everyone is always judging and looking at everything," she says. "Well, at least that's the way it feels to me when I'm there. When I'm in the market, holding up a head of lettuce, with no make-up on and in my sweats, I always wonder, 'Am I going to lose work?' Whereas in New York it doesn't really matter so much."
On the red carpet, where she favours mannish tuxedos and dresses with plunging necklines, Sarandon gives the impression of being a woman who never much cares what people think. But she is in the image business too, of course.
"Do I have some vanity? Of course I do," she says. "But at a certain point I think you just can't care. Being authentic is not easy but I think as you get older, your sense of what is authentic in yourself is clearer. Your perspective just gets clearer." •
Susan Sarandon will be in Melbourne for two events for La Dolce Italia on August 7. See ladolceitalia.com.au for more.