Ask 10 people what word comes to mind when they think of Susan Sarandon, and you'll get 10 different answers: fearless, political, talented, formidable, nurturing, smart, down-to-earth. Sexy? Always. It's her contradictions that make her such a powerful presence on screen.
She's played the ingénue opposite sweet transvestites in the cult classic "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." She's been the object of Catherine Deneuve's lesbian lust in the '80s vampire flick "The Hunger." She was the no-nonsense half of a duo of women road warriors in "Thelma and Louise." She's even been a nun, though a tough and tenacious one, in "Dead Man Walking."
In her latest film, HBO's "Bernard and Doris," she's plays Doris Duke, the late megamillionaire philanthropist who forms an unlikely relationship with her gay butler, Bernard Lafferty, played by Ralph Fiennes. Gay fans are going to love Sarandon in this role: She's glam and gritty, and she may just nab an Emmy along the way. But it's her work off screen that elevates her to saint status in the LGBT world. A longtime advocate for gay marriage and other LGBT issues, Sarandon brings the same dedication to her personal causes as she does to her movie roles.
Given all that, where does one begin an interview? I only had 15 minutes -- and with "Bernard and Doris" coming up, Sarandon was obviously focused on her new film. But the ever-gracious actress granted me just enough extra time to squeeze in questions about "The Hunger," seeing "Rocky Horror" with her kids, her sexual relationships with gay men in the 70's and 80's and even a quick round of "Who would you rather sleep with?"
You've had some pretty steamy roles in the past. But playing older woman Doris Duke might turn out to be your sexiest role yet. Do you think so?
I think that [lately] I've been playing a lot of what they call the "emotional heart" of the movie -- which usually translates into one of the more boring characters. You know, the wife or whatever, the glue who keeps everything together. So, yeah, to take on a glam role like this was really fun. I'd never been that blonde.
And wow -- that's quite a wardrobe you have in this movie.
Thank God for Donna Karan, who opened up her vault, and for my friend Joe Alisie, who's a nominated costume designer. I'm the type of person who needs someone to dress me, or I definitely don't pull it together like that. It's just not something I gravitate toward naturally. Joe jumped at the chance to do this. But I don't think he realized we were only going to give him, like, 75 dollars! [Laughs hard]. He started calling all the warehouses, and then people started to offer us jewelry, but we didn't have the money to pay for them. Then Bulgari sent us jewelry. They were very generous. It was this whole sort of thing where everyone was helping out.
How was it playing Doris Duke in the context of this relationship with her gay butler?
In a way, I was the "guy," so it was really fun. Doris Duke was raised in such an isolated kind of way -- it was as if she was raised not to be empathetic toward another human being. So she says and does things I don't even think she understands, nor do I think she understands the extent of the damage that she does, because she was so damaged, and her isolation was so complete. So I found her act of reaching out to another human being so compelling. He's so damaged and traumatized. It was very moving to me -- the idea of two people taking a chance to be intimate with each other, whether there's sex involved or not, bearing witness to each other's lives.
How closely did you stick to the facts of Doris Duke's life?
Instead of telling the story of all the big things we know about Doris Duke, we concentrated on [other things], like what happens when someone has enough money to indulge all the good and bad parts of whatever she desires. And what does all of that mean? What of herself does she offer to Lafferty? We try to explore all those questions.
Ralph Fiennes seemed the perfect choice to play Bernard Lafferty in this film. What do you think of his performance?
Ralph was just dignified, and you really believed he could run a household, you know? It wasn't like he was just playing some silly gay guy. He was so complicated and really chose the higher road. He was at the top of the list of guys I thought could do it, and when he said yes, I thought, "We'll figure out the script, we'll do this."
Arguably the most touching part of the movie is when Lafferty sings a song to Doris at the piano. I believe the song was "I Love the Way You're Breaking My Heart"?
Yeah, he is amazing in that scene. I think that's the one scene that you have to see to understand that she's being completely captivated by him, and that he has a crush on her. And then of course, it gets complicated when everyone starts self-destructing! [Laughs.]
What about your relationships with gay men back in the era of the film?
I remember those times, the late '70s and '80s. I had gay boyfriends. I had sexual relationships with guys who had never been with a woman, and have never been with a woman since. See, in those times you didn't have to define yourself. People weren't demanding constantly that you say what your label was, so it didn't seem like such a big deal, and it wasn't so shocking. It was just a much more generous time. And so I realized in doing this movie just how much times have really changed.
OK, switching topics. Now that your kids are older, do they have a favorite role of yours? For instance, have they seen "Rocky Horror?" And have they seen it with you in a theater?
My daughter Eva saw it with me for the first time when I was filming "Anywhere But Here." I took Natalie (Portman), Thora Birch and Lucas Haas. And I have to say, it was a particularly chaotic screening! As far as my sons go, Tim [Robbins] didn't want them to see it for a while, and I can't remember why he thought it would be objectionable. They eventually did see it sometime during middle school -- on DVD or something.
What did they think?
You know what? I have no idea. They still haven't even seen most of my movies. They've seen the ones that they've appeared in, like "Stepmom." They'll fast forward to their scenes, but that's about it.
You say that so matter-of-factly, but to the average person who's not in the movie business, that's going to sound surprising.
Well, I think it's kind of embarrassing for them. At first, when they were little, they just didn't want me to be anybody but their mom. And my daughter for the longest time told people I worked in a trailer. [Laughs.] They just weren't interested at all. Now they're older and they're all interested in film. My oldest son is studying film at university, and Eva of course is an actress herself, and Miles is really into music, so they're all much more sophisticated. But they're still not dashing out to see my movies. Eva is actually going to the "Bernhard and Doris" screening, but my youngest son isn't interested at all. Trust me, my kids aren't rushing to see any of my movies.
After 25 years, your scene with Catherine Deneuve in "The Hunger" is still voted one of the best lesbian love scenes of all time. Why do you think it holds up, even now in the post-"L Word" world?
I'm very proud of that. I remember very vividly that when we got to that scene, the only thing that was scripted was the actual rolling around in the bed. And I said to [director] Tony Scott, "You know, everyone knows what happens in the bed, but the real interesting part is how they get into the bed and what happens afterward. Now, you remember, [Deneuve's vampire character] was supposed to transfuse me during that love scene -- that's what the love scene was for.
So they had me posing in lingerie and finally I said, "Hold on. What's the first touch? Where's the first kiss?" So we wrote the part where the wine spills and I take off my shirt, and she changes it, and then we go into the kiss and all of that. But the other thing is that it was also originally written that I was drunk. And I said, "You know, I'm sorry, but do you really need to be drunk to go to bed with Catherine Deneuve? Wouldn't it be much more interesting if I went to bed with her because I chose to? And because she's hot and I want to?" So because of all that, I'm actually really happy that the scene has proven to be something that people continue to enjoy, because we all had a lot of collaboration on how it came about.
The first day of shooting that scene, I remember everyone was sort of hanging out trying to watch, and then by the third day, people couldn't have cared less. It got boring for everyone on the set! [Laughs.]
At the end of each of my interviews, I like to play a game called "Who would you rather sleep with?" I pair up two celebs, and you have to choose which you would rather be with. Would you be willing to play?
[Laughs] That's funny! I'll do it. ...
Oh my God! I think I'd kill myself. Neither one of them. Dick Cheney or Henry Kissinger? Oh, no! Another terrible one! I just can't be forced to answer that one. It's too horrible. I think I'd take the devil before either of them. Charlotte Rampling or Jacqueline Bisset? [Immediately] Charlotte Rampling. Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart? Oh that's really funny. That's a good one. How about both of them at the same time? Hillary Clinton or Nancy Pelosi? Oh, Jesus, these are hard! Hmm. Well, I guess Nancy Pelosi. I'm just not a huge fan of Hillary's. Jane Fonda or Ann-Margret? [Laughs.] You know, I think Ann-Margret, because I think she'd be more fun in bed. Madonna or Chrissie Hynde? Chrissie Hynde. Absolutely. Jodie Foster or Ellen DeGeneres? Oh, Ellen for sure. I just find her very sexy, and very funny. Plus, she's a great dancer! Amy Winehouse or Howard Stern? Oh, Jesus ... Amy Winehouse, but only after she gets out of rehab. Catherine Deneuve or Julie Christie? Well, I've already slept with Catherine Deneuve, so I'd go with Julie Christie... By Jenny Stewart Originally Published 2008, PlanetOut.com, Gay.com
Oh my God! I think I'd kill myself. Neither one of them.
Dick Cheney or Henry Kissinger?
Oh, no! Another terrible one! I just can't be forced to answer that one. It's too horrible. I think I'd take the devil before either of them.
Charlotte Rampling or Jacqueline Bisset?
[Immediately] Charlotte Rampling.
Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart?
Oh that's really funny. That's a good one. How about both of them at the same time?
Hillary Clinton or Nancy Pelosi?
Oh, Jesus, these are hard! Hmm. Well, I guess Nancy Pelosi. I'm just not a huge fan of Hillary's.
Jane Fonda or Ann-Margret?
[Laughs.] You know, I think Ann-Margret, because I think she'd be more fun in bed.
Madonna or Chrissie Hynde?
Chrissie Hynde. Absolutely.
Jodie Foster or Ellen DeGeneres?
Oh, Ellen for sure. I just find her very sexy, and very funny. Plus, she's a great dancer!
Amy Winehouse or Howard Stern?
Oh, Jesus ... Amy Winehouse, but only after she gets out of rehab.
Catherine Deneuve or Julie Christie?
Well, I've already slept with Catherine Deneuve, so I'd go with Julie Christie...
By Jenny Stewart
Originally Published 2008, PlanetOut.com, Gay.com