by Chesley Turner
photography by Jim Wright
“With a voice like whiskey on a cold day, confidence that springs from a passionate exuberance for life, and an impressive knowledge base, she’s got sex appeal in spades. ”
“I think for men and women, the whole thrust of your life, from the time you’re becoming who you are in your 20s to defining and finding your voice as you get older, is all about the choices you make and the energy you put into the people you associate with. How you end up spending your energy defines who you are. You want to be as authentic as possible and make sure that every day you make choices that reflect who you are, from the tiniest little thing to big career choices or partner choices or raising your children. Be the protagonist in your own life. Don’t be defined by convention or be enslaved by worrying about what others think.”
With a stream of formidable axioms, Susan Sarandon begins her New York Moves interview. Right from the start, we find a woman who speaks from experience to defend us from our uncertainties with assertive, inspirational encouragement. And she’s not even done yet.
“Then, even the mistakes are joyful ones, because they lead you down the right path each time. I always told my children to make as big mistakes as possible. Because being fearful is not going to lead you anywhere. The things that you regret the most are the chances that you didn’t take. You can always get yourself out of a bad mistake, but at the end of the very long day that is our life, don’t look back. I have absolutely no regrets, I only wish I had made my mistakes faster and learned my lessons quicker. But I don’t regret any of them. Everything leads you toward creating the human being you want to be. It’s just a question of remaining mindful and present.”
With apologies to the reader: it’s impossible to edit that quote down to a bite-sized snippet. It’s like particularly good creme brulee – you’re just meant to enjoy the whole thing.
Thus speaks Susan Sarandon, a mainstay of the Hollywood screen, and a woman who could remind you of your mother – protective and pragmatic and encouraging – if she weren’t so damn sexy. With a voice like whiskey on a cold day, confidence that springs from a passionate exuberance for life, and an impressive knowledge base, she’s got sex appeal in spades.
Perhaps one of the most refreshing things to find in an established actress is understanding and opinion about modern world events. One of Susan’s latest films to hit the theaters is the complicated and haunting Arbitrage. It’s the kind of film that keeps you riveted to the screen even while you’re repulsed by what you see unfolding. Watching Arbitrage through the lens of election awareness breeds a growing disgust for people who misuse power or assume that the unprivileged are ignorant or undeserving. So what was it like to create a film that addresses the ills of power and money when those things are at the forefront of every American mind? “He’s not even a sociopath!” she exclaims, referring to Richard Gere’s character, Robert Miller, whose wife she plays in the film. “The most disturbing thing about Arbitrage is that this one percent with the bulk of resources in this country and around the world – the entitlement that comes with that and feeling that you’re above the law is absolutely true.” She backtracks to specify her meaning: “It’s not all hedge fund guys that are horrible. Bill Gates has done more for healthcare throughout the world than any human being. There are people who take their money and do good things with it.” She continues, “The link between big money and government and news and information has really rewritten the moral fabric of this country. That kind of power is a game. It’s not about the money. It’s about the power and the game of power.” Who plays this game? “It’s definitely a male-dominated addiction.”
Which brings us, as is only appropriate for this month’s issue, to our national election. Wonderfully, Susan is not shy or covert about the issues that spring to the forefront of her mind this November. “We’re still being challenged over the right to determine what you do with our bodies. I think it’s crazy that those issues are still unsettled and being challenged.” But more than just taking a stance on this issue, she segues into the myriad of challenges facing women today. “I think the statistic is like 50 percent of our American households are headed by women – unless it’s gotten better and guys are sticking around – and I think we’ve learned to recognize and honor the effort that is put out by women who are holding jobs and raising children. Women are major multi-taskers and responsible for raising future generations. It’s remarkable how they make their way through this maze of challenges that are out there.”
While we’re on the subject of girl power with our Power Issue cover woman, let’s take a moment to remember Thelma & Louise. Celebrating its 21st anniversary – if the film were a person, she’d be legal this year – it’s a classic movie that sparks conversations about women’s rights, feminism, violence, and the dualistic nature of the role of sex in society. But for Susan, reminiscing about her role with another Moves PowerWoman, Geena Davis, the film was also about something more endearing and supportive. It was about aspiring to better things, and appreciating friendship. Things have changed, Susan says, for women today. Once upon a time, women saw each other as competition. But in the past few decades, there’s been a paradigm shift. Women have begun to look for, and provide, support for one another. “Certainly, what has improved over those 20 years has been the ability for women to reach out to other women and help each other. That happens more and more.” She pauses to consider a comparison to years gone by. “There was a time in generations before mine when women saw other women as a threat – I don’t know, I don’t watch Mad Men – they didn’t necessarily see women as their allies, when women were more aligned with male power. They didn’t understand the strength that they had in other women.”
Hinting at a change we’ve seen in our domestic socio-economic structure and in our own offices, this paradigm shift has also had powerful international effects, not least of all in some of the organizations she supports, such as the Somaly Mam Foundation and Heifer International. Women in these organizations have found power in joining hands and joining forces; how the cry raised against the sex trade gets louder when voices unite; how your small farming business becomes more sustainable when you work in conjunction with other women to buck the same oppression. The power of women who unite is tremendous, implacable, formidable. Susan is an excellent representative of that type of PowerWoman.
But so often, it’s still a man’s world. Whether we look within our very states, be they red-in-the-face or blue-in-the-face with political indignation, or if you look across the globe, we see a world so often run by men. As for how America stands in the sight of our worldly neighbors, Susan thinks we may have made some headway in the last four years, but the verdict is still out. “I was in Egypt right after Obama was elected and just the very fact that this man, this color, this name, that had a view of the world that was bigger than the last regime, was huge. Just the fact that Americans put him in office was huge. It restored respect for us around the world. Not just in Muslim countries, but all these countries that couldn’t understand how we were making decisions that were endangering the world.” Again, her political perspective is projected loud and clear. As for Obama? “He started off very strongly – just the fact that he claimed that we should have a dialogue with people that we see as our adversaries. The best way to deal with those people is not to ignore them. It is to have dialogue. That’s a positive thing.” The bad news for the instant-gratification-seeking average American is that these political goals and aspirations were not as immediately successful as we all would have hoped. We’re still at war, and it took us awhile to get out of Iraq. “He’s gonna be in a tricky place if Israel bombs Iran, but to his credit we’re not in there.” In case you’re wondering where the “but” is, don’t worry, it’s coming. “But solving all these problems with drones and bombing border guards… violence never solves violence.”
In her Oscar acceptance speech for Dead Man Walking , Susan’s powerful and evocative words were: “May all of us find in our hearts and in our homes and in our world a way to non-violently end violence, and heal.” Today, she echoes that sentiment and the idea that violence perpetuates violence, by conjuring not the chess-master looking for the strategic win, but rather the mother in the home. “When you have women and children and homes that are destroyed, and you see immigrants leaving war-torn regions – it’s really a mess now. There are people that are moderate in all of these countries, but it gets harder and harder to find them and to keep them moderate and keep them sane if their families are killed… it’s a horrible way to live. I don’t know the answer, but operating from a base of fear never solves a problem. We’ve been fed a doctrine of fear and otherness for years and years and years. We went back to the time of the crusades during the Bush administration. That vilification of whole nations of people is not good.”
But perhaps she does have an answer, or at least the beginning of one. It’s unsurprising that this maternal tone of protection, of insight bred from listening and understanding, comes from this woman. Yes, she’s a Hollywood icon. Yes, we’ve see her face splashed on the screen in roles as diverse as Janet in the cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show. But what we hear is the eldest of nine children, the mother of three. “As a mother and a woman, I think that we have to look for other ways to raise our sons so that they don’t feel humiliated by negotiations and compromise, and can respect other cultures and don’t have these knee jerk, phony, macho reactions to things. That’s our job to build a better nation, to raise sons that in these positions ask more questions and look for better solutions than just simplistic violence.” And to exemplify this message, there is, of course, a story from her life. “When I went to Nicauragua in ‘84, I was talking to these women there who were brought into the revolution because all the men were killed. There was no sudden breakthrough; they were in the kitchen until they ran out of men.” It wasn’t that everyone was suddenly equal; women had had to come forward because they were needed. “I was talking about machismo with this medical student and she said, ‘It’s like hemophilia; it’s carried by the mothers.’ You have to raise your sons differently. You can’t just say ‘Men don’t have respect.’ You have to start when they’re little. The socialization process for guys is so horrible – even when they have smart dads, they’re just taught from the very beginning to give up their sensitivity and be tough and not cry.”
Recognizing the role of her own industry, she points out, “The film business is part of that… We define what it means to be a man, and we reinforce sexism, ageism, racism, over and over and over again. It’s only when a film challenges the stereotypes that people call it political.”
With such compelling observations about power and politics, Susan Sarandon makes an impression on those who hear her. But in order to round out our picture of Ms. Sarandon, we’d be remiss to not recognize the more joyful side of life. For fun, you’ll find Susan at her ping-pong club, SPiN, or enjoying girls’ lunches with the friends she’s had for 30 years. “I also love being by myself and walking around the city. The Highline is my favorite place of all time. I ride my bike down through Battery Park along the river, or go walking to clear my head.” It’s clear that she is a true New Yorker. “I love New York. It always surprises me, and it has a far greater imagination than I do.”