She's played a witch who gains her powers after being left by her husband in "The Witches of Eastwick," the mother of a child prostitute in "Pretty Baby," the outlaw in "Thelma and Louise," and a regular wife-to-be in Rocky Horror — a film that blurred the lines of sexuality and the sexes.
"I'm happy to be a part of a film that helped people find their sexuality," said Susan Sarandon, who came to Sonoma this weekend to accept a lifetime achievement award at the Sonoma International Film Festival.
Sarandon — who's performance in "Dead Man Walking" won her an Academy Award," often plays the protagonist in her films, done with artistry and sincerity. But acting as an art? I've never been fully convinced. However, listening to Sarandon speak to a crowd of between 400-500 people Saturday night, about her most controversial roles, I may change my mind.
Sarandon is incredibly intuitive into the minds of her characters— which famously include the modern day outlaw, the lawyer who's lost her children, the baseball groupie. At times, she's even fought to create a more believable script.
When asked about her most controversial films — Thelma and Louise, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Pretty Baby, Bull Durham, Atlantic City and Dead Man Walking — Sarandon was modest.
"I seem to just do films that hit at a particular time when they become something … in the culture is asking for it, I don’t know it has very little to do with me,”Sarandon said. “I don’t know, you choose films the way you choose lovers, as something you’re trying to figure out at the time.”
"Those are all films that caused trouble, that’s what makes them iconic I think," she said. "They're all kind of controversial or almost didn’t get released."
I've been a Susan Sarandon fan since my mom sat me down when I was 10 years old to watch "Thelma and Louise." Then, of course, I've seen "The Client" more times than I can count and "Dead Man Walking," was just amazing. But even so, I wasn't sure what to expect.
I found Sarandon to be a very real. She grew up in New York, one of nine children, and never went to acting school. She was kind of "discovered" on a set with her ex-husband, Chris Sarandon. She spoke candidly about what it's like to be cult classic icon, how it felt to star in roles with actors like Jack Nicholson, Tommy Lee Jones and Sean Penn, and to how she worked with different directors.
She was very sincere; it was almost as if she was thinking out loud when asked about why she chose movies. She had to love it, she said — the role, the story, the leading men. Sarandon spoke about her characters as if they were old friends.
"Every time I decide to do a movie, it's because it's some kind of love story," Sarandon said.
She dressed simply: black flats and a merlot sweater. She laughed often and joked openly about past boyfriends, drinking wine and smoking. She watched, with the audience, several film montages starring herself.
"I can watch that because it doesn't even feel like myself anymore," Sarandon said.
I was hooked. Thrilled. She was a real person. I wanted to hear about every movie. Sarandon spoke candidly about what it was like to play the role of Louise in "Thelma and Louise," and how she threw herself into the role of Louise. It was how she described every character she's played. She became the person, and at times rewrote the script.
That movie — I popped it in right when I got home. Oh yes, I remembered. Two women on the lam for killing a man who tried to rape one of them. But it was more than that, it was a story of friendship and finding yourself. It made me feel so much at such a young age, and to hear Sarandon talk about it was remarkable. The film made me realize what kind of man I didn't want to be with, and in a way it made me feel free.
Sarandon talked for nearly 20 minutes about the scene in "Thelma and Louise" when Thelma was assaulted. Sarandon, a seasoned waitress, defends her friend who's being raped.
"I think she’s trying to figure something out, and that should be what drives her, not just revenge," Sarandon said about the role. "She’s trying to understand because she’s been raped, what leads to that … and then when that scene happens something just goes off and she basically just wants to shut him up."
In another scene, Sarandon said it wasn't believable for her character to be intimate with her character's boyfriend in the film, Jimmy, because she'd been raped in Texas.
Essentially, Sarandon rewrote the part.
It's almost as if the two are searching to find themselves through the hardships they'd been through — Thelma with a terrible husband and Louise with her attack.
"She was just unbelievable, I thought it was just inspiring even on a human level - that part about love every day, you can't beat that," said Sonoma City Council member Ken Brown.
Today Sarandon acts on Broadway and is working on a documentary about ping-pong. She says she always wants to challenge herself.
"I'm always terrified whenever I start everything," Sarandon said.