Interview: Screen Queen Susan Sarandon
In person, it's almost impossible to believe Academy Award winner Susan Sarandon could so easily step into the death-defying platform boots of her "Enchanted" character, Queen Narissa, a villain ready to off any sweet young thing that threatens her throne. In the movie, said sweet young thing is Princess Giselle (Amy Adams), the girl about to marry Narissa's stepson and become royalty in the animated land of Andalasia. Narissa sends Giselle tumbling down a magical well to live-action New York City but when her henchman (Timothy Spall) can't finish Giselle once and for all, Narissa comes to the 3-D world to get the job done.
In "Enchanted," Sarandon turns in a performance to make Disney villains like Queen Maleficent, Captain Hook, and Ursula the Sea Witch proud. Or a little jealous, given that her Queen slips into the 3-D world with as much zest as she shifts shapes to be a toothless old hag and a menacing dragon. In real life, the star is comfortably stylish, unlike her Queen — a glittery-lipped, vampy villainess who dresses to the nines just to go poison apple-picking.
We talked with Sarandon about her role in the holiday movie and as Mom of three, 22-year-old actress Eva Amurri and sons with partner Tim Robbins, Jack, 18, and Miles, 15.
How does it feel to be added to the pantheon of Disney villains?
I don't think I really got [the significance of playing a Disney villain] until people started asking me that. I was very flattered when they asked me because there's nothing more fun than [playing] one of those really juicy villains that loves to be bad who isn't conflicted about it at all. The kind of villain you can "boo." It's like the female equivalent of Captain Hook, who just wanted to be bad. I'm very happy to be part of it. I don't think I really got it until people started asking me that. I thought, "This is a really fun job and how will I do it and let me look at the cartoon..." and it hadn't really become reality until I saw the billboard, so maybe once I get my action figure, I'll understand it.
How did you approach playing this evil queen?
I saw her as a Disney icon. I just went to "Snow White" — that style, that very elegant, high-collared, very smooth, that I'm-so-bad-I-don't-even-have-to-raise-my-voice-until-I-lose-it kind of evil stepmom that is just that iconic person. They have a lot of attitude and once you get dressed up in that costume — which took eight people to get me into — and everything's sewn in, you have to kind of move in a certain way. When you look like that and your lips are crusted in sparkles and your eyebrows have been lifted, I mean, what is too much? The audience hopefully will love to hate me. It's always been my feeling that if the audience can sense that you're having fun then they will enjoy themselves. And I definitely was having fun. I mean just trying to figure out how to to pay homage to those incredible, somewhat sexual, villainesses that they had.
Do you have a favorite villain?
The evil stepmom in "Snow White."
She was just so elegant and kind of transparent about her vanity and her fear of this young, very pretty girl. It's "All About Eve" in its most glaring simplicity. This pretty young girl shows up and you have to seduce your henchman to get her out of the picture. So probably that would be my [favorite]. But it's not my favorite Disney cartoon. I think my favorite Disney cartoon was always "Dumbo."
The whole believing-in-yourself message?
Yeah, that really resonated with me. But I guess for me [the stepmom in "Snow White"] is probably the archetypal villainess.
Do you believe in true love's kiss, like in the movie? Two people walking off into the sunset?
Well, a lot of people walk off into the sunset. Do I think it's possible to walk off into the sunset? Yeah, but not without an effort. You need to work at it. Then somebody gets stuck and you have to wait for them. So I think it's possible to start walking into the sunset. I came of age at a time when no one was looking for Prince Charming to save them, that's for sure. My daughter was never into princesses. She was a cross-dresser 'til she was 12. She wore boys' clothes. She wasn't into that stuff at all. One of my sons was Captain Hook and the other was Peter Pan.
In "Enchanted," you play the queen, the witch and a dragon. A lot of people are saying that kids are going to be scared. What do you think parents should do when kids are scared about movies and that kind of stuff?
I think you have to know your kid. My son wanted to watch "The Nightmare Before Christmas" when I didn't want him to watch it and he watched it at 3 or something and he loved it and he wasn't frightened in the least. Then, other things scared my daughter that I wasn't expecting to. So I think you have to watch them and listen to them and try to understand each child individually becaue what I think is more frightening is some of the violence that's on TV and things like that. [When one of my children had a bad dream] about getting lost, I said, "Let me show you how to read a map and you can take this map to bed with you so if you dream this thing, you'll have this map in your dream." Because it's always that feeling of not being able to cope that's the scariest thing. We've also talked about the bad dreams and how they're your mind emptying out garbage from the day that you can't deal with or you don't know how to express. Every time they go back to school in the fall — still — they have the classic "I'm in my classroom naked and everyone's laughing at me and I'm not prepared..." and all the things that manifest then. I think you just have to respect your kids' fear and try to gauge what's going on by what they say.
Did you read bedtime stories to your kids as they were growing up?
I remember reading "The Indian in the Cupboard/" That is a great book. You read all the basic, really simple ones in the beginning. There was a "Peter and the Wolf," a foreign one, that my daughter really loved.
As an actress, an activist and a mother, how do you find balance?
I find a lot women are trying to balance the same things. I'm lucky because with my hours, I'm a little bit more flexible and I still find I always feel imbalanced. I feel like I do everything badly. My house is a mess. I'm finding permission slips two weeks too late. Or I give them to my son but I don't nag him to make sure he gets them in. I get a notice from school and I'm on the phone in the middle of shooting in Pennsylvania and I don't know when I'm coming home and I have to ask Tim. You know, I think that's the modern-day lifestyle. It's just a really hard thing So I have no suggestions on how to balance. The only thing I could say is learning how to forgive yourself for not being perfect is probably a really productive step.
"Enchanted" is a big holiday movie. Do you have a holiday tradition that you've passed on from your childhood to your family? And, over the years, what new ones have you created?
I'm very big on traditions. We used to have big Thanksgivings. I still make the same kind of stuffing that my father used to make. In fact, I've been known to get it ready the night before in my trailer when I've been on location.
Really? That's dedication.
You just do all the chopping. It's apples, celery, onions, different kinds of bread, butter and garlic and that's it. My kids love it. We always have a really big Thanksgiving. We always have some people that are around that are working. Ralph Fiennes came one year, Sienna Miller came another year because she was in town. And we used to have this birthday thing that I would do with the kids. When they woke up on their birthday, there was a string tied around the edge, the foot of their bed, and they would follow the string and it would go in the closet and there would be a present there and then in a drawer, under a cushion, up the stairs, in the washing machine, in the dryer, so they'd find all these little things. And that — my kids are big — only ended recently. They love that string.
Did they get upset when it ends, like, "I'm only 22, Mom!"
Oh yeah. Tim also does this huge winter wonderland with all the little houses and the train tracks and the evergreen. Now that we've had the puppy the last couple of years, we've had to put it on top of the piano and so it's been much smaller but we used to have track that went all the way around our loft. And that's gotten a little bit tame. And I think he's the only one that's really interested in it anymore. (Laughs.)
You seem very grounded as a family. How have you made sure you children pay attention to the outside world even while growing up with parents in the movie business?
Well, we grew up in New York and it's a little bit easier in New York. You're not isolated. You're on foot amongst everybody. The schools that they go to are very integrated in every way. Out here [in Los Angeles] it is tougher because you're just physically spread out, you don't see a lot of different kinds of people. So it helps that New York is just this boiling pot of all kinds of people. And I've tried to keep them abreast of what's going on in the world but sometimes they go, "Nyah, nyah nyah, Debbie Downer." So I don't think that's an effective way of doing it. (Laughs.)
Do you just try to set a good example yourself?
I think that's the most you can do. They're really good people and they take care of things. Obviously I was thrilled when my daughter was approached [be a United Nations Goodwill Ambasassador] and she went to Africa. I always hesitated to bring them with me on trips because they're very demanding and I was afraid if they weren't really enthusiastic about going that it would make my job impossible because it's hard enough to be that far for nine hours let alone if you've got a kid who doesn't really want to be there.
Talking about good examples, you've played a lot of strong women over the years, especially in "Thelma & Louise" that resonates with many women. What do you think your films say and what kind of legacy do you hope to leave?
I don't think too much about what they say. I like the idea that things are surviving. I like that they mean something to people. I like the idea that a lot of my films encourage people to be the protagonist in their own lives. For me, they're all love stories of one kind or another. I think at the end of the day the only question you have is, "Did I and was I loved?"