Susan Sarandon talks about playing Jason Segel's mom in Jeff, Who Lives At Home
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In her 40-plus years as a professional actress, Susan Sarandon has appeared in movies, soap operas, TV miniseries, sitcoms, and web videos, playing everything from an activist nun to an oversexed minor-league baseball fanatic. As she enters her late 60s, Sarandon shows no signs of slowing down. The Duplass brothers’ dramedy Jeff, Who Lives At Home (newly out on DVD) is one of half a dozen or so Sarandon projects being released this year, but it’s one that’s particularly close to her heart. In it, she plays the widowed mother of two grown men: a stressed-out yuppie played by Ed Helms, and a childlike slacker played by Jason Segel. The movie is mainly about the boys, but Sarandon has a strong subplot about a secret admirer in her office, and her panic over learning someone is smitten with her helps drive Jeff to its poignant conclusion. Sarandon spoke with The A.V. Club about the differences between playing a character she identifies with and ones that are nothing like her, and about how she manages her busy, eclectic career.
The A.V. Club: Almost all of your scenes in Jeff, Who Lives At Home take place in one office building. How long were you actually part of the shoot?
Susan Sarandon: I think not even three weeks, maybe. We didn’t have rehearsal. I was happy to be at that desk because I was in a boot, and I wasn’t very mobile. I had hurt my foot in Haiti, and I was waiting to have a foot operation, so I was happy that I wasn’t bopping around too much. But the whole shoot wasn’t very long. One of the reasons I was able to do it was because I didn’t have to be down there for months. I’d be surprised if the shoot was even six weeks.
AVC: The majority of the film is about Jeff and his brother, but your storyline is prominent, and advances the theme of the film. What did you see as your character’s connection to the other stories, and your role in the movie as a whole?
SS: I just liked her plight, because I think something like 50 percent of households in America are headed by single women now, and there are so many moms out there that have tried to do a good job but still have found themselves alienated from their kids, and in jobs they don’t like. I thought it was tragic and funny that she went from a person who’s ready to lay down her life for her child to somebody who, you know, finds her children not particularly appealing. [Laughs.] Family to me is very, very important. And I believe that the difference between siblings should be embraced, as opposed to being seen as a problem. I totally identified with Jeff, too. I mean, my whole life has been incredibly serendipitous. I personally feel that Jeff is on a mission, and is closer to having a worthwhile goal than the other two characters, who are miserable in jobs that they can’t stand, and have lost track of the people they love.
So in terms of my role in the movie, I guess they just needed that other perspective. You know, my kids do come home and stay for a while, and I feel it’s a privilege to have them, but it’s very difficult to break the dynamic that’s already established, and try to come up with new rules. I know so many mothers with daughters who’ve come back after divorce with small children, or their son has come home, and the kids go right back to eighth grade. They’re not helping with the housework, and this mom who is now in her late 50s or 60s has to take care of children again. They can’t seem to redefine it.
AVC: You say it’s a privilege to have them, though. What’s the upside?
SS: Well, my kids have been educating me now, and I’ve been re-reading [Kurt] Vonnegut because they’re reading it, or [Haruki] Murakami. They turn me on to music that I wouldn’t necessarily find; they bring art. They bring this whole pool of culture, and a different way of seeing the world that’s really, really important. That’s what I think different generations give to each other. But there has to be respect. And the problem in the household in this movie is that the mom is just doing everything, and I totally can understand that feeling of hating yourself for being the nag, but at the same time feeling so isolated and alone as you try to keep everything afloat singlehandedly. It’s a very easy trap to fall into, even for someone whose husband has not died.
AVC: This character isn’t exactly like you, but has some similarities. Generally speaking, do you prefer playing characters that share some aspects of your own life, like being a mother?
SS: Well, I’ve played mothers when I wasn’t a mother. Mainly I like playing characters who aren’t victims through the whole movie. I don’t find it interesting playing someone who’s just falling apart. I want to at least see some kind of fight. Be the protagonist in your own life. Make some decisions. They can be little decisions, too, like facing the truth in White Palace. I think the struggle for all of us is to be an authentic person, and that can be true in many different kinds of situations. Certainly now that I’m older, I get moms, or people who are dying, or people who have Alzheimer’s. [Laughs.] Or people who are dying and have Alzheimer’s, and are also a parent. I mean, there aren’t a lot of people giving you love stories when you’re 60. So that was nice, too, in this movie. I identified with the character’s fear of being intimate at this point with another person.
For me, every movie I’ve ever done is some kind of a love story. They’re all about the courage it takes to reach out and be intimate with another person, whether it’s a kid in The Client, or it’s Dead Man Walking where the guy’s in jail. All these characters have, at the heart of their story, that challenge, and I like that. That, to me, is really life’s biggest challenge, and the details of age, gender, color—whatever—are just details. The challenge is that moment when you decide to let somebody else in. And then you see what happens.
AVC: At this past Sundance film festival, you had two movies featuring two very different kinds of relationships: Arbitrage, where you play the longsuffering wife of a philandering money-manager played by Richard Gere; and Robot And Frank, where you flirt with an elderly bank robber played by Frank Langella. You see those as love stories too?
SS: Sure. Trying to be present—that’s what I have in common with all my characters, because that’s my goal. You put a little bit of you in every character, be it your sense of humor, or irony, or intelligence, or how you interpret what’s on the page. Not so much whether you’ve ever been a nun, or whether you’ve been a rich wife with a Bernie Madoff-like husband, or a librarian with a robot that works for you. Acting is all about having the fun of not necessarily being in those circumstances.
But the weird thing is that when you do that, you realize that everyone is afraid of the same things, and everybody needs the same things, and that you are capable of feeling and therefore of possibly doing things you never thought you were capable of. That, given a certain circumstance, you could kill your baby, maybe. You develop an enormous amount of compassion. It’s like enforced compassion; you’re stuck having to see things, and walk in other people’s moccasins, as they say. That’s the beauty of an acting career. Besides the education of what it means to be a baseball groupie, or something you normally wouldn’t be exposed to, like to live in a different period, to know more about F. Scott Fitzgerald, to know what it takes to survive as a nun in New Orleans in the projects, and what are the specifics of how the state kills a person… Whatever the role, it’s your job as an actor to make those characters as specific as possible, and therefore universal.
AVC: What are some examples of how you make them specific?
SS: Oh, you try to find the ways they dress, or the things they eat, or how to flesh out something on the page that maybe is just a plot-mover. It’s your job to make it breathe, and in doing so, there will be some kind of truth there that will be apparent even to people who would never be that person. Hopefully, in those moments, they think twice about something they thought they already knew, or you give a face to a situation that it didn’t have. And then people can go to dinner and have a conversation, and if you’re really lucky, they go into work the next day, and around the water cooler, they have a conversation. Or a debate. Or they’re shocked. Or they hated it. Whatever, it starts some kind of dialogue.
When you can have a comedy that has a few moving moments in it, that to me is the most brilliant of all things. Because comedy is really painful when it’s not good—more so than a whodunit, or, y’know, a really serious film. With a drama, you can patch things over with music and nice shots, but to do a heartfelt comedy and have it work is really tough.
AVC: You’ve played a wide array of parts, and lately have averaged anywhere for four to six movies a year. How do you decide to spend a couple of months working on Speed Racer or Enchanted, and then a couple of weeks on, say, Solitary Man? How do you strike a balance?
SS: You look at the script, and you want it to be something that moves you, or interests you, and a part you haven’t done before. And you always want it to be a part that in some way affects the outcome of the story. Because chances are, they’re always going to cut something, and if your part really doesn’t affect the story, you might be in the movie just to help them get their money, and then you get cut down to nothing. I mean, that’s happened to me. And then you look at the cast members, or you ask the producers when you’re hopping on at the beginning, “Who would be your ideal cast?” So you have some sense of the aesthetic of the people you’re working with. What tone are we talking about? It can be very difficult to tell.
You hope that it’s a director you respect. Certainly I wouldn’t jump to work with a director that I don’t respect, but sometimes you take on new directors and it works out brilliantly, like Bull Durham, and other times—I won’t mention which ones—it doesn’t end up so good. [Laughs.] And you don’t know whether it’s because the director got bullied, or they self-destructed in the editing room, or what. You certainly have a sniffing-around period when you’re deciding whether to do a movie, and then when you see the movie, you think, “Well, geez, I never thought that’s what we were talking about.”
You try to have a conversation ahead of time, but then really, you just have to surrender and do the best you can, and get the most you can out of the process. Because at the end of the day, there’s so many more ways for a project to go wrong than right. The music, the way it’s sold, the way it’s edited, what they thought was important that you didn’t realize. Or you’re doing a comedy and the editor doesn’t have a sense of humor, or doesn’t understand that some of the pauses between the lines are really what’s important.
And then, you know, after being in the business for so long, you just are used to getting your heart broken, and you hope that if a little gem comes out, that the studio will stand by it, and sell it in a way that would work. But most of the time, they have two or three ways of selling a movie, and if a film exists outside of those, rarely do they change their methods, because nobody wants to take a chance to try something different. Because if it doesn’t work, then they’re fired.
AVC: Does any one stand out for you where you felt the marketing was botched?
SS: Well, there’s Romance & Cigarettes. John Turturro ended up going around and delivering it to places that’d play it. And it did well in Europe. It got great reviews. But it was a very odd movie. People loved it who saw it, but the studio didn’t know what to do with that, and it was also caught in the crossfires of a studio takeover. Oh, there’s so many stories I could tell you. Anywhere But Here is another. You hope that all the good things will happen, but you know they won’t, and as long as you’re down for the fun of the creation of it, and not focused on the results or the monetary success, you don’t end up bitter. But you can understand these directors who have their hearts broken time and time again and just give up. Or drink. [Laughs.]
AVC: What one movie of yours would you pick if you wanted to show someone what you do?
SS: Well, I’m proud to say that I don’t think you could do it in one movie. [Laughs.] I think that the whole point is that I’m a character actor, and you’d have to look at a lot of different things. And I’ve been lucky to get to do a lot of different types of things, even though sometimes people have forgotten that I’ve done comedy, and then after a series of serious films, they suddenly say, “Oh, you should do more comedy,” and you think, “Well, look five years ago, and you’ll see tons of them.”
AVC: What movie of yours do you wish more people had seen?
SS: Again, the John Turturro is a great example of something that maybe wasn’t for everybody, but had they thought more unconventionally about how to distribute it, and given it some time and some visibility… I mean, I don’t even know if it’s on video, but it’s something worth watching, with a bunch of great actors. It’s very odd, though, because people sing. They burst into song constantly. Anywhere But Here, I run into people all the time that say, “Oh, I loved that film so much, but did it ever come out?” Because the studio was busy with Fight Club and with King Of Siam, or whatever that Jodie Foster movie was called.
Y’know, if a film doesn’t cost a lot of money, they’re certainly not going to spend a lot, and they make the mistake very often of putting it out wide for just a very short period of time, just throwing it out there, when what they need to do with films that are special is platform them, in my estimation. Look at how they handled My Big Fat Greek Wedding. That was a very thoughtful campaign that built, and they kept it in theaters for a long time. But they didn’t put it everywhere. Because if a film goes out everywhere, and it doesn’t sell out the entire theater the first weekend, then it’s gone, and people look for it and they can’t find it. That’s happened to me, where I’ve wanted to see a film, and I go and look for it, and it’s gone because I didn’t go out that very first weekend.
[Sarandon’s ex-boyfriend] Tim [Robbins] did a film called Catch A Fire, which was a great film about South Africa, and it got great reviews. It was a film about the torture of this guy, and how he went from being apolitical to being a terrorist. Anyways, they released it opposite Friday The 13th on Halloween. [Laughs.] I don’t know what they were thinking. Up against the film that’s about torture as a means of entertainment, and you’ve got this thoughtful movie that had great music in it, and great performances. Y’know, that movie could’ve made it.
We were just lucky with Dead Man Walking. Everyone thought no one would go see it, but Oprah got on that, and she’s the one that really loved the movie and championed it, or that movie would have been lost. There are probably more stories of movies that were good that nobody saw than there are of mediocre movies that everybody saw.