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“Speaking Freely” show recorded June 4, 2002, in New York.
Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a conversation about free speech and America. I’m Ken Paulson. Our guest today is a highly respected actress, activist, and citizen; Susan Sarandon, welcome.
Susan Sarandon: Thank you.
Paulson: I know you’ve spent your entire career, your entire life balancing art and activism. When was the first hint that you would some day be the kind of woman who was arrested for her beliefs?
Sarandon: Well, I was, I was just lucky to come of age at a time when your, I think, natural sense of need for justice and need for equality and all those things had issues that were very clear. I mean, there was the war. There was, you know, the rise of women wanting equal pay. There was voter registration in the South, desegregation. And there wasn’t quite as much ability — at that time, the media wasn’t owned by just a handful of people, and so you were getting a lot of views, and they hadn’t yet figured out not to allow the press in. So you had pictures. You had — part of being young and being idealistic meant, you know, looking for a better way around the violence, looking for a better way for everybody. So it just seemed like a natural progression. It was much more natural than becoming an actor.
Paulson: Did you, did you remember your first march — protest?
Sarandon: Well, Washington — I was in D.C. so it was just every other day, and I was there when Washington burned. One of my jobs, to work my way through college, was being on a switchboard at Catholic University. And you know, the reports coming in after Martin Luther King’s assassination. I was there for all the assassinations, and it was a really horrible time, and the troops were there, and I remember going out and, you know, being arrested. The first time that I tried to be arrested, they kind of left the little paddy wagon, and I just got off and went back into the crowd. So it wasn’t even a successful arrest. But it didn’t feel as lonely as it does now.
Paulson: So the first time you ended up in handcuffs or being led away, it was not a photo opportunity, but, but that changed later, and of course, you’ve used your fame in a way to call attention to causes in which you believe. I’d like to talk about a few of your films. You’ve made a good number of movies, and yet a number of them in particular have this afterlife, have a resonance that people talk about them for years afterwards. Some, you would never expect, and I’d love to hear how you got involved in “Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
Sarandon: I was always afraid to sing. I grew up in a house where I was told that I could not sing. They were probably right, but I couldn’t even hum. And so I had almost a phobia about it, and I had a friend who was in the stage show of the “Rocky Horror Show,” and so I knew Tim Curry, and I had met some of these people, and I was out in California, and I was set to do another movie. My film career was already underway, and I came by just to say “Hi,” and they said, “Oh, what a good idea. Would you read this?” You know, it’s just like one of those crazy stories, and I was really funny, and the thing about Janet is that nobody before that had figured out a way to make her funny, and for me, she was kind of a parody of every ingénue that I had played up to that point. And they said, “Well — ” I said, “Yeah, but I can’t sing,” and they said, “Well, can you sing ‘Happy Birthday’? And can you hit this? And can you — ” And I thought, “You know what? To — my fear of singing is complete ego involvement. It’s just being self-conscious. Everybody can sing; everybody can dance, some people, much, much better than others, but you shouldn’t be — that’s a natural kind of thing. If I get myself into this situation, surely, they’ll give me drugs or alcohol or something to get me through the recording, you know, and I’ll get over my phobia.” So I thought, “Well, what the hell. I know what this film’s going to be — this other film. I don’t know. This is a — you know, this is a wild card, this one. So what the hell? Let’s just go, you know.” And I went, and they didn’t give me alcohol and drugs, and I was — just spent the entire recording session apologizing, and eventually got through it, got my voice on the film, and got pneumonia and had a great time, and who knew it would end up being what it is?
Paulson: And yet, at the time, you had a thriving career. You had been in “The Great Waldo Pepper” with Robert Redford. Which is a pretty conventional movie —
Paulson: And then you do this film — you know, “A Sweet Transvestite from Transylvania.” Where was your agent? Where was your manager, saying, “What are you doing?”
Sarandon: Well, I think they figured out early enough that they were just there as a sounding board, and I think you have to go from your heart, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned when people ask me that are aspiring actors, you know, “What should I do?” I say, “Look, you know, follow your heart, and do the stories that you want to tell, and — because, really, there’s no rules.” So many of the things that have ended up being really important in my career — not to mention the fact that every time I have a child, I have to take off over a year. You know, I’ve just broken every rule you possibly could — it just goes to show you that, you know, you should never do what you think is the right thing. You have to really listen to that little voice and think, “Well, you know, I don’t know what’s going to happen with this one,” and “Why not? Let’s give it a — ” And I’ve just been really lucky that way.
Paulson: You must have been listening to something inside when you decided to do “Pretty Baby,” which — I’m not even sure that movie could be made today.
Sarandon: It was banned even then. And I — you know, I even got flak from feminists who said, “How could you play a hooker?” And yet this was someone who used whatever means she had to make a better life for her child, and it was about, you know, a mom who’s really a child being taken care of by this little girl, and what was interesting about it was Louis Malle’s perspective, because that girl was — the child, the one that was being abused or whatever, was stronger and healthier than any of the adults around her, and that was the thing that I think upset people, because she’s not touched, she’s not shown in full-frontal nudity, and yet people got so threatened by that. It’s like “Thelma & Louise,” you know. I mean, what was threatening about that movie? You know, I mean, when you look at it, it’s just a cowboy movie with women and trucks instead of guys and horses, and yet it got people so upset. So you have to realize that you, even inadvertently, backed into some kind of forbidden territory held by the white heterosexual male, you know, that’s threatening somebody somehow in these instances, and you know, I didn’t see it coming in any of those.
Paulson: On some level, is there something about you that is attracted to those kinds of films?
Sarandon: I don’t know what “those” kind of films are. I think that I’m attracted to films which in some way explore some issue just like you’re attracted to a lover at a certain time in your life that maybe brings some number of qualities to you that you’re trying to figure something out, or you know, if you believe that your children choose you as parents for some reason, or whatever — I believe in all that stuff. Very often, maybe you do a film, and it has to do with the people that are involved in it even more than the film that attracted you. I knew Louis Malle was a first-class director; the period interested me. It was an interesting dynamic. I just, again, said, you know, “It’s an ensemble, but what the hell?” You know, it’s, it’s — it seemed like an interesting thing at that time to do, and I didn’t foresee that it would be such a big deal.
Paulson: The best evidence of a movie having greater impact than I think you would have anticipated would be “Bull Durham.” After all, “It’s a baseball movie,” would be the way you look at it.
Sarandon: There had never been a successful baseball movie before that, yeah.
Paulson: And who would think that a film about sports, about baseball would work. I guess “Pride of the Yankees” was the closest thing to a moneymaker, and that was, like, 1942, and here, here, 40 years later, a remarkable success.
Sarandon: It’s a classic, I think.
Paulson: And you had to fight for that role.
Sarandon: Yeah, well, nobody wanted me for that one. I wasn’t on the list, but lucky for me, all those gals wouldn’t audition, and Ron Shelton really felt he needed to see everybody together, and I paid for my flight. I was living in Italy at the time, and I paid for my way over and had a good, long plane trip to talk myself out of feeling humiliated that I had to read and pay for my own trip, but the script was so good, and, um — and I just felt I had to give it a shot, you know. So I read the entire movie and then got back on a plane and then landed and got to this remote part of Italy, I was living in Circeo at time, and got the phone call at the neighbor’s house — because we didn’t have a phone — that I had to turn around and come back, and I think that film really changed my life in a lot of ways, because it was the first time that I had been treated with a really great part and didn’t have to die at the end, and it was a real ensemble. So ironically, a situation that I thought was going to be a nightmare, to be in a locker room with all those ballplayers for three months or two months, turned out to be a situation where I was treated with more respect than I had been before that. So it just goes to show you, you know, I’m capable of stereotyping myself.
Paulson: Well, you mentioned “Thelma & Louise,” a very powerful film that prompted tremendous positive and negative outcry. That came as a surprise to you?
Sarandon: Oh, yeah, and when I met with Ridley, I said, you know, “Look, just promise me that my character is going to go over, because if you’re going to live the whole movie toward that, the only thing that’s going to change this from being a revenge film like all the guys are doing is that there’s some kind of — this character has a need for a moral comeuppance, and she realizes that, and she’s suffering for having killed that guy. So don’t have me be at Club Med at the end. I really don’t want to do that.” And he said, “I guarantee that you’ll go over. I don’t know about her, but you will definitely go over.” And then trying to find some way to not make that depressing was the next challenge, but I didn’t — no, we didn’t anticipate. I just thought it would be so much fun to play that kind of character and to be doing all those things, and you know, I mean, I thought maybe, you know, guys with a lot of gold jewelry might be a little offended, but I didn’t expect it to have this really, really serious — I mean, to say that, you know, that we were — I mean, when you just look at all the films that are out, you know, and to think that this one, in some way, was singled out — such a double standard, really.
Paulson: The film that you may have had to work the hardest to get done is the one you won the Academy Award for. Can you talk about your path to getting that movie made?
Sarandon: I was doing “The Client,” and I read some reviews of the book, Dead Man Walking, and, and you know, the last week and a half, we were going to be in New Orleans. So I got a hold of Sister Helen, and I said I’d like to talk to her, and I hadn’t even finished the whole book, and, and she went out and saw “Thelma & Louise” and thought I was the other one. And I came highly recommended by some friends of her in amnesty, but that was about it. And you know, it was love at first sight, and she was relieved that I was the other one, and I was relieved that she was an eating, drinking, joyful nun as opposed to some of the ones that I had in school. And so she gave me the book. I mean, it was just very kind of loose. Tim had a production company, and I kind of showed it to him, and he’s a lapsed Catholic also, and he was interested in the death penalty, but nothing really happened for a year, and I started to get really antsy. And I was turning down all these parts, and then finally, I had a little meltdown on Sixth Avenue and said, “But why are you holding onto this one? Why can’t you — if you’re not going to do it, let’s give it to John Sayles or something.” And he was writing “Cradle Will Rock,” and he could not get the money for that, and his company, you know, was eager to do this. So he started to write. He said, “Well, let me take a pass at it and see if it captures — his imagination.” And sure enough, it got his hands in his imagination, and he did such a brilliant job of kind of, you know, making one character out of the two, and it was his idea to make it the most humane execution because of — in the book, of course, they had been electrocuted, which is pretty tough stuff to see on film, but to use the more humane means of executing the guy, and then we were lucky enough to get Sean, and so about two years later, it finally happened.
Paulson: You spent the last 30 years doing important work and not pulling punches. Let’s talk about the 28 most controversial seconds of your career, at the Academy Awards, where you decided that this was the appropriate time to talk about —
Sarandon: No, it was inappropriate.
Paulson: It was inappropriate?
Sarandon: It was inappropriate, and there’s no way to change the status quo that is appropriate, by definition. So of course, you’re going to end up being inappropriate, because if you’re appropriate, everybody would have been quiet. There was a brownout about what was happening in Guantanamo. There were people that were dying in a field. I’d been to the Academy Awards many, many times before, and I had, previous to that, been arrested. We were trying to get the press in there. I was reading letters from mothers to their children. They were not letting them in, because — supposedly because they were HIV-positive, although they weren’t checking white people who were coming into this country from other countries. They had places to stay. Clinton had said that he was going to let them out. He never did. And they had gotten so desperate and so despondent that they were now ready to die. I’d been arrested for blocking Fifth Avenue. We tried everything. And now you’re going to be on the Academy Awards as a presenter. You’re going to reach millions of people all over. You have an opportunity to do the one thing the government listens to, and that is to cause some embarrassment. Can you live with yourself if you don’t do something? That’s the question. I was — if you look at me, I’m barely breathing, I was so terrified. I was — we didn’t tell any of our representatives. We didn’t want them to be responsible. We argued and talked — the people — Center for Constitutional Rights, trying to word it as succinctly as we could. Obviously, there was nothing on the teleprompter. So we had to do it kind of free-form. People had somehow gotten wind that something might come down. So as — we had to hide before the show, and as we got out there, everyone was screaming in the wings. We did the 28 seconds; they got out the next day. So it obviously worked. And then we went to our seats, and for me, it wasn’t just about the Haitians. It was the idea that HIV was a crime. And all these people wearing little red ribbons would not make eye contact. And we left, and it became very heavy in the news — in the media. A lot of people said horrible things, and Robin Williams and a number of other people who wrote letters defending our First Amendment rights were written lengthy, very threatening letters back. We were banned from the Academy Awards. And you know, then — you know, how many years later, the Academy was defending Elia Kazan’s right to accept an award. Go figure. You know, and we should not confuse politics with the ability to entertain. So was it inappropriate? It absolutely was. Was it effective? Yes. Was it a matter of life and death? It was, and, um, you know, I’d do it again.
Paulson: You know, Eartha Kitt has joined us here and talked about her remarks at the White House and how she left the luncheon that day not knowing that her career had disappeared.
Paulson: Did you leave the Academy Awards that night thinking that perhaps your career had disappeared?
Sarandon: I’m good at going into denial. I was hoping it wasn’t too — I just tried not to think about it. I just knew that I couldn’t — I would be kicking myself in my soul for the rest of I don’t know how long, and I just knew that I couldn’t live without, and I was hoping that it wouldn’t be terrible, and the hate mail that I got — and for some reason, I got it, and he didn’t; I don’t know why — really made me glad I’d done it. You know, it — then I was really happy that I had, because the ignorance and the bigotry and the racism in some of these letters really made me happy that I’d done it, and I just figured, “Well, you know, I’ll work in Europe, or maybe I’ll do something else or whatever. I won’t have to get a formal dress next March, because we won’t be there.” And that was OK by me. But you — I don’t think you know. I mean, usually what I say is, it’s like worrying if your slip is showing when you’re fleeing a burning building. I mean, you have to prioritize sometimes, and in this instance, I just didn’t feel I had any choice.
Paulson: You know, in a world full of need, how do you decide which cause to go to bat for?
Sarandon: Ah, well, I guess I specialize in the ones that nobody else wants. You know, I figure that the — there are some that are pretty benign and very worthy, but that they’ve got enough people to do pediatric AIDS, and you know, the tougher, trickier ones, if they get to me, usually, I’ll try to deal with those, but you know, the longer you do this, and the longer I cross-pollinate people, you see that they’re so connected.
Paulson: You’ve been a particularly powerful voice on artistic freedom. You’re one of those who fought for funding for the National Endowment very early on, when it was not a popular cause. And you were there on the steps of the Brooklyn Museum of Art when the “Sensation” exhibit was under attack by Mayor Rudy Giuliani. What is it that Americans fear about art that leads to the kind of backlash that you had to speak out about?
Sarandon: Well, they should fear art. They should fear film. They should fear theater. I mean, this is where ideas happen. This is where you — somebody goes into a dark room and starts to watch something, and their perspective can be completely questioned, and they can look at something and identify, and the very seeds of activism, I think, are empathy and imagination. Once you can imagine yourself as a mother that loses a child — even if she is a Palestinian, whatever, you know — it just opens up a whole new thing. So governments have always been afraid of art, and they should be, and I think it’s an artist’s job and expertise — and I use the word artist with myself in a very humble way — to — we’re outsiders by definition, and you know, it’s our job to kind of aerate things and punch holes in things so that people can squirm around in there and kind of let some light in and see what’s going on. And so, I mean, with good reason, but it’s strange that this country is so rich, and we spend so little on the arts. And I’m part of this group that’s started to bring — it’s called Film-Aid, and all these massive, massive displaced — groups of displaced peoples that are all over the world are now seeing films, and Charlie Chaplin and cartoons and “The Wizard of Oz” in Afghanistan, in Kenya, and at first, Kosovo, and what they found — what the relief workers said was that people, you know, who were starving — and the biggest problem they have in these camps is depression and boredom — that would skip a meal to see a movie, that when the theaters opened in Afghanistan, they stormed the theaters. They didn’t storm the hospitals. They stormed — so there’s clearly something that people need to feed their soul to get them to want to live, and there’s nothing like laughter, and, you know, Charlie Chaplin just reads across any — “Tom and Jerry,” all these. So you know, as crazy and as silly and as insignificant as we are, in a way, we are the keeper of the dreams, and we have to just keep on going and trying to just speak to the truth, as they say.
Paulson: You know, you’ve been terrific on the First Amendment, a defender of the First Amendment freedoms, and yet, occasionally in an interview, I hear you throw a shot at the media. How strongly do you believe in a free press?
Sarandon: I believe in the free press. I totally believe in the free press, and you know, I wish more of it was free, because I — it just seems as if they’re not asking questions, you know, that they would roll over in terms of — it’s very tricky because, you know, you start waving national security, and then nobody gets to see anything, hear anything, and if you’re lucky enough to have some contacts outside of the United States, you understand the difference in the way news is reported, and you — you know, right after the 11th, everybody was saying, “Why, why, why?” And why were they saying “Why, why, why?” Because as Americans, we have no idea how we’re perceived. We have no idea the ramifications of our actions. I learned that when I went to Nicaragua in ’84. You know, you talk about destabilizing a government, but until you actually go there, and you see what’s happening, and there’s faces connected with destabilizing that government, you don’t realize how present and how in the way of self-determination some of our choices are. And so I just ask that our news media, you know, stop following me around so much and start asking some of the tougher questions so people can make up their minds, and, you know, we are supposed to — that’s the great thing about this country. It’s not only our birthright; it’s our obligation — dissent. You know, this is what this country was founded on, and to think that, you know — I just saw “The Crucible” recently, and you know, “You’re either all with us or all against us.” Well, you’re supposed to question your government. You’re not supposed to undermine your nation, but you can question your officials. We pay them, don’t we? We do.
Paulson: We do.
Sarandon: We do, so —
Paulson: We began this conversation with a look back at your college years. You talked about how fortunate you were to grow up in a time when you felt you could make a difference, and of course, that led to protests and demonstrations and participation in the process. Today your children, my children are growing up in an era in which people are saying, you know, maybe we can give up a little bit of civil liberty in exchange for greater security. What do you tell your children — what do you tell all children about the value of free expression?
Sarandon: Well, first of all, if you’re compromising, you know, at 18, you know, I mean, what’s the point? You know, if ever — you have to, you have to have some ideals, and I think you, you know, I tell my kids to question authority, which makes our house hell, you know, because, of course, we’re the ones they come in contact with, and I think it’s hard to raise a kid that’s questioning. It’s much easier to just — [Smacks fist into hand] you know, be able to have them under your thumb. I think it’s there. You know, there’s a little voice in everybody that learns to be silenced as you’re socialized, but there’s a voice in there that tells you something’s wrong with this picture. Whether it means, you know, a hand where it shouldn’t be, or maybe it means, you know, somebody making fun of somebody that you’re not comfortable with. And you have to — you spend your whole life trying to make that 30-second delay down to a second, where you actually say, “Wait a minute,” or “Excuse me,” or “That’s not funny,” and, I mean, that’s the most you can hope for is that your kids are confident and joyful and feel some sense of obligation to the world around them, but I think that it — I have to believe that in every person that there’s that light of what’s just and what’s not, and when hatred set — it’s not — you know, that’s a secondary thing. Kids aren’t born that way. So it’s what we do to them. It’s the power of our words. It’s the power of our example. And so, you know, if you just give your kids the confidence to listen to that voice and the support to listen to that voice, I think they’ll turn out great, you know? I have to believe that they will. And I believe the people out there, when they have information, they do the right thing. You know, it’s just that they don’t know. And they don’t have — they need encouragement. And what’s great about the Internet, even though I can’t work it, and I don’t know anything about it, is that people can get on there, and you can get the information that you’re not getting. You can get fabulous emails from very articulate people that are being blasted all over with all the other garbage that’s there, but people can’t — do have a voice and can get information out that they can’t get on your everyday, corporate-owned outlets.
Paulson: The market place of ideas is alive and well on the Internet, probably more so than at any other time in history. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Sarandon: Thank you.
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