Susan Sarandon's advisors shook their heads. Once you play a mother, they said, you're stuck with mothers. You can't go back. You can never outwit Tommy Lee Jones in court again. You can't romance Kevin Costner in the bush leagues. You can't rob convenience stores with Geena Davis.
"That's what they say," Sarandon laughs. But there's a knowing glint in her eye that says otherwise. Typecasting and the passage of time may narrow the opportunities for some actresses, but the red-haired star didn't worry about that.
She went ahead and portrayed the weary, unhappy mother of seven sons in a small-budget family drama called Safe Passage. For one third of her usual fee.
"If we give dysfunctional families a good name, then I'll be very happy," she says. "I think this movie is really telling mothers and fathers that, as a parent, it's inevitable that you feel overwhelmed, even if you're doing a good job...The details of family life are so tough that it's hard just to find your dining-room table a few days in a row. My own house [she's the mother of three] is just chaos--and I have a nanny."
For Sarandon, the film's attractions were its first-time director, Robert Allan Ackerman, with whom she'd done the play Extremities, and its grasp of real life. "I think this is about a woman at a crossroads about whether to be bitter. She feels cheated, and she doesn't know if she did it to herself. As she says: `I was 35 before I had a meal where I wasn't cutting up somebody else's meat.' It's not deeply psychological, it's real."
And, Sarandon believes, Safe Passage delivers a message as important as the one in her most controversial film.
"Thelma & Louise was shocking to people," she says, "because it had to do with two women inadvertently backing into white heterosexual heroic territory. It was a genre film that became more than what it was because of women. This one doesn't involve that kind of switch, but people are moved by it--men, women, children. There's no such thing as The Waltons. When people see it, they say: Yes, this is what family is about."
For Sarandon, family is a primary, almost obsessive concern. She's the oldest of nine children, and her own kids are now two, five and nine years old. During the school year, she never leaves New York unless she can return home the same evening, and production companies have taken to transplanting entire movies there for her.
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Imagine her delight, then, when Ackerman found one Safe Passage location not just on her street but in her very block.
Such are the perks that come to an actress at the top of her game, one with top billing this month not only in Safe Passage but also Little Women. It's a far cry from her debut twenty years ago in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, when, dressed in "a half-slip and bra in a really cheap, unheated London studio," she caught pneumonia.
This year Sarandon's got a shot at catching another Oscar, although she suspects the Hollywood establishment still resents her 26-second "hijacking" of the ceremonies three years ago.
Still, the outspoken star would likely break her New York-at-night rule to attend the L.A. ceremonies if she's nominated. There's just one problem: "It's a bitch to find a dress.