Maybe gay people are customarily compelled to thank Susan Sarandon for her longstanding advocacy, because that’s how I begin my frank, anything-goes conversation with the 70-year-old multi-hyphenate. After all, no matter where you stand on Sarandon’s divisive decision to vote for Green Party candidate Jill Stein in the recent presidential election, we can all agree that the Oscar-winning actress has used her massive screen-icon prestige to aid in the advancement of LGBT rights. She’s been a staunch supporter through the AIDS crisis and the fight for marriage equality — even in times when vocal Hollywood allies were scarce.
The next step in being a gay icon, apparently, is playing one: Starring alongside fellow acting dynamo Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford, Sarandon portrays beloved Hollywood legend and All About Eve leading lady Bette Davis in Ryan Murphy’s Feud: Bette and Joan. Sarandon was fresh off the set of the FX series when she dished on Feud, and numerous other aspects of her storied life and career.
“I’m just getting back and acclimated,” she told me, dramatizing her experience shooting Murphy’s latest creation. “I’ve been gone for a very long time. Once I joined this cult, I didn’t get out.”
Between Feud, your film career and your LGBT activism, I’d say you have more than earned your queer cred.
Susan Saradon:(Laughs) Well, I hope so! I mean, I feel like an outsider myself. My people, my family for all these years have always been my allies and have always been very, very important to me, very dear to me through the AIDS crisis and everything. It’s just a natural, very easy extended family for me.
You grew up Catholic in Jackson Heights, a neighborhood in the northwestern end of the borough of Queens in New York City. Would you say LGBT people felt like family then too?
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SS: Well, not in my high school. I had 500 in my class. This was ages ago. But sure, in college, of course if you’re in a theater department or in any of the arts, that’s just part of the landscape, so there wasn’t any delineation as I became an adult. It was just natural.
I find the guys who don’t stick with you are the guys that you’ve had affairs with or marriages… or whatever! It’s very rare that those guys — once you’re not involved in a relationship, it’s hard to maintain those ties.
That makes sense, unless you’re having affairs with gay men.
SS: Well, I did at one point have a very successful and very loving and wonderful affair with a man who then wasn’t with another woman after me, and that worked out fine! I don’t think you had to declare yourself as rigidly as you do now in terms of having to declare yourself almost politically about your sexual preference.
Just to clarify, you were in a romantic relationship with another actor who was gay?
SS: Yeah. Philip Sayer — he was a wonderful actor. He passed away, but yes, he was gay, and we had a great relationship in every way.
Is your sexuality more or less rigid these days? Basically, should we be welcoming you to the family?
SS: Well, I’m a serial monogamist, so I haven’t really had a large dating career. I married Chris Sarandon when I was 20, and that went on for quite a while — each of my relationships has.
Are you open regarding your sexuality?
SS: Yeah, I’m open. My sexual orientation is up for grabs, I guess you could say.
The great thing about Feud is having you, a gay icon, play a gay icon. I can’t think of many things gayer than that.
SS: Well, I hope the appeal seems to be broader! I’m hoping we reach out across the aisles to heterosexuals also, because what I think the story is about is a really interesting examination of all kinds of things: power and roles and misogyny and aging.
Have you seen it?
Not yet — episodes weren’t available before our interview.
SS: Oh, you’re gonna love it then! Although it’s not all about that. We do move on, so at least you don’t think I’m wearing gobs of makeup (the whole time). There are some younger folks who haven’t seen Baby Jane who are like, “What is up with that? Does she do that through the whole thing? I don’t get it.” But we had a lot of fun recreating gesture for gesture, voice pattern for voice pattern.
What’s the closest you’ve come to a Bette/Joan-type feud?
SS: I think I’m just a little too young to see women as my adversary. I think that changed. I really haven’t experienced that. I think women just a little bit older than I am tried to align themselves with power, which were the men, and saw every woman as a threat. With my generation and slightly younger, you might be jealous that someone is getting all the good parts, but it’s just a different time — you don’t see them as your enemy.
There was someone that came (to Feud ) for two seconds who was not particularly collaborative, and I didn’t get rid of her, but that was just not the tone. She kind of announced herself, and she was gone in two days. Because Ryan is responsible for having a wonderful environment with a very collaborative atmosphere, and it starts at the top. He just doesn’t tolerate anybody who isn’t part of that family, and looks at the bigger picture. And that was it. She was gone.
But it wasn’t about women against women — it was just about somebody who came in, sat down, and announced that she was going to be difficult. I’m sure that came from a place of fear, in all fairness to her, but there wasn’t time or interest in developing a relationship with someone who isn’t a team player. Everybody was a team player on this.
Can you imagine throwing your guts out there and you have to be brave and you’re in a hostile environment? It’s just impossible. You open up your heart and all your energy, and you can’t do that if you’re in a protective mode. There’s a line that I found in one of Bette’s books where she said, “I would rather have a go at something I feel, and be hurt, than always be protecting myself — that way, one does not really live.”
That’s definitely where our philosophies align. You can’t live your life according to just what looks good on paper. I think the most interesting things happen when you’re out of your comfort zone, and this was way out of my comfort zone.
How do you explain the gay fascination with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford?
SS: Well, I can’t speak for Joan — I can only speak for Bette. But, first of all, being some kind of outsider—she was an intruder at the time, when she was trying to get good parts, because she wasn’t your classic Hollywood beauty. So, she started off as an outsider, and I think that she had a secret, and in the early days of being gay — and still in some places that has to be a secret. I think she had a lot of secrets, and you sense that she was trying to do things that were not easily done as a woman and as an artist, and she was a very straight shooter. When we were working on it, our biggest challenge was trying to make it grounded in reality because they’re so big.
Do you think audiences might come away with more empathy for Bette as we watch this?
SS: I hope so. In watching all of her interviews and TV appearances, and in reading all the books she wrote and that her daughter wrote and other people wrote, she was pretty special in her focus to find good work that (gave her) some control over her choices at a time when you were given the protection of the studio in exchange for your freedom.
Now, of course, if you do episodic TV, you’re right back in the same kind of contractual bind. Films have been liberated, but not these seasonal TV shows, because you really don’t know what they’re going to do with you. You sign away for years at a time, which was exactly what she was fighting against.