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Susan Sarandon: The Making of a Meaningful Life

Susan Sarandon on what it takes to be a hero, change the world, and maybe even have a happy life.

Heal

Nigel Parry / CPI Syndication

If it’s hard for older women to remain relevant in Hollywood, then Susan Sarandon didn’t get the memo. Or, more likely, she took one look at the memo and crumpled it up. At 66, Sarandon is working more than ever, on-screen and off. This month, she is slated to begin production on a movie with Kevin Kline, exploring the life of Errol Flynn. January also marks the DVD release of Arbitrage, in which she stole the show as a refreshingly age-appropriate—and sexy, and accomplished, and civic-minded—wife to a philandering mogul played by Richard Gere. She’s acted on Broadway, been impersonated at myriad midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and brought home an Oscar for 1995’s Dead Man Walking. But she is equally acclaimed as a social and environmental activist, having spent decades in support of peace and human rights efforts. A mother to three, she also works on behalf of the world’s children as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador. She sat down with us to talk about volunteering, which she says keeps her sane, gives her hope, and allows her to meet incredible people.

On Transformation
The beauty of being an actor is that it’s enforced compassion. Every time you take on a role that you don’t think has anything to do with who you are, you find out that, given certain circumstances or mind-sets, you can act completely differently than you thought possible. You move that much closer to understanding what you have in common with every soul on earth. At the core of good acting are listening and surrender—which are great skills to develop because you have to be as present as possible. In acting, that’s what you’re asked to do.

On Happiness
I hope I never lose my appreciation for life. I was reading a book called Flow. I’m paraphrasing this, but the author [psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi]  said we create ourselves by how we decide to spend our energy. That includes who you spend time with and what you do for a living. There are people in mundane jobs who, through use of their imagination and their framing, make an exquisite experience. It doesn’t just have to do with being in what would seem to be a glamorous life, and in fact there are a lot of miserable people in my business. For me, it’s so important to have a good time and be playful.

On Stepping Up
Even though a lot of the people I’ve had the privilege to portray in films seem like they’re very heroic, when I’m playing them they don’t feel at all strong. They feel like women on the precipice who have to make some kind of move forward, and they do, but not because they go into a situation to be heroic.

When we were working on the script for Dead Man Walking, most of the rewrites had to do with making it clear that Sister Helen Prejean is an unwilling heroine. Each step of the way, she just gets pulled in. She didn’t go into that death row situation thinking that she would have the strength. In Lorenzo’s Oil, the parents of the sick child just started asking questions; they didn’t go in there thinking they’d find a cure for his disease. They just were asking questions, trying to educate themselves.

That’s kind of the way my life is. I don’t see myself as a courageous person; I find myself in situations where I feel like I have no alternative.

On Role Models
I admire Vanessa Redgrave. I admire any mother who holds a job in the house and out of the house and raises kids who still talk to her—and that she wants to have dinner with at the end of the day. I admire Sister Helen Prejean. I grew up with a very different kind of nun in Catholic grammar school. For the most part, they were joyless and punitive; they had no connection to social justice. I admire those who make it their business to address issues of the poor. I admired Gore Vidal, my friend who died [last year], because he believed in the republic and in the truth. He was a very brave person.

On Daily Practice
I meditate. I wish I could say that I do it religiously. I try to do it in the morning. I rarely get it in twice a day. I breathe and try to get focused. I believe in the divinity of every human being. I believe that you create your reality, that everyone should be the protagonist in their own life.

You can educate yourself—it might be about your school board or the environment. Just being awake and saying, “It’s not right that they’re cutting down all those trees to do that,” or “These kids at school don’t have lunch; what can we do about that?” It’s whatever resonates with you. If you read about a Somali mom and the plight of the girls in the sex trade and that moves you, you Google it and figure out what you can do.

My hope for the future lies in the people who are slugging away on the grassroots level; I don’t believe change starts at the top. I’ve seen women and men who are feeding the hungry and building houses and tutoring kids after school, making a huge difference, one soul at a time. That’s the way it works.

On Passionate Service
Start with something you really care about. It shouldn’t be a duty; it should be a passion. If you have a church group, start with that. Collect canned foods for the homeless in your neighborhood. When I was in Haiti after the catastrophe, there were so many great church groups that were doing substantial work. There’s nothing better than volunteering; the rewards are so huge. It’s just such a wonderful feeling that it completely fills you up. And you meet great people. It gives you a whole community.

On the Ripple Effect
There’s a great story of Dr. [Benjamin] Spock [the famous pediatrician who became a high-profile voice against the Vietnam War]. He was in Washington at the beginning of the war and there were five mothers with babies in strollers and placards standing on the steps, and it got him thinking, What’s my responsibility; how do I feel about that war? Spock turned out to be a major influence, but it was those moms with their babies that made him examine his conscience. Those women probably thought, Well, it’s just the five of us standing here, in the middle of the day with our babies. Little did they realize the ramifications of their actions, and little do we realize the ramifications of all of our actions, both good and bad. You never know who is watching, who is stopping to listen. Whose lives you’ve changed. I always think of him and that little story when I’m frustrated because it doesn’t seem like anything is changing in the world.—As Told to Paul Sutherland


Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland resides in Michigan with his four youngest kids, ages 5 to 10. He and his wife, Amy, try to be an example of Parenting for a Peaceful world, in which democracy begins at home.


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