She might be turning 66 next month, but Academy Award winner Susan Sarandon shows no signs of slowing down. This year alone, the actress has already seen four of her films open theatrically (the Duplass Brothers’ “Jeff Who Lives at Home,” the Sundance indies “Arbitrage” and “Robot & Frank,” and the Adam Sandler summer comedy “That’s My Boy”). And she still has Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings independently financed epic “Cloud Atlas” set to open by year’s end, and two more in early 2013 — Robert Redford’s conspiracy thriller “The Company You Keep,” and the all-star comedy “The Big Wedding.”
On top of her acting duties, Sarandon has been making headlines of late for something totally unrelated to her day job: ping-pong. Along with co-owners Frack Raharinosy, Andrew Gordon and Jonathan Bricklin, Sarandon is behind SPiN Galactic, a subterranean ping-pong social club that has locations in New York, Milwaukee, and Toronto. They’re next set to open one in Los Angeles, with the help of hotelier Andre Balazs, at the Standard Downtown. And in funny bit of meta casting, Sarandon is set to soon start shooting Michael Tully’s “Ping-Pong Summer,” a coming-of-age story about a Maryland teen with a thing for table tennis.
Indiewire sat down with Sarandon in New York prior to “Arbitrage” opening, to discuss her career, passion for ping-pong, the passing of Tony Scott who directed her in “The Hunger,” and her many roles in “Cloud Atlas.”
I last saw you in person at Alice Tully Hall, when you payed tribute to your “Hunger” co-star Catherine Deneuve at the Film Society’s Chaplin Award Gala, held in her honor. Do you feel a kinship to her given that you two are around the same age and remain as prolific as ever?
I feel kinship with any actress who survives in this business, for any period of time, who started out really young and has survived and not become a drug addict, alcoholic, or bitter. I also think it’s really amazing when a woman doesn’t feel like she has to give up a family or relationships – Catherine’s been with some very interesting people, and has made some amazing mistakes, as have I. So yes, I feel that.
It’s funny because everyone’s been asking me about Tony Scott and of course, that’s the next easy segue – that was a very interesting experience as his first movie [“The Hunger”] and what I thought was amazing, as we were trying to work that out, was how much he listened to the actors even though there wasn’t much time because, at that time, being his first movie, there wasn’t a huge budget. That was a crazy ass experience, but I feel strongly connected to David [Bowie] and Catherine because of that experience.
I remember back when “In the Valley of Elah” came out, many critics singled out your performance for leaving such a lasting impression despite its brevity. Since then, you’ve been doing that a lot — popping in a slew of features and leaving your mark.
People ask me, “Have you chosen to do smaller parts?” I’m a character actor. I choose things that I haven’t done before; I choose things according to who I’d be working with; I choose things where there’s passion involved in a project, and I want to have fun. Oftentimes, those are supporting roles.
Do I turn down movies that are all about me in order to do supporting parts? No. It certainly is still true that love stories between women my age and somebody are few and far between, and I love those stories – for me, every film is about some kind of a love story. As long as I’m still having fun, and challenged, I will continue to work because I feel alive when I work, and I love the collaboration of trying to make something happen. And, obviously, doing so many little films, I’m not in it for the money. So it is for the fun and to stretch myself, and to submerge myself in all these little microcosms; to work with people that I haven’t worked with before, or people that I have that I really love.
I don’t feel compromised to do a small part as long as it’s something that affects the movie, or has at least one or two flashy scenes. The problem is that sometimes they get you in to get their money and then you see the film and they cut your scene to shreds. And you’re like, “Really? Oh…” So you always have that risk.
Well, you have a killer scene in “Arbitrage” as a high society housewife, althought it does come late in the film.
Yeah, that was fun. That was a fun, fast and furious day for sure. And not easy in a gown, let me just add. I really was happy to be able to get a few cashmere things out of this movie.
Oh, you took some home with you?
Absolutely. Not the gown, but some of the other stuff. It’s very rare that I want to take home any wardrobe in my films, so I was really lucky with this one.
“Abitrage” marks Nicholas Jarecki’s narrative debut. What gave you the confidence he could pull it off?
Nick came to me full of passion and a pretty good script that needed a little bit of work a number of years ago. I said, “Well let’s just see who all’s involved and I think maybe a little bit of this needs to happen…” He was doing his homework and seemed to be prepared and cared very much, and why not – it was in New York, and when Richard [Gere] became involved, I thought that was a really good choice.
And he wrote the part for you, or so he says.
So he says. I don’t know if he would have said, if someone else had ended up doing it, but so he says. We had a mutual friend, and that’s how the script came to me, actually. It didn’t even go through the normal channels, and I just kind of waited it out to see. “Robot & Frank” was the same thing, I met with the director – really, really passionate first-time director – and I saw his reel of commercials and things. People always say to me, “How can you take a chance on a first time director?” — like Ron Shelton for “Bull Durham,” and I say: “It’s not the first film, it’s the second film that’s going to be the problem.” They’ve been dreaming about their first film for years, they’ve got that in their minds. “Igby Goes Down” is another one. Sometimes it doesn’t work out so good, that’s happened to me, I must admit. I wanted to talk about you and independent film. Lately, you’ve really become a regular on the indie festival circuit.
It’s interesting to me that no one ever noticed before, because I’ve always done so many indie films. Even “Dead Man Walking” was an indie film. I mean, sometimes they get picked up, like “Bernard and Doris” which we made for $500,000 dollars and HBO bought, but I’ve always had trouble navigating the two.
Yeah, the problem is that studio films, when they come up through the studio, very often there’s no point of view beacause there are so many cooks in the kitchen. They’re trying to please every demographic. They suffer – maybe not the big action films – maybe that’s what studios do best, I don’t know, but the ones that appeal to me are the ones I haven’t seen before and I think there’s a fabulous amount of really interesting films that can’t get distribution necessarily. Living in New York, you’re lucky because you see so many of them between IFC or the different independent houses. You know, there used to be many more independent houses that showed a lot of really interesting films.
And the festivals, now that my kids are almost out of the house, I’m taking up all these invitations to go to festivals that I didn’t when I was really busy. I’m more available now, and they’re so important because then it convinces a studio that there is an audience, and that they can invest in them.
But studios – I hope I don’t end my career with this remark – for the most part, it’s really rare to find someone in the studio system that’s going to go out on a limb to champion a movie that’s an odd little movie because if it doesn’t work, that’s the end of them. It’s hard for them to nurture something outside of the system and take a chance on it. And so I turn to independent films and young directors – directors who care still, haven’t been beaten down by disappointment. You can imagine spending two years of your life as a director and then the marketing department, which only has three different ways to market a film, tells you what you have, and they give it a wide opening for a weekend and if it doesn’t perform as big as a big crash movie, that’s the end of it. Even the Wachowskis, after “Speed Racer,” took them a while to regroup to go on to “Cloud Atlas.”
About “Cloud Atlas” — you’ve played so many mothers over the years that you no doubt must have leapt at this opportunity to play the myriad of people you play in the film.
Honestly, I’m so shocked that they asked me. There are a lot of little parts, nothing like what Halle [Berry] and Tom [Hanks] are doing through the whole thing, but I just love them so much, even in non-work situations, and I was kind of scared. When I got there, it was the bravest kind of cirque de soleil atmosphere — people were just jumping from one trapeze to the next — and I thought, yeah, this is what filmmaking should be like: a rollicking good time, everybody way beyond their comfort zone. So I was really happy to be part of it.
Have you read the book?
It’s a hard book to read, but the ideas are really good. And funny. And scary. And romantic…Jim Sturgess was just at the club, my club, playing ping-pong every day.
I’m curious — did Michael Tully approach you to be in his ping-pong movie because of your venture, or was that just happenstance?
The Duplass brothers recommended him, because they play ping-pong and obviously they knew I played ping-pong – so it was actually them that made it happen, and so I met with Michael, and he gave me his film. I liked his film, and so we started to talk about it and kind of — it’s just a miracle to pull together at the last minute. It takes place in the 80s, it’s kind of “The Karate Kid” with ping-pong and I’m Mr. Miyagi.
So you’re quite the master.
You won’t see me doing amazing ping-pong playing, but I am kind of like his life coach.
Are you good?
No, not really. Not compared to people who are really good. I represent the people who just want to have fun. And now we’re already in Milwaukee and Toronto and New York, obviously, and André Balazs is opening one downtown, SPiN L.A. And then hopefully, if that goes well, Miami. And we have another contract in Boston – and we’re talking to Chicago and other places, but what I’m mostly proud of is that we’ve managed to place instructors and ping-pong tables in forty schools in New York, underserved schools that don’t have really good Physical Education programs, or space, or anything because, of course, the tables can be closed up so you don’t have to have proper, huge facilities. And if that works, I was talking to somebody recently who wants to do a Detroit club, which would be perfect for that, too. And the other thing that we’re really trying to solidify is a program with returning veterans, especially those who have lost limbs. I’ve seen my partners get beaten by people in wheelchairs. It’s a very good therapy for relieving tension and there are tables in all the VA hospitals and whatever, so we’re trying to make that connection now to really find a way to open spin up in all the different cities to handicapped veterans. So I’m really happy about those two programs.
If somebody came up to you twenty years ago and told you that you’d be doing this, would you have laughed in their face?
If anyone came up to me and told me I would be an entrepreneur in any area, I would have laughed in their face. I’m the least likely person, let alone ping-pong, and I think one of the things that has really made it happen so quickly is just — seeing my name and ‘ping-pong’ in the same sentence — it was so odd, and people were so tired of talking about other things, that when I had all these films — it was when I was doing “Exit the King”, and at the end of all the interviews, they’d say: “What’s on the agenda next?” And I’d say, “Well, actually, we’re opening this… ping-pong club.” And then it just took off from there, because it was such a strange thing. The fact that my name would become synonymous with ‘ping-pong’ is just yet another ironic, funny joke, as far as I’m concerned.