“Oh, they’re destroying Cleveland!” Susan Sarandon shouts. “They’re ripping up LeBron! Oh my Gaaaawd!”
We’re sitting in SPiN, the Flatiron Ping-Pong club where Sarandon is a partner. It’s seething July outside, but ice-cold by the empty bar, where a few staff members watch sports bloopers on ESPN. Her foot is up, naked in a flip-flop. We’d been discussing the alternate selves that accompany fame—online impersonators, her Madame Tussauds wax figure, Twitter (“I think if I announced I was gay I would use it,” she muses. “But to maintain it? It’s like those little Japanese pet things”)—when a chaotic scene pops up on the flat-screen:
LeBron James’s angry fans are tearing images of their idol to bits.
“Seven years!” Sarandon shouts, then adds in a husky-voiced deadpan, “It’s a bad divorce.” A pause, then playfully: “Uh-oh.” Another pause. “Oh well! He has to move on. C’mon, if you love him, you’ll let him go.”
Her foot is in the flip-flop, she tells me, because she wrecked the toe joint.
For years she’d been avoiding heels. “I had a problem in my back joint and I’ve been using orthotics,” she says—but then, in Haiti, where she’d traveled with Artists for Peace and Justice, it was raining, it was slippery. “And you fell?” I say, finishing her sentence.
“I didn’t fall,” she says crisply. “I stopped myself from falling.”
For a few weeks, Sarandon tried to act like it hadn’t happened. She flew back to film Jeff Who Lives at Home, a comedy by “mumblecore” auteurs Mark and Jay Duplass, in which she plays the mother.
“It kind of got better,” she says, giving her toes a wiggle. “I wore a boot and faked it. But the doctor said, ‘Why don’t you just get a new joint?’ ” The day after her youngest son graduated from high school, she had surgery—shaving down the bone, shortening the toe.
She gives her wiggling foot a sad look. She has several events coming up, all of which dictate heels—the Emmys, then the launch of the Wall Street sequel in September, in which she plays another mother. “But right now I’m discouraged,” she says. “I’m going to wait two weeks before I get hysterical. Later. Later.”
The first time I saw Susan Sarandon was a jolt: She was flat on her back, eyes wide as goblets, purring “touch-a touch-a touch-a touch me!” in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Throughout the seventies and early eighties, she continued to specialize in such erotic rule-breakers as a lesbian vampire victim and a New Orleans prostitute, squeezing lemons on her breasts, giving a morning blow job to James Spader—a thinking person’s sex bomb and an antidote to the Madonna/whore syndrome. She dated David Bowie and Louis Malle. In his diaries, Andy Warhol described her as “like Viva, but she’s intelligent.”
Later came the gravitas. At 39, she had a daughter, Eva Amurri, by her Italian-director boyfriend and became a globe-trotting left-wing activist. She made that Streep-y string of popular successes: Thelma & Louise, Bull Durham, Lorenzo’s Oil. And she fell in love with her Bull Durham co-star Tim Robbins, twelve years her junior. The pair never married, but they became their own sort of institution, romantic role models like Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward or, in those more innocent days, Woody and Mia. Over 23 years, they raised two sons, collaborated on Dead Man Walking, and spoke up for numerous political causes.
So when the news broke last December that they had separated, there was a collective twinge. It had been a year of ugly divorces. But this time, instead of the gossip swirling around him, it attached to her, with “Page Six” items claiming she’d hooked up with her 33-year-old business partner, Jonathan Bricklin. And that a transsexual had vomited on her at The Box. Also, she was filming a BBC America reality show about Ping-Pong; spanking men in pig costumes at indie concerts; and generally living it up.
With any other actress of her age, such rumors might have felt undignified. But Sarandon’s persona preceded her and protected her. She’d always modeled a forgiving attitude toward life, the welcome notion that glamour could be warm instead of cold. And if she was out on the town? Better that than the other scenario—Sarandon vulnerable. Instead, it felt like a return to her earliest starlet self, gobbling up new experiences, even at 63.
“My parents cutting me off helped,” she tells me about her early years. Back then, Sarandon was the eldest daughter in a conservative Catholic family in Edison, New Jersey, designated babysitter to eight siblings. When she lost her virginity in college, her small rebellion created a massive family crisis, and under pressure, she married her grad-student boyfriend Chris Sarandon. Within years, she’d shaken off her sheltered upbringing: She was divorced, an actress, and a devotee of the “more generous” youth culture of the sixties.