Enter the Queen

Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

Susan Sarandon was 25 the last time she stepped onto a Broadway stage, playing a range of characters from Tricia Nixon to Martha Mitchell in Gore Vidal’s An Evening With Richard Nixon. She always meant to try it again. That was 37 years, three kids, a two-decades-and-counting relationship with Tim Robbins, five Oscar nominations and one win, and about 100 movie and TV credits ago. Now she’s taking another shot, and because Sarandon is the kind of person who will generally say the hard thing before you do, let’s just let her tell it: “The intellectual decision to try was one thing. But the emotional experience of being there … ” she trails off. “I am so, so terrified.”

We’re in the Norwood, a Brit-chic artists’ club hidden in an unmarked West Village brownstone near her neighborhood. Sarandon has arrived looking, she’d agree, like someone who hasn’t gotten much sleep in the last few weeks. She’s pale, her eyes are a bit red, and trailing behind her is Penny, a petite, alert, expectant-looking half-Pomeranian, half-whatever, who microscopically vibrates alongside her, like the imaginary material representation of the actress’s nervousness.

It’s two days before the first preview of Eugène Ionesco’s Exit the King, a surreal tragicomedy from 1962 about a fumbling monarch (Geoffrey Rush) facing imminent death after a reign of centuries. (Rush and director Neil Armfield premiered their new adaptation to great acclaim in Sydney in 2007.) In the play, the king is attended by a doctor, a guard, and his radiant second wife (Six Feet Under’s Lauren Ambrose), who wants him to live forever. It falls to the ex-wife—the old queen—to be the bearer of hard truths that range from the shrewish and contemptuous to the honest and unsentimental. That’s Sarandon.

The role isn’t easy. She’s onstage almost nonstop, whipping around a twelve-foot train. “I look like a poodle,” she says, “like a cross between Marge Simpson and some Roman empress who poisoned her husband.” Much of her dialogue is “incredibly repetitive and not naturalistic. I’ve never had a problem learning lines, but this has been really difficult. There are times when my anxiety level is so high that it gets away from me.” Add unflattering makeup and that her character is an object of constant derision—“Everyone calls her a bitch and a cow, and it isn’t easy to be in that place all day”—and the stress takes a toll. As I’m trying to figure out how to broach the awkward subtext, Sarandon goes there without me: “And how about for an aging actress?” she asks. “That’s even worse! You’re constantly being reminded that you’ve been replaced in the kingdom. I’m discovering”—she laughs—“that I’m vainer than I thought. My ego has completely gotten ahold of me. This has been a shock! I thought, Okay, it’s time to do something outside your comfort zone, but I forgot how incredibly uncomfortable it is.”

“She’s up against Geoffrey, who’s this total stage animal,” says Armfield. “And Geoffrey and I have been working together since 1981, so it’s been hard for everyone else to hit the ground running, probably most of all for Susan. There were a few moments of crisis during rehearsal—of saying, ‘Why am I doing this?’ Last weekend, she hit a wall. But she has extraordinary courage. I made various suggestions, and she came in the next day so wired, having just seen Bette Davis in The Virgin Queen. It was a revelation for her that you can hitch up your skirt and stomp around—that even if you’re a queen, you don’t have to be elegant.”

Broadway producers have sought her about revivals before—she mentions Tennessee Williams, and it’s fun to envision her tearing through that repertory of big mamas and hothouse flowers. But she didn’t want a role that would invite comparison with other actresses, and anyway, the late nights conflicted with her desire to see her children off to school. Now, though, her daughter, Eva, an actress, is 23, and her sons, Jack Henry and Miles, are 19 and 16, “old enough,” she says, “so that they don’t want to see me on the weekends as much. I’d be quite content to stay home, but I felt like I was putting too much of a burden on them to help create my world.”

Empty-nest syndrome, for a woman who says she never wanted to direct because “I’ve spent 25 years directing my family,” feels “seismic, huge.” How to fight it? Well, you can indulge your love for mid-afternoon movies at Film Forum or walks through the city you can never imagine leaving, where everyone is cool with you, whether they initiate spontaneous conversations or pretend not to notice you. You can permit yourself some random gambles. To wit: Sarandon has invested in a bar and ping-pong club, SPiN New York, on Park Avenue South. Doors are slated to open in May. “George Clooney, Edward Norton—big closet ping-pong players,” she notes with delight.

Sarandon with Exit the King co-star Geoffrey Rush.Photo: Jason Bell

Or you can decide to “pull the carpet out from underneath everything that makes me feel secure.” So when Rush, with whom she’d worked on the 2002 film The Banger Sisters, got in touch about Exit the King, the play tugged at her. Given Sarandon’s appetite for political engagement, I wondered if the Bush-allegory elements—you know, childlike ruler with no apparent self-doubt or conscience finally brought low—grabbed her. She says no. “I think it has political resonance, but that was kind of a bonus. For me, it was more about how everyone thinks their existence is all existence—and suddenly the idea of dying comes in. I’m very moved by it.”

In recent years, Sarandon has been more apt to parachute into a project for a few scenes, then get out. She’s done cartoon voice-overs, indies, blockbusters like Enchanted, a role on Rescue Me. Last week, she appeared opposite Clooney on an episode of ER, and she has a supporting role in Peter Jackson’s upcoming adaptation of The Lovely Bones, about which she’s hopeful and even a little excited. It’s one of six unreleased movies she’s recently completed—“but if you put them all together,” she says quickly, “they probably make one in terms of the screen time I have.” She’s had offers to do a cable series of her own, but she’d rather do a guest shot on HBO’s hipster comedy Flight of the Conchords (“I’ve already begged”). “Maybe I’m a commito-phobe. A long-term commito-phobe,” she muses.

So Exit the King has come as a shock to her system, one she’s still processing. It’s going to take every ounce of her energy until mid-June. But, she says, “anything this unsettling has to have been worthwhile.”

Speaking of unsettling, a long rehearsal awaits; the cast has been going until midnight most days. As the interview ends, Sarandon seems at her most vulnerable. “I didn’t cry,” she says with quiet relief, tugging at Penny, who does not seem particularly eager to vacate her chair. “Come on!” Sarandon orders, accidentally stepping on her dog’s water bowl as she leaves, thus destroying any potential for an exit-the-queen moment. “Oh, God,” she says with amused rue, “this is so old-lady-with-a-small-dog.”

A few days later, Armfield calls after the second preview. “Susan’s becoming formidable,” he says, clearly pleased. “This week has been thrilling. Now that she’s on the stage, she sits on her throne like a boxer in the corner, just waiting for the next round.”

Enter the Queen