Vixen of Pong

Photo: Mark Seliger. Styling by April Johnson/2B Management; Hair by Michelle Johnson; Makeup by Nuria Sitja for La Mar/The Milton Agency; Manicure by Deborah Lippman for Deborah Lippman Collection.

“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.

Photo: Mark Seliger. Styling by April Johnson/2B Management; Hair by Michelle Johnson; Makeup by Nuria Sitja for La Mar/The Milton Agency; Manicure by Deborah Lippman for Deborah Lippman Collection.

“That was painful. But I have always been a questioning person, and my life has always been in a state of flux. It wasn’t that I was comfortable in one life and decided to smash it and move on.”

Is she in flux now?

Shyeah! Yeah. What I figured out is that the only mistake you can make is to think of your relationship to yourself or your work or your partner or your kids as something that becomes something. And then stays there. You have to see all of those relationships as a breathing thing. We’re still parenting, although it’s different when they’re 18.”

Initially, she notes drily, “the nation mourned. I had a lot of people who came up to me and were not as upset as I was—but were definitely upset. I did feel a sense of responsibility, because I knew that people had a certain idea of how I was and who we were. And in that sense …” She cuts herself off. “But on your deathbed, it’s not really going to matter how those people felt.”

She’d rather talk about her kids, anyway. She brightens noticeably whenever they come up, calling them funny, smart, principled. There’s Amurri, her bombshell look-alike of a daughter, an actress who appeared on Californication. There’s Jack Henry, a film student, who is working on a documentary about his generation called The Zeros. And there’s Miles Guthrie, a recent high-school graduate, whom Sarandon is picking up today from his postgraduation trip to Japan.

“I remember going to teachers’ night,” she says. “And it was always, ‘Jack’s a leader,’ and ‘Miles is a leader in his class,’ and ‘Eva’s a leader in her class.’ I thought, No wonder our home is the way it is! There’s not one follower. Nobody that listens. This tumultuous place, where everyone is so passionate.

Lately, they’ve been getting tattoos with their mother. First, Eva got the Latin word “conscientia” printed in an old-fashioned typewriter font. Jack considered getting a classic mom-heart tattoo on his chest, but Sarandon treated him to an image of Ganesh instead. On Sarandon’s spine, her children’s initials scroll down, printed in the New York Times font. And above her wrist, there’s a spiky band formed by the blue letters ANDAND: “A New Dawn A New Day.” That one hurt a lot, she says.

Later that night, I drop by SPiN again. But now it’s packed, with a hip crowd circling the “Dirty Dozen” table—the top twelve players, facing off for a prize of $500.

Sarandon arrives with a friend, a middle-aged publisher. (She’s been working on a children’s book, an anti-violence allegory about a raccoon.) And between shouts of “whoo!” she narrates the lineup:

“Randy! Randy is the all-time, really good Jewish player of this division.”

And: “Twin players. One is left-handed, one right-handed.”

Also: “This guy, his opponent started stripping, down to a Speedo. He got so angry, completely distracted. It was a very good tactic.”

When we’d spoken earlier, Sarandon had a faintly melancholy air, but with the club full up, she’s relaxed and smiling—she seems to know everyone’s name, their day job, their relationship status. Her son Jack, who is D.J.-ing, tells me, “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone she couldn’t get along with.” Jason Segel will be around later, she says; Twitter co-founder Evan Williams has been here; and Demi and Ashton and Jack Kevorkian, who Sarandon worried would die at the table, he was so intent on improving his Ping-Pong game.

I ask her the obvious question: Isn’t her role at SPiN strangely similar to Annie Savoy’s in Bull Durham?

“I like to think of it more as Gunsmoke, with Miss Kitty,” she says.

When Jonathan Bricklin, the subject of all those tabloid rumors, arrives, he pulls Sarandon toward him, squeezes her shoulder and leans down low to kiss her cheek. The two clearly have an intimate friendship: During our earlier interview, he sat at the bar nearby with his laptop and they traded wisecracks. A few days later, as they’re preparing for a film shoot, Sarandon steps close to Bricklin and smiles up at him. He gently taps his tooth: She has salad stuck in her teeth.

They met back in 2007, when a friend took Sarandon to a weekly party called “Naked Ping-Pong” (it involved no nudity) held in Bricklin’s loft. Back then, Bricklin, now 33, was himself recently divorced, having married on a lark in Las Vegas. “She hasn’t seen this place,” he tells me about his ex. “We—she—our relationship ended, not coincidentally, after I became obsessed out of my mind with Ping-Pong.”

In the loft, Sarandon spotted film-editing equipment. Bricklin had been making documentaries, including one about his father, Malcolm Bricklin, who popularized the Yugo. As a financial sideline, he and his partners did “elaborate videos for weird people,” including home movies for Bruce Willis and vacation films for Jann Wenner. Sarandon hired them to edit a project she’d already begun, a personalized documentary for Tim Robbins’s 50th birthday.

Photo: Mark Seliger. Styling by April Johnson/2B Management; Hair by Michelle Johnson; Makeup by Nuria Sitja for La Mar/The Milton Agency; Manicure by Deborah Lippman for Deborah Lippman Collection.

“Susan did a remarkable job on it,” Bricklin tells me. “She spent over two years compiling interviews”—then he adds, rather wistfully, “It’s too bad that it can’t be a publicly released film, it’s so good.”

“It took over a year,” Sarandon tells me. “And in the process, I just became inundated with their passion for Ping-Pong. One thing led to another, and I started investing, and we found a space, and I started decorating, and Todd Oldham helped me on a shoestring—I can tell you every inch of Ikea! And they were right: Introduce booze, and good music, and Olympic flooring, and nice lighting, and it works.” (Sarandon also came up with the slogan “Balls Are Our Business” for the club’s T-shirts, the ones the busboys are embarrassed to wear.)

“She’s wonderful,” says Bricklin. “When we got involved in this project, I had no idea she would spend this much time. Of course, she was very involved, but I thought it would end. She’s managed to go do acting jobs that she normally does, but she spends so much time on this. We went to Sweden together to meet with the world’s greatest Ping-Pong player!”

Bricklin, whose business card reads “Propagandist & Impresario,” has big plans for SPiN, including that TV series, which is called The Magnus Effect (the title refers to the physics phenomenon that causes the curved motion of a spinning ball), as well as franchises in L.A. and Milwaukee. “I’m trying to pull out personalities,” he explains. “So that it’s more in the realm of pro wrestling.”

As music pounds from the speaker, I ask if he and Sarandon are dating. “No,” he says. “No, no. But we spend a lot of time together—a lot of time.” He’s adjusted to the tabloids. “I don’t read the papers that often, but I walk by and I kind of scoff at whoever’s there. So when the equivalent happened to me, I was just horrified. And then I got over it, a day later. Business was notably better from the first article on. I mean, I’m happy as shit if that sells things.

“It wouldn’t be as funny if Susan was more concerned about that,” he adds, glancing over at her. “But she’s cool. Her family’s cool. So everything’s fine.”

Bricklin is piqued by those “boy toy” jokes. “They always get my age wrong: I’m 33!” he says. “I hear about someone in their thirties, I’m like, they’re an old person, they’re an adult.” People “in general are so sexist,” he concludes. “I mean, that’s an obvious point. We could go over all the obvious points.”

I walk over to Sarandon and tell her what Bricklin said: that business had spiked with the gossip about them. “Ha,” she says, but it’s a laugh so dry it’s barely a laugh. “Well, yes, but it wasn’t so great, because he had a girlfriend at the time.”

At the club, Sarandon is in fact strikingly surrounded by young men—her partners, the players, her son’s friends (several of whom are camping at her place while Jack is home for the summer). But she’s unsurprisingly sick of the cougar jokes, a refrain throughout her late career. (For the first half, she was the younger woman: with her husband, then with Malle, fourteen years her elder.) “They come in with the story they want to tell,” she says. “I mean, after I did White Palace, it was also all about being an older woman.”

I give her my own canned theory: that people love the idea of her as an invulnerable erotic adventurer, to counteract those “bad man” stories out there.

“I feel there are possibilities …” she says vaguely. “And I also feel unsure about what’s happening. But I haven’t been on some kind of social whirl! I’m always ‘showing up’ somewhere I haven’t shown up.

“And now it’s time for the dance contest,” she adds—$50 to the winner.

“Twist and Shout” blasts from the speakers.

Couples spill onto the floor. A chubby 13-year-old boy spins a model in white short-shorts. A tomboyish white girl does a kooky jog-dance. Two African-American dandies (“Jake and Jake,” announces the D.J.—they’re baristas from the nearby Starbucks) mirror each other’s hip thrusts, blank-faced, and the crowd goes wild.

Sarandon whispers instructions to the D.J.: It’s not fair, she points out, that the couples are competing to different songs. But mostly, she sways her flip-flopped foot to “You Sexy Thing” and “Praise You.” When Jake and Jake win, Sarandon throws her head back: “Whoo!” she screams. “Whoo!”

And then quietly, to Bricklin: “I think that went very well, don’t you?”

During a break, I notice Sarandon standing with a depressed-looking player, a twentyish guy with lank blond hair. “Well, that’s what’s happened,” she says gently, her hand on his arm. “You’re losing your confidence.”

Photo: Mark Seliger. Styling by April Johnson/2B Management; Hair by Michelle Johnson; Makeup by Nuria Sitja for La Mar/The Milton Agency; Manicure by Deborah Lippman for Deborah Lippman Collection.

When she leaves, I approach to ask what that was about. “Me and him have a big rivalry,” he says glumly, shrugging toward another player nearby, the champion at a rival college. “So when I lose, it sucks.” What advice did Sarandon give him? “Uh, to train more. And have more confidence.”

I ask him what role she plays in the club. “She’s the owner,” he says, confused. Yes, I ask, but among the four owners—which one is she?

He pauses for a split second.

“The mom,” he replies.

A few weeks later, I watch as Sarandon and Bricklin film a “sizzle reel” for The Magnus Effect. When a makeup artist leans down to check her toes, Sarandon explains about the surgery. “So please don’t be—”

“Too rough?” says the cosmetician.

“No, horrified!” says Sarandon.

During her downtime, she tries on ball gowns. “It has rolls where I have rolls,” she says with an amused sashay. Her foot is healing, but she’s still in pain—this time, it’s her back. But she’s been busy. She and Bricklin flew to Italy for a documentary festival. She’s begun filming a pilot for HBO called The Miraculous Years, playing a Broadway choreographer. She’s spoken up against child trafficking. She’s planning to attend an Arcade Fire concert that night.

She also hands me a copy of another TV project, an episode of Lisa Kudrow’s genealogy series, Who Do You Think You Are? In it, Sarandon hunts down her grandmother, the other black sheep of her family—a woman who got pregnant at 13, then disappeared, leaving Sarandon’s mother to be raised in a Catholic charitable home.

“Of course, nobody blamed him,” Sarandon says, “they just blamed her.” Sarandon steeled herself for a sad outcome, but found instead that her grandmother had simply started over. She was a showgirl at the Copa; she dated Frank Sinatra. She married a younger man. Until her death, she lived an hour from where Sarandon grew up—lying about her age and telling no one she’d had children. In a pencil sketch, she’s the image of her famous granddaughter, all saucer eyes and nightclub charisma.

I ask Sarandon if she was upset to hear she’d died. “No, I felt fabulous! She could’ve been a drug addict, an alcoholic—or a horrible person, to have two kids and give them up. I mean, what a survivor. And apparently, she gave great parties.”

Two weeks later, at the Emmys, Sarandon is arm in arm with Eva. In sunglasses and a glam glittery black gown, she kills on the red carpet. At the after-party, paparazzi snap her boogeying with Claire Danes. On her feet, as she’d hoped, are satin Valentino heels, with a bow.

Vixen of Pong