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Books for Holiday Gift Buying.

Book critic Maureen Corrigan give us her list of the best books to put on your Christmas list:
Two British comic novels:
"The Country Life" by Rachel Cusk
"Headlong" by Michael Frayn
The novels:
"Waiting" by Ha Jin
"Amy and Isabelle" by Elizabeth Strout
Two short story collections:
"The Way People Run" by Christopher Tilghman
"The Best American Short Stories of the Century" edited by John Updike and Katrina Kenison
The mysteries:
"Lie in the Dark" by Dan Fesperman
"Motherless Brooklyn" by Jonathan Lethem
"Hard Time" by Sara Paretsky
"Tis" by Frank McCourt
"Stiffed" by Susan Faludi
"Galileo's Daughter" by Dava Sobel.



Related Topics

Other segments from the episode on December 16, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 16, 1999: Interview with Susan Sarandon; Commentary on books to give as holiday gifts.


Date: DECEMBER 16, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 121601np.217
Head: An Interview with Susan Sarandon
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest is actress Susan Sarandon. She won an Academy Award in 1995 for her role in "Dead Man Walking." Her other films include "Joe," "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," "Pretty Baby," "Atlantic City," "Bull Durham," "Light Sleeper," "Little Women," "Twilight," and "Anywhere but Here."

Her latest film is "Cradle Will Rock." It's directed by her partner, Tim Robbins, who also directed her in "Dead Man Walking."

"Cradle Will Rock" is about art and censorship. It focuses on the behind-the-scenes story of the 1937 musical "The Cradle Will Rock," which was under attack because of its pro-union message.

Sarandon plays Margherita Sarfatti, who raises money from wealthy Americans to support the war efforts of her former lover, Mussolini. In this scene, she's talking to Nelson Rockefeller, played by John Cusack, who has commissioned Diego Rivera to paint a mural in Rockefeller Center. Rockefeller has been trying to get Rivera to redo the parts that seem pro-communist.


JOHN CUSACK, ACTOR: My official position is that I love it. It's that it's -- that I'm thrilled. I think it's in my best interest to be publicly excited about the piece.


CUSACK: But I must admit, I have great trepidation about the mural. First of all, I'm sure that it's great art.

SARANDON: It will be great. It is not finished yet.

CUSACK: It's not Picasso, and it's not Matisse.

SARANDON: They said no to you. They did not want to paint your lobby. Diego did. You are not going to get anywhere attacking the quality of the art. First of all, you are wrong. Second of all, you cannot win. There will always be an art critic somewhere to call you a boor and unsympathetic, unfeeling capitalist blockhead incapable of appreciating true art. But I know that is not you, Nelson.

CUSACK: Of course that's not me. There's not a greater appreciator of modern art and freedom of expression than I.

SARANDON: Yes, yes.

CUSACK: Will you talk to him, see if you can get him to cheer it up just a little?


GROSS: Susan Sarandon, welcome to FRESH AIR.

SARANDON: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Did you have to ask yourself why this really interesting woman would be supporting Mussolini?

SARANDON: I think that's one of those books that you have to read about smart women, bad choices.

GROSS: (laughs)

SARANDON: Especially considering she's Jewish.

GROSS: It's usually not a dictator, though, yes.

SARANDON: She was definitely into (inaudible) -- but (inaudible) was, at that point he was not a dictator, and he was incredibly charismatic when she first met him, I'm sure. And he was -- you know, you -- it takes a little while for people to make their intentions clear. And I don't even know if he was clear on it when they were first going out, in all fairness to Margherita. And she was very, very interested in art and the development of new artists. And he allowed her a lot of power in that position, when she was in Italy.

GROSS: Now, you sing in the sound track of "Cradle Will Rock." Did you sing in your early career? Did you ever do musicals?

SARANDON: I was so terrified to sing. My dad was a singer with the big bands. And from the time I was tiny, I was told that -- to stop because I was completely off, and so I grew up with a huge phobia, which is how I got in the "Rocky Horror Show," because I just thought, It's time to get over this complete ego involvement with being afraid to even hum out loud.

And I had -- when I first came to New York, I had auditioned for a few musicals, which just made it even worse, because at that time everyone was either singing "Oklahoma!" or "Sunny." And neither of which I had mastered. And so every audition, I would just stand there with -- getting absolutely no air because I was so terrified. And, you know, of course, ironically, I've had to do bad singing in so many movies since then.

So I've kind of worked my way through it. But I never imagined myself a singer. I was interested in dance for a long time, and I had an opportunity to go to the Boston Conservatory in dance, but I chose to go to college in D.C. instead, and so...

GROSS: Tell me more about your father and his singing. What kind of venues did he perform, and what kind of material did he sing?

SARANDON: Well, he was singing with a big band. I think his name was Tommy Tomlin or -- I'm not sure his last -- I can't remember at the moment. But he performed with big bands, and he -- then in his early 20s, went off to war. And when he was in Italy, he wrote and directed a number of musicals that they put together and was in charge of a lot of the entertainment.

And there's a new book coming out about Burt Lancaster in which my dad is -- tells a lot of tales, because he was the one that first introduced Burt to his wife, who was an actress, who was there, both of them were there to entertain the troops and run (ph) a show that he wrote. And then when he came back from the war, he started having masses of children, and that was the end of his show biz career.

But he became a vice president of Ogilvy (ph) -- he was a -- he worked in the early days of TV as a producer and a stage manager and director, all kinds of things, doing a lot of those great shows, the "I Love Lucy" show, for instance, and actually designed one of the first studios that I ever worked in for TV, which was on 67th Street on the West Side.

But he -- so he never -- he would do community musicals as we were growing up and things like that. He had a great voice and was quite a crooner. But he never went back to singing for his livelihood once he got back and knocked up my mother immediately after the war. (laughs)

We should mention, you have, I think, eight brothers and sisters?

SARANDON: Mm-hm. I have four brothers and four sisters.

GROSS: Susan Sarandon is my guest, and her new movie is called "Cradle Will Rock."

You became a star in your 40s, which is really the age that most actresses, I think, stop getting good roles. And the popular perception is that you're among the few actresses who've managed to find good roles, you know, in middle age. And I wonder how you think you fared, if you think that you've managed to find good roles and that there are good roles.

SARANDON: I feel very lucky. I just believe that there aren't that many good roles for guys either. So this comparison...

GROSS: Right.

SARANDON: ... always makes me kind of laugh, because there certainly are many more big parts for the men, and they certainly do get paid more money, but I wouldn't want to do some of those parts. So, you know, I think you have to just take responsibility and start developing things yourself, as a lot of women are doing these days, and also as a baby boomer, I guess the demographic is in my favor, because there's -- the audience has a lot of people out there that are my age, and, you know, I think the solution is just to tell stories that you feel passionately about.

And if all those producers told stories they absolutely had to tell instead of doing sequels to everything or trying to copy movies that are successful, then, you know, it would reflect life. There'd be parts for everybody.

But marketing has taken over, commerce over art. And, you know, people are spending a lot of money, and they want to try to guarantee it, and I don't think very many people read or write these days. And so they kind of start with the poster and work backwards, and...

GROSS: Do you feel like you're always looking out for stories with good roles that would make good movies?

SARANDON: I just love love stories. I -- for me, almost -- every film I've done, including "Dead Man Walking" -- I mean, you name it, whether it's an 11-year-old child I'm opposite or a convict or -- you know, for me it's always about people taking a chance and reaching out to somebody, and that's really what interests me. And when you are vulnerable and brave enough to do that, then your life changes.

And so that's always interesting. So I'm interested in playing flawed people who are ordinary, and through some quirk of either not being able to keep their mouth shut any more or just not wanting to lie any more or whatever it is, they just take one tiny step, and the next thing they know, they've done something extraordinary because they can't go back.

And so for me, it's the story and, of course, it has to be somebody that I like. But, you know, it's -- very often you get scripts, and they're -- have the great kind of milieu, but they don't have a hook, they have a great situation, maybe, but they don't quite have, and then what? And a lot of the really interesting historical figures don't have the then what? You know, it's -- you might as well be doing just a docudrama and watch it on "Biography."

And so that's -- it's hard, sometimes, to take really extraordinary women and find the hook that you can tell that story that makes it important in the present, as their lives unfold.

GROSS: Now, I want to get back to the fact that your father was in television and in singing and theater. Did that encourage you to go into show business? Because you also told us that, I think, he encouraged you not to sing.

SARANDON: No, I wasn't encouraged to go into show business at all. I mean, it was just an aberrant thing that happened. I never took an acting class. I still haven't taken an acting class, which just goes to show you how difficult acting is.

I -- you know, surviving is always much tougher than the actual acting, this -- and especially in this business, mediocrity is rewarded so strongly that you really don't even have to be good. I just fell into it. I went to four years of college, and I loved literature. I took a theater course, but it was totally from an academic point of view. And as an undergraduate senior year at Catholic University, you're not allowed to do anything anyway, in terms of getting on the stage. It's all graduate oriented.

And I was perfectly contented with that, you know, and I took a lot of really interesting classes. I was just hungry for all kinds of information. And I'm an avid reader, and I -- you know, I loved getting out of New Jersey and striking out on my own. And college was a nice gentle way to do that.

And then I just completely fell into it, and I thought, well, this is fun, and, you know, I'll do it, but I made sure I didn't use my family name, because I didn't want to embarrass anybody. And I thought, well, you know, if after 10 years I don't like it, and, you know, I'll drop out, or if it stops being fun, I'll drop out. And it was a great way to pay back my defense loan, pay for college. And I just kind of laughed my way through the first, at least 10 years, 15 years, and just thought it was all pretty funny, and somewhere along the line I guess I had to kind of finally admit that this is what I did. And...

GROSS: Well, let me play a clip from your first film role, which was "Joe." And this was in 1970. And you play a young woman whose boyfriend is a real cad. He spends all their money on heroin, and then when you kind of overdose, your father's so angry, he ends up killing the boyfriend, befriending a racist and hippie-hating guy, and they go out on this spree shooting hippies.

So here's an excerpt from the opening scene. You're talking to your boyfriend. He's been very dismissive of you, and he's shooting up as you talk.


SARANDON: You didn't ask me where I was today.

Where do you think I was?

Did you think I was with some other guy?

I went to my parents.

ACTOR: What the hell'd you go there for?

SARANDON: Well, it was near my mother's birthday was coming up, and you -- I don't like to be here all by myself when you're away. But anyhow, well, why should that freak you out so much?

ACTOR: It freaks me out, you know it freaks me out!


GROSS: Susan Sarandon, how does that film hold up to you now?

SARANDON: Well, the whole -- the language with the drugs and the whole drug world is pretty ridiculous. I mean, I don't even think at the time anyone had decided what I was on, some kind of hallucinogen or something. And I didn't know that much about it at the time. And -- but certainly it see -- doesn't hold up, the drug end of it.

What made that film so remarkable -- and it was a real cheapie, I mean, I did my own makeup, hair, ward -- they shot my own jacket, they shot my clothes -- was Peter Boyle, because Peter Boyle had been doing this character of the hardhat guy, you know, the silent majority, in part of his Second City routine.

And when he came on, he just brought that character with him. And then it really became interesting, because right as the movie was being edited was the big riot down on Wall Street, and -- with the hardhats all beating people up and whatever that confrontation ended up being about.

And so that suddenly -- that point of view made the film something more than just "Nobody understands me" kind of generation conflict, you know, between parents and kids. It was his character, the brilliance of that character and what he did with it, which wasn't in the script, that really made that film everybody's nightmare. And, you know, the teaming up of the incredibly wealthy father with this brute really scared everyone to death, and killing your own daughter, of course, at the end of the film was everybody's fear, that, you know, what would happen to these nice girls who were running off with these nasty hippies?

GROSS: Now, a funny...

SARANDON: Nasty, drug-addicted hippies, yes.

GROSS: A funny thing in "Joe" is that within, like, 15 seconds of your first appearance in your first film you have to take your clothes off, because you join your boyfriend in the bathtub. And I'm wondering...

SARANDON: Was that funny? (laughs)

GROSS: ... you know, I'm wondering what that was like for you. It's your screen debut, and in 15 seconds...

SARANDON: It wasn't...

GROSS: ... you're peeling off your clothes.

SARANDON: It wasn't a big deal. I -- you know, I was a kid of the '60s. We were always taking our clothes off (inaudible).

GROSS: Right. (laughs)

SARANDON: It wasn't that big a deal. I mean, a sex scene -- I went years and years before any -- I had a sex scene. Sex scenes are a little bit more difficult, because, you know, that -- you should get stunt pay for that. But taking off your clothes, walking around naked, that didn't really bother me. I know my family probably had a major reaction to it, but they never said anything about any of my films, so I just kept gliding through.

And, of course, who thought that it would be this big hit, too, you know?

GROSS: My guest is Susan Sarandon. Her new movies are "Cradle Will Rock" and "Anywhere but Here." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Susan Sarandon.

You might be amused to hear this, that as part of Philadelphia's official millennial celebration, at 4:00 in the morning on the first day of the new year, there's going to be a screening of "Rocky Horror Picture Show" with real actors performing alongside.

SARANDON: (laughs) I love that.

GROSS: It's done...

SARANDON: Don't dream it, be it, for the millennium. OK!

GROSS: Now, of course, you were in this 1975 movie, which was a spoof of horror films with a transvestite vampire, and...

SARANDON: And a spoof of every ingenue I've played thus far.

GROSS: Yes. Did -- now, did you think this would develop into a cult film?

SARANDON: No. (laughs) I mean, I don't even think there was a definition of a cult film before this film, so we certainly weren't thinking about it. No, we -- I did it because I didn't know what it would turn out to be, and Tim Curry was a friend, and I thought I would get over my singing fears. And when the time come -- came, you know, they would give me some kind of -- I don't know, liquor or drugs or something to help me (inaudible) record it. And, of course, they didn't.

And I did it for the fun of it, and because I didn't know what would happen, really. And it took a little while for it to find a way to survive. And now I'm quite proud of it, and probably it will be the thing of mine that survives. (laughs)

GROSS: Did you go to any of the screenings where 10-year-olds would be dressed as transsexual vampires, performing alongside the screen?

SARANDON: I took Molly Ringwald when she was 11, and I recently took Natalie Portman when she was -- how old was she? Sixteen, at the time, a few summers ago when we did "Anywhere but Here." I must say, the East Coast version earlier on was much more together than the West Coast. The performances in front of the screen on both coasts were very impressive, but the audience for the L.A. screening was kind of, at this time, just all over the place, and you couldn't hear a thing that was being said, either in the movie or on stage.

But, you know, I think it's kind of a mass of sorts, you know, that answering thing that's happened. And I know it's been a lot of solace for a lot of kids that, you know, are having a rough time at the transitional period of their life, so I'm happy for it.

Strangely enough, I've gotten letters, when "Thelma and Louise" came out, from people who said to me, you know, "I live in such-and-such, and the first time you saved my life was with `The Rock Horror Show,' and now I've seen `Thelma and Louise,' and I'm leaving." And so they had the same reaction to both movies at different times of their lives. And so I'm pleased with anything that empowers people, so...

GROSS: I want to move on to another movie of yours, Susan Sarandon. this is the 1978 film "Pretty Baby," directed by Louis Malle. And in this film, you play Hattie, a prostitute whose 12-year-old daughter, played by Brooke Shields, also becomes a prostitute. And in this scene, you're packing up to leave with a man you've met who's told you he'll take you and your kids away from the brothel.

And you're announcing that you're leaving, and you're trying to get your 12-year-old daughter to come with you.


SARANDON: I'm here for one purpose, and that's to live my life to the hilt and enjoy it the same way. Come on, Violet. Why don't you pack?

BROOKE SHIELDS, ACTRESS: I don't want to go.

SARANDON: Violet, I am your mother.

SHIELDS: No, you're not. You even say so all the time.

(baby cries)

SARANDON: Matt, why are you acting this way? What ails you? Violet -- Violet, I'm talking to you! Oh, God, I have a splitting headache.

SHIELDS: I'm going to stay here.

SARANDON: I hate you. If it weren't for you, I would have been out of here a long time ago. Why are you so selfish? It just isn't fair. (inaudible), (inaudible) except me, (inaudible), (inaudible), for myself.

Sometimes I wish I'd never been born.


GROSS: Susan Sarandon in a scene from "Pretty Baby." It seems to me this was an important film for you. It was your first of two films with Louis Malle. You made "Atlantic City" together afterwards. And it was a very serious and really interesting and in its time controversial film. What was the impact of this movie on your career?

SARANDON: I don't know that -- you know, we couldn't get it distributed for over a year, and it was banned in a lot of places. And it was an ensemble piece, so I don't know that it helped my career. The liaison with Louis was very interesting for me as a person, and our collaboration then led to "Atlantic City," which was more important, I think, for my career. But as a person, I learned a lot just watching an auteur direct, you know, because I had never been present on a set where the color of the light -- and Sven Nyquist was just a genius, the D.P.

And the whole approach to the way that Louis was involved in so many aspects of the movie and the fact that he -- that -- the fact that he didn't choose to make the child prostitute the victim, and everybody around her was in more trouble than she was, I think was what basically just disturbed people so much about that film. And that was an interesting lesson.

But I don't know, I don't know if it had -- I mean, certainly everybody wanted me to take off my top from that point on. I mean, I don't know if that really helped my career or not. But I got offered every hooker you could after that, and everyone was, you know -- "Playboy" really upped their inquiries into my posing, you know, which had started with "The Rocky Horror Show."

But I suppose that -- all that slutty prostitution thing kind of put me into a sex spin for a while. But I don't know that it actually helped my career, except to give it a kind of sexual charge at some point.

GROSS: Susan Sarandon will be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest is Susan Sarandon. Her new films are "Cradle Will Rock" and "Anywhere but Here."

When we left off, we had started a mini-retrospective of her career. Let's get to her 1991 movie, "Thelma and Louise," for which she received an Academy Award nomination.

"Thelma and Louise" was a women's buddy movie. Sarandon and Geena Davis star as two friends who become fugitives after Sarandon kills a man who's trying to rape Geena Davis in the parking lot of a bar.

Here's that pivotal scene.



SARANDON: You let her go, you (expletive deleted) asshole, or I'm going to splatter your ugly face all over this nice car.

DAVIS: (weeping)

ACTOR: All right, hey, hey, just calm down. I was just having a little fun, that's all.

SARANDON: Looks like you got a real (expletive deleted) idea of fun.

DAVIS: Come on. Come on. (weeps)

SARANDON: Turn around.

In the future, when a woman's crying like that, she isn't having any fun.

DAVIS: (weeping), (inaudible).

ACTOR: Bitch! I shoulda gone ahead and (expletive deleted) her.

SARANDON: What did you say?

ACTOR: I said, (expletive deleted) my (expletive deleted).

(gun fires)


GROSS: That's the sound of you shooting him.

SARANDON: Yes. He went too far. (laughs) Yes.

GROSS: Which I think (inaudible)...

SARANDON: But the thing that...

GROSS: Yes, go ahead.

SARANDON: Well, I was going to say, the thing that separates this from a revenge movie with two males, for instance, is that there is a moral price to be paid for me losing it, as you learn later, because I also had been raped, and go into some kind of little trance there and just overreact. But I think the whole rest of the movie from that point on operates under the knowledge for this character that she's going to have to pay a price, and that there's no joy, really, in that revenge.

And what we tried to do is, we were -- what was important for me to do, as the movie went on, was to try to figure out why these things keep happening, not to make it about getting even. And that was very important to me, because I didn't want to do -- I didn't want to do a rip-off of a male revenge film, which at that time was very popular kind of genre.

So we tried in all the rest of the scenes to ask questions, or try to make it clear, you know, that she's on some kind of search for an understanding of this moment. And when I take off all my jewelry and kind of -- my watch and everything, I think she's preparing for -- you know, to go into a zone where some kind of -- where she feels she has to pay some kind of a price. And she doesn't know what that's going to be, but -- and so that was very much in my mind from that moment on in the film.

GROSS: I think that this movie affected the movie industry and made a lot of people think, Hmm, two women starring opposite each other in a movie, this could be saleable, there's an audience for this.

SARANDON: Mm-hm. I think it did make a difference.

GROSS: What were your first reactions to the screenplay?

SARANDON: Well, I thought it was a cowboy movie with women and trucks instead of guys and horses, and I thought it would be fun to be a bad guy. And, you know, it needed a little bit of work, but for the most part it seemed like it'd be fun. I mean, it was -- there were a few scenes we had to change, structurally. But, you know, it just seemed like it would be great if you had the right gal. And Ridley, God bless him, put us in an incredibly heroic kind of vista there, you know, really shot it in a way that made it quite heroic.

But I -- nobody ever thought that it would mean so much to have these two white chicks, you know, backing into that white male heterosexual area that everybody had held so tightly and dearly, that heroic stance, you know. And didn't know that it would disturb everybody's psyche in such a deep, deep way.

But there's been a number of films. "Pretty Baby" was the same way. I mean, there've been films that I've been in that you just don't see it coming.

GROSS: Now, did you think of this as a feminist film, or just as a -- you know, a buddy film with women in it instead of men?

SARANDON: I don't think in terms of feminist. You know, I -- not because I apologize for that, I'm all for whatever -- I mean, I don't know what "feminist" means this -- these days, but in the early days, when I was marching for ERA and everything else, you know, the basic tenets. But I just find "feminist" tends to make people so defensive, and it -- that you kind of -- "humanist," for me, is more interesting. I mean, I think it's just...

A lot of guys related to this movie. It didn't offend every male that saw it. I got lots of mail from people who -- from men who found it quite inspiring for them too. I think it's about anybody that's settled, anybody that's been down under and trying to fight back and try to just -- to have some dignity and stand up for themselves. And it's a little romanticized at the end there, with that ending, it's very "Butch Cassidy." But it -- you know, I don't think any of us talked about it ever in feminist terms.

We just -- you know, it was great to have women in the leads, and it was great to play outlaws, and it was great to have that bonding and that love between the two women. That was really important. But, you know, we didn't talk about it that way. We were just trying to make a good movie that was -- had some truth to it and would be fun to watch.

GROSS: My guest is Susan Sarandon. Her new movies are "Cradle Will Rock" and "Anywhere but Here." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Susan Sarandon is my guest. She's in two new movies, "Cradle Will Rock" and "Anywhere but Here."

Let's go to your 1988 film, "Bull Durham," a baseball movie in which you play Annie Savoy, who every year picks a baseball player as her lover and protege. And in this scene, you've asked two players to your home, played by Tim Robbins and Kevin Costner, and you're explaining why.


SARANDON: These are the ground rules. I hook up with one guy a season. Usually takes me a couple of weeks to pick the guy, kind of my own spring training. And, well, you two are the most promising prospects of the season so far. So I just thought we should kind of get to know each other.

KEVIN COSTNER, ACTOR: Time out. Why do you get to choose?


COSTNER: Why do you get to choose? I mean, why don't I get to choose? Why doesn't he get to choose?

SARANDON: Well, actually, nobody on this planet ever really chooses each other. I mean, it's all a question of quantum physics, molecular attraction, and timing. I mean, there are laws we don't understand that bring us together and tear us apart. It's like (inaudible). You get three (inaudible) together, they can't do dick. You get 300 million of them, they can build a cathedral.

COSTNER: (laughs)

TIM ROBBINS, ACTOR: So is somebody going to go to bed with somebody, or what?

SARANDON: Honey, you are a regular nuclear meltdown. You better cool off.



GROSS: Susan Sarandon in a scene from "Bull Durham."

Now, I understand you really campaigned hard to get the part in this. Could you tell us the story behind how you got cast in "Bull Durham"?

SARANDON: Oh, well, I had read the script. They weren't interested in me. They went to the kind of -- whoever was on the A-list of that before me. And I was living in Italy at the time and had been living in Italy for a while with my young daughter. And I read the script, and it was just one of the best scripts that I'd ever read. And a great character, you know, someone who is so smart and so lustful and didn't have to die at the end of the movie, didn't have to be punished in any way, and full of humor, and just upsetting every movie cliche you could find.

And I wanted to audition for it, but they really weren't interested. And Ron Shelton was directing, and he was a first-time director, the writer. And he didn't have much clout at that time, and so it was mostly Kevin, and I guess a lot of the people that they were interested in refused to read. And so finally it trickled down to me at the bottom of the food chain.

And I flew myself out to California from Italy, which was incredibly expensive for me at that time, and put a red rinse in my hair and a tight dress on, and went in. And I had to audition with every scene in the movie. And with Kevin, and they went pretty well. And then I bopped into the -- I bumped literally fit -- bumped into Tim Robbins in the lobby, who I had no idea who he was, and neither did anybody else at that time, this big kind of hulking guy there.

And then on the way to the airport to go back, because I'd left my daughter behind, I kind of bopped into the studio and said hi to all these young executives, who probably weren't even still there by the time we started the movie. And got back on the plane, and, you know, Kevin had been really sweet, and I thought, Well, that's that. And then they called me, and I went back in a few weeks, and we started, which was definitely one of the most important experiences of my life, because it was one of the first roles in a long time that I had not been overqualified for, and it was a very cooperative, collaborative experience.

So ironically, the -- I was so terrified of being stuck in a locker room with all these guys for a few months, and it turned out to be the film that I was treated with the most respect I'd had. And, of course, ended up being a classic to boot, so that was great.

GROSS: It's also the film where you met your long-term partner, Tim Robbins, and...

SARANDON: That's right. We were friends during that movie, and then afterwards got together, and we had a great friendship, and it's nice to start off on a movie that ends up being good. (laughs)

GROSS: Right. Now, Tim Robbins directed you in the next film that I want to talk about, which is "Dead Man Walking." And in this film you play Sister Helen Prejean, who is a real person. I mean, this film is based on a real story. And Sister Helen works with men on death row, trying to help them face what they've done and face God.

And in this scene, you're with Sean Penn, who is an unrepentant murderer, and he has said a few racist things just before this scene begins.


SARANDON: Is your daddy a racist?

SEAN PENN, ACTOR: What kind of question's that?

SARANDON: We have to teach a child to hate, and I was just wondering who taught you.

PENN: I just don't like niggers.

SARANDON: Have you ever known any black people?

PENN: Sure I did. They was all around when I was a kid.

SARANDON: All around?

PENN: Yes, lived around me.

SARANDON: Did you ever play with a black child?

PENN: No. But me and my cousin got jumped pretty good once.

SARANDON: What happened?

PENN: We used to throw rocks at them. So next day, they wait their chance, get ahold of our bikes, tear 'em up.

SARANDON: Can you blame them?

PENN: Well, no, but look, slavery's long over. They're always harping on what a bad deal they got.

SARANDON: The kids that tore up your bike?

PENN: All of them. I can't stand people make theyselves out to be victims.

SARANDON: Victims.

PENN: Yes, they're all victims.

SARANDON: I don't know any victims in my neighborhood. I know some pretty cool people, decent, hard-working.

PENN: Yeah, I know a lot of lazy welfare-takin' coloreds suckin' up tax collars.

SARANDON: You sound like a politician.

PENN: What's that mean?

SARANDON: You ever been the object of prejudice?


SARANDON: What do you suppose people think about inmates on death row?

PENN: I don't know. Why don't you tell me?

SARANDON: They're all monsters, disposable human waste, good for nothing, suckin' up tax dollars.

PENN: Yeah, but I ain't no victim. They gonna kill me, I'm innocent. I ain't whinin', I ain't sittin' on no porch going, Slavery, slavery. (inaudible), some blacks is OK. Martin Luther King, he led his people all the way to D.C., kicked the white man's butt.

SARANDON: You respect Martin Luther King.

PENN: He put up a fight. He wasn't lazy.

SARANDON: What about lazy whites?

PENN: Don't like 'em.

SARANDON: So it's lazy people you don't like.

PENN: Can we talk about something else?


GROSS: Susan Sarandon with Sean Penn.

Great film, great performance.

SARANDON: Thank you. Yes, Sean's so brilliant in that film.

GROSS: Now, did you work with Sister Helen before making the movie about her?

SARANDON: What happened was, I had read some reviews of the book, and when I was doing "The Client," we were in New Orleans for a brief period of time, and I asked to see her. And she -- we had dinner together, and we got along. And, you know, laughed a lot. And she didn't know which one of "Thelma and Louise" I was, and -- but she did know my work from Amnesty, and I had come very highly recommended by people that she'd worked with politically.

And so she ended up, after that meeting, giving me the book. So I took the book back, and, you know, I had talked to Tim about it, but he wasn't -- he was still dreaming about "Cradle Will Rock" at that time, and was -- that was going to be the next film. And so for about a year or so, Sister Helen was a friend of ours and came and stayed at the house, and, you know, I talked, we would -- whatever.

And fina -- nothing was happening with the film. And finally I had a little mini-breakdown one day and just said, "What are you doing with this book? If you don't want to do it, you know, can we give it to somebody else? Let's try to get it up, because we've waited now for a year and nothing's happened." And it takes a long time to write a script and, you know, do the preproduction and everything.

So I knew it was still going to be quite a while before we actually started filming. And he said, "All right, all right, I'll -- you know, let me take a look at it." And he kind of did a pass and still wasn't sure what to do. And we went to Italy, and we were staying with Gore Vidal, and we showed him both "Cradle" and "Dead Man Walking." And he said, "Well, you shouldn't do either of them, they're both terrible ideas." (laughs)

So we came back, and by that time he'd kind of -- Tim had started to invest a little bit, imagination wise, in "Dead Man Walking." And then it kind of wrote itself. And he did a brilliant job of combining the two characters that are based on the two men in real life that she was the spiritual adviser for. And then he also had the brilliant idea to change it from the electric chair to the most "humane," in quotes, form of execution, which is lethal injection, and to go for the worst possible guy, the racist guy, so you had the worst possible guilty guy and the most humane kind of punishment. And then you looked at the question from that point on.

GROSS: Now, you come from a Catholic upbringing, and I think you went to Catholic school.

SARANDON: Very Catholic. Except for high school, I went to -- that's where I went wrong. I went to a public high school with about 500 kids in my class. And that's when I found out that the Jews were not at all apologetic for killing Christ.


SARANDON: Up until that time, I had a really kind of warped view of -- skewed view of how things were working in my little town.

GROSS: Were there things that you could draw from, from, like, you know, the nuns who taught you, or from your early Catholic education for this, or was Sister...

SARANDON: No, because...

GROSS: ... Helen such a different kind of person?

SARANDON: No, Sister Helen broke the mold for me in terms of nuns. I mean, I think I had one nun that I really remember fondly, Sister Margot, who's now the principal of one of my sister's kids' schools. For me, again, you know, it was really about this impossible question, this love story of unconditional love. And as a religious, you're supposed to follow the teachings of Christ and love unconditionally.

And I -- my theory is that it's virtually impossible unless you're a mother or father, and then you have that kind of love for your children. But you don't even have it for your partner. And possibly for good reason. And so the question for her is, how to work her way through this process of finding unconditional love for a man that she just finds repellent, and who she can't even respect, and trying to fulfill her belief that every man is worth more than their worst deed, and that you don't judge a person that way, and that, you know, you can't -- it's really about who has the right to kill, not who has the right to be killed. And all of these questions.

And so for me, even though it brought up this -- what we'd hoped we could do was to put a face on the issue of the death penalty on all sides, and try to be as fair as possible, as she is in the book. And here was a woman who made a lot of mistakes, so we were going in with a nice, complex character. And then let the audience, once they've seen the specifics of it, not the abstract of it, make up their own minds about what it means to kill a person in premeditated fashion by the state.

GROSS: Now, now, as Sister Helen, you had to be somebody who is not only plain but doesn't exactly have a knack for dressing, you know, it's hardly fashionable, you know, no makeup. Did you ever have any concern that, you know, other casting directors or studio executives would see this and say, Oh, well, maybe she's too plain to cast in a glamorous role in the future, or, you know, in a more, like, attractive character in the future? I think some actresses are really worried about, you know, not looking glamorous in roles.

SARANDON: Well, I think that, you know, the hardest part is seeing yourself. I don't know how impractical it is in terms of your next job. But I didn't go to dailies, I didn't know that I wanted to really see myself that way, you know. I was counting on some kind of inner beauty. I kept trying to go to some kind of light, hoping that it would be there, or that the gaffer would help find it for me, if I couldn't be luminescent in -- as the face of love.

But I -- you know, I think it's always tough when you uglify yourself to some extent or make yourself plain. But it's a great exercise in acting to not be able to rely on those things, and to be stuck in a cell with Sean and not have any props, and just the two of us was kind of distilled connection that way was really a treat. It was hard, and it was intense, but it was, I think, probably one of the strongest connections I've ever had on screen, and as such, it -- I think it just helps the audience forget about the more superficial things that they're used to seeing in a movie.

But I -- I mean, I couldn't want to get eyeliner and, you know, my clothes back at some point later on. But it took a little while.

GROSS: Well, Susan Sarandon, it's been a pleasure to talk with you. I thank you very much.

SARANDON: Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure too.

GROSS: Susan Sarandon's new films are "Anywhere but Here" and "Cradle Will Rock."

Coming up, book critic Maureen Corrigan recommends some gifts for Christmas.

This is FRESH AIR.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Susan Sarandon
High: Actress Susan Sarandon. She's currently starring in the new film "Anywhere But Here," and "Cradle Will Rock." Over her 30 years in films she's starred in "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," which became a cult classic, as well as "Atlantic City," "Thelma and Louise," "Bull Durham," "Dead Man Walking" and more.
Spec: Entertainment; Movie Industry; Susan Sarandon

Please note, this is not the final feed of record

Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: An Interview with Susan Sarandon

Date: DECEMBER 16, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 121602NP.217
Head: A Book-Reader's Christmas Wish List
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:50

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

GROSS: Book critic Maureen Corrigan says that finding good books isn't the problem, it's finding the time to read them. Here are her picks of the year for holiday gift buying.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BOOK CRITIC: All I want for Christmas is time, time to read those books, piles of them, that I never got to during the year.

There's Jean Strouse's biography of J.P. Morgan, and volume two of Blanche Wiesen Cook's biography of Eleanor Roosevelt. Oh, just give me a solid, uninterrupted week!

I never managed to read John Keegan's history of the First World War, or Bobbie Ann Mason's memoir, "Clear Springs," or Kent Haruf's much-praised novel, "Plainsong."

Instead, I did other things, like sleeping, the laundry, staring into space. Instead, I read other books, some probably better, some certainly a lot worse.

Allow me to save you some precious time if you're looking for good books to give as holiday presents.

"The Country Life," a novel by Rachel Cusk, has just come out in paperback, and it's my pick as the perfect stocking stuffer for anyone on your list who loves droll British comedy. On suspiciously short notice, a woman named Stella Benson throws away her London life and signs on to be an aide to the disabled son of a secluded manor house family.

What ensues is farcical discomfort born out of too much good breeding on Stella's part and too much inbreeding on the part of her snooty employers. Stella is a kind of flip Jane Eyre. Here's how she describes her own appearance.

"Mine were not the sort of looks that slapped one in the face when one encountered them. They did not disrupt nor seek attention. One could, in the presence of my looks, get on with the matter to hand, something I have not found to be without its advantages."

If you want to spring for a hardcover specimen of the same kind of humor, I'd also recommend Michael Frayn's "Headlong," another Britcom novel, this one about an unscrupulous academic who, in the tradition of the "Antiques Roadshow," thinks that he's stumbled upon an unknown painting by an old master.

Enough giggles. We'll sober up now and look at so-called serious fiction.

I think Ha Jin's novel "Waiting," which recently won the National Book Award for fiction, may turn out to be my favorite novel of 1999. It describes the decades-long unhappy love affair between a Chinese doctor and a hospital nurse. I think of it as kind of a Sino version of "The Remains of the Day," a quiet story that packs a wallop about a life of repression.

A debut novel by Elizabeth Strout called "Amy and Isabelle" also stands out in my memory. The novel is set in a New England mill town and focuses on a tense mother-daughter relationship during the summer of 1969. Strout precisely creates an ordinary world that's as durable as kitchen linoleum.

Two short story collections could be great gifts for those short of time. "The Way People Run" is the latest book of stories by Christopher Tilghman, who proves that Cheever, Updike, and Richard Ford haven't exhausted the fictional possibilities of white middle-class male melancholy.

And invoking Updike reminds me of an anthology he and Katrina Kenison put together called "The Best American Short Stories of the Century." This anthology lives up to the promise of its title.

Months after I've read it, I'm still haunted by an unapologetically melodramatic short story called "The Ledge." It's one of those traditional man-against-nature tales that was first published in 1960 by a little-known writer, Lawrence Sargent Hall.

I probably spent too much time this year reading mysteries, but why not, when they're as good as Dan Fesperman's thriller, "Lie in the Dark"? Fesperman is a foreign correspondent for "The Baltimore Sun," and his story, set in contemporary Sarajevo, offers keen social commentary along with suspense.

"Motherless Brooklyn," by Jonathan Lethem, is a hard-to-classify novel that toys with, but doesn't quite surrender to, the murder mystery genre. The main character, who tells the tale, suffers for Tourette's syndrome, which I thought would be a narrative deal-breaker, but turned out to be a boon.

As far as more familiar mystery novelists, I've got to award pride of place once again to Sara Paretsky for her latest V.I. Warshawski novel, "Hard Time." It's a real downer that I couldn't put down.

Let's wind up these holiday picks with nonfiction.

A Frank McCourt backlash gathered force this year, but I haven't yet become a party to it. Maybe the impending movie version of "Angela's Ashes" will change my mind. Anyway, I really enjoyed "'Tis," McCourt's follow-up memoir that deals in part with his life as a teacher in the New York City public school system.

And speaking of backlash, "Backlash" author Susan Faludi's latest book, "Stiffed," has come in for a lot of criticism, even by feminists like Ellen Willis, whom I respect. But I still think that its insights into what Faludi terms "ornamental masculinity" are well worth reading.

And speaking of coming in for a lot of criticism, the Renaissance astronomer Galileo was called up before the Inquisition for claiming that the earth rotates around the sun. Dava Sobel's "Galileo's Daughter" chronicles Galileo's struggles, as well as what surely must be one of the most loving father-daughter relationships of this or any other millennium.

Reading time itself may be fleeting, but the impression these good books made on me this year endures.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. You can find her Christmas gift picks on our Web site at

FRESH AIR's interviews and reviews are produced by Naomi Person, Phyllis Meyers (ph), Amy Sallett (ph), and Monique Nazareth, with Patty Leswing (ph). Research assistance from Brendon Noonam (ph). Anne Marie Baldonado directed the show.

I'm Terry Gross.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Maureen Corrigan
High: Book critic Maureen Corrigan give us her list of the best books to put on your Christmas list.
Spec: Holidays; Consumers; Literature

Please note, this is not the final feed of record

Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: A Book-Reader's Christmas Wish List
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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