Susan Sarandon sees her new movie, "Arbitrage," as a love story but that's no surprise: She sees every movie she has made as a love story.
"Whatever it is, for me, it's a love story -- even 'Dead Man Walking' was a love story about redemption," says Sarandon, right after promising that she's "not brain-dead yet" because, instead of a morning full of interviews, she stepped away to attend the memorial service for the late writer Gore Vidal.
Collaborators don't always agree that the movies are love stories. "Dead Man Walking," for instance, was written and directed by Sarandon's then-partner, Tim Robbins. Shortly before they began filming the movie that would eventually earn Sarandon a best-actress Oscar, Robbins asked if she thought the movie was mostly about her character.
"I said, 'No, it's a love story about these two people,'" recalls Sarandon. "He disagreed. He talked about the death penalty aspect, which I never really thought the movie was about. But, when we got around to filming the scenes in prison with Sean Penn and I, Tim said, 'Oh, now I get it.' No matter where you come down on the death penalty, this is a story about a person, this nun, who is filled with love without judgment, the kind of unquestioning love that is what a religious person tries to express."
"Arbitrage," which starts Friday, is about a different sort of love and about a choice. Sarandon plays a woman whose husband (Richard Gere) is guilty of enormous financial fraud. His is
a family business, so their daughter (Brit Marling) also becomes involved in the crime, which places Sarandon's character in an impossible situation.
"To me, what this woman and her husband have together is that they've known each other since they were young," says Sarandon, 65. "But if he messes with her kids, that's a deal-breaker."
That part -- unconditional love for kids -- was easy to relate to for the mom of three, who says, "So much of my identity now is about being a mother. It gives me something to hang onto if all the other stuff fails, having kids who I want to have dinner with and who teach me things. I'm an actor second -- an aging actor second -- and being a mom is by far the most important part of me."
The kids are a big reason Sarandon likes to work close to home. She's in six movies hitting theaters this year and Sarandon jokes they all have a few things in common: "Every non-paying little indie movie with a new director, I'm there. As long as it's in New York and not too long of a commitment, I like to help make things happen for new directors -- it's my own little Kickstarter. They're not all roaring successes but, about 60 percent of the time, they turn out well."
Another of those non-paying
little indie movies with new directors is also currently in theaters: "Frank and Robot," in which Sarandon plays the would-be girlfriend of a man (Frank Langella) with memory problems. Yup, it's a love story.
"We had no rehearsal for the most important scene between our characters and it was complicated because I was doing another film at the same time (the upcoming 'The Big Wedding,' with Diane Keaton) that, luckily, was shooting nearby," says Sarandon. "When we were shooting, we realized there was too much happening in that one scene, so we threw out a lot of the dialogue."
The hope, Sarandon says, was that she and Langella could convey more with their faces than they could with words. Told that it worked (Sarandon's "Robot and Frank" role is small but that scene is easily the best in the film), the actress says: "I'm glad to hear it. It's these small victories that keep me addicted to this life."
Those small victories, and the wide variety of characters she is offered, from the pious nun in "Dead Man Walking" to the randy baseball fan in "Bull Durham" to the proper wife in "Arbitrage" to the small part she can't say too much about in the upcoming "Cloud Atlas" (unusually for her, it was not shot in New York, but she hauled herself to Europe because she loves the film's directors, Andy and Lana Wachowski, with whom she made "Speed Racer").
"I don't know what it would be like to play Sarah Palin, someone I don't really respect or someone who's a victim. I want to play a woman who is a protagonist in her own life," says Sarandon. "Something has to make me love her or, at least, like her a lot."