Susan Sarandon is quick to mention that she's "not much like Sharon," the character she plays in the new film Jeff, Who Lives at Home, which opened yesterday. But that's obvious. Sharon is the movie's B-story, a disappointed beauty who thought she would live a life of "kissing under waterfalls." Instead, she's an office drone and an exhausted single mother of two man-children – "one of whom [Pat, played by The Office's Ed Helms]has gone through the checklist – job, wife, house – and is miserable; and the other [the title character, played by Jason Segel] who seems to do everything wrong," Sarandon said in a phone call last week.
The A-story of the film, which was written and directed by brothers Jay and Mark Duplass, centres on Jeff, a stoner who believes in destiny. It unfolds over the one fateful day when he gets everything right. (Segel, whom I don't always love, is unusually moving here; I was surprised to find myself in tears.)
Sharon is rewarded, too, with a moment of grace. I left feeling hopeful, not just for the characters, but for the future movies the Duplass brothers may make – between this film and their last, Cyrus, they're proving to be a rarity among filmmakers, thirtysomething men who seem to care, and write empathically, about women over 40.
In real life, of course, Sarandon is nobody's B-story. She's the North American Helen Mirren, a smart, vital, outspoken star who was sexy as an ingenue (in 1975's The Rocky Horror Picture Show), sexy in her 40s (in the films that cemented her appeal, including The Witches of Eastwick, Bull Durham and Thelma & Louise), sexy as a nun ( Dead Man Walking, which won her a best-actress Oscar), sexy on TV (with guest-star spots on Rescue Me and, lately, 30 Rock) and now is sexy at 65.
The eldest of nine children, Sarandon was born in New York City and went to Catholic schools, including the Catholic University of America. Politically savvy, she spoke up for Haitian refugees while presenting an Oscar (to the displeasure of the Academy), was arrested during a protest against police brutality, supported Ralph Nader's run for U.S. president in 2000 and lauded Canada for legalizing same-sex marriage.
During her 20-year relationship with the actor/director Tim Robbins, who is 12 years younger, she greeted their age difference with a shrug, and when they split in 2009, she kept her feelings to herself. (They have two sons in their 20s, Jack and Miles; Sarandon also has a daughter, the actress Eva Amurri, 27, from her relationship with the director Franco Amurri.)
She's also a co-owner of Spin, a chain of, of all things, Ping-Pong clubs, with a branch on Toronto's King Street West. She opens our conversation by asking me if I know about it. "I'm a propagandist," she says, laughing. When I ask, "Why Ping-Pong?" her answer seems characteristic: "I love it because it cuts across age, gender, body type, expectation," she says. "A little girl can beat a big football player."
Unfortunately, even Sarandon hasn't escaped the steep drop in juicy roles that befalls most actresses her age. "I've always played character parts; I'm just doing more of them now," she says. "You can think of me as a temp who comes in to fill a need. Or you can say I'm diversifying my portfolio. As long as I'm having fun, it's nice not to have to be in every scene. Now, would I like a big fat role? Of course, if it's something interesting. Have I turned down a fabulous romantic comedy? No."
She said yes to Jeff because, "I do know what it's like when you're the Wendy to everyone else's Peter Pan," Sarandon says. "You're the enforcer: 'Stop playing touch football in the house at 11 p.m. on a school night and go to bed.' Sharon's worn out. She dislikes herself as much as her sons dislike her. Any parent knows that moment where you love your children to death, but you do not like them. You're lying if you say you don't."
She was also intrigued by the Duplass brothers' way of working (they were early practitioners of the so-called mumblecore style), with small budgets, partly improvised scripts and multiple cameras. "It's a loving set," Sarandon says. "They love you, and you want to please them. There's nothing worse than hating the director and feeling like a whore when you're working."
Ah, there's the tell-it-like-it-is Sarandon we love. When has she felt that? "Well, I'm not going to say who," she answers. "But for me, the seductive part of the job is the collaboration. Some directors want to plug you into whatever they've storyboarded, or give you line readings, or isolate people from one another. That's not a successful way into the music of a scene, to finding the surprises that can happen when actors are made better by one another. But Jay and Mark trust that you'll be good, if they create the right atmosphere for it. And they play Ping-Pong."
Despite the dearth of lead roles, Sarandon is enjoying this phase of life. "I'm liking being educated by my kids now," she says. "They're sending me books and music. Through them, I'm revisiting the questions I had at their age. Both my boys are of theJeff school" – pondering life's questions. "Miles, who's in a contemplative-studies program, just texted me passages from Siddhartha – 'Do you know this book, Mom?' Well, yes, but I haven't read in a while. So that's fun."
Asked what she knows now that she didn't know 20 years ago, she ticks off a list: "I've learned that beauty is not about being perfect. It's the imperfections that make you beautiful. I've learned that if you can make it to dawn, things will get better. And I've learned that when you think life is over, walk it off. Keep moving.
"I'm also not as worried about my kids making mistakes as I used to be," she continues. "Now I think, 'I guess he has to be in a high-maintenance relationship – I wonder what that will teach him?' Or, 'A gap year, hmm, maybe he needs it.' I've always thought things reveal themselves in time. But as I get older, my perspective gets even wider."
She's also getting more rest – "not enough, but more" – and enjoying not having to be home for dinner every night. "It's funny, though, it's just like when I first got a cordless phone, but I would still stand and talk right by the phone charger," she says. "I still find myself coming home at 6 p.m. The hands-on-mom habits are hard to break."
Now her daughter is navigating the rocky shoals of being an actress with both a brain and a killer body. Recently, she did a season-long turn as a stripper on Californication. But if Sarandon was fazed by watching her first-born wriggling topless on TV, she doesn't show it. "Eva's been working for a long time," she says. "Then she went to Brown. Now she's done a TV pilot, and she's hoping it will get picked up, because she just got married, and she wants to have a regular schedule. Her choice of a partner is brilliant, by the way; I'm really happy with that. My main worry is that privileged kids often don't have a passion. So as long as mine are interested in something, I'm happy for them."
That sounds a little evasive, and Sarandon cops to it. "Look, it's a hard business," she says. "Anyone who wants to stay in it has to find a way to deal with disappointment, and with the mediocrity that gets rewarded. The emphasis now is on being famous instead of doing good work. A lot of people are enjoying their 15 minutes who aren't particularly talented. Producers want someone with so many Tweets or whatever. You have to get used to the idea that decisions are often made on very superficial bases.
"But it's always been that way," she continues. "If you're looking for justice, for talent to be rewarded, you're barking up the wrong job." She laughs. "Fame is not about who's best. You have to make peace with the frustrations and rejections."
Sarandon's had her share, she says. "But I love the process, the challenge. You never feel you've won – you always think, 'I could be better.' That's very seductive. And I like the world. I get to delve into these microcosms and incarnations. Without acting, I never would have learned about science or baseball or the death march in the Philippines. For me, it's a good job." She laughs wryly. "And who'd have thought it would be secure? Look at all those people who thought they'd made a safe career choice, thought they'd have a pension. Now they're laid off, and I'm still working."
Most things Sarandon says ring true. But her last line sounds especially so: "I really like," she sums up, "making people feel something."