Susan Sarandon has graced many venues in her time, ranging from the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival to the rather less glitzy setting of the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York. But nothing in her long career has quite prepared her for today. “I feel like this is kind of like a performance-art piece,” Sarandon declares, laughing. “I have to say this is a first for me. Maybe we can all get up at some point and do a choreographed dance?”
It’s the weekend of the Art Basel fair and we’re sitting at the Swire Properties lounge in the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. Although Swire’s space is technically private, it’s separated from the adjacent public walkway by only a few strips of delicately bent wood, through which passers-by can (and unashamedly do) stop and stare at Sarandon.
Inside this fishbowl-like lounge there’s a small group of invited guests who have gathered to hear Sarandon talk about her life and work, an event that’s the highlight of this month’s Liberatum, a roving cultural festival that has landed in Hong Kong to coincide with the city’s annual art week. Sarandon’s involvement with Liberatum began when she was interviewed for the organisation’s short film Artistry/Technology, which had its world premiere in this lounge on the opening night of the art fair.
Dressed almost entirely in black and with her famous red hair pulled back into bunches, Sarandon seems remarkably unfazed by the unexpectedly public setting as she begins her talk. Managing to be eloquent and considered, but at the same time unabashedly outspoken, Sarandon is an entertaining speaker who races through stories about some of her most famous films, including Thelma & Louise, Pretty Baby, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Dead Man Walking (for which she won an Oscar) and Cloud Atlas, before stopping for a brief but cryptic meditation on acting. “Acting is a strange thing,” Sarandon muses, “I mean, anybody can do it. Kids do it all the time. It’s a business where mediocrity is rewarded.”
The film world summarily dealt with, Sarandon moves on to what she may actually be more famous for: her political activism. “I was very lucky because I came of age in the ’60s and ’70s,” she explains. “Part of being young and even slightly present was thinking you could make a difference.” Having joined anti-Vietnam War protests when she was a student, Sarandon has since gone on to become a Unicef Goodwill Ambassador, a prominent critic of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and a staunch supporter of LGBT rights.
She’s also an unfailing advocate for gender equality, declaring warmly during the event, “I just love women and what women manage to do. Somebody has to do that heavy lifting that happens for the first however many years [of a child’s life] and somehow women manage to hold down a full-time job as well.”
With her talk over and the audience dispersing, Sarandon carefully unhooks her microphone, takes a sip of her drink and sits down for a more private conversation. Her thoughts on gender equality seem a good place to start, so does she consider herself a feminist? “I think that for a long time the word feminist seemed very alienating to some people, but it seems to have gone through a rebranding, so I kind of like that, that all these young actresses aren’t afraid to say that [they’re feminists].
“But I’m always afraid of labels. I mean, I think we need men who are feminists, so it shouldn’t be a term that’s divisive. I think that it’s been perceived as shrill and anti-male, and I can understand why that happened, but I don’t think that it needs to be that.
“I think that what’s happening now with all these young gals that have inherited everything that came from the early days of feminism, is that they’re saying, ‘Yeah, yeah, but it’s not really a big deal – you don’t have to go on and on about it.’ I think that’s good. But sure, I’m a feminist. And I think that most of the men I really love are feminists.”
As befits such a strident supporter of gender equality, the now 68-year-old Sarandon continues to work and earn plaudits in the notoriously sexist and ageist world of film. One of several movies she’s appearing in over the next two years is The Death and Life of John F Donovan, an upcoming feature by Xavier Dolan, the 26-year-old director whose debut film took the Cannes Film Festival by storm when he was just 20.
[Dolan] told me it now isn’t going to film until the beginning of next year,” Sarandon reveals. “It’s Jessica Chastain and myself, and Kit Harington is the main guy. Kathy Bates is in it also. It’s kind of a complicated plot, actually. It’s a Hollywood story, Kit’s a big Hollywood star and I’m his mum. [Dolan’s] really interesting. I like him a lot, and I find there’s an amazing amount of energy in his films.”
On top of acting, Sarandon owns and runs her own production company, which she uses to make documentaries to shine a light on social issues. “I have a film company called Reframed Pictures and we’ve done a few documentaries. Actually, I just curated a whole bunch of [documentaries] for the Sundance Channel. They ask you to curate some of your favourites, [and I picked] two that we made; one that my son Jack Henry [Robbins] directed, called Storied Streets, is a story of homelessness. He went across the United States after he got out of USC [University of Southern California] and he recorded and interviewed a lot of different demographics of homeless people and then talked to people who worked with homeless people, kind of dispelling all the myths surrounding who’s there and how and why.
“And then I nominated a woman named Pushpa Basnet, who won the CNN Hero Award a few years ago. She lives in Nepal, and if you get put in prison in Nepal, your kids go with you. So she started taking the kids out during the day and educating them and housing them and adopting them until their mothers could get out of prison. We made a film about her called Waiting for Mamu, and that’s been on airplanes. These have both been in a lot of festivals.
“The idea of the company is to encourage some kind of social change. What we’re trying to do is hook it up with very specific outreach or education [programmes]. We’re working on something now about Hedy Lamarr, whose hobby was science, believe it or not. She invented the technology on your cell phone and gave it to the navy. It’s a crazy story.
There’s a bunch of different things [we’re working on], all kinds of stories, but things that you wouldn’t normally know about in hopes that you can reframe people’s preconceived notions.”