'When people close to me looked at this screenplay," Susan Sarandon was saying, "they were like, 'This is crazy.' " Her character in "Anywhere But Here," which opens Friday, is not exactly a charmer: "She's a hateful person, she's unsympathetic, and nothing happens. That was the general feeling, anyway."
Sarandon saw it differently. She was intrigued by the story of a mother who feels trapped in a small Wisconsin town, and decides one day to buy a used Mercedes and haul her teenage daughter cross-country to Beverly Hills. The master plan is that the mother will get a job in the school system, and the daughter will go to auditions and become a star.
There are two ways to consider this mother, whose name is Adele. One is that she is borderline manic. The other is that she's dramatic and obsessive, yes, but she's right when she tells her daughter her fate is not to be "a nothing girl in a nothing factory in a nothing town."
The daughter's name is Ann. She's played by Natalie Portman, who became famous playing Queen Amidala in "Phantom Menace," but was being taken very seriously two or three years earlier, because of her good work in movies like "Beautiful Girls." She plays the stable half of their relationship, the one who tries to calm and guide her mother and maintain their mutual sanity.
As for Adele: "This woman's enormous strength is her undeniable power of denial," Sarandon told me, analyzing her character like a case study. "She's bigger than life and she has dreams that are bigger than where she is, and she reads People magazine, and in her mind where's the logical place to go? Beverly Hills. "I know she probably has one of those personality disorders where you go first and think it through later. So did our forefathers. This entire country was based on a bunch of eccentrics who came here without a prayer - well, with just a prayer - and no money and no sense of what they were getting into. That's what Adele does. She heads for Hollywood in her desperate love for this girl. Remember, Adele is doing it for Ann. She wants all the wrong things for all the right reasons, and God bless her."
Sarandon and I were talking a day or two after the premiere of "Anywhere But Here" at the Toronto Film Festival. She is one of the most intelligent of actors and one of the most analytical, discussing her characters as if she'd seen them in a movie instead of playing them herself. She is known for taking chances, and often they pay off - as when she and her partner, Tim Robbins, made "Dead Man Walking" (1995) and she won the best actress award for her performance as Sister Helen Prejean, a woman who has an extraordinary spiritual confrontation with a condemned man (Sean Penn).
That's the kind of chance it makes sense to take, however. The movie's dark subject matter might not attract huge audiences (although this time it did), but the role is substantial and has meaning. It may take more nerve to sign up for a character like Adele - who is, as Sarandon notes, not very likable, and who shares the screen with a rising star who is very likable indeed. You get the impression that Sarandon doesn't much ponder such questions. She has had such longevity in Hollywood, ever since she played a hippie chick in "Joe" in 1970, because she goes for the interesting character and not the favorable image.
"You can almost imagine the reviews," Sarandon grinned. "While Susan Sarandon chews up the scenery, Natalie Portman gives the film its heart and reality." But really my job was to be completely over the top. You're out there, you know. You're not a reactive character. The other night was only the second time I've seen the movie, and I went, 'Oh, my God, how is anyone gonna take this person? She's so in your face.' Some people just wanna struggle, struggle, struggle, you know. So you try to find a way to still have an audience accept her. I think of her as the female counterpart to Nicholson in 'As Good As It Gets,' saying insulting things."
Do you like your character less than I do? I asked.
"No, I love her. But . . ."
You seem to be pretty critical of her.
"One of the reasons I liked her is that she's the antithesis of the mothers I played in 'Lorenzo's Oil' or 'Stepmom.' The first big mistake you make as a parent is, you forget who you are in an attempt to be a good parent. You go into some kind of trance and reproduce your own parents. You forget how to have fun. I love the fact that she has a sense of wonder about things, and playfulness. She forgets to pay the bills every now and then, and that's not admirable, but when she wants to watch the sun come up, that's just so great."
I think when this girl Ann grows up, I said, maybe she becomes a writer, and writes a book about her mother, and discovers she has a lot of love and appreciation for her, having probably gone through her whole 20s being mad at her.
Sarandon smiled. "Gore Vidal told me something great once," she said. "I went to stay with him when I had my daughter. We were talking about being parents and he said, 'You know, you're gonna be great parents, but what you have to understand, Susan, is that every parent gives their child neuroses. You just have to hope they're productive ones.' I'm of the school that I'd rather nurture than mold. When kids take different directions you don't have to take it personally. I've never striven for normalcy in the raising of my children."
Her children are shared with the actor and director Tim Robbins, whom she met just before they co-starred in "Bull Durham" (1988). In addition to "Dead Man Walking," they've worked together in Robert Altman's "The Player," and on two films he also directed: "Bob Roberts" (1992) and the upcoming "Cradle Will Rock." Together and apart, they're ready to take interesting projects with shaky financial prospects, if they believe in them.
"You follow your heart. I got some award in Hollywood recently. One of these things where everybody was in the room, all the producers and writers, and I said, you know, everyone in this room has one story that you absolutely have to tell. What a difference it would make to the season of films that's coming out, if you had made it."
You and Tim must really be kind of inspirations for each other, I said, because you're both kind of . . .
Well, thoughtful, but also out there with idealistic projects. You kind of test each other.
"In the end, for all of the difficulties we have with each other, and the bumpiness that anybody has in a relationship between two strong, opinionated people, I think what's allowed us to survive is mutual respect and a moral bottom line and a standard of things that we're interested in. That helps us calm down about whether the toilet seat's up, or . . . you know, the cohabitational problems and the parenting problems."
Mentioning "Bull Durham," I said, which of course also has Kevin Costner in it - you know, I just reviewed his new baseball movie, "For Love Of The Game" - which I guess he hates. The studio cut it to get a PG-13. I wonder what it would have been like with the R-rated original cut.
"It's a shame," she said. "Here again you've got a studio motivated by greed rather than trying to make the best movie possible. They say, 'Let's get rid of this and get rid of that because then it'll get a rating that allows us to appeal to the largest audience.' But by not making it the best movie possible - it doesn't."