Labor of Love: With Dead Man Walking, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins Go From Oscar Outlaws to Golden Couple
by Rebecca Ascher-Walsh
source: Entertainment Weekly March 22, 1996 (The The Oscars preview issue)
[Note: Click on pics to enlarge]
Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins are dancing, cooing, cuddling, and boogying
across the floor of a downtown Manhattan photo studio. They look impossibly
gorgeous, impossibly in love, impossibly Hollywood. With her newly coiffed
Pre-Raphaelite-red hair and the kind of cheekbones and buxomness cosmetic
surgery can't buy, Sarandon looks better at 49 than she did at 25. Robbins,
6'5", his blond hair beginning to silver at 37, is more angularly handsome
than on screen.
A day later, in teh New York City office of Robbins' production company,
Havoc, a few blocks from their Chelsea brownstone, they've seemingly morphed
back into human form. Sitting down to their first joint interview for print,
they are all business, more professional partners than pirouetting lovers.
Sarandon, in a baggy sweater and stripped of her photo makeup, looks every
bit the mom who got up at 6:30 with their children, Jack Henry, 6, and Miles,
3, and Eva, 11, Sarandon's daughter with Italian filmmaker Farnco Amurri.
Robbins, in jeans and a sweater, slouches in a chair beside her. He is quiet
and droll and often interrupted by Sarandon, who speaks in a voice pitched to
rise above teh din of her kids, whose company she prefers to any Hollywood setting.
"If I were 22 and trying to build a career, I don't know who'd be watching
the kids as happily as I do," says Sarandon, taking a bite out of a cookie
she brought for Robbins. "It takes so much to get me to break out of domestic
paradise. There's hardly anything that interests me as much as my family."
On the other hand, questions about marriage bore them both; after eight years
together, they seem to have no desire to make it legal. "How many more rings
can she have?" asks Robbins, pointing to his companion's gold-bedecked
fingers. As for the band on his right hand? "It's a right-handed marriage."
If a left-leaning one. The very serious side of this very political couple
has always threatened to overwhelm the side that just as forcefully awes with
talent: At the 1992 Oscars, the two presented the Best Film Editing award
along with a lecture on Haitian internment camps that got them banned from
the dais for one year. "I don't want people to be inspired or offended by
what I do," says Robbins, in odd defense. "If you determine your behavior by
what [other people] want, you're screwed."
It is precisely by *not* giving a damn - and making a movie few thought would
succeed - that they got invited to next week's Oscars. This time, they are
nominees for their extraordinary collaboration on Dead Man Walking - Robbins
for Best Director and Sarandon as Best Actress (the favorite) for her role as
a nun ministering to a killer on death row. It's the first time in 21 years
that a director has received a nomination for collaborating with his
also-nominated current companion. (In 1974, John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands
were honored for A Woman Under the Influence.)
That they work together - that they are comfortable working together - hints
at a love affair too good to be true. So it comes as a relief that they admit
to occasional bad days while making Dead Man Walking. "We're not stupid, you
know. It was clear it was going to be different," says Sarandon of
undertaking the movie based on Sister Helen Prejean's 1993 book of the same
name. The film required the couple to spend 18 hours a day together for three
months (at night, the two separated so Robbins' longer working hours wouldn't
disturb Sarandon and the children). Adding to the pressure were a tight
budget ($12.3 million), the kind of subject matter - capital punishment -
that can provoke the most mild-mannered, and a costar, Sean Penn, not widely known for his calm.
But the source of their most stressful day wasn't exhaustion or a difficult
costar. "I think it was the cycle of the moon or something," says Sarandon,
managing to look regal even as she picks dog hair off her sweater. "I
remember it clearly, but I'm not going to talk about it." Adds Robbins
obliquely, "That was a nighmare. We won't go into specifics."
But someone from the set who *will* get specific says one factor contributing
to the tension - in addition to equipment trouble - was Sister Helen Prejean,
whose contributions were generally embraced by the actors. "Her presence gave
validity to our reality," says the source. But on the day in question, "there
was some kind of tension between Tim and Susan, something about Prejean
directing her. Prejean would occasionally throw out an opinion. It's tricky,
since she's not an actress." While everyone remained outwardly calm, adds the
source, "you could see the tension in the body language. It never quite got diffused that day."
And there you have the most trying day of this production. Because, according
to cast and crew, Robbins and Sarandon helmed a nurturing and healthy set,
where an uncommon respect reigned. "On [Oliver Stone's] Born on the Fourth of
July, you knew you had better do your best or you'd be shot at sundown," says
Raymond J. Barry, who was Tom Cruise's father in July and plays a parent of
one of the murder victims in Dead Man Walking. "On this, it wasn't the usual
bulls--t, and that had to do with Tim and Susan."
It's a partnership that enhances them both. "Tim has strong intellectual
components, and Susan has a strong emotional side. They bring each other into
balance," says Thom Mount, a producer of Bull Durham, the 1988 baseball movie
that brought the costars together. Paul Webster, an executive producer of Bob
Roberts, Robbins' 1992 writing-directing debut about a campaigning
politician, agrees: "They're totally centered with each other."
The strength of their union can be seen in Dead Man Walking, which, in
addition to nominations for Sarandon, Robbins, and Penn (Best Actor), earned
a fourth for Bruce Springsteen's title track. The movie looks unflinchingly
into the grief of the victims' parents, as well as Sister Helen's
relationship with the murderer, transforming a harrowing and potentially
inflammatory subject into, as Sarandon puts it, "a strange love story."
It is because they resist pontificating in Dead Man Walking that Sarandon and
Robbins are now being compared less to revolutionaries than to acting royalty
- America's answer to Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh. But unlike their
British counterparts, Sarandon and Robbins seem to be living happily ever
after. "Being with them," says Mount, "is one of those rare occasions that
make you f---ing romantic and sentimental."
The path to their true love may have run smooth, but the road to this year's
Oscars was far more arduous. Sarandon first read reviews of Sister Helen's
book three years ago in New Orleans while filming The Client (which garnered
her a fourth Oscar nomination; she has never won). The actress arranged a
dinner, and the two became freinds. "She seemed, and turned out to be, the
antithesis of every nun I've ever known," says Sarandon, who, like Robbins,
is a lapsed Catholic. Robbins' production company optioned the book, and he
knocked out a first draft in two weeks. "My part was inherently the most
difficult to write because [Sister Helen] basically goes around to people
saying she's sorry, and where do you find the [story] arc in that?" Sarandon says.
The first draft was sent to Sister Helen in New Orleans in the fall of 1994.
"I had never read a screenplay," she says. "I did not know what those POV
things meant. But I am a nun, I did teach English, so I corrected his
spelling." She also corrected Robbins' occasionally warped memories of nuns -
women more obedient than she - and tried her hand at writing a few scenes. "I
worked on getting a lot of humor into the film," she says.
By October, there was already a script in shooting shape, and Penn, who had
stopped acting to concentrate on directing, agreed to costar. "You have to
find someone who people will believe killed someone," Sarandon says, "someone
who through all that machismo has humanity. And," she adds with a smile,
"Sean had been to prison," referring to Penn's 1987 incarceration for
reckless driving and assault. "On-the-job training," Robbins says dryly.
There was only one snag: No studio would touch it. "After Bob Roberts came
out," Robbins says, "a lot of the studios said, 'We really love it. Next
project you have, show it to us.' I did. I brought them Dead Man Walking and got turned down."
"The studios were all respectful of Tim and Susan," says their agent, Elaine
Goldsmith-Thomas. "I think their concern was this was a very heated issue.
They didn't know if it would make money." Thomas recalls only one outlandish
reaction: "A studio head called me up and said, 'This is an amazing script,
but I have one little note. Why can't Sean Penn's character be innocent?' I
said, 'Gosh, this isn't a movie about whether we should kill innocent people.
I don't think that's a big debate.'"
Eventually PolyGram agreed to fund the film, but when the studio balked at
the original projected budget, the cast agreed to what Robbins calls "major
pay cuts," and teh supporting cast worked for Screen Actors Guild scale.
While some of the movie was shot at Louisiana's Angola prison, most of the
filming was done on a New York City soundstage, including Penn's execution by
lethal injection. In the final version the actor is effectively shown going
to sleep. But at the time, Robbins wasn't sure the scene would be dynamic
enough, so he decided to shoot it a second way. "Sometimes what happens with
lethal injections is that if they haven't taken the antihistamine, there's an
allergic reaction. They go into convulsions. Se Sean very graciously -"
"Maniac," Susan interjects. "- did 20 takes of convulsions, on and off camera."
The scenes were grueling for the actors (particularly Penn, who says of the
work, "It wasn't fun, but I'd work with them again in a flash"), and Robbins
asked Sister Helen to come to New York to be on teh set full-time. "I
affirmed the heck out of them," she says. "Poor Sean Penn was executed all
week long." At one point, "we took a break and Sean didn't want to get all
unstrapped from the gurney, and I noticed that Susan went in to talk to him,
and she just took ahold of his hand. I remember thinking to myself that even
acting out dying like that is hard."
For all of the actors' courage, one of Sarandon's simplest choices was also
one of her most daunting. Despite forging a career on her sexual appeal,
whetehr playing a prostitute in 1978's Pretty Baby or rubbing lemons on her
body in 1981's Atlantic City, Sarandon faced the camera with no makeup, a
move she had inched toward as Marmee in 1994's Little Women. "That felt
really naked," Sarandon says, chewing on a nail. "I wasn't brave enough to go
to dailies. The first couple of times I saw the film I was pretty devastated,
but I knew the point was to find some kind of inner light, to empty myself of
vanity." When told that Penn calls her "the most present actor I've ever
worked with," Sarandon laughs. "That's all I had, to be present." Next time,
she says, "I want to try to get some mascara on."
Sarandon hasn't decided on a new project, but with the success of Dead Man
Walking (it has earned $26 million to date), she finds herself in great
demand, dispelling the myth that youth equals desirability. Even so, says
Mount, "she will always be sexy, but obviously her role as a sex object is
limited." The Client director Joel Schumacher disagrees. "When did this
occur, that women have time clocks on their sexuality? Men don't. Even Walter
Matthau gets Sophia Loren in [Grumpier Old Men]."
Despite her enviable position, Sarandon has no illusions about her status in
Hollywood. "They always find a way to humiliate me," she says. "I've gotten
calls recently offering me a part that's already been given to someone else."
"No matter how successful you are -" Robbins chines in.
"- as an actor," Sarandon finishes, "you're vulnerable."
The downsides to acting haven't deterred Robbins, who, as Sarandon puts it,
"has the market cornered on playing a--holes," after roles in The Player
(1992), Short Cuts (1993), and Bob Roberts. "I really enjoy acting," Robbins
says simply of his decision to follow up a starring turn in 1994's The
Shawshank Redemption with the upcoming comedy Nothing to Lose. "He's got to
make some money now," Sarandon says. "We've got mortgages to pay," adds
Robbins, referring to their Manhattan adn Westchester County homes.
The couple have one more part to play together - their joint appearance at
the Academy Awards. (Sarandon plans to wear a gauzy Robert Danes dress;
Sister Helen, the couple's date, says, "I borrowed a nice black dress from a
friend.") Robbins and Sarandon say they haven't given the ceremony much
thought, but will admit to anxiety at the prospect of having to wait for the
outcome. "You put on your smile and pretend you're Miss America," Sarandon
says of the moment when the nominees' names are read. Still, this year's best
bet is hedging hers. "I'm very good at losing. The thing I'm not used to is
winning. For me, the fear is having to get out of my seat."