Oscar-winning rebel SUSAN SARANDON reflects on her 50-year career and colourful life – and for the first time tells Cole Moreton about her last conversation with former lover David Bowie 

Susan wears coat, Cos

Susan wears coat, Cos

We should have met sooner but a hurricane hit New York. ‘There was a lot of flooding,’ says Susan Sarandon of the chaos and panic that Hurricane Ida caused as it swept through her city on the day we were due to speak. Roads became rivers, the subway was cut off and at least 13 people lost their lives. ‘Where one of my sisters lives, they didn’t have power for a very long time. I heard of restaurants and houses exploding because of gas leaks.’

Not even a Hollywood legend with an Oscar for Dead Man Walking and fame and fortune for hits including Bull Durham and Thelma & Louise was immune from the fear caused by this sudden epic storm. ‘One of my sons got flooded out in Brooklyn and called me to come and take the dog. I said: “I can’t! We’re in the middle of it and there’s no way for me to get there. Call your brother.” So my other son, who also lives in Brooklyn, went out, which made me very nervous.’

Miles and Jack are her sons, respectively, at 29 and 32. Susan and Tim were together for 20+ years. They lived in a 1920s Manhattan duplex that had views of the Empire State Building, until last year when Susan moved to a smaller apartment in Greenwich Village.

Susan has just turned 75, although you’d never know it to look at her face framed by fashionable big black-rimmed glasses and the familiar tumbledown auburn curls. ‘I have a complete disconnect with my age. I’m not old. I don’t feel 75. It’s crazy.’ She has that edgy, open, wide-eyed way of talking we have seen in so many of her characters over the years, from young innocents to knowing, sexually confident middle-aged women to mothers and martyrs. ‘Honestly, I’m happy I made it to 75 because I know there are a lot of people that have been less lucky.’

Shirt and trousers, Off-White

Off-White shirt and trousers

She’s lost loved ones over the decades including the legendary David Bowie, about whom she tells a very touching, unheard story. They appeared together in The Hunger, a 1983 Gothic vampire movie. They were lovers, weren’t they? ‘Yeah.’ Susan has only ever said one thing about this in public before: a brief, enigmatic quote seven years ago suggesting it was a very serious romance that ended because Bowie wanted them to have a family together and, as she put it: ‘I wasn’t supposed to have kids’. This turns out to be a reference to endometriosis – a subject we’ll return to.

Bowie went on to marry the supermodel Iman and have a daughter called Lexi, settling not far from Susan’s own home in Manhattan. This is a personal story, but did they ever get back in touch? ‘Yeah. Not that we hung out a lot – he had a number of health issues to deal with – but we did.’

Slowly Susan reveals that they had a touching reunion when one of them was close to death. ‘I was fortunate enough to be closer to him right before he died, the last couple of months. He did find me. We talked to each other and said some things that needed to be said,’ she says. ‘I was so fortunate to be able to see him when he told me what was going on with him.’

Her tone indicates that she still cares deeply for him after all these years. ‘I love his wife Iman, someone who was so equal in stature [to him]. That was his destiny. It was so wonderful that she was there for him through it all. And I’ve kept in touch with her. The last time I saw him was at the premiere of his musical Lazarus.’ That was in New York in early December 2015, a month before Bowie’s death from liver cancer.

Susan and Geena Davis on their road trip in Thelma & Louise, 1991

Susan and Geena Davis on their road trip in Thelma & Louise, 1991

‘After the show I went to Lesbos.’ Susan has been a campaigner all her life, and was using her profile to highlight the refugee crisis on the Greek island. ‘That was the toughest thing I’ve ever done: a never-ending stream of desperation with no recourse and no way to fix it. The camps were terrible. I wasn’t sleeping and I knew that I had to get up early to start meeting the boats as they came in, so I took some Ambien, a pretty strong sleep aid. And I had this dream that David had called me and that we’d had this conversation and as I hung up I thought [in the dream]: “Nobody’s going to believe me, that David Bowie called me in Lesbos.”’

She woke up and marveled at the vividness of her dream before continuing with her day. ‘Then later, I thought: “Did he actually call me?” And I went to my phone and he had. I have no recollection of what that conversation was.’ Their last intimate contact was an agonising blank to her – and still is. ‘He died a week later. It’s all so frustrating.’ Her husky, sassy voice is tender now. ‘There was a double rainbow in New York on the day that David Bowie passed.’

Dress, LBV

Dress, LBV 

Susan is grateful to have reached 75 years old, even if she can’t believe it. ‘Physically, I have been getting signals I’m not 25, and I have accepted that. Mentally, it’s a strange thing. When we did the Thelma & Louise 30th anniversary [screening] in the summer, it didn’t register. On the other hand, I do think: “How many years do I have left to see my grandkids?”’ She has three by her first child Eva, her daughter with Italian film director Franco Amurri, who was born in 1985. ‘They are aged one-and-a-half, five and seven.’

Some people feel freer as they age. Is that true for her? ‘If ever I was going to burn bridges it should be now. What do I have to loose at this point? That is liberating. I don’t give a f***.’

She’s talking about issues and politics now, because there have been times when her peers have balked at her strong views. Susan was banned from the Oscars in 1993 for using the stage to make a political point, but they had to let her back in a couple of years later when she won Best Actress for playing a nun befriending Sean Penn’s Death Row inmate in Dead Man Walking.

 If ever I was going to burn bridges it should be now. What do you have to lose?

Liberal Hollywood was probably fine with her campaigning for the end of the death penalty and opposing war in Iraq. However, some thought she went too far when she called Pope Benedict a Nazi as well as refusing to support Hillary Clinton against Donald Trump. ‘For me, the most difficult times have been when I’ve been ostracised and cut off from my tribe and the loneliness of that.’ Now, though, she is ready to care less. ‘My kids are stable and grown and don’t need my protection as much. They won’t be as hurt if there is anything in the paper that attacks me or if they are threatened. They’ll deal with it.’

Is this freedom also applicable to the rest of her life? ‘Yeah. I think a lot more about death than I used to. It seems like every single acting part I get, I’m dying!’ She laughs, having recently played a mother bringing her family together for one last time before euthanasia in Blackbird, with Kate Winslet. ‘Every single script, I’m either dying, I have Alzheimer’s or I’m helping someone die. That’s my oeuvre at this point. But it’s a healthy thing to have to think about all that.’

Susan was born in Queens, 1946, the first child of nine to her Italian mother Lenora Tomalin and her father Phillip Tomalin. She is a TV producer. Does she still believe in God after being raised Catholic?

‘I really wish I did. I know energy can’t be destroyed, so there could be something around. But my DNA is out there in my kids and grandkids, and that’s enough.’ She’s ‘up for’ the idea of reincarnation. ‘But I’m not for getting my rewards much later – I’m trying to get them now!’

Speaking at a Climate Revolution rally in Los Angeles, 2016

Speaking at the Climate Revolution rally in Los Angeles, 2016, 2016.

Susan was already 20 years old and was studying at the Catholic University of Washington DC. She was married to Chris Sarandon, an older student. Acting was something she discovered by chance when her husband asked her to audition for a casting agent. Susan was there to support him, and the agent noticed something that interested her. Joe is about a conservative construction worker who takes aim at hippies he believes are bringing down the country. ‘That was everybody’s nightmare at the time, so it became the Easy Rider of that year. It’s a pretty terrible film.’

It attracted a lot of attention. Next came soap operas, then a Broadway play, and the role as Janet in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Susan was suddenly an actor. ‘I was, like, “God, this is what I do now.”’ She kept her surname after divorcing Chris in 1979 and won her first Oscar nomination two years later for Atlantic City.

The Hunger came next in 1983 and with it the aforementioned relationship with Bowie, after which she moved on, because, ‘I wasn’t desperate to have children. I felt like I had been a mother to my younger siblings for quite some time. So when I was told I couldn’t have children without operations [because of endometriosis], I thought: “That’s OK. There are so many kids in my family.” I never felt that’s what I needed to complete me. So I went years without using birth control.’ 

Franco Amurri shared the shocking news that she was pregnant in 1984. ‘I was feeling overqualified for the parts I was being asked to play and thinking I wanted to become an aid worker. I went to Nicaragua, and I was getting deeper into it, when suddenly I became pregnant. I was like: “It’s a miracle!”’

Eva was born in New York and spent a lot on sets while Susan recommitted herself to making movies. Bull Durham was her next big success, and The Witches of Eastwick was a great success. Susan said at the time: ‘It was so empowering to play a woman who was smart and sexual and didn’t have to die at the end of the movie because of it.’ 

So, have things changed for women in Hollywood? ‘Well, I don’t think you could get away with some of the things I saw, and also the way women writers were fired from projects. There’s an awareness now ‒ because of litigation and the expectations young women have ‒ that things have changed.’

With children Miles, Eva, Jack and ex-husband Tim Robbins, 2008

With children Miles and Eva Robbins, Jack, Jack, and ex-husband Tim Robbins. 2008

What about the way women are portrayed on screen – wasn’t Thelma & Louise supposed to change everything? Geena and Sheena Davis play two women who escape from a rapist. They decide to live their lives and drive their 1966 Ford Thunderbird across the Grand Canyon to fly free. Susan frowns as this film, which was both tragic and strangely inspiring, was hailed as the beginning of a revolution in 1991.

‘The Thelma & Louise thing has never broken through. They thought there would be so many more women-led films after we did the movie and I don’t think that happened, but there definitely is a demand.’

She believes streaming is the reason that change is finally happening. The networks allow women more control than the old-fashioned movie studios. ‘You get somebody who can write, direct and star like Michaela Coel with I May Destroy You. That’s just one of the most amazing performances, as well as a surprising way into the topic [of sexual assault]That would never happen in a male studio. I think it’s a good sign that those kind of things can get made.’

Some of the changes make her feel uneasy. ‘One of my sons is a writer and a director and he’s had people say: “I really love this script, but we can’t hire any white men now. We just can’t.”’ Really? ‘Oh, absolutely. So that’s the way it’s changing, but I think it’s good to have more women hired and on sets. It’s terrible when female executives behave like men. What’s the point of that? Then I feel really betrayed.’

Susan has been single since her last relationship – with filmmaker Jonathan Bricklin – ended in 2015. She made headlines at the time by suggesting her sexuality was ‘up for grabs’. Is this still true? ‘Yeah. I’m open to persuasion. But busy as hell and with lots of wonderful friends and grandchildren,’ she says. ‘Everybody is somewhere on a spectrum, and I like the fluidity we have now. For me, it’s all about connection, curiosity, passion.’

Is she still in a relationship with a woman? ‘I think women are beautiful, their bodies are amazing, but for me to open that window I would have to have some kind of connection and there just hasn’t been an instance where that crossed my path,’ she says. ‘I’m not really looking. I feel fulfilled. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. In the meantime, I am dancing in my kitchen.’

I have to ask: How does she look so young? ‘First of all, you do not smoke. I drink a lot. I do yoga. I’m very lucky to live in New York so I’m walking all the time. I have to give my mom thanks for her bone structure. That’s all I can say.’

There’s one other thing. ‘All my tattoos are in places that won’t sag.’ She shows me a couple of birds on each arm and says there are letters and symbols all down her back for her children and grandchildren. ‘I didn’t start getting them until I was 60.’

As we get to the end of our conversation, I ask Susan how her life has turned. Susan pulls out a quote by Howard Zinn to summarize how she feels. I am shocked to see her weeping as she recites it. Tears are flowing as the last sentence comes: ‘“To live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that’s bad around us, is itself a marvellous victory.”

‘You have to do the best you can with what you have. I tell my kids the most important thing is to be kind,’ she says after composing herself. ‘Injustice has always disturbed me. From the time I was little I was rotating my dolls’ dresses ‒ in case they came to life at midnight ‒ so one wouldn’t wear the good dresses all the time. So it’s hard right now.’

She sounds overwhelmed for a second. I try to console her by saying that she has done her best as an activist and actor whose movies have influenced the way people think. ‘Thank you,’ says Susan with a small but determined smile. ‘That will be a good epitaph: “She gave it her best shot.” That’s all you can ask for. Just show up. Just show up.’


Susan is currently filming Monarch, a TV series that will be broadcast in the UK during the new year.

Picture director: Ester Malloy.

 Production: Natalie Gialluca.

 Stylist: Andrew Gelwicks at The Only Agency. 

Make-up: Genevieve Herr for Lancome.

 Hair: Frankie Foye from IMAJ Artists using Oribe.

 Nails: Kylie Kwok using Zoya for TraceyMattingly.com.