Photograph: Paul Stuart
There are certain people who are synonymous with New York City. Then there are those who simply are New York. Who are woven into the very fabric of the city like the steam rising from below the streets or the Greek cups stacked behind the bodega counter. Susan Sarandon is that person. As a lifelong New Yorker, she has seen it all, from the mean streets of the ’60s to the much cleaner ones of 2014. Along the way, she’s made a truckload of films, won an Academy Award, become an activist, had three kids, started a production company and helped to found a Ping-Pong club. So how did we feel when she agreed to edit this issue of Time Out New York? We won’t lie: absolutely fucking delighted. And a little bit smitten.
As a native New Yorker, what does the city mean to you?
The business that I’m in tends to isolate you and congratulate you on that isolation. New York guarantees that you’re still connected to real life. Just by the way it’s designed—you’re on foot, it’s crowded, you’re coming into contact with all kinds of people—it’s very hard to stay separate and above in New York. I also tend to suffer from inertia and don’t constantly look for ways to surprise myself. New York, by its very definition, does that. All you have to do is walk 20 blocks in any direction, and you’ll see something or meet someone you hadn’t counted on. The serendipity of New York is something I treasure. Every time I come back, I’m so happy to be home.
You were born in Jackson Heights but moved to New Jersey, right?
Yeah. There were 500 kids in my class at high school. It was pretty rough-and-tumble compared to the repression of the Catholic grammar school [in Jackson Heights], where I had an overabundance of original sin—that was my one of my claims to fame! I had a lot to learn when I came out of that very naive cocoon. I gave up my faith and did the Protestant version of the “Our Father” on the very first day of homeroom.
Had you questioned Catholicism before that point?
Well, then I went to Catholic University in the late ’60s. The quickest way to question traditional religion is to really study it, and there are so many contradictions and myths. It’s such a deviation from what Christ actually taught. That was the final blow, definitely.
Growing up, what was it like being the oldest of nine kids?
Being at the top, I had a lot of responsibility, which was a good thing, as I tended to be spacey and always daydreaming. Lately, most of my brothers and sisters have told me that they looked to me as a mother figure. My parents were pretty overwhelmed. Neither of them had families, so they ended up finding each other and creating this huge tribe with very little knowledge or example to follow of how to deal with kids. My mom was raised in foster care and Catholic charities; my dad’s dad died when he was ten, and his mom disintegrated after that. [For me] it was very good training; lack of privacy and chaos are very good conditioning for show business.
You didn’t have your first kid until your late thirties. How did your childhood affect your own plans to have kids?
I wasn’t in a hurry, but I actually had a medical condition and was told I could never be a mother.
Yeah. It didn’t break my heart; I had plenty of nieces and nephews by that time. I wasn’t dipping into gene pools that I felt the need to replicate. I was fine with it. My pregnancy actually came at a time when I was kind of bored and disillusioned with my career and looking for something in my life that had more meaning.
Really big fame followed in your forties. Did being a mother help you keep your sanity?
I never felt that my career was an end, so it didn’t affect me too much—the ironies and inconsistence and injustices of trying to map out a career rationally. I never took it that seriously. But what I did take seriously was my life. I just felt that I wasn’t being challenged enough. Regardless of how the movies turned out, I felt overqualified. And motherhood definitely was something I didn’t see coming but is definitely something you can’t be overqualified for. It did rein in every ounce of creativity and patience and made me think outside the box. I was ready to do it on my own, even though a lot of people counseled me against it—that it would be the end of my career. It was just such a freak [thing] that I got pregnant that I thought I can’t ignore this. And so I jumped.
You knew immediately that you would have the baby?
It was definitely a moment of awe and power. I’d gone for years and years and years without using birth control, with the explanation from these doctors. So I had to pay attention when it happened, because nobody could understand how it had happened.
And now you’re about to become a grandmother. How are you feeling about it?
I feel a little like I did when I was pregnant. You go about physically dealing with it and rationally dealing with it, but there’s some part of your brain that can’t wrap itself around this idea that your child, that your daughter, is going to have a daughter. I mean, it’s just so beautiful and huge.
You’re also an activist. Does this, along with motherhood, make you a better actor, give you more authenticity or empathy?
Oh, gosh, I wish! There are major actors who wouldn’t think of taking the chance to be vocal about something political or controversial.
Are average New Yorkers politicized enough?
I think they are pretty engaged. Everyone’s all squished together, so you understand more readily how homelessness affects you, even if you’re in a home. It’s easier to see the trickle-down effect of ripping out a park or the schools falling apart.
How do you think Mayor Bill de Blasio’s doing so far?
I think he’s doing pretty well. I love Mrs. de Blasio, Chirlane [McCray]. I think she’s going to add a huge amount; I really have a lot of faith in her. She’s pretty uncompromising and strong. She has something that we haven’t had in a number of administrations, which is a woman’s concern with women’s and children’s issues. I want this whole problem with the schools that has been ignored [to be addressed]. I’m hoping that the Harvey Weinsteins of the world will do another concert like they did for the 9/11 firefighter families and that all these entertainers and actors who live in the city and claim the city will do a benefit for the underserved schools. That would be very cool.
Do they have a responsibility to do something?
I think it’s a way of saying thank you [to the city] for embracing you and a great example to people who are struggling with what can be done and that you think of them other than just riding the train occasionally. A better-educated city means more opportunity for kids and less interest in selling drugs and getting into trouble. It makes the city a better place for everyone to live.
Can you see a day when marijuana will be regulated in New York?
Absolutely. Inevitably. It’s worth too much money. It’s so ridiculous. It’s less damaging than alcohol; it needs to be regulated like alcohol. It’s already everywhere. Why shouldn’t the city benefit from it and strike a blow against the war on drugs? And medicinally, it’s so beneficial for so many people.
Will it happen in the next few years?
Well, isn’t it about to be for medicinal purposes?
Yes. Is this the first step?
It’s the first step. There’s so much to be worked out in terms of the rules and the taxation, but it’s a source of income that is so massive. It’s crazy not to. Even the staunchest and most ignorant people in terms of drugs would have to admit that what it can provide financially would solve so many problems so quickly.
So what else are you doing right now? Do you have any films in the pipeline?
There are two more coming out: The Last of Robin Hood, with Kevin Kline and Dakota Fanning about the last days of Errol Flynn, and The Calling, in which I’m a drunken sheriff who solves a mass murder. I’m also working on trying to get two other movies ready, both with female directors. They’re in the casting and rewriting process, so we’ll see.
Do you have funding secured?
Supposedly. One never knows really. [Laughs] There’s also a play I’ve been asked to do, my production company and SPiN.
You’re an owner in SPiN and have a personal relationship with [co-owner and founder] Jonathan Bricklin. Does it help when you collaborate with someone and share a passion?
I think the sexiest thing you can possibly do is to create with another person. And that doesn’t even mean there has to be sex involved. If I’m doing a film and it’s a collaborative situation that is rich and makes you think outside the box and surprises you, it’s just a wonderful planet to be on.
David Bowie was someone else you worked with, and you recently mentioned your relationship in an interview. Were you surprised by quite how wild the reaction was?
Yes, because it was old news! What short memories everyone has; it wasn’t like it wasn’t public when it happened. So that was hilarious—that it ended up being such a big deal.
How long were you involved? Was it a brief thing?
No, it was not brief. I don’t know. [Pauses] At least a couple of years.
Does it seem crazy looking back on it now?
Not at all. In fact, he just left a message, and I’m so happy that I’ve got a chance to talk to him again. You know, whenever you look back on anything, I think that you see the people that you were then are very different than who you are now, but the kernel of what was there then remains. That’s really lovely.