The High Times Interview: Susan Sarandon

After 45 years on the big screen, Susan Sarandon has earned a reputation as one of America’s finest actresses, starring in classics like Bull Durham, Thelma & Louise and Dead Man Walking, for which she won the Best Actress Oscar.

But Sarandon’s also known for her commitment to social causes, including her clear-eyed opposition to the Iraq War. The issue of cannabis legalization is another area that she feels strongly about—enough so that she readily sat down with High Times to express her belief in its benefits. It’s the way she leads her life. As the thoughtful, outspoken actress says, “I use my celebrity consciously so it doesn’t use me.”

HT: Is this the first time you’ve spoken out on behalf of cannabis?

SS: No, no. It’s the first time I’ve officially spoken, but I’ve been clear before. I’ve said in print that I would rather have my kids smoking weed than drinking. I was on Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen and talked about how many award ceremonies I’d been to stoned. The media picked that up, so it’s been pretty well known.
I’m a huge believer that if more people smoked—not just for medicinal purposes, but for lifestyle purposes, instead of drinking—the world would be a better place. I think it’s good to have somebody who represents a different demographic to help educate people so that they’re a little bit better informed about what legalization really means. It’s absurd that more states haven’t legalized it. Economically, it makes such sense for the infrastructure of a state to have that kind of income. It can be an important source of revenue.
You also see the reports on kids who have seizures that are prevented by medical marijuana. You see the relief that it gives to vets. There’s a lot of very clear scientific support for medical marijuana. But I don’t want to focus on the idea that you have to be sick to use it. It’s more of a lifestyle choice—like yoga or meditation. It’s also a really lovely way to socialize and be with people—and to be with yourself and de-stress.

When did you first smoke?

It wasn’t that easy when I was in college to get a hold of. It was towards the end of my college experience, the end of the ’60s. Nobody really knew that much about it.

Do you remember the first time you tried it?

I don’t remember it as being so extraordinary. I never was a drinker: My body is pretty finely tuned, and I didn’t like drinking because I would just feel tired or not feel well. When I smoked, I remember thinking: “Oh, this is much more my speed. This definitely works better for me.”

Has it been a lifelong companion?

It’s something that I’ve always had around, and I’ve always been with people who smoked. But I went on a major hiatus when my kids were young. If I did smoke, I’d have to really find a time when I could—just for me. It’s never fun being high when you have to pretend you’re not.

How about reading scripts and preparing for roles?

I’ve never worked high and I’ve never filmed high. But I’ve read scripts high and gotten a different perspective. That’s the great thing about smoking weed: If you lead a very, very busy life, for me, it really makes the most of the weekend. It like triples your weekends. If you only have certain windows to get high, it allows you to slow down and really be there. It’s really important, because technology has made everybody multi-task: We get so distracted and so crazy, and our relationships are less human and more based on technology. Smoking helps you to connect again—to be present and conscious.

Which issue of marijuana legalization strikes you as the most urgent?

Certainly, the jails being full of people for ridiculous drug-related crimes: If you really want to stop cartel action, then legalize marijuana. I do think it should be regulated—I don’t think it’s a good idea for young kids to smoke regularly while their brains are developing. As I’ve explained to my kids, weed helps you take a break from a very busy life. But you’ll never have a really full life if you’re stoned constantly from a young age.

Let’s talk about your films. Joe, your first movie, came out in 1970—a controversial film, to say the least. You were raised in a strict Catholic household. How did your parents react?

My parents never really weighed in on anything for years. They never talked about my career. I think that’s one of the reasons that I used a different name—I wasn’t sure how embarrassed they might be, even though my dad started out as a band singer. He was in the business, but my mom was raised in foster care by Catholic Charities, and she was very Catholic. But Joe, like a number of things that I’ve done, became huge because of the timing, not so much because it was a great movie.

But it’s certainly provocative.

All right, I’ll tell the story. I came to New York, and in like seven days, I went up for this audition, and they asked me to do an improvisation. I didn’t even know what that was. Joe had no budget—about a million dollars. I did the movie, and it was basically a “My parents don’t understand me” script, about this rich little girl who’s with this guy in the Village.
They fired the first guy who was playing Joe and hired Peter Boyle—which was a stroke of genius, because he brought this character he’d been doing in Second City. He plugged that character in.

While the film was being edited, there was an incident on Wall Street where construction workers beat up a bunch of hippies. They very smartly refocused the movie and made it about Joe and this cultural turning point, this culture clash. Joe was called the Easy Rider of its year, because it came out of left field and represented everybody’s nightmare: that this girl from a nice home ends up being shot by her own father because she’s fucking a hippie and drugs are involved.
It’s not that good. The only thing that I did that was really smart was not try to act too hard. I got through it fine, and it was really fun: I wore my own clothes, they shot up my own jacket, I was doing my own hair and makeup—but I got to trash a store in one take. That just got me hooked on acting from that point on.

You weren’t an actress in college?

No. I went to Catholic University, and I was in the drama department—but, scholastically, the focus was more on literature.

Has your Catholic upbringing influenced you?

I was told I had an overabundance of original sin really early on… in the third grade. I remember it clearly. It was explained that you could only be married in the Catholic Church; that was the only way that it counted. I asked, “Then how are Joseph and Mary married if Jesus didn’t make it up until later?”

A real question—and that’s when I was told to go stand in the hall. But I very much wanted to be a good person, very much wanted to stand up for my beliefs against the Communists who were overrunning us and hanging us on crosses upside-down. I would pray to see the Blessed Virgin and all of those things. Then I went to Edison High School in New Jersey, which had 500 kids in my class. The very first day, they did the Protestant version of the Lord’s Prayer, and I flipped sides just like that. I gave up my faith in two seconds.

What about the expression “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic?”

The concept of original sin never made sense to me. I was having problems early on with institutionalized religion of any kind. The final blow came when I went to Catholic University. That was when priests were running off with the nuns, and there was all this upheaval in the Church. I was learning in-depth about everything. It was very clear that the teachings were completely manmade, bogus, and very problematic in terms of women and the poor. However, when I went to Central America, I met nuns and priests who really do work with the poor and for social change. These are amazing religious people who are connected to real life and doing something to help.

But then you see the lead-up to the war, and nobody speaks out. That’s the hierarchy, and—well—the Church has lots of problems…

Do you use your celebrity consciously to promote causes?

I use my celebrity consciously so it doesn’t use me. It’s a way of survival. I came of age at a time when the issues were much clearer, and if you had half a brain and half a heart, you were politically active. Being an actor requires imagination, which leads to empathy, which leads to action. So it’s a very fluid engagement for me, activism—if you can imagine sending your son off to war, then you can have empathy for the mother whose son actually is going to war. You can’t not be aware. I see myself not as an expert on anything, but as more of a little flashlight that can highlight information people aren’t getting—especially now that the media is so corporate. Once you’re willing to do that, once people know that you’ll go on the line for something, people give you information.

At the Oscars in 1993, you and Tim Robbins used your stage time to demand that the government close an internment camp in Guantánamo for Haitian refugees with HIV and AIDS. The backlash was huge. Can you describe that experience?

We couldn’t be presenting and not take advantage of the opportunity. There was a news brownout on Guantánamo; the refugees had been abandoned there for years. [President Bill] Clinton had promised to get them out but hadn’t, so there was a situation. I’d already been arrested with a bunch of church people; still, nothing was happening. I was trying to figure out exactly what we could say that would be brief, but bring attention to it with enough embarrassment—but not too much guilt. Whenever you lobby for change, or try to, you should give whoever’s in charge the ability to not be completely humiliated. Usually, it will produce something—in fact, in this case, the refugees got out like a few days later.
We didn’t tell anybody about our plans, except the people who were very involved with the issue. Nobody—none of my reps or anybody else—knew about it. But somehow, there was a feeling that something was going to happen. I was hiding, because I knew Gil Cates, who was producing the show, would ask me outright—and I’d be very bad at lying. So I just was trying to avoid him. Afterwards, nobody would make eye contact with us; it was really uncomfortable. We ended up leaving.
Then all of the announcements about banning us from future Oscars came out. Robin Williams wrote a letter defending us, and he got dumped on. Charlton Heston said our speech was “like being invited to something and then pissing on the rug.” For some reason, I got letters that were very racist and very homophobic. But that didn’t bother me at all; it just made me feel like we absolutely did the right thing.
The lead-up to the Iraq War was much more threatening, because people were in such an emotional state. At times, it got a little scary, because people were writing stuff about our kids in the paper that wasn’t true. It was hurtful. We were banned from the 15th anniversary of Bull Durham at the Baseball Hall of Fame, but that ended up being a really good thing, because it showed how ridiculous it was. Kevin Costner stood up for us at that time.

How do you account for your long career?

No fucking idea. I mean, every time I took a year off to have a kid, I thought I’d never come back. I think it helps that I see myself as a character actress, which gives you a broader base, and you can make transitions a little easier. Very few people—women—who started out with me at 20 have managed to continue to work. The transition from playing ingénues… I don’t know. I’ve been lucky.

One of my favorite films that you appeared in was Who Am I This Time? It was a very touching, seriocomic piece on PBS, only an hour long.

I love that one, too. How sweet is Christopher Walken? You’ll never see him like that again. There are very few times when he’s been that vulnerable, really. It’s such a sweet, funny, weird little film with A Streetcar Named Desire as its reference point. I think Chris would have been great as Stanley Kowalski.

What are the favorite movies you’ve done?

That’s a very Sophie’s Choice question. Of course Dead Man Walking, because I found the book and I nurtured it—and as difficult as it was to do, I really loved working with Sean [Penn]. And Tim [Robbins] did an amazing job directing. It was just very rewarding to have it even get made and then see it affect so many people.
Bull Durham was the role of a lifetime. That was the first part I had that I was not overqualified for—and she didn’t have to die at the end.

Were you surprised by the media furor surrounding Thelma & Louise?

We didn’t see that coming. You suspend your disbelief when you get into these things. When we did it, it was just so much fun to be a badass, and Geena [Davis] was so funny. It was just a cowboy movie with women and cars instead of guys and horses. I guess we didn’t understand what was held so dear by white heterosexual men of a certain age.

We have to ask about The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

It’s so great. The song “Don’t Dream It, Be It” really resonates with people.

Have you ever gone to one of those midnight shows where audience members get up and act out the film?

I took Molly Ringwald before we did Tempest. She was 11. When I was doing Anywhere But Here with Natalie Portman—she was 16 or 17—we also took my daughter, who was about 14. We went in LA, and there were people in front of the screen doing everything that’s on the screen. In front of us were some teenagers and their parents, who had met doing it. It was their family tradition. I was like, “Oh my God, this is so crazy!”

You’re in your 60s. Does the fragility of life make more of an impact on you now?

The first time that you really become obsessed with death is when you have children. Nobody ever tells you that, but you just think about dying all the time once you have a child. And then, of course, AIDS—experiencing death so young. I know so many people struggling with health issues.

I’ll be 70 and then I’ll be 80 and then I’ll be 90—and I plan to live at least through my 90s. But, of course, it’s on your mind all the time, and I think it’s a good thing, too. It gives you perspective so you can focus on being conscious—not living in the past and worrying about the future. It’s helpful in trying to see your place—your insignificant place—in the whole scheme of things. It’s helpful in really figuring out what consciousness is, to just accept it and to be there.

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