Back in 1987, when "Bull Durham" was being cast, Susan Sarandon had to pay for her own flight from Europe, where she happened to be staying, to America for an audition.
In 1991, when "Lorenzo's Oil" came around, she got tapped to play the female lead only after Michelle Pfeiffer took a pass.
But last year, when "The Client" was being decided, Ms. Sarandon was the first choice. She hadn't even expressed interest.
Director Joel Schumacher envisioned her and no one else in the plum part of Reggie Love, a scrappy attorney with a big but bruised heart. Studio executives, acknowledging Ms. Sarandon's clout, gave him a green light.
She is still getting adjusted to the idea of top billing, along with the red-hot Tommy Lee Jones, in a big summer thriller, which opens today, based on a John Grisham best seller.
She says it's strange suddenly to find herself on the A-list of movie actresses so late into her career. She's not sure how it happened.
While peers complain that good lead roles dry up for actresses once they turn 40, Ms. Sarandon, 47, has done her most acclaimed and popular work in the past seven years: "Bull Durham," "White Palace," "Thelma and Louise," "Lorenzo's Oil." The last two netted her Oscar nominations for Best Actress.
While peers launched their own production companies in Hollywood and still came up short on good parts, Ms. Sarandon set up house in Manhattan with longtime companion Tim Robbins, one of her "Bull Durham" co-stars, and watched her career slowly take off. Already the mother of a girl by an Italian director, Franco Amurri, she never married, she had two boys with Mr. Robbins. With kids aged 9, 5 and 2, she has become something of a late-blooming sex symbol, one of the few middle-age actresses allowed and encouraged to steam up the screen.
"Susan isn't in the movie-star business," observes Mr. Schumacher. "She's not about sunglasses and limousines. She's a real human being. She's got a real life.
"I don't know how she does it. She's taking care of her relationship with Tim. She's taking care of her children. She's learning her lines. She's on top of politics, organizing causes. And she's looking fantastic with no sleep."
In order to spend more time with her children, she confines herself to 12 weeks of actual on-location shooting a year. She also favors projects that film in New York or during the summer, when the kids are out of school and she can bring them with her.
They'll only be young once, she explains, adding: "I can easily say that my kids are much more interesting and demanding than most scripts I get."
But is the attention she gives them the right kind? Is she a good mom? These questions nag at her.
"Maybe that's why, despite my agent's advice, I've been looking at so many motherhood roles," she says. "This is definitely my season of mothers. And it's not just the motherhood thing I'm concerned with but the whole family dynamic. How do you stay alive with your comrade when you have these kids?"
In "Safe Passage," which filmed in the spring just blocks from Ms. Sarandon's apartment and is slated for a December release, she plays a mom with seven kids. "There's a crisis," she says, "and she realizes maybe she has been an OK mother even though she's never felt on top of it. I can definitely relate."
She presides over a large brood as well in the remake of "Little Women," which she just finished filming and is also due in December. She plays Marmee, the girls' mother.
Reggie Love, Ms. Sarandon's character in "The Client," is a woman whose messy divorce and subsequent substance abuse cost her custody of her kids. When a little boy threatened by federal prosecutors and the mob seeks her help, her thwarted maternal impulses translate into a fierce loyalty.
Mr. Schumacher saw Ms. Sarandon in the role because she's got the strong, noble aura of someone in whom trust is well-placed.
"I needed a woman of such intelligence, strength, compassion and vulnerability that you feel when the child runs into her office, 'Thank God. Thank God, he found Susan Sarandon.' You feel that because you know she would face fire to protect anyone she cared about."