Devoted mom wary of mom pigeon-hole


The same woman who took a very public bath in her first film, washed her bare chest with lemons in another film and seduced a minor-league baseball team in a third film now would like to make you a nice cup of hot chocolate.

Yes, the always sensual Susan Sarandon is becoming a prominent mother figure in Hollywood movies, and it's got her a little worried.

"Traditionally, playing mothers marks the end of your acting career in Hollywood," the actress said. "It certainly marks the end of roles with any sexuality in them.

"It will be an interesting test to see if I ever get to play anything but mothers again," she added. "Don't you think it's sad that the Hollywood system thinks like that? Maybe that's why the world is such a terrible place these days, when motherhood and sexiness are mutually exclusive."

Complicating Ms. Sarandon's problem is that the mother roles she's been getting lately are among the best roles being offered to women in Hollywood. She stood out as the relentless mother in "Lorenzo's Oil" and now there is Oscar talk for either of her roles in "Little Women" and "Safe Passage."

In "Safe Passage," Ms. Sarandon shines brightest of all in a drama about a large family that comes together to await word on whether one of the sons has been killed in a terrorist explosion in the Middle East. Sam Shepard plays Ms. Sarandon's estranged husband, who is losing his sight as he tries to re-enter the lives of his wife and children.

Despite the heaviness of the theme, "Safe Passage" is an uplifting story with Ms. Sarandon at the center of the action, playing a strong-willed, sometimes obsessive mother of seven boys.

Ms. Sarandon, 48, lives with actor Tim Robbins and is the real-life mother of three children -- Eva, 9, with Italian director Franco Amurri; Jack Henry, 5, and Miles, 2, both with Mr. Robbins.

Except for the burning sexuality issue, the actress said she loves playing moms in the movies.

"I love being a mother off-screen, and I love being able to bring some of that experience to a role," she said. "I'm just a little concerned that once you go down this corridor in Hollywood, it's all over in every other arena.

"I'd even be willing to play a sexy mom, but I don't know if Hollywood is ready for that."

Although an unspecified physical problem kept her from having children until late in life, Ms. Sarandon said she has always had mothering experience. The oldest of nine children growing up in Metuchen, N.J., Ms. Sarandon was expected to be a second mother to the other eight.

"I was folding diapers from the time I could walk, and I can't remember a time when I didn't have a kid on my hip," she said. "Because of that experience, there was no romance or myths about motherhood. I understood the reality of it."

Her strict Roman Catholic upbringing also pointed her in the direction she wanted to go when she became a mom, she said.

"We grew up with those images of motherhood from television, and my mother wanted to be Donna Reed, Harriet Nelson, the Partridge Family and the Waltons, all wrapped into one.

"She was always trying to reach that level, but it was obvious to me that our family didn't look anything like what I was seeing on television. I knew it wasn't real, and I knew I wasn't going to try to be that kind of perfect mother.

"The downside of that kind of parenting is that you have to be flawless all the time because that's where your authority stems from. But my own form of parenting is all about being imperfect. I tell my kids that life is full of mistakes and that you're supposed to make mistakes. As a result, I think the abyss between my kids and me is smaller than in more traditional families."

Ms. Sarandon, who also starred last year in the box-office hit "The Client," said she decided to play the mom in "Safe Passage" (at one-third her normal asking price) because it portrayed what she thought was a real family.

"This was a nice, messy, constantly exploding house of individuals who love each other in individual ways," she said. "That's how I think real families are."

Ms. Sarandon, who married actor Chris Sarandon while both were students at Catholic University in Washington, started her acting career by accident. She accompanied her husband to an audition for an agent and was signed on the spot.

Five days later, she won a role in the political drama "Joe," which included the memorable bathing scene.

She admits that she has never taken acting seriously, and she has sabotaged her own career on many occasions through her outspokenness on political issues or by dropping out to raise her children or proceed on some non-Hollywood project.

"It takes a lot to seduce me from my home [in New York City]," she said. "I just have no burning desire to work. But I must admit that acting does sharpen me up, and the fact that you can never really get it right turns me on. Still, it's not exactly brain surgery."

Ms. Sarandon, nominated for Oscars in "Atlantic City," "Thelma and Louise" and "Lorenzo's Oil," said that her agents begged her to follow "The Client" with another big commercial film. She said that's what a "normal" actress would have done.

"I guess you're supposed to follow a big breakthrough movie like 'The Client' with another one. I guess you're not supposed to play a mom in 'Little Women' and then take a salary cut to play another mom in 'Safe Passage.' Not just a mom but a mother of grown children. But I can't do it any other way. I take the work that interests me at the time.

"The funny thing is that I got a lot of calls from people in Europe after I did 'The Client.' They were disappointed in me for selling out and being in a big Hollywood picture. I told them that I refuse to be restricted by their lack of imagination.

"But there was a temptation to call them back after I did 'Safe Passage' to tell them that I had just taken one-third my salary to do a low-budget picture that no one will see. I suppose they would be thrilled."

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