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FEATURE | summer 2003

Q and A with Susan Sarandon

Ms. Summer 2003

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Over the years, Susan Sarandon has been active in a number of feminist and progressive causes. She was one of the many actors and entertainers who protested the Bush administration’s decision to attack Iraq. Ms. magazine’s Ellen Hawkes recently spoke to her on the telephone about free speech, patriotism and reactions to her anti-war activism.

Ms. We have seen a backlash against those actors and entertainers who expressed their opposition to the war on Iraq. Are you alarmed by the efforts to mute dissent in this country?

Sarandon I’m alarmed that there was so little debate in the usual forums on questions of this magnitude. By that I mean the House, the Senate, and most news sources. There seemed to be more talk about Sean Penn’s trip to Iraq than there was about whether we should send bombs over.

Ms. Was the reaction to your anti-war position indicative of a general attempt to silence opposition?

Sarandon Yes, but I think that by now it’s a little late to try to silence everyone. Having already been through McCarthy, we’re not going to see the exact kind of McCarthyism that we saw then. But older people have told me that the same palpable fear among citizens to express opinions is very reminiscent of what they felt during the McCarthy period. At the very outset [of the war on terror] it was set up that ‘you’re either with us or against us,’ and you’re anti-American if you question. And then somehow this huge leap is made that you’re even jeopardizing national security or endangering the troops.

Ms. Do you think that the backlash against those who have spoken out has created a climate of enforced silence?

Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins
Photo by Jenny Warburg

Sarandon I think it’s really about self-censorship, but that’s the way it happens. Someone is quoted out of context and misrepresented in terms of what he or she says, and you’re afraid it could happen to you if you speak out. I saw a television show the other day that was trying to illustrate how violently I was protesting. They had tapes of me making a couple of speeches that weren’t particularly dramatic, but then they had a clip of me screaming. Then I recognized my children sitting next to me and the people in front of me, and I realized that I was either at a hockey game or a basketball game in Madison Square Garden. They just put that in because I was shaking my fist and yelling. But it definitely wasn’t a political thing. My God, I was carrying on and cheering at a Rangers game.

Ms. You’re now become one of the major targets in this new fad of celebrity bashing.

Sarandon It’s not really a new fad. It goes hand in hand with the fact that celebrities have been used to sell so many things, including presidential candidates, or to raise money for various causes. It’s the media that give a platform to celebrities and pay so much attention.

Ms. Of course, television was less interested in airing the views of the many regular citizens who were also opposed to the war.

Sarandon Exactly. My experience is that people who have alternative information, or who are experts with an alternative point of view that is not getting out, will only get on the air if they appear with a celebrity. You have to dish up a celebrity in order to get any time whatsoever on both mainstream and cable television.

Ms. What’s the mood in the entertainment industry? Have you talked to colleagues who have not made their views public?

Sarandon Mostly again it is self-censoring but that is enough. I hear people explaining “You know, it’s a difficult time…” or “I’m afraid to- I can’t do this, because I have to sell this, and my hands are tied.” Or “I’m a spokesperson for this organization, and a lot of our funding is corporate, so if I open my mouth…” and then they see me and Time [Robbins] being cancelled at even that was not even supposed to be political [a “Bull Durham” anniversary at the Baseball Hall of Fame], and that has an effect, too. The cancellation was clearly to send a message to other people that you’re not wanted even in baseball if you disagree with this administration. That’s the message to all citizens- that they can get in trouble, too, if they speak out.

Ms. But didn’t the decision to cancel your appearance at the Baseball Hall of Fame also provoke a lot of criticism?

Sarandon Yes. We’ve gotten at least 7,000 personal e-mails supporting us, and I know that about 25,000 [letters and e-mails] went to the Hall of Fame. Most of these supported our right to speak, even if they didn’t agree with our views. I’ve been so heartened by the outpouring of support, especially from those people who were for the war or who are Republican and wrote to us, “I disagree with some of what you’re saying, but I support you’re right to say it.” That makes me feel that we’re living in a much healthier democracy.

Ms. Do you think the threatened boycotts are going to have a real effect? Do you see this as a return to the Hollywood blacklisting of the 1950s?

Sarandon I don’t even know how organized these boycotts really are. I have heard that there have been some letters here, some letters there. But I don’t think people are actually taking the time to organize to not see certain movies or not watch specific TV shows. It’s not really blacklisting because I doubt these letters are going to cost people work. Yet I do think they contribute to an atmosphere of intimidation and self-censorship, which is the worst kind of censorship-people become afraid to open their mouths, to discuss things in their places of work, and they remain silent out of fear.

Ms. In fact, Janeane Garafolo told us that as a result of all the letters, both against her and supporting her, ABC decided to schedule the pilot shoot for her new series, which before had been only in development. She thinks there has been a backlash against the backlash.

Sarandon Yes, people don’t like to be told what they can watch or read or listen to. Nevertheless, those kinds of attacks do make people in the entertainment business think, ‘I don’t want to be in that column, I don’t want to be seen that way.’ Let’s face it, you want to be liked, you don’t want people to hate you. You don’t want your family intimidated.

Ms. Has your family been subjected to some of that antagonism?

Sarandon Recently, the New York Post-which periodically does something fictitious in terms of us- ran an article about my 13-year-old son, saying that he had dropped out of his school play because his part wasn’t big enough. He had dropped out of the play, but not for that reason. So this story wasn’t true, and it was of no interest to anyone except perhaps his classmates and us. But it was clearly designed to bad-mouth a 13-year-old kid, who didn’t deserve it, and to try to hurt our family. That’s not even witty or smart or factual. It’s just harassment.

Ms. Have you seen the smear campaigns against anti-war celebrities on all these new websites?

Sarandon Yes, and that’s what people don’t want. They don’t want to be called names or be called anti-American or be told that they hate this country or don’t support the troops. What’s ironic is to accuse us of not supporting the troops when this administration sent all these kids off to war but has cut $846 million from this year’s budget for veteran’s benefits and health care and proposes to cut $25 billion over the next ten years. That is the real scandal, and I don’t see the media talking or writing about it. I wish I had said something about that at the Academy Awards, because that’s my focus now. Yet once again, the media are just covering celebrities and going off on those of us who raise questions about the war and its aftermath. As usual, to focus on celebrities is a way to distract the public from the real issues.

Ms. thanks for talking to us Susan.

Sarandon My pleasure. And if you talk to Janeane, say hi.