Exclusive: Susan Sarandon on “About Ray,” “The Hunger” and being a lesbian icon

It’s up for debate, but between Freeheld, Carol, Grandma, and several other standout films, 2015 is arguably the best year in lesbian-themed movies. Thanks to great performances from Susan Sarandon and Linda Emond, you can add About Ray to that list.

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Susan became a favorite of many queer women in 1983 when she bedded Catherine Deneuve in The Hunger, and that love only grew when we saw her in Thelma & Louise and many other fantastic films. In About Ray, Susan plays Dolly, the somewhat close-minded lesbian mother of Maggie (Naomi Watts) and grandmother of trans teen Ray (Elle Fanning). Once again, Susan delivers.

We sat down with Susan while she was in Toronto for TIFF. She opened up about her thoughts on gender identity and sexual fluidity, changing The Hunger script, the cut lesbian scenes in About Ray, and how she feels about being a lesbian icon. She even told us what she thinks about Caitlyn Jenner’s stance on same-sex marriage! And so much more.

Warning: some spoilers ahead

AfterEllen.com: What was it about About Ray that made you go, “I have to get involved with this film and, more specifically, I want to play Dolly”?

Susan Sarandon: Every now and then I get the feeling that a certain story needs to be told immediately. And it was clear to me that this conversation needed to start. And though this film isn’t a documentary, and it’s not Philadelphia and it doesn’t explain everything, I think it does a good job with humor and heart to, first of all, clear up some confusion, like the difference between gender identity and sexual preference, which my stupid character gets the chance to talk about all the time. I think it shows how important the support of the family is to a person who’s transitioning. That is a really, really important point. I think it’s the kind of film that you can bring people to without hitting them over the head with it. Ray is so clear–has already transitioned psychologically, and is so clear. And it’s just a story where the adults are scrambling to catch up.

In defense of this family, I think every parent wants their kid to be safe, wants them to be loved, wants them to have a future, wants them to be able to earn a living. And anything when they go off track is threatening to a parent. It’s the parents’ fears because, “Really, you’re leaving Brown to be a musician?” Even though it’s irrational because, let’s face it, a liberal arts education doesn’t guarantee you anything anymore. But this is what you did, this is what everybody else did, so now your kid wants to leave and you’ve invested three years… So I think that a lot of, I mean less so now if you’re gay than maybe 15 years ago because a mother can look out and say, “Okay, my daughter’s gay, but you know what? Gays can get married now and have families.” Because that used to be the complaint, “Oh, you’ll never be wed, you’ll never have a baby.”

It’s become a little bit easier. But all these things I think are threatening, but from a well-intentioned place.

 

AE: In 1983, you starred in The Hunger, and there was a lesbian storyline there. Can you compare how it was in 1983 to do that, and then to play a lesbian in 2015?

SS: I was so shocked at, you know, my mother got hate mail when I was in that film. And I think the biggest lesson for me was that the script had been written in such a way that I got drunk, and didn’t know what was happening, and I said to Tony [Scott], “Really? To go to bed with Catherine Deneuve you need to be drunk? Let’s get rid of that right away.” Because the most interesting part about going to bed with somebody is how you get there, and what happens after. The middle, people kind of know what’s going to happen. But the thing that tells you the most about the character is that first touch. So we re-wrote that.

I always said to my kids the most–when I was explaining gays to them–I said the most difficult thing is deciding to be vulnerable to another human being. That’s the bravest thing you can do ever, is to reach out to another person and be intimate with them. And really if it’s a man or woman it doesn’t matter. And I think everybody’s on this scale of possibility. There are some people that are at either end, you know, really, really, really gay, or really, really, really straight. But in the middle? Sorry, there’s a lot of fluidity. It depends on who you meet and what the circumstances are, and how much of your conditioning you can let go of. So I think that for that character, that was what was going on.

I fought a little bit in [About Ray] for the lines about, “You were pretending to be straight.” You know I was never really happy with that. I think that there’s a parallel between the bravery of Ray and what was not brave about Dolly in the beginning when she chose to get married. Of course it was a different time, and I think that there’s so much lying to ourselves all the time. We delude ourselves sometimes to make life easier. Whether it means staying with somebody, or leaving someone. And what I love about being part of this project is that I think that it just liberates everybody. Because the fluidity, which is so exciting, of everything means that your definitions of a straight woman, or a straight guy, are that much bigger.

I would hope I can embrace my masculine side. And the more that we see those possibilities, how what an exciting world we’re in and these little butterfly people that are transforming from caterpillars to butterflies and becoming other people might just be some kind of a sign to make us understand that we’re part of an evolution where consciousness doesn’t have gender. The rest is details. Really.

 

AE: Of course, it’s going to surprise folks that it’s the lesbian of all people who’s most resistant; the most vocal voice in the film. What are your thoughts about that?

SS: Well, look, Caitlyn Jenner just said she’s against gay marriage! What’s up with that?! I mean, it’s crazy. She says she’s attracted to women–what if she wants to get married? What’s wrong with her? Anyway, what was the question?

 

AE: Do you find it interesting–and probably it was what attracted you to the role–that it was Dolly, the lesbian,  of all people?

SS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean like the more that you can mess with people in terms of the cliché, whatever it is. And I wrote that line, you know, “Being a lesbian doesn’t mean you’re necessarily open-minded. It just means you’re happy.” Whatever that means! I thought it was funny and I wrote it. But I think that’s great. I think that’s great because I’m sorry, all transgender people are not the same, all straight people are not the same, all gay people are not the same–all firefighters are not the same. So let’s just kind of agree. But she comes around!

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AE: She does, she does. Now about Dolly and Frances’ relationship. While I loved them as a couple, we didn’t really see them being particularly physically affectionate.

SS: There were some scenes cut.

 

AE: Did you fight them on that at all?

SS: Yeah. I mean that was the biggest challenge, with the small amount of space to try to show that they’ve been in a relationship for a long time. I think that, you know, you don’t even see me being that physical–I tried to be more physical with Naomi, and they were cutting it.

Now I’m not sure why people are so afraid of people touching, but I think it would have been nice to have more. But in a way sometimes when couples are together for a really long time they’re actually more like that. They’re not as touchy feely.

 

AE: Do you see the difference though in terms of representation? When it is two women. Some people when they see a man and woman of a certain age, they kind of default to, “They must be married.” We don’t get that when we see two women together. So that physical representation is a little bit more important.

SS: Yeah, I would’ve liked to have kept some of the scenes in where you see us relating to each other. They cut a lot. They cut a whole big early scene with–I mean, a lot was cut. And it’s gone through a few stages. We didn’t even know when we saw it last night, yesterday afternoon, [Note: September 12 at TIFF] which cut we were seeing. And one of the cuts had no humor in it. And I was like, “Oh my god. Like I’m completely out of this movie.” So that’s a process that happens. You never know who’s making these–it’s a battle! Producers, directors, whatever. And I wish there had been more with Linda, and I wish Linda had been here at the junket. She should have been here.

But we tried to find little ways to put that in there, but then a lot of stuff got I think that you see that we have the same kind of sense of humor. And you know the fact that they’re deciding to kick [Maggie] out so that they’re together and can live the rest of their lives without that whole thing going on, is obviously a conversation that’s been going on for a while.

 

AE: And maybe even the marriage conversation has been going on for a while? It seems Dolly believes they’re too “old school” for that, though I don’t know how true that is on Frances’ part.

SS: I think Frances kind of gave into it. I mean I know a lot of people of that age group that now are thinking of it, but primarily just because of benefits.

I’ve never married. So, you know, I had children with all these people that I’ve never married, so I understand not wanting to make a contract with the state, or not wanting to take it for granted. But I understand also people that marriage means a lot to.

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AE: One final question – between The Hunger, Thelma & Louise, all these other films, and what you mentioned on The View recently about gender fluidity in terms of dating, queer women consider you a lesbian icon. What do you think of that title? Do you embrace it?

SS: I value it. I value it, absolutely. I love that idea. I love women. And I love that idea, yes. I’m counting on that demographic. Definitely. I embrace it, and I’m proud of it, and I’m very happy to be considered that.

 

About Ray hits theaters soon.