Riding the Currents

Susan Sarandon glides into a new stage of life—and the New Jersey Hall of Fame.

Since debuting on stage at Edison High School, Susan Sarandon has appeared in more than 50 films and been nominated for five best actress Oscars. She won one for Dead Man Walking.
Photo by Michele Asselin/Corbis Outline.

Susan Sarandon is in transition. The youngest of her three children graduates from high school in June, leaving Sarandon, by her own admission, “excited and terrified.”

Not surprisingly for a lifelong actress, she compares her empty-nest emotions to a feeling she first experienced in 1975, while filming The Great Waldo Pepper, the story of a barnstorming pilot. “It reminds me a little bit of the first time I went up in a glider. You’re being pulled by a plane with a [noisy] motor…The [plane] pulls away and it’s incredibly quiet, but, at the same time, it’s exhilarating because you’re just riding the currents and don’t really have the rational support of the machine. My family is pulling away to be on their own flight. Now I’m on the current by myself, so it’s going to be interesting to see where that goes.”

The 63-year-old Sarandon, who announced her split from longtime partner Tim Robbins in December, is already showing up in interesting places, whether it’s joining indie rock band Of Montreal on stage in January at Manhattan’s Highline Ballroom, getting vomited on by a transsexual performer at the Lower East Side club the Box in February (“It was quite shocking,” she says with droll understatement), or joining her daughter for a secret show by singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright at the Gramercy Park Hotel in March.

On May 2, she plans to show up for her induction into the New Jersey Hall of Fame at Newark’s New Jersey Performing Arts Center in a 2010 class that includes Count Basie and Woodrow Wilson. “I’m very flattered. It’s a wonderful thing for my family, too,” she says, adding she still has a brother and sister in New Jersey.

Sarandon is especially happy to enter the Hall with fellow actor Jack Nicholson, whom she calls her saving grace during the “completely chaotic” filming of 1987’s The Witches of Eastwick, which also starred Cher and Michelle Pfeiffer. “Jack was probably the thing that kept us all from setting ourselves on fire, because he’s just so generous and so funny and so smart and he pretty much was unruffled by all of the shenanigans that went down during the filming.”

Sarandon was born Susan Abigail Tomalin in New York, but spent her “wonder years” in the Garden State after her family moved to Edison when she was 5. “We lived on Williams Road, where all these little houses had been put in a field that used to belong to Raritan Farm or something,” she says. However, there were times it felt more like Rahway State Prison than Raritan. She and her eight younger siblings “spent years picking up rocks, like inmates,” she laughs. “As kids, there’s pictures of us all brown and our hair bleached out from [working] in our yard so my dad could plant.”

Hard labor aside, many of her New Jersey memories are idyllic ones of roaming the neighborhood in benign packs on Halloween or camping with her family in Toms River. “With that many kids and not that much money, you didn’t take vacations, really.” Just transporting a family the size of a football team presented its own hazards. “One time, [my dad] bought a limousine that had jump seats that folded up. He’d put a few kids on those jump seats and if my mom stopped short, they’d just fold up into the car, so that didn’t last long,” she says dryly.

A devout Catholic as a young girl attending St. Francis of Assisi grammar school in Metuchen, Sarandon says, “I definitely prayed a lot that I would have the strength not to deny my faith when the Communists came over to hang us upside down on crosses…I was making trips to the church on lunch break to pray when the other kids were making out in the confessionals.”

Her sheltered world changed dramatically when she switched to public school—the ethnically diverse Edison High School. “I credit the experience of that high school with introducing me to the real world,” she says. “My first day of school, two girls got into a fight and were rolling around on the floor. I just stood there. By the time I graduated, I knew enough to move.”

At Edison, she appeared in two plays, including My Sister Eileen, where any potential for stardom was overshadowed by global tragedy. “Our first performance was two days after Kennedy was assassinated,” she says. “It got cancelled for a while.”

The budding actress went on to study drama at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. Her big break came when she was cast as Janet in the 1975 cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show. (By then she had taken the name of her husband, Chris Sarandon, whom she divorced in 1979.) She’s since appeared in more than 50 movies and been nominated for five Best Actress Oscars, taking one home for her moving portrayal of real-life nun and anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean in 1995’s Dead Man Walking. Coming up, she’ll appear opposite Michael Douglas in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and Al Pacino in You Don’t Know Jack. She’s also exploring her entrepreneurial side as an investor in SPiN, a ping-pong club/bar in Manhattan’s Flatiron district.

Like Prejean, Sarandon has a history of advocating for social justice. She has no idea where her liberal activist bent comes from, especially since “my mom is completely Republican, right wing,” she says, but Sarandon began practicing her own endearing brand of equality from an early age. “When I was growing up and believed that my dolls would come to life at midnight, I would rotate the best dresses so that not one doll would have the nice clothes consistently. Somehow, it bothered me even then the idea of one doll having more than the others.”

Speaking of clothing, while she has yet to be asked to donate an item for one of the four planned New Jersey Hall of Fame regional museums, she already has her ideas on the matter. The obvious contribution would be her Oscar, but the statue is on loan to the Museum of Natural History. (“They asked me if it could go on tour and I thought it was probably bored in my bathroom.”)

Besides, she has something much more connected to her New Jersey roots in mind: “My [high school] cheerleading jacket,” she says, warming to the thought. “That would be good."

Melinda Newman is a Hollywood-based freelance writer.

Click here to test your knowledge of New Jersey Hall of Fame trivia.

The CLASS OF 2010
Fifteen new members will enter the New Jersey Hall of Fame during induction ceremonies May 2 at NJPAC. Here’s the Class of 2010:

HISTORICAL:
Alice Paul (Mt. Laurel/Moorestown), women’s suffrage activist
Les Paul (Mahwah), guitarist, inventor
Woodrow Wilson (Princeton), president of Princeton University, NJ governor, United States President

ENTERPRISE:
Michael Graves (Princeton), architect
Wally Schirra (Oradell), astronaut

ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT:
Count Basie (Red Bank), jazz composer, band leader, pianist
Danny DeVito (Neptune /Asbury Park), actor, director, producer
Jack Nicholson (Neptune), actor
Susan Sarandon (Edison), actor, activist
Frankie Valli (Newark), singer

SPORTS:
Larry Doby (Paterson), baseball player
Carl Lewis (Willingboro), Olympic athlete

GENERAL:
Judy Blume (Elizabeth), author
William J. Brennan (Newark), jurist
Philip Roth (Newark), author

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