Australian actor Sam Neill sits down with friend and co-star, Hollywood great Susan Sarandon for a very candid conversation about love, loss and masturbation.
Having first played husband and wife in Australian mystery Irresistible 15 years ago, screen mainstays Sam Neill and Susan Sarandon were only too happy to couple up once more for their new film Blackbird.
In an amusingly frank and sometimes teary chat over Zoom – with Neill taking on the role of interviewer from Auckland and Sarandon candidly answering his questions from her home in New York – the two actors discuss their enduring friendship, the death of a beloved pet and their fear (or lack thereof) of ageing.
Sam: So we shot this film [Blackbird] a little over two years ago…
Susan: Is that all? It feels like we could have a child in college by now [both laugh]. Seriously, the whole world has shattered and fallen apart. It’s crazy, right?
Sam: While we shot this film, everyone’s favourite was your dog, Penny – a beautiful little white fluffy dog with more charm than the rest of us all put together. And I miss her, but you must miss her dreadfully [Penny passed away in November, aged 17].
Susan: Yeah, I took her to Los Angeles while I was filming and she passed there. When I was in quarantine, I could spend a lot of time with her as she was declining over that week. She was so soulful in a way, so kind of easy. She didn’t even seem like a dog.
You know, you could just talk to her. She was so sweet. I just couldn’t [tears up]… I couldn’t bear the idea of another dog right away. My son, Miles, saw a cat to be rescued called Serious Sue. And she’s got an outline on her mouth that goes down so she always looks like she’s sad or grumpy.
Sorry, but it’s true. So he got that cat for me [Sarandon renamed the cat Ida].
Sam: Oh, but look – what a terrible interviewer [I am]. We’ve only just begun and I’ve upset you already. You’re close to tears. I think you are crying. Oh no!
Susan: Don’t worry, I’ll use it the next time I have to cry onscreen – I’ll know how to get there.
Sam: Nothing is lost [laughs].
Susan: You can be so f*cked up as an actor and just say “It’s OK, I’ll use it.” Thank God I’m not a dental hygienist – they would have committed me long ago. I know where to put all my angst.
By the way, I loved you [as a villainous Northern Irish police inspector] in [the TV series] Peaky Blinders, even though I could only understand maybe half of whatever everyone was saying [both laugh]…
I’m gonna copy you. If my pilot [TV project] goes, I’m gonna play you. Because you were so scary and I play a psycho killer. So I’m gonna borrow a lot of your mannerisms, Sam.
Sam: Thank you very much, it’s a great compliment.
Susan: You look more handsome now than you did then. [Neill laughs]. Maybe you’re in a better spot on this screen or something. Or maybe you were just so in your character. You weren’t as handsome.
Sam: Well, you know, a short-back-and-sides haircut is never flattering on a man’s ears. Particularly when you get to my age.
Susan: I’ll remember that.
Sam: Let’s talk about movies for a minute. Let’s agree on this – is Roger Michell, the director of Blackbird, not the nicest man in the world?
Susan: Very, very sweet. Yes. He made us feel happy to be on set. For sure. Very gentlemanly.
Sam: There was an exceptional little family that we formed [with Kate Winslet and Mia Wasikowska, who play their daughters]. Look, I can hardly remember cinema without Susan Sarandon.
The rule has been that, as a woman actor, you’re supposed to fade at the age of 30. Yet, at 75, not only is your career more formidable than it ever has been, but you’re more gorgeous than you’ve ever been. So that’s very heartening.
Susan: Thank you, Sam!
Sam: When I think back on some of your films that I’m so attached to – Atlantic City; Pretty Baby; The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which was huge in Australia and of course many other places; Dead Man Walking; Thelma & Louise – it’s an extraordinarily distinguished list.
I’m often asked “What’s your favourite movie?” And I always decline to answer – it’s like saying who is your favourite child? I think a better question is, tell us a couple of films that you have a soft spot for that maybe others have overlooked.
Susan: Yeah, because there are those films that you do that nobody really sees. Because for whatever reason – you know, the studio has another one it’s focusing on, or there’s a coup at the studio and the new people don’t want to let it go but don’t want to do anything with it.
Sam: Or Harvey [Weinstein] spat the dummy [laughs].
Susan: Yes, yes. I have one of those actually that Harvey got a hold of and then wouldn’t do anything with. It was with Elle Fanning, [whose character] wanted to transition. That was fairly recently with Naomi Watts and that just got dumped. [It was later released as 3 Generations in 2017.]
I liked The Meddler. White Palace has a lot of sex in it but I think that what it’s about is really, really worth it. And I loved making out with Jimmy [co-star James Spader], five days a week.
Sam: If you have to “do it” on film, do it with Spader. Is that what you’re saying?
Susan: Yeah, he was so funny and so weird. He was so good. What about you – what films do you have a soft spot for?
Sam: There are a few. There’s one called Dean Spanley set in Edwardian England, in which I play a dean – you know, a vicar of the church – who has also been a dog in a former life. And when he drinks a particular wine he reverts to being the dog.
Susan: What kind of dog was he?
Sam: A spaniel, owned by Peter O’Toole, which is a distinction in itself – if you have to be owned by someone, let it be Peter O’Toole.
Susan: I would like to have been around when they pitched that to get the money! You know, I never did any acting courses. It never occurred to me to be an actor – I just kind of fudged my way through films.
Sam: Like me, completely untrained.
Susan: Yeah, I know. That’s why we had such a good marriage.
Sam: What do you like about men? Men haven’t had a good rap lately [laughs].
Susan: I find it difficult now to find older guys who would be appropriate – which people keep pointing out to me if I start going out with someone younger. If I could find an appropriate man like you, Sam, who is curious and wants to get on an adventure still…
That’s why I’m drawn to people who are artists of some kind – not necessarily actors, but anybody who has a passion to create something. I think I can only be with people who are really looking, interested and asking questions, which is much easier to find when you’re younger because nobody knows anything, and everything is new. But when you get to a certain point, some people are trying to be safe and protect themselves.
I don’t know what happens but I find it very difficult to find older guys who… You know, it makes you young when you have a sense of purpose, and [that purpose] doesn’t necessarily have to be saving the world. There’s my fat cat [pivots camera]. Ida, Ida… Can you see her?
Sam: Yes. Entirely indifferent, like most cats [laughs].
Susan: Oh my God, I don’t know what’s going on with her. I’m giving her a chance. They [told me] to “bring her back if it’s not a good fit”. I was like, how can you bring your cat back if it’s not a good fit?
But that might be the problem I have with men – I just keep trying to make it work, even if it’s not a good fit [both laugh].
The other day, I was out in the country, [waiting to get a ride somewhere], and I could see on my phone that this car was taking all the wrong ways and I was late and waiting, and waiting, and I’m thinking, yeah, this is exactly my way of dealing with relationships.
I should have cancelled that car 10 minutes in. It’s now 25 minutes, and I’m talking to my phone, “You can make it, come on… No, no, that’s the wrong way, come back.” Cancel the car. That’s what the problem is; at a certain point people become so fearful – women too – of death, ageing. We’re lucky, we have something we really like to do. You still like working, right?
Sam: I’m not fearful of death. I’m all right with ageing. I don’t like the bits that stop working – when my hips get a bit stiff, that’s boring. But I’m completely comfortable about ageing. I’m not worried about that. I know that gets to people.
I’ve felt as if every decade has been better than the previous one, so I’m in my 70s now and I’m OK with it, because my 60s were better than the 50s, and my 50s were better than the 40s, so I reckon it’s gonna be alright.
Susan: Are you going to direct a film at some point?
Sam: I directed one time [the 2004 Australian television film The Brush-Off] and I swore that I’d never do it again. Too much hard work. I even found myself dreaming about the next day, which was unhealthy.
Susan: Yeah, I’ve been with a few directors… After we finished Dead Man Walking, it was Christmas, and Tim [Robbins, the film’s director and Sarandon’s former partner of 23 years] was directing what order we were opening our presents [laughs]. It just doesn’t stop. But we’re storytellers.
Sam: Acting is an ideal job for someone with a short concentration span. You never go longer than two minutes in a take.
Susan: Unless you’re on stage. People say to me, which do you like more: stage or film? And I always say, well, it’s like the difference between making love and masturbation.
With an audience, you actually have a relationship and in film you just have to get one little moment right, you know, practically by yourself.
Sam: That’s a graphic way of putting it [laughs]!
Susan: But so true! All right, Sam, love you.
Sam: Love you, too.
Blackbird is in cinemas from Thursday.