Minisite Gear

Experience the pulse of the Americas with Minisite Gear: Your go-to destination for digital news and analysis.

Susan Sarandon’s Most Controversial Roles Have Been Offscreen
Recent news

Susan Sarandon’s Most Controversial Roles Have Been Offscreen

Susan Sarandon’s Most Controversial Roles Have Been Offscreen

For decades, Susan Sarandon’s acting career thrived alongside a robust interest in political activism, which often placed her well to the left even of Hollywood’s liberal mainstream.

As she starred in films like “Bull Durham,” “Thelma & Louise” and “Dead Man Walking,” for which she won an Academy Award, she became a familiar, outspoken figure who appeared at rallies, took stances on issues at awards shows and made political endorsements. Over the years her brand of progressive politics led to clashes with others on the left, most notably in 2016, when she decided to back a Green Party candidate over Hillary Clinton, who went on to lose to Donald J. Trump.

But her politics did not appear to have much impact on her career until last week, when Ms. Sarandon, 77, was dropped by United Talent Agency after she spoke at a pro-Palestinian rally in New York held amid the Israel-Hamas war and said, “There are a lot of people that are afraid, afraid of being Jewish at this time, and are getting a taste of what it feels like to be a Muslim in this country, so often subjected to violence.”

Her remarks, first reported by The New York Post, struck a nerve at a moment when Hollywood was being divided by the war. Some in the industry were expressing alarm about rising antisemitism and felt that their community had not sufficiently expressed support for Israel after Hamas fighters killed about 1,200 Israelis and took more than 200 captive on Oct. 7. But questions were also being raised about if and when political speech should affect a career, as others in the industry lost positions and acting jobs after criticizing Israel for killing thousands of civilians in Gaza.

An assistant for Ms. Sarandon replied to an inquiry by referring to her complete speech. At the rally, Ms. Sarandon, who became a mainstay of pro-Palestinian marches in New York, said that criticism of Israel should not be seen as inherently antisemitic. “There’s a terrible thing that’s happened, where antisemitism has been confused with speaking up against Israel,” she said. “I am against antisemitism, I am against Islamophobia, I am against anything that singles out a person because of their religion or anything.”

Politics, acting and courting controversy have been intertwined in Ms. Sarandon’s career for decades. After breaking into acting in the early 1970s, appearing in the 1975 cult classic “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and earning her first Oscar nomination for 1981’s “Atlantic City,” her career gained steam with 1988’s “Bull Durham.” In it, she played a lover of baseball and baseball players who was choosing between two minor leaguers, a veteran catcher played by Kevin Costner and a young pitcher played by Tim Robbins.

The next year, she and Mr. Robbins, her partner for two decades, marched together in an abortion rights parade in Washington. In 1993, while presenting an Oscar for film editing — at a ceremony where Ms. Sarandon was also nominated, for acting in “Lorenzo’s Oil” — she and Robbins spoke about the plight of hundreds of H.I.V.-positive Haitians who were being held at Guantánamo Bay. Over the years she has protested the Iraq War, hunger, homelessness, sex trafficking, mass incarceration and the death penalty, the subject of “Dead Man Walking” (1995), in which she played Sister Helen Prejean, who opposes capital punishment.

Before now, Ms. Sarandon’s highest-profile political controversy was her decision to endorse Jill Stein, the Green Party’s presidential nominee, in the final days before the 2016 election. Ms. Sarandon, who had backed Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont in the Democratic primary that year, made it clear that she expected Mrs. Clinton to win.

“Fear of Donald Trump is not enough for me to support Clinton, with her record of corruption,” Ms. Sarandon said in a Green Party statement. “Now that Trump is self-destructing, I feel even those in swing states have the opportunity to vote their conscience.”

Earlier that year she had told Chris Hayes on MSNBC that “some people feel Donald Trump will bring the revolution immediately if he gets in, then things will really, you know explode.”

Many Clinton supporters were furious that Ms. Sarandon, unlike other celebrities who had endorsed Mr. Sanders, refused to unite behind Mrs. Clinton in the general election.

Celebrities “have an outsized influence on others,” Philippe Reines, a longtime Clinton aide, said in an email on Tuesday. “Which means they have a greater responsibility to be constructive. Despite that, she spoke the way she did knowing full well of the possible consequences.”

Referring to the final scene in “Thelma & Louise,” one of Ms. Sarandon’s most famous films, Mr. Reines added that “instead of only Thelma, Louise had 330,000,000 Americans in the Thunderbird with her when she drove off the cliff.”

Mrs. Clinton did not forget: In her 2017 memoir, “What Happened,” she mentioned Ms. Sarandon in the course of arguing that the Stein vote cost her critical support in several key swing states that ultimately determined the election for Mr. Trump. “Maybe, like actress Susan Sarandon, Stein thinks electing Trump will hasten ‘the revolution,’” Mrs. Clinton wrote. “Who knows?”

Ms. Sarandon had backed third-party candidates before. In the 2000 presidential election, she endorsed Ralph Nader, the Green Party nominee, rather than Al Gore, the Democrat whose narrow defeat in Florida gave the presidency to George W. Bush. But in 2004 she joined other prominent backers of Mr. Nader to urge swing-state voters to back the Democratic nominee, John Kerry, in an effort to unseat Mr. Bush. Similarly, in 2020 she said she would vote for President Biden after having supported Mr. Sanders in the primary.

But Ms. Sarandon was unrepentant after Mr. Trump’s 2016 victory, telling The Guardian the following year that while some of her criticisms of Mrs. Clinton had been taken out of context — including her remark that “I believe in a way she’s more dangerous” than Mr. Trump — she stood by her words. “I don’t mind that quote,” she said. “I did think she was very, very dangerous. We would still be fracking, we would be at war. It wouldn’t be much smoother.”

Other liberal-leaning Hollywood stars were moved to criticize Ms. Sarandon publicly. The actress Debra Messing sparred with Ms. Sarandon on social media during the 2016 Democratic primary after Ms. Sarandon suggested she would not vote for Mrs. Clinton over Mr. Trump. And in 2018, after Ms. Sarandon argued in an interview that opposition to Mr. Trump had inspired more women and people of color to run for office, the actor Bradley Whitford noted on social media, “We are on the verge of losing Roe v Wade,” and asked: “Are you incapable of admitting that you were wrong?”

Ms. Sarandon has continued to land good roles in recent years: as a series regular in one season of Showtime’s “Ray Donovan”; as the lead in the tear-jerker film “Blackbird”; as the antagonist Victoria Kord in August’s DC Comics movie “Blue Beetle.”

But after her remarks at the pro-Palestinian rally drew criticism, United Talent Agency confirmed that it had parted ways with her.

Jonathan Greenblatt, the chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, took issue with Ms. Sarandon’s remark. “It’s fair to say Muslims and Jews have faced discrimination and hate,” he said, “but it is unhelpful and hurtful to turn this conflict into the oppression Olympics.”

He added: “When someone gets it wrong, you want to help them get it right. But someone’s got to be willing to do that, and I haven’t seen the kind of contrition from her that leads me to believe she’s ready to begin a process of healing and understanding.”

Others expressed support for Ms. Sarandon. After the news that U.T.A. had parted ways with her, Cornel West, the left-wing independent presidential candidate, posted encouragement on X, formerly known as Twitter: “I stand in deep solidarity with my dear sister Susan Sarandon. I salute her courage and compassion!”

Her latest remark could well make her “box office poison” briefly, said Steven J. Ross, a professor at the University of Southern California who studies Hollywood and politics. “But,” added Mr. Ross — who said he found her remark “insensitive” — “she understands there’s a risk. She clearly believes she needs to speak out as a citizen when she feels her country is doing something wrong or there’s a policy that’s wrong.”

Ms. Sarandon has described her activism as an obligation given her status and fame. Performers’ jobs, she said in a 2016 interview, are “to observe and to give people an opportunity to reframe their lives and get information.”

“It’s the kind of business that can really use you, so I prefer to use it rather than be used,” she added. “Though I’m not really an expert on anything, it gives me the opportunity to just shine a little light or give a little voice.”

Olivia Bensimon contributed reporting.