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Catching Up With ... Susan Sarandon

Controversy swirls around 'Ice Bound' star's anti-war activism, but she stands firm

April 20, 2003|By Roger Catlin | Roger Catlin,Special to the Sun

Susan Sarandon appears in a TV movie tonight about a woman stuck at the South Pole, which may be exactly where her critics would like her.

And although Sarandon's portrayal of Dr. Jerri Nielsen, who must perform a biopsy on herself in Antarctica, stands with some of Sarandon's best work, the attention right now is on the actress' opinion of the war in Iraq.

Recently, she and her partner, Tim Robbins, were told by Baseball Hall of Fame President Dale Petroskey, a former assistant press secretary to President Reagan, that he was canceling a 15th anniversary celebration of their film Bull Durham. Petroskey said the couple's anti-war stance "ultimately could put our troops in even more danger." Earlier, Sarandon's appearance at a United Way event in Florida was canceled.

Groups such as the Citizens Against Celebrity "Pundits" have targeted the couple along with others, including Martin Sheen, Barbra Streisand and Janeane Garofalo. Similarly, Dixie Chicks CDs were smashed and the music banned after an offhand comment by one of the singers that she was ashamed President Bush was also from Texas. And filmmaker Michael Moore was booed by some when he chided the president during an Academy Award acceptance speech.

"I don't ever remember being in a climate where people were so afraid to even have a conversation about some of these issues -- that people would be irate to have a healthy debate," Sarandon said.

During a phone conversation to promote Ice Bound: A Woman's Survival at the South Pole (CBS, 9 p.m.), reporters were asked to "please keep your questions on the topic." But there was no way to keep from asking the 56-year-old actress about her activism and the hubbub it has caused.

"The only way you have a healthy democracy is if you have a healthy debate," she says. "I don't think because I'm an actor that I have to give up asking questions."

And it's not as if Hollywood celebrities are the only ones questioning the war, she says. "The pope, all the church leaders, millions of people around the world, the U.N.," Sarandon says. "I'm not alone in this."

Trying to raise issues

Her views, though, may get more prominence than others because celebrities get ever more attention these days, a fact not lost on the actress. "With something like an invasion of Iraq," Sarandon says, "there was more discussion about whether Sean Penn should go to Iraq than if we should send troops there."

Celebrity involvement helps gain coverage for events that may not otherwise be noted, Sarandon says. "If people come to me, and tell me they're cutting AIDS [funding] in New York and nobody knows it, it means Rosie Perez and I go down with these 150 demonstrators to city hall, then the TV cameras will come."

Sarandon defends celebrity activism as an opportunity not so much to promote particular views as to just raise issues.

"A lot of times, it's just really an attempt to give people access to information," she says. "The fact of the matter is if you have any piece of information that is not what the corporate powers want you to hear, you can't get your information out. It's just a lock. It doesn't matter how many people are out in the street."

And though the negative reaction to activist celebrities is played up on Fox News or by groups like Citizens Against Celebrity "Pundits," Sarandon says she mostly gets positive reaction, "whether it's the guy that's [screening] the bag ... at the airport" or people on the street.

"I'm most moved by people when it comes unexpectedly," she says. "When you're traveling or something and someone says, 'Thank you so much for asking questions that I can't. ... I have kids and I'm frightened for them, and thank you.'

"But there are some people [who] have bought into this idea that in any way to have questioned going into this situation is somehow threatening to the troops," Sarandon says. "But I felt the best way to protect those troops is to keep them out of harm's way completely, and to respect the U.N. and to go through a process that would not put people into that hellish situation of war."

At the Oscars, where she was a presenter, Sarandon did little more than flash a peace sign.

"It's never me trying to tell people what to think," she says. "This administration is not going to give us the body count for Iraqis. They didn't do it the last time. We're not going to know the result of our bomb policy, really. We're just going to see the images that they want us to see. So, when you're trying to understand what's going on, it's very difficult to understand. And if you haven't seen the effects of your foreign policy, it's hard to understand your place in the world."

Recently a group representing veterans alerted her about big cuts to veterans groups in the Bush administration's budget. "When I heard about it, it was appalling to me," she said. "So if I can, during a junket, or if I'm on a TV show, just mention that this is happening, maybe enough people will write or call to say this isn't right."

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