We had the immense pleasure of speaking with Susan Sarandon from the new NBC show Who Do You Think You Are?, which follows celebrity personalities on their search to discover more about their family ancestory. Mrs. Sarandon spoke with us about her search for her grandmother, what surprised her, and what she has learned from the experience.
When you decided to delve into the story of your grandmother, was there ever a moment where you felt maybe you were revealing too much about your family?
Susan Sarandon: Actually they didn’t put everything on TV. So there were a lot of things that they left out – or some things that they left out. I had tried years before to try to track Anita down, so it was a small price to pay that people were discovering as I was discovering it because we really wanted to know what had happened to her and we didn’t have the skill that they had in figuring it out.
And I guess at that time also some of these computer resources weren’t available that made some of the tracking easier. But no, I don’t think there was anything. I felt that it was amazing that she had such a difficult beginning and survived and eventually managed to have a stable last 35 years with someone that she adored. So I was really happy to get that information.
And what did you learn most about yourself through this journey?
Susan Sarandon: Well I mean all of it is about our background as a family and some of the tenacity and curiosity that Anita had, I felt I’ve inherited. So that was good. I mean certainly there was some physical resemblance.
I think it was something that made it a little bit more – gave my mother a little bit more piece of mind to have a sense of what happened and it was also relief that she hadn’t had any other children, I think was probably something that would’ve really disturbed my mother. But I think for everybody it was – we had vague notions of early beginnings on that side of the family but it was nice to finally have some sense of closure of what had happened to her.
Are you at all recommending to others to start trying to seek out their relatives?
Susan Sarandon: If people are curious, I definitely recommend it. I’ve had some people already ask me if they can – said that they’ve tried to do it online and did I know companies they could go to and how expensive was it. So I think there’s a huge portion of the population that is curious about family history. And as you get to a certain age, it becomes more and more important to be able to leave some record behind for your kids to have some sense of their history and their place in the world.
And it’s funny because we’re dealing with so many immigration issues and we forget that we’re a nation of immigrants. And it’s really wonderful to reflect on how difficult it was and how brave they were to come here, most of the time without even the language and with very few resources. And certainly I think they are people who would have preferred to stay where their family support system was. Very few of them migrated because they were looking for adventure. Most of them were escaping very, very difficult, bleak times.
And when I did my grandfather, my Welsh grandfather’s history, I learned that he, you know, at a time in England when there was famine that a lot of people went to Russia, that they would send whole families off with any children 10 or up and leave the little ones behind because they just couldn’t feed them.
And of course we have similar migrations that are happening from South American countries and Eastern European countries where people are coming either to escape political problems or survival – other kind of survival challenges and come here with, again, so much bravery and so much hope but would rather be back where they started and be there with their roots. So it really is a wonderful way to have an understanding and an appreciation for that process too both in the past and in the present.
And how were you approached about being a part of the show? Was it something that maybe Lisa had put out there to people or she knew you were looking for your grandmother or…
Susan Sarandon: Well she – I don’t know if it was because of my previous involvement with the Welsh show that changed my grandfather I don’t know how they – or great-grandfather, I’m not quite sure what made them think of me. But they were looking for people who had a mystery or story or some kind of quest and she just approached me and the fact that I had no idea what happened to my grandmother, someone so close in time to me, was I think a potentially very fertile story line. And so I said yes if we could figure out the time to do it.
So there is an ongoing version of the show that runs in England and you had already been on that show tracing your Welsh side of your family, is that right?
Susan Sarandon: They approached me. I had always heard that on my father’s side I had Welsh blood but I had no verification of this. And there was a Welsh spin-off of the English show and they approached me and luckily I did have Welsh roots but we weren’t sure when we started.
And actually all my siblings but one got in a van and we tracked through the Welsh countryside and then a number of months later Lisa got in touch with me. And I also have an interesting story because my grandfather from Sicily migrated – immigrated here and I didn’t know if they wanted to follow that up and then they landed on my grandmother which was really fabulous because we didn’t have a clue.
Let me ask you specifically about Anita, because we can see as the hour unfolds more and more you have a feeling like you’re a kindred spirit with Anita because she has so many things that you admire, like her ability to go on with life and her artistic side. How did you feel about Anita as the search went on?
Susan Sarandon: Well you know how family stories go and all as people repeat them – and all I had was this impression that she had been a less-than-responsible mother and that the children had been taken from here and that’s why they were in foster care and eventually the Catholic Charities.
But the detail that I didn’t learn until much, much later was that she had gotten pregnant at 12 and had the first baby at 13 which changed my whole framing of the issue. And then again the Italian relatives talked about what a terrible mother she was. And I remembered asking my mom, “Where was her mother? How did you guys end up there? What happened? Why didn’t her mom step in?”
And so when we did the show that’s when we realized that her mother had died when she was 10 at 41 having had ten children, seven of whom had already died and not at childbirth. So her mother had led a very, very difficult life and died when Anita was 10, which left her with this much older father, an older sister, and a younger brother.
And so there was nobody to really look after her. So immediately, my sympathy for her was complete when I looked at it that way, this little girl left without a mom at 10 and then, living next to my grandfather who was older and what ever happened happened. So I still don’t know how she managed to survive between the time that her children were taken away and she surfaced again. Nobody knows what happened in her late teen years, how she managed to stay afloat.
Though this woman who could be so bitter or a drug addict or God knows what, managed to stay afloat with dignity and loved a few times and finally ended up having a really sweet little life an hour from New York and never knew. I guess it was just too painful, she just kept moving forward, you know, and too painful to try to find those kids or find out what happened to them. Nobody knew that they existed, nobody knew about her early – well maybe her husband did if she was even married to him.
But she married a younger guy. She had lied about her age. We don’t even – you know, taking off a few years. So that was probably one of the reasons it was hard for us to track her without a Social Security card. But I just thought, here’s a gal who could’ve gone so easily under to the dark side and ended up this boisterous, party-giving, loving, funny, gardening woman with a small dog just an hour out of New York, you know, how fabulous for her.
A lot of everyday Americans have a general tendency to put people in Hollywood, or with any sort of “A-list” career, on a pedestal. Do you think your position on this show and seeing this rich, emotional family background, do you think this is going to help the average American realize that actresses, film makers, anybody with any sort of salary, that they’re all just like everyone else, they all come from the same background and have similar struggles?
Susan Sarandon: Yeah. I mean certainly there are people who have struggles that are now movie stars also. But I think it’s just as I mentioned earlie,r it’s good to remember that the major – I mean that we’re all immigrants here except for Native Americans, let’s start there, but to honor this tradition of looking for a better life in America and the tenacity and imagination and chutzpah and bravery and how that allowed them to survive long enough to create us.
And also just how colorful those time were and how difficult, how incredibly difficult those lives were in terms of just basically keeping your family afloat and feeding them and losing so many children. I was just so moved by that and finding that unmarked grave in the series too, you know, that this is where you come from. But I mean pretty much everybody does.
I mean I think there were very few of us whose origins in America started out incredible wealthy. So it’s always interesting to – and humbling to remember our beginnings. And I consider myself incredibly lucky to be comfortable financially, be able to give my kids education and have health insurance and all of those things and not have to worry about whether or not my kids will be able to get shots and avoid hepatitis and all of these things that these kids died from: tuberculosis, malnutrition, dysentery.
And I just came back from Haiti where now you see people there who are struggling with just massive challenges in terms of trying to keep their kids alive. And it really quite makes you – it’s very moving.
Well this is such an amazing story so this might even be a difficult question to ask, but what would you say was probably the biggest surprise you found through this whole experience?
Susan Sarandon: Well initially – I guess the one that had the most impact was understanding that she had lost her mother at 10 because that was a mystery of why she didn’t have the support to be able to hold on to her children and so that really made a lot of sense.
We were hoping to find her little brother still alive or some actual blood relative and of course we found distant kind of relatives in the village in Italy. But I found that really moving. And this idea that a tiny little village would send 100 of its men to the United States, 50 to Chicago and 50 to New York, I mean I just found that extraordinary because it’s a tiny, tiny village, you know.
What else? I mean my mom had always loved Frank Sinatra and it’s not in the TV show but the neighbor next door, and I’d heard rumors that my grandmother had dated Frank Sinatra, you know, he spent a lot of time at the Copa where she was. And the woman next door that was still alive that we talked to said that Anita had talked to Frank Sinatra. So I thought that was fabulous that if she had dated Frank Sinatra and then my mother loved Frank Sinatra because I grew up hearing no other music in my house, just Frank Sinatra. From the early morning until we went to sleep she just played those records over and over and over again. So that was hilarious. I thought that was really, really fun.
When you look back at Anita’s life, what do you think it says about the strength of women back then in relation to what’s inside of you today?
Susan Sarandon: Well I think I probably owe some of my survival instincts with a smile to Anita definitely. I mean if it is a genetic thing. Not that I’ve been put to the test the way she was, but she was so inventive. She went through so many disappointments and starting out with such difficulty and as a kid to have a baby at 13 and then another one right away and then have them taken away and to go through such difficult economic times.
And she was definitely resourceful. And I love the fact that she was able, after all of that, to fall in love head over heels and to make a life for 35 years in this little tiny house with her dog and her gardening and never speak bitterly. And I mean any part of her life would have been enough to turn most people into a drug addict/alcoholic, bitter, nasty-dispositioned person but she was just the opposite. I love that about her. And I grew very fond of her. And I felt that the show in a way would kind of vindicate all the bad stories that I heard growing up. And even when I was in Sicily recently because I discovered a branch of my family away from – on my grandfather’s side and they had pictures of me when I discovered them that my grandfather had sent and their stories of Anita were terrible.
So all the rumors definitely got all the way back to Ragusa and so it kind of was fabulous that – I wish there were more pictures. That’s the only thing that was really sad. It was a shame that so much of the record of her was destroyed because it was just like some kind of mystery novel that the only picture of her was distorted and then a sketch and trying to put this all together it would have been great to have been able to see something besides a little clip from the newspaper and then the picture in the funhouse mirror. I mean you can’t write that, can you? That’s too much.
Well had you have known all the history earlier in your life, how do you think it would have impacted who you are as an actress?
Susan Sarandon: Oh, gosh. I don’t have any idea how anything – I mean I think if I had known I would’ve tried to find her, but maybe she clearly may not have wanted that. You know, I mean she didn’t look I don’t think so maybe she had her quiet moments but I think my curiosity-I definitely would’ve tried to make contact and then decided whether or not I would tell my mom depending on what she said.
I think it was important for my mom and I think she was relieved that she didn’t have other kids. I don’t know. In the interview when she talked about the impression that we had of how often she had seen her and why she stopped seeing my mom was completely different than what my mother suddenly revealed with the TV cameras. So that was also pretty interesting.
I’m not sure exactly when doing the show fell in your schedule this year, but what perspective has it given you in this life-changing year you’ve had?
Susan Sarandon: Well I definitely felt that anything’s possible if you do it from a place of love and you proceed in a constructive non-bitter way. Her life is a testimonial to that, to events pushing her in a direction but her taking that and finding a way to be joyful. Because losing two kids, I mean even if you are a kid yourself, I mean that’s got to be a traumatic experience. And then having her mom die and trying to find a way to survive economically. And as I said earlier, there’s so many things that could’ve really made her a bitter person.
So I mean I was inspired by her story and I’m inspired by the story of all immigrants whose hearts would rather be back in their native land and who separate themselves and come here and without language and without everything else and try to keep going.
YoI think the times are so difficult economically that it’s very easy to look towards people that are immigrating here and feel defensive and angry when they’re not the cause of our economic problems at all and to remember the stories of those that came before us here is really eye-opening and inspiring and humbling.
What made you decide to actually show your story on TV and share it with America?
Susan Sarandon: I had tried to find my grandmother years before and my curiosity outweighed my trepidation and my need for privacy because it was a story that we all wanted to be told and solved and also for my mom’s peace of mind. And so even though it wasn’t the most private way to do it that was the first reason that was that it could happen because of their expertise and solve the mystery.
And second of all I just think that America is full of so many of these stories. And it’s just wonderful to remember that everybody here, unless you’re a Native American, came here under some similar circumstance and made his or her way and learned the language and built a new life and that spirit and that tenacity and that joyfulness is so humbling and important to remember.
So I didn’t know how it would turn out or if anyone else would be interested but my own family’s curiosity, I discussed it with my mom beforehand and my siblings, and everyone was like, “Oh my God, if we can find out that would be so fabulous.” So I had a mission.
You’ve done a lot of children’s movies. You did Rugrats in Paris and Enchanted. Do you think now you have a new generation of fans because of it?
Susan Sarandon: Definitely. I had been doing a lot of Sesame Street for a number of years way back when my kids were little. I have probably, you know, if you look at The Hunger and then you look at Dead Man Walking and then you look at Enchanted, it’s a pretty wide demographic.
But I just loved the character and the opportunity to be a cartoon. I mean a cartoon that was then me as opposed to voicing a cartoon which I had done before. I’m always really eager to learn new ways of entertainment and Disney’s got it down. And I thought it was just such a funny idea and so interesting that they decided to make a film that was kind of poking fun at themselves, and it was a great cast so I didn’t hesitate for a moment.
Could you just talk a minute too about working with Al Pacino? You have the Dr. Kevorkian movie coming up next week too.
Susan Sarandon: Oh my God, he was so sweet and so generous and I mean that was definitely one of the reasons I did it. And I was rewarded beyond my expectation. And he’s brilliant.
Who do you play in that?
Susan Sarandon: I play Janet Good who was one of his right hand men and friend and who was the head of the Hemlock Society when he found her. And she helped him interview people and tape them and eventually became terminally ill and asked him to euthanize her.
And on a much lighter note, as a role model for everyone who’s over 32 years old, what is the secret? You look amazing all the time and – is it feeling good? Is it looking good? What is it?
Susan Sarandon: Well I have a very good resources of makeup and hair people so if you see me dolled up they’ve probably struggled for a good hour and a half. So I’m sure that most people if they too would have a certain glow. I think it’s important not to smoke.
I think it’s important to be around people that frame life in a way that’s joyful and curious and compassionate and you get a lot back from being around those kind of people and I think it shows. I’m certainly not in the shape I was and my face certainly isn’t the way it was but I think that I’m – I recommend especially not smoking in terms of the external ravages of time. I think that it’s really hard. It helps to have good skin and when you smoke or eat badly it becomes much more difficult.
So every time the little absolutely adorable actor comes to me and says, “Oh my God, your skin is so great. What do you do?” I say, “Well, put the cigarette out first of all. You’re 23. That’s going to really catch up with you eventually.”
Do you think it’s confidence too? Do you think it’s just a certain confidence you get when you get to be a certain age?
Susan Sarandon: I don’t feel that confident right now. I feel, you know, my – I guess kind of what Anita had, you know, there’s something that drives you forward and keeps making you go towards the light but I have my bad days and it’s an odd time right now and a new kind of perspective. And I have my days when I don’t feel confident but I think my curiosity outweighs my ego most of the time and so I keep moving forward.
But I definitely – right now I’m sitting with my foot – I’ve completely messed up my foot and it’s on a pillow and I’m hobbling around and I just keep imagining me with a walker in a few years because I can’t get around. And I got a boot – the crutches were ridiculous and now I’ve got a boot and I’m just like it’s slowed me down the last few days and so I’m feeling a little bit sorry for myself actually.
But I’ll go out tonight to my club and the Dirty Dozen is playing. The 12 Top Players play on Fridays and that’s my favorite night, so I’ll hobble over to Spin and watch the competition and see who wins this week. And actually Kevorkian said that he might come by tonight so that would be hilarious so I’m hoping he does stop by.
Official Who Do You Think You Are? Site: nbc.com/who-do-you-think-you-are/