Tammy, the feature directorial debut of Ben Falcone, follows Tammy Banks (Melissa McCarthy), a woman on the edge who has lost her job, her husband and her car, all in one day. She wants out of her small town existence, but with no money or transportation, the only way to do that is with her hard-partying grandmother, Pearl (Susan Sarandon), who leads them into a string of misadventures that neither of them will soon forget. The film also stars Allison Janney, Gary Cole, Mark Duplass, Dan Aykroyd, Kathy Bates, Sandra Oh, Toni Collette and Nat Faxon.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actress Susan Sarandon talked about getting a call from Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone to be in the film, what attracted her to this role, why road trip movies are so enduring, the type of woman grandma Pearl is, how collaborative this set was, and being directed by Melissa McCarthy for an episode of her comedy series Mike & Molly. She also talked about what attracts her to a project, what she still enjoys about being a working actress, that she would like to do a short-run one-off cable TV series, and that she has started a production company to make documentaries, called Reframed Pictures. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
SUSAN SARANDON: I did Mike & Molly after this, so I didn’t know [Melissa McCarthy or Ben Falcone]. They called me, and we had an interesting initial conversation. And then, they sent me the script and we had another conversation. Then, Mark Duplass, who I worked with on Jeff Who Lives at Home called me and said, “You have to work with these people. They’re so great.” We texted back and forth a little bit because I was trying to understand what kind of grandma I would be, in terms of how extreme the look would be. I always worry about the overuse of prosthetics for people who are aging because it gets in the way of actually looking in the eyes of the people. It can be such a distraction, just like a bad wig or a bad hair-cut or scars. So, we talked about that, and I just thought that their way of working was so interesting that I wanted to try it. I was a little worried because I was on a film when I talked to them, and I had two films in a row, so I wasn’t going to get much time before their film. I didn’t even know how he would get the wig and the prosthetics done. But, it was all arranged through my make-up person who had someone where we were working in Canada who could do the cankles, which took a month to make. I had three sets of cankles. And then, the person in Canada who does my hair, arranged for the wig. I just thought, “I’m just going to jump and do it.” So, that’s what happened.
When you first hear it, it seems crazy to think of you playing a grandmother, but when you see the film, it’s clear that you hire great actors because it just becomes convincing.
SARANDON: Oh, well, thank you! Actually, if you accept the premise that I was 16 when I had a baby, and my daughter was 16 when she had a baby, Pearl would be maybe two years older than I actually am. One of the things about Pearl is that she’s very curious and really has an appetite for life, so she’s not a granny in the way that you would think of a grandmother. I hope she’s the kind of grandmother, without the alcohol and pills, that I would be. She would take you on adventures and encourage you to do things you haven’t done. That is actually just a very young spirit, and I like that about her.
Having been in one of the best road trip movies of all time, with Thelma & Louise, did you have any hesitation about ever doing another one, or was that even a consideration because they are so different?
SARANDON: It really didn’t come up until we were doing a photo shoot and they brought out a convertible and the setting was the desert. I said, “Are you sure you want to go there with this?” And they said, “Oh, my god, we didn’t even think of Thelma & Louise!” Road trip movies are always a great set-up for catastrophe. I’ve been offered maybe four movies, in the last year and a half, that had to do with middle-aged couples whose marriages are on the rocks and, for one reason or another, they take a road trip and you see what happens. I think the contrivance of a road trip has been around forever. Weddings are also a great setting to make things happen, or a funeral. But, that didn’t really enter into this. We were so focused on just trying to make what we had work. It didn’t come up until a lot later.
How do you view Pearl? She says and does some things that are a bit inappropriate, but do you think she still means well?
SARANDON: I don’t think she is a bad person. That’s why she left when she realized that she was out of control, and she didn’t come back until she’d cleaned up. Her addictions had gotten her so far from where she wanted to be that she removed herself from the family and still had a number of rough years until she felt she was in shape enough to come back. If she were able to sit down and have this conversation before she left, she’d be in better shape. So basically, Tammy has all of these abandonment issues, but in fact, Pearl thought she was doing the right thing. Pearl has a great appetite, but once she gets rid of her appetite for substances, the rest of her appetites are quite positive. She’s a very open, fun-loving person. She loves Tammy and she wants to give her a shot at changing her life and finally getting out of this small town and respecting herself a little bit more. I just hope she’s never patronizing.
When I do a part, I want to do things that frighten me, and they usually frighten me because they’re areas that can really go wrong. And what would have been wrong is for her to be patronizing to Tammy or winking at the audience or rolling her eyes. I think she has to do it in a loving way and in an uncomplicated way, but not patronize the audience or Tammy. That was one of the challenges, besides the obvious of making sure that you glide between humor and pathos. For me, the most wonderful movies are movies that are very, very funny, and then surprise you with something that moves you, and those are much more difficult to do. When those kinds of movies don’t work, they really don’t work. You can have a mediocre detective story or whodunit, but a mediocre love story/comedy is really painful.
This is Ben Falcone’s feature directorial debut, he and Melissa McCarthy wrote this together, Melissa is starring in it, and this is her first film as a producer, which could have turned into a dictatorship on set, but it didn’t, and everyone was really given a chance to shine. Was this a very collaborative set?
SARANDON: It was very, very collaborative, and not just with me, but they hired so many people, in smaller parts, that were from The Groundlings, or were people that they knew. You had this great depth of field from people that could improv and contribute. And then, every couple of weeks, a new guest would come in, who were writer, director and actor friends of theirs, and that would write down little possible alternatives. They would make suggestions to Melissa on Post-Its, so we did many, many versions of many, many things. Everybody felt that they were invited to contribute. It was a very safe atmosphere to make mistakes in and to make suggestions in, and that was the most fun way to work. Clearly, it was Melissa’s movie, but there was no hierarchy, at all. She has a sense of the whole. After I did Tammy, I was invited to do Mike & Molly, and the second episode that I was invited to do, she directed. She’s very smart about the bigger picture. There are some actors who really get it, like Tim Robbins and Sean Penn. They can direct and have a sense of what is needed for the whole, even though they’re in it, too. And she’s very, very good with that. She’s encouraging of everyone to contribute and is appreciative of everybody. We had a lot of laughs. It was a very collaborative, very fun set. The reason I wanted to do it was that I was hoping that it would be that way, and it was completely that.
At this point in your career and life, what attracts you to a project, and what gets you to say no?
SARANDON: Well, I don’t want to repeat myself. I’m a character actor because I want to be doing different things, all the time. I don’t see myself as a gorgeous, charismatic leading lady. I see myself as a character actor. So, if a director feels passionate about something, and it’s something I feel like I can talk about for five days in a junket, I have to take that into consideration. It’s never been about the money. It should be with people that you hope are going to make you better. Sometimes it’s in a location that you really want to travel to, or it’s a subject that you didn’t know that much about. Very rarely can you get all of those things in one film, but I try to get as many as possible. And then, you have to just let it go. Really, there is not a high percentage of those that are treated properly, once they’re done, or are marketed properly, or that turn out the way you think they will. The process of doing them becomes so important when you have no control over the finished product and how it’s marketed.
You’ve had an exceptional career as an actress, which is no small feat in this industry. Do you still have the same love for the craft of acting, or are there different reasons that you do it now than when you first started?
SARANDON: I do it for fun, first of all. If I stop having fun, I definitely will not continue to do it. It’s enforced compassion because you have to examine life through somebody else’s prism, so that’s always interesting. I’m a stay-at-home gal, so that’s how I meet people and find out about different parts of the United States or the world, and different professions. It’s just a great leaning tool. I don’t know. I guess I could retire and just live off of my love of ping pong, at some point. But at the moment, I still really enjoy it. It’s been a year since I did Tammy, and I did Mike & Molly after that, but I haven’t done anything else. I’ve turned down a lot of things, and I’m looking at some other little projects that I might do in the fall. I always think maybe nothing is going to come up, but then something does.
With such great characters for women on cable TV, have you thought about doing a shorter-run TV show?
SARANDON: Yes, in fact, I am talking to somebody about that, right now. It hasn’t been written, but I am talking to somebody that’s adapting a short story that I really like, that’s pretty wild, into an eight or 10-part series, and I would consider doing that. My daughter, Eva [Amurri Martino], actually wrote something that we were talking about doing, that’s at Warner Bros. right now, but it didn’t quite fall into somebody’s hands that we hoped it would, so we pulled out, at the last minute. So, I’d like to work with her and possibly do that. I just don’t see myself doing a seven-year commitment. That scares me, getting into something that you don’t have a lot of control over, for seven years. When you’re doing a movie, if it’s not coming down the way you envisioned or it’s an unpleasant situation, which occasionally happens, it will be over in maybe two months, tops.
This idea of committing to something for seven years has always been somewhat daunting to me. But these short-term one-offs, I think are brilliant, and the quality is really great. I don’t have a TV, but I get stuff later in box sets and I watch them on a projector. When I saw Breaking Bad, I was like, “Oh, my god, I haven’t watched TV in so long, look what’s happened!” I didn’t realize it was so special. And I’ve seen True Detective. And some of the comedies are really great and fun. So, I’m totally open to that.
I’ve also formed a company to make documentaries and to give finishing funds, and that’s called Reframed Pictures. We’re just starting that because I think documentaries are just amazing, these days. People are very open to watching them, and you can get them delivered in so many different ways to your home. The distribution of them is so much easier than it used to be. I’m really, really excited about what’s happening with documentaries.
Tammy opens in theaters on July 2nd.