By Lybi Ma, published on May 1, 2003 - last reviewed on June 13, 2012
As civil rights advocate Ron Daniels tells the story, he and his friend Susan Sarandon once ended up behind bars for civil disobedience. They had joined a number of other activists down at New York's One Police Plaza on a spring morning in 1999. The police station was teeming with onlookers, the press and others protesting the Amadou Diallo case. Diallo, an immigrant from Guinea, was killed earlier that year by four New York City police officers from the Street Crime Unit. The mistaken belief that Diallo was armed led to 41 shots fired by the police, with 19 of the bullets hitting the defenseless man.
On the day of the protest, Sarandon spoke out. Daniels, the executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, remembers Sarandon's message well. "She raised her voice and said she was not opposed to the NYPD, but we had to question their training and approach," he recalls. "She took a lot of heat for speaking out, but she stood her ground."
Sarandon, a mother of three, feels strongly about a lot of things, and she's willing to make herself heard—and to meet with a fair amount of rancor. At the 1993 Academy Awards ceremony, for instance, she and her partner, actor-director Tim Robbins, condemned the U.S. government's refusal to admit HIV-positive Haitian immigrants into the country. A stream of hate mail made its way to Sarandon. Angry viewers labeled her a supporter of "sick faggots" and her children "illegitimate."
In 2003, United Way canceled her appearance as a keynote speaker at an event about volunteerism. The organization had received numerous complaints about her anti-war views.
Such reactions are par for the course among celebrity activists, whose civic engagement is often met with jeers and cynicism. Sarandon spent months as a volunteer at Ground Zero, then attended a Central Park rally in support of pay raises for New York City fire fighters. She was booed at the podium. "I had no idea what I said," she recalls. "I came off [the stage] and wept."
Sarandon remembers an appearance she made on the talk show "Donahue" about politically engaged celebrities. "A caller asked, 'Why should anyone listen to her, she's not even married!'" notes Sarandon. "I said, 'You know, I have no idea why anyone should listen to me, but I'll give you information that you're not finding in the conventional media.'"
The war with Iraq topped Sarandon's list of concerns. "I'm appalled that there isn't any healthy debate. We know so little," she says. "What does it mean to think 'pre-emptively'?" She has joined protests and marches, and she keeps in constant touch with anti-war organizations. Her involvement, she hopes, might encourage discussion.
Such political and social activism has been a lifelong theme for Sarandon. "I've always had a really developed sense of justice. As a child, I would rotate my dolls' dresses for fear that they might come alive at midnight and one of them would always have the best dress on," says Sarandon, laughing. "Whatever it was that made me worry about my dolls I suppose has paid off in my career because, really, an actor is all about empathy and imagination. And those are the cornerstones of activism."
In 1997, Sarandon appeared on the "Rosie O'Donnell Show" with a llama to illustrate the fact that for families in South America, owning a llama is the difference between poverty and prosperity—a llama provides milk, wool and transportation. Her appearance on the show gave Heifer Project International a big boost. At that point in the organization's 56-year history, "we leapt into public consciousness," says Chris Talbot of Heifer. The cause offers hungry families around the world a way to feed themselves and become self-reliant.
The persuasive power of celebrity is well known. With the help of a famous face, an organization can flourish. "We've made a concerted effort to keep people like Susan on our side," adds Talbot. "You don't have to write a script, and you don't have to worry that she's going to say something crazy."
Not surprisingly, Sarandon is known for playing fiery leading ladies: Who can forget her folie à deux with Gina Davis in Thelma and Louise, or the role for which she won a 1996 Oscar: a Catholic nun, Sister Helen Prejean, the spiritual adviser to a death-row prisoner in the film Dead Man Walking. She and Robbins had great difficulty in finding a home for the project, and she is still amazed they found a way to make the film. "It became a tool that started so much dialogue," says Sarandon, who is opposed to the death penalty. "We never guessed that it would be so big."
Where does Sarandon's brand of activism stem from? Many psychologists argue that political engagement is learned from parental modeling. But Sarandon's parents were purportedly staunch Republicans, and she refers to them as right wing. Sarandon's coming of age in the '60s may have fueled her activist zeal, and she recalls a rally for the Equal Rights Amendment during which she realized the power of a celebrity voice. "I found myself standing and listening to [feminist leaders] Bella Abzug and Betty Friedan. Marlo Thomas said, 'Go ahead and speak.' And I said, 'No… I really wouldn't know what to say.' And she said, 'It really doesn't matter what you say. This is the way you're going to get us on TV.'"