What Susan Sarandon Has Learned from Being Duped Out of Money
Money Talks, and so should we. Here, powerful women get real about their spending and saving habits.
Walk into Susan Sarandon’s sprawling apartment, and you’ll likely find artists, friends, and tenants hanging about, salon-style. It costs her, but being New York City's Gertrude Stein is pretty much the actress’s only big expense. “I don’t have that many needs, really,” Sarandon says. She keeps costs intentionally low, giving her the flexibility to choose roles without worrying whether they pay the bills.
Frugality comes naturally to Sarandon, who grew up with little money and cleaned apartments to pay her way through college. When she was nominated for her first Oscar, designers wouldn’t lend her clothes and she couldn’t afford to buy them, so she walked the red carpet in thrift store finds. (She's still a killer vintage shopper.)
Even after making history in Thelma and Louise—essentially the first commercially successful, female-led buddy comedy—Sarandon has occasionally been lowballed in her career. “I would never lose a job because of money if it’s something I really want to do, and unfortunately that makes you vulnerable to pay cuts,” she says. Case in point: While filming her 1998 movie Twilight, she found out that her male costars, Paul Newman and Gene Hackman, were outearning her, despite the production’s “favored nations” clause ensuring equal pay. “One of the producers actually said to my agent, ‘She’s not worth it.’” But Newman stepped up, offering Sarandon part of his salary. “Paul had come to me personally and said, ‘Do this, and I’ll help.’”
Unlike her latest character—Ray Donovan's power-hungry Hollywood mogul, who hires the titular hitman to oust her competition—Sarandon says she’s always prioritized the art over the payout. In 2009, she co-founded the ping pong club SPiN, but when it turned into a big business, and strayed from her original vision, she cut ties. Below, Sarandon opens up about the time she worked as a hairdresser, her greatest indulgences, and being embezzled…twice.
On her upbringing… Let me preface this by saying I’m the oldest of nine. We were just trying to survive. I don’t think there was ever any discussion about money or anything like that at all.
On working odd jobs … I was paid to babysit when I was a pre-teen, but I worked in laundry to get through college. I worked in a hospital. I’ve worked, obviously, as a waitress—who hasn’t? In college, I cleaned apartments, worked on the switchboard, and cut hair. But I cut hair with the scissors that are like teeth so that you can’t see the lines. I didn’t have to know that much of what I was doing.
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On cutting her own hair… All the time! I still cut my own hair, badly. I just hold it up and trim it. It’s a mess.
On her most frequent indulgence… An amazing pair of flats or Oxfords because I really like not having to wear high heels. Also, a really good facial. Tracie Martyn is awesome. I haven’t been that much, but I want to get back. What else? Massages, but I don’t do that often enough either. You reminded me that I need to start splurging.
On her biggest expense… I have an apartment in New York that a lot of people stay in that’s costing me a lot of money. I have artists that stay there and actors stay there, and my documentary film company was there. My business person, he said, “You never spend any money. If that makes you happy to have people there and have that atmosphere then it’s OK.” So I guess that’s a splurge, for sure.
On being underpaid (but being OK with it)… I’ve worked with five women directors lately, and they’re all on low-budget films because that’s the way they’ll get their shot. I had an incredible part when I did The Meddler, for instance. Am I going to turn down a great part and a woman director because I’m not getting my quote? No. It’s the process that’s important to me and the people I’m working with. Sometimes you’re offered an enormous amount of money for something that just sucks. So what do you do? If you really need to buy that house or send your kid to college, then maybe you’ll take that job. But I’ve always maintained a rather low standard of living so that I don’t get in the position of having to do that.
On the money advice she’s received… I’ve managed to be embezzled twice, so I would say the advice that I got wasn’t very good. And career advice—I don’t know. I’m just here because all my plans failed [laughs]. That’s been the story of my life. I don’t know that you can be given advice, really, because the business keeps changing. The only advice I give is value whatever it is about you that’s unique; don’t try to go with the tide; try to keep a sense of humor.
On her biggest financial flaw… There’s a certain amount of trust. I don’t want to put that much energy into tracking every single thing, and as a result I’ve been in a couple business situations where I was definitely taken advantage of, because I didn’t ask all the questions I should have. I learned that way.
On low-budget shopping for her first red carpets… All second-hand stores. I would pair ‘40s dresses with socks and high heels. Some of my kids still go to thrift shops to find interesting vintage pieces. [The 1988 film] Bill Durham—that wardrobe was a lot of stuff that I pulled. To find a way to have some kind of character, if you can’t afford really beautiful pieces, I was young enough and it was fun to find vintage things, so that’s what I wore.
On work wear… I mostly wear jumpsuits. [For Ray Donovan], I liked the idea of looking pulled together, but I didn’t want to wear suits. The costume designer found every jumpsuit you could find. And I have a closet that’s full of jumpsuits. Stella McCartney, Saint Laurent. I have ones from 30 years ago from Agnès B. When you have to use the bathroom on an airplane it’s really difficult, but otherwise I love jumpsuits.
On being an entrepreneur… Now I’m kind of disassociated from SPiN because it has spun into an area where we have artistic differences, although they’re making lots of money. I thought it was such a great idea. I love the game, and I like that sense of community. We gave tables away and started clubs and leagues in, like, 50 underserved schools. Now, it’s become a lucrative business but not necessarily the community that I envisioned.
On her latest investments… I have documentaries that I’m part of. I did a really great one on [Golden Age actress] Hedy Lamarr. That was important because it was about a female inventor/movie star that didn’t get credit for what she did. I did another one, Soufra, which was about the most unlikely women entrepreneurs in Beirut, who got a food truck and became caterers. We’re trying to find distribution.
On equal pay… It’s a hard rule to enforce. And in this business, it’s so subjective. You can’t expect a young starlet to get the same as Tom Cruise. There are certain stars in this business getting mega salaries, but as a whole, not just women, I think that it’s become harder to get your price. I’d like to know what everybody got for Black Panther. I hope they did what they did with Star Wars, where they gave [the cast] a piece afterwards, because it turned out to be such a hit, which most of the time you never see. But I’m sure everyone would’ve taken anything to be in that movie because it was going to be so special. Would you really turn down that movie because they didn’t come up to your quote? Of course not.