“It was really scary,” says Susan Sarandon of the challenge of taking on the drama Blackbird. Remember, this is the actress who has starred in films like Dead Man Walking, Lorenzo’s Oil, Bull Durham and Thelma & Louise. Blackbird, however, goes deeper and darker than any of the actress’ previous work. Directed by Roger Michell (The Mother, Notting Hill, Venus, Enduring Love) and based on Bille August’s acclaimed 2014 drama Silent Heart, Blackbird stars Sarandon as Lily, who is suffering from a debilitating terminal illness, and wants to die before it progresses any further and completely destroys her quality of life. As three generations of her family (played by the likes of Kate Winslet, Rainn Wilson and Mia Wasikowska) gather around her, new tensions and old issues quickly arise.
What did you like about this story that made you say yes to the project?
“Well, the cast was already in place, and I just thought that it was a lot of really great actors. Roger’s work was really good, and I thought it was scary.”
This is tough subject matter. Was it a difficult shoot?
“I’ve been in comedies that have been less fun, because of selfishness on the part of someone or behaviour on the part of the director. If an actor senses that the director doesn’t know what he or she is doing and is at odds with the DP or something, it’s really hard to keep yourself in a good place. I haven’t had that very often in my fifty-some years of doing this. But it’s not always about the subject matter. You come to work and when you conquer a scene that’s very painful and you feel that you’ve given it your all and the other people have been with you, it’s a very good thing. Even though it’s sad, it’s a good feeling, because you feel like you’ve served the entire story and that’s what you’re there to do. The collaboration on this one was great. Everyone was there all the time in front of the camera, and behind the camera. Everyone showed up on time, and showed up ready to work. Everyone brought about so many additional lines and business and fun things. It was collaboration at its best, so it was fun.”
You all learned about the reality of the illness, and the process of that. What was that like for you?
“Seeing the specifics of what a person goes through in such a tangible way made it really sad and very scary. There was a woman who allowed us to visit with her, who was suffering and fighting and traveling through this. It’s a very, very ugly process that you go through, and to actually see and talk to a person also who deals with the families – like a shrink or a social worker that deals with the families and the people and helping them make decisions – then it becomes even more real. It’s not an abstract challenge. It’s a real challenge. And listening to the things that this woman and her boyfriend and her kids had been through was…I’m happy that she’s still alive, because we didn’t know if she would still be alive by the time the movie came out. And she saw it and she liked it and was grateful for it and we were grateful for her time.”
Did you have any flashbacks to your film Stepmom, in which your character was also dying? Or was it completely different?
“Well, I produced that film and we wrote out the script and fired and hired directors. So I was involved in a lot of ways on that script. We don’t even know if she’s definitely going to die in that film. That film was more about how you open your heart to involve somebody in your life when you’ve been at odds. The response to that film was very, very strong with people who did lose a mother. There’s a lot of power trips that happen between mothers and fathers and husbands. And it was really about this woman opening up and letting go of her control and giving this other woman a shot. It’s about generosity and ultimately more than just deciding whether or not she’s going to live or die because she was fighting very hard to live, and you find out at the end that she hasn’t. The focus was more on that than the quality of whether or not you would have cause to kill yourself.”
What do you hope the conversation will be from this film?
“I think focusing on family. Death is always a possibility. As you get older, your kids get older and they’re busy and you’re busy. You have to really find a way to continue to know them as they’re becoming who they are and allow them to know you in a way that was different than when you were just their mom, as people. And that doesn’t happen naturally. And so I think that’s good. I mean, I’m all for stories where people go to dinner and then fight about it later. This film certainly opens up that can of worms!”
Blackbird will screen at The Brisbane International Film Festival. For all screening, ticketing and venue information, head to the official website.