The key to a memorable on screen sex scene is meticulous planning, frank discussion and expert choreography as well as cinematography. Just ask Susan Sarandon because she knows.
Or better still, watch Alfie to see the result of her latest cinematic creation, a wonderfully sexy woman called Liz who proves to be more than a match for the predatory Alfie (Jude Law) when it comes to sexual shenanigans.
There’s a very, very memorable scene when Liz, Alfie and a bottle of Absinthe indulge in some very grown up games. “It’s very hot,” laughs Ms Sarandon.
But the trick is to prepare for these scenes, she says, when often many directors are too embarrassed to talk about exactly what it is they want their actors to do. Charles Shyer, who directed Alfie, is a notable
“You know what’s interesting is that I was the last one in bed with Alfie so we had to figure out what we could possibly do with my scene! says Ms Sarandon.
“The thing that happens with love scenes - and I’ve done enough of them - is sometimes the director is so self conscious or doesn’t really want to deal with that part of it, wants to hide from it, and you end with this kind of generic rolling around trying to hide from the camera or behind the other person.
“It’s the MTV idea of what is sexy and it’s just kind of vague and generic. So the best thing is to spend as much time as you would on any other scene and figure out who is pitching and who is catching.
“So we talked about our scene in Alfie, you know, what exactly we were going to do, where it would lead and it also makes it a real scene then as opposed to something gratuitous which helps.”
After Charles Shyer sent Ms Sarandon the script to read, they met for lunch. She had one or two questions, but was already hooked on the wonderful description of her character, Liz, a successful, independent woman who has made her fortune and knows exactly what she wants in life.
“Liz is described as a voluptuous, definitely sexy, woman in Chanel. I mean, come on, who wouldn’t want to play a vixen like that?
If anything, Liz is Alfie’s nemesis. She understands his sexual dalliances because she behaves in exactly the same way. “I think that’s the gift she gives him, she loves him even though she knows exactly who he is. And she says to him ‘it takes one to know one..’ “
The oldest of nine children, Susan Abigail Tomalin grew up in Metuchen, New Jersey, and studied acting at the Catholic University in Washington DC. She married the actor Chris Sarandon in 1967 but they divorced a few years later although she kept his surname.
Her breakthrough roles came with the director Louis Malle, first in 1978, playing Brooke Shields’ mother in Pretty Baby and then in 1980 starring alongside Burt Lancaster in the excellent Atlantic City for which she won her first Oscar nomination. She broadened her appeal with films like The Rocky Horror Show and then The Witches of Eastwick and Bull Durham, in 1988, where she met her future husband, the actor and director Tim Robbins.
In the nineties she established herself as a leading lady of genuine quality, winning a further three Oscar nominations - for Thelma and Louise, Lorenzo’s Oil and The Client - before finally winning the best actress Academy Award for her portrayal of Sister Helen Prejean, a nun consoling a death row inmate in Dead Man Walking (1995) which was directed by Robbins. Tim has directed her again, as part of an all star ensemble cast which includes Vanessa Redgrave and Emily Watson, in The Cradle Will Rock.
She lives in New York with Robbins and their two sons, Jack and Miles. An older daughter, Eva, is at college.
Q. Did Charles send you the script with any notes?
A. No, I read it and then I met with Charles. I had a few questions for him. I wanted to know who the guy in the car was with her when we first see her. And if she was some desperate tacky person or if she was
Q. Did you compare it with the original?
A. I found it much more contemporary, much more modern for her to be like ‘well, this is the deal, it works for me, if it works for you...’ Not to be apologetic or anything like that or lying or guilty. So I told him my reservations about that and he agreed with me. I think Charles wanted to see how I looked, how I felt. He asked me if I was a problem (laughs) things like that. I said ‘no, why would I be?’ It was that kind of sniffing around lunch you have in New York. And it seemed he had a new take on it, it was not going to be a re hash. One of the things that delighted me was the fact that it felt so new and so witty and it wasn’t soapy. I loved all of the music and the way all of the different women looked, I thought it was beautifully shot and snappy and all of that. So it didn’t feel like the old one. It wasn’t as mean spirited..
Q. In the original, the Alfie character is very cruel
A.Yeah. And also I don’t know that the women left with any dignity. In this one every single woman is so great and the actors are all so great, that you really experience each of them as a loss for him. I think he is so charming, Jude, you can understand how they would give it a spin without it being a completely masochistic relationship. This isn’t like the original, it stands alone. Not that there isn’t room for a story about women being abused, but this isn’t it. This is a much not lighter, but more of a character study that I think is true.
Q. Do you think the female characters have changed a lot from the original?
A. Yes and also what women are demanding in terms of entertainment has changed. And I talked to a few guys who said ‘I went in expecting a chick flick but I really really liked this movie...’ For me, the type of movie I most like to be part of, that I’m most proud of, is one that has a love story at its heart or reaches out in some way, you know a person making a brave gesture to reach out to another person but that is very funny and somewhere in there you are shocked because there is a moment that catches you off guard that’s actually a little moving. Those movies are very hard to make, they are like soufflés and comedy anyway is much more difficult. I think when a director manages to pull that off - and I think Charles has
- It’s quite an accomplishment.
Q. It’s a great movie to get people talking, too..
A. Yes, and I love that. Really if you can go and see a film and then get up the next morning and have a conversation about something related to it, then it’s done a good job. And I think that will happen with Alfie.
Q. The character is gloriously sexy
A. Thank you. You know what’s interesting is that I was the last one in bed with Alfie so we had to figure out what we could possibly do with my scene! That hadn’t already been done, what values could we find that wasn’t already present. I think the seduction of Nia Long is one of the hottest things I’ve ever seen on screen, it’s so real, and at the same time that shot on the pool table it’s just so hot.
Q. And that happens earlier in the movie, so presumably the challenge was to find something different for your characters?
A. Yes. My character and his had already touched, so we didn’t have that, and that’s usually the hottest moment, the first moment. So I thought as they have been having sex for a while maybe this is the moment where, thanks to the Absinthe, they let their guards down and actually see each other and he believes she sees him in a way nobody else does, and maybe she does. Which was not in the script but we just tried to figure out how you would do that.
Q. It sounds like quite a collaborative process?
A.It was. And the thing that happens with love scenes - and I’ve done enough of them - is sometimes the director is so self conscious or doesn’t really want to deal with that part of it, wants to hide from it and you end with this kind of generic rolling around trying to hide from the camera, behind the other person, (laughs) You know, it’s MTV’s idea of what is sexy and it’s just kind of vague and generic. So the best thing is to spend as much time as you would on any other scene and figure out who is pitching and who is catching. Like in White Palace the whole early sex scene, which is quite graphic, is a metaphor for everything that happens in the rest of the movie. So we talked about this scene in Alfie,you know,
what exactly we were going to do, where it would lead and it also makes it a real scene then as opposed to something gratuitous which helps.
Q. Liz wears some great clothes in the film. Were you tempted to keep any?
A. (laughs) You know what? After my first costume fitting I went home and called my agent and I said ‘listen make sure that I have my wardrobe in my contract because this is going to be great...’ It’s been a long time since that happened. She could have been at one extreme, like ‘now I’ve got money it’s all Chanel..’ but that would have been kind of boring. But we found ways of tweaking the look and at the same time it’s not that horrible look of someone dressing way too young. And kind of desperate. And I didn’t want her to like a glorified hooker, either. But I could see Charles had good ideas about her staying covered up when we first see her in the car so that the cleavage was a surprise later in the Chanel dress.
It was really smart of him and stuff like that a lot of American directors don’t think about. I mean Louis Malle did and Billy Wilder was fabulous in that way.
Q.Do you think your character, Liz, is Alfie’s nemesis in a way? She’s like a female version of him
A. I think that’s the gift she gives him, she loves him even though she knows exactly who he is. And she says to him ‘it takes one to know one..’ She knows that she has bluffed her way through to build her empire and he is on the way to do the same thing, so in a way he doesn’t have to maintain the flirty thing with her, you know, he can just be who he is and be accepted.
Q. And then he finds her with someone else, It’s a taste of his own medicine isn’t it?
A. Yes. It took us a very long time to shoot that last scene. We kept giving him so many choices in terms of how angry, how hurt, you know Jude really believed, and I did too, that if he wasn’t disturbed by finding her with someone else at that point then he wouldn’t have gotten anywhere. I guess it’s ironic and karma is at work here, you know, why does he have to turn up at that particular time. But the director was very smart not to show the person in the bathtub - the guys that actually were cast were so silly that it would have been damaging. I mean, he shot two different guys and both of them were so lame compared to Jude and so interested in Jude by the way (laughs). And quite obviously!
Q. Are there Alfies out there all the time?
A. Oh yes
Q. And presumably you’ve met your fair share..?
A. Oh sure and you keep making a mistake up until you are maybe 30 because you believe all those songs and you believe you are the one who will make a difference, you know ‘I can save him, he’ll change for me..’ But the fact of the matter is it’s really nothing to do with you and everything to do with him and until there is good reason for him to change, he won’t. I suppose in Alfie we suggest that it could be the brush with mortality that he has or then this rapid succession of rejections (laughs). But until a guy is ready - anybody addicted to anything, alcohol, sex, if it’s still productive why would he change his behaviour?