On Jeff, Who Lives at Home, Celebrity Parenting, and Making Mistakes: The Tao of Susan Sarandon

Susan Sarandon is a woman at her wit’s end in Jay and Mark Duplass’ comedy Jeff, Who Lives at Home; stuck in mind-numbing office job and still dealing with the problems of her two grown but immature sons – Jeff (Jason Segal), an unemployed pothead, and Pat (Ed Helms), a douchey sales rep – her Sharon spends her days daydreaming about the life she once wanted for herself. As Sarandon confessed in a chat with Movieline, there was plenty in Jeff she related to as a single working mother in an often unforgiving industry – but, as she’s discovered, there’s always “a new dawn, a new day.”

In the new Duplass brothers' comedy, stoner-slacker Jeff receives what he believes to be a sign from the universe that sends him on a day-long odyssey for answers, sweeping his brother Pat along in the intrigue in the process. Meanwhile, their mother Sharon (Sarandon) is dealing with an office mystery of her own: Who is the secret admirer sending her messages, promising the kind of adventure she's longed for her whole life?

Movieline spoke with Sarandon about the film and how many of its themes hit close to home, including the universal desire to find happiness in life, the often counterintuitive realities of being a parent, even the earth-shattering revelation that our parents are just as fallible and human as we are. As the mother of three grown children and a successful industry veteran, Sarandon's found her way to a philosophy on life that embraces change, making mistakes, and positive thinking she's embraced so much she tattooed her motto on her wrist. If there's wisdom to be found in the teachings of the stoner-slacker hero of Jeff, why not also take inspiration from a Hollywood actress like Sarandon?

Jeff, Who Lives at Home is a quirky Duplass brothers movie about a stoner but it’s also quite moving, isn’t it?
I was crying when I read the script! That’s one of the reasons, I have to be moved by something when I read it, and not necessarily my character but just the idea of the film. I was surprised, didn’t see certain things coming when I started reading it, and I think family is so important and so easy to be estranged from your siblings, from your parents. And it’s so easy as a parent to lose your kids because as they become people they’re not who you expected them to be, and they’re not who you wanted them to be in order to feel safe. You lose track of them, and I think kids really don’t think of their parents as people unless they’re forced to.

Sometimes it is strange to think of your parents as having had the same kind of problems or struggles as you, especially as you become an adult.
As sexual, for instance? That’s a horrifying idea! Or making mistakes. You think, ‘They’re my parents, they should know what’s going on and be able to do anything,’ and you forget that they’re messed up just like you are. Maybe their parents were terrible, or whatever the circumstance. I think it’s a very big turning point when you forgive your parents for their frailties and just kind of feel bad for them and don’t resent them. I always think when I hear somebody in their thirties going on about their parents, I think ‘Move on! Let go of it!’ I mean, seriously. You do the best you can, you love your kids, and you make so many mistakes. It’s just impossible not to make mistakes, even when you are doing the best you can.

Sharon is a single woman whose sons are grown but immature; she’s still dealing with their problems, and it all stems from the void in their lives, the father and husband they lost. Why do you think this family has ended up this way?
I related to her quandary: How could she get to the point where she doesn’t even like the people that her kids are anymore? Even though she loves them, she doesn’t like them. And I’m sure she’s been a drag, because being Wendy all the time when everyone else is Peter Pan is a drag. And it’s almost always the woman who says, ‘Seriously, stop playing – it’s time to come in. You’ve got school in the morning. Did you do your homework? You can’t play Nintendo until you finish with your homework.’ It’s not the father, who comes in late. He’s like the dessert, he’s hardly ever around. You really want the dad and you’re desperate for his time because the mom’s always there. So when the dad in this story is gone, that’s such a big deal, to lose a parent. Depending on when you lose your parent in your life, it’s really an important factor.

Did you connect personally to Sharon’s story, then, when you read the script?
I hope everybody can relate personally to some aspect of it.

But you’re also a mother with three kids who are now getting old enough to be on their own…
Almost – the 19-year-old is still in school. The 22-year-old has graduated and is trying to find a job, trying to figure out what he’s doing. I think that the idea of real life taking away your dreams, though, is applicable to so many people. Very few people are in jobs that they really love, and life is hard. The economic times are really difficult. Doing something that you really care about seems so frivolous, seems so hard to find a way to do that. I think now that so many people sacrificed the present thinking that they would retire well and got laid off right before, that must be the worst-ever feeling because you played it safe and it still didn’t work. I guess one of the thoughts in watching this film is that you will be successful if you find something you really love to do. It’s certainly easier if you don’t have children and if you can live at home, because financially unless you live with a bunch of people these days it’s so hard in an urban setting to find an apartment you can afford, if you’re starting out at anything. Even with one or two degrees, it’s hard.

This is all true, and some of these kinds of concerns pop up in the film – and yet the film is also very optimistic.
It is very optimistic, and I love that about it too. Because every day is a miracle, and when you wake up, that is a miracle. You have another shot – a new dawn, a new day.

That’s what your tattoo says, right?
[Pointing to her wrist] Yeah, that’s my tat. Figuring out a positive framing in life, not that bad things don’t happen and not that you can’t be upset, but finding a way to see every good and bad thing that happens as contributing to a possible new paradigm is really helpful.

Hearing you speak over the years, you’ve always seemed very zen in your approach to life. Would you say that’s true? What’s your own perspective on parenting and making mistakes?
I guess you could say that. And the universe has dealt me up some really amazing choices, and luckily I threw out the logical one and did follow a path sometimes that I didn’t know where it was going. That is a strength of mine. I encourage my kids to make mistakes – to feel that making mistakes is a really positive thing, because that’s where you figure out where you’re going. As a parent I’m more cautious with their future and I have to fight against that and just make it clear to them that I have faith in them, because again, you’re bringing your conditioning to their lives. And you know, times aren’t even the same as when I was their age. Things are different. And we’re different parents, and they’re up against a whole other set of prejudices that I wasn’t. Pressures of having famous parents, you know. So you can’t say, ‘When I was a child I did that, and that worked’ because it doesn’t necessarily.

When a parent disapproves of somebody that their child falls in love with, or a choice that they make in terms of their job, or not to work and to be taking small jobs that don’t seem like they’re worthy of them – I think you have to let your kids know that you trust their judgment and that they’ll find their way, and then be there for them if it doesn’t work out. Say, okay – the next one will. I think a lot of times, for instances, parents of someone who comes out, it can even be parents who aren’t homophobic who think they’re not homophobic but they think suddenly, that lifestyle, oh my god – this is going to be harder. And will I have grandchildren? And will they be accepted? All those things. It’s not so much that in some instances the parents of gays are homophobic, but you just think. ‘Oh my god, you want to be an artist? That’s not going to pay.’ And yet, you turn around and try to be practical. Those people don’t have jobs, either! It’s ironic that I should end up earning a good living and I’ve just been flying by the seat of my pants the whole time. Every time I took off a year to have a kid I thought, I’ll never work again. And you just never know. But that was important to me and I did it and I thought, well, I’ll find some way.

Did you think the industry wouldn’t welcome you back after having kids?
Well, I had my first child at 39, and I had my third at 45, so I was already over the hill in terms of the industry. [Laughs] And then you just disappear for a year, plus when I started having kids it was still thought in a way that you couldn’t be desirable once you started having children.

And that’s clearly not the case anymore.
Well, and I think it’s really great because gals your age or my daughter’s just assume they can have a family life and a career, it’s not one or the other! I mean, it doesn’t even occur. She doesn’t even like the word “feminist,” it sounds so strident, and I totally understand that. You don’t need the word “feminist” anymore, and you don’t have to apologize if you do want a family and you don’t want to work outside the home. A lot has changed since 1970, when I did my first movie.

It’s interesting to hear such universal parental stories from a “famous” parent like yourself.
Well, I have cool very interesting kids, where I’m now in that phase of my life where they’re teaching me. They’re bringing me up to speed on everything – all the music, all the writing…

Not to mention the fact that your dog is on Twitter, isn’t she?
My dog’s Tweeting! [Laughs] But my son, who has switched to contemplative studies, has been handing me books that I wouldn’t have found, and we’re discussing things that are really interesting. They’ve punched some holes in my mind -- and working on this film was kind of like that, too because it was a different way of working. Not that I’d never done improve before, but [the Duplass brothers’] attitude was very fresh and loving. I felt safe with them. Really interesting things happen when you’re put with a lively group of people in an atmosphere where you’re not afraid to make mistakes 100% and look like a fool. I read a quote somewhere that said, ‘Genius is the ability to stay in an uncomfortable situation the longest,’ and I think that’s true. Something happens and instead of observing it or dealing with it you either get angry or you split, but when you can stay in that situation is when something amazing happens.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home opens today in limited release.

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