In "The Meddler," Susan Sarandon's character happens upon a movie set while strolling through Los Angeles. Without a thought, she adheres to the crew's orders about where to stand and how to perform. After joining the other extras at craft services, the earnest widow tells her daughter, played by Rose Byrne, how nice the "movie stars" were -- nowhere near as prissy as you'd imagine them.
One might heap similar praise on Byrne and Sarandon. The actresses were in bright spirits when we sat down in Manhattan on Monday for a quick chat about their charming new comedy, which screened at the ongoing Tribeca Film Festival and opens theatrically on Friday. Sarandon plays Marnie, a New Jersey native who relocates to LA to be near her TV-writer daughter shortly after her longtime husband dies. Marnie is the movie's titular meddler, annoying her daughter with surprise visits, relentless phone calls and loads of bagels. "The Meddler" becomes Marnie's journey toward individuality and fulfillment following so many years of instinctually placing her family ahead of herself. It's Sarandon's best role in years.
I was curious whether the actresses' mothers were meddlers, which morphed into a thoughtful conversation about grief and the ever-flowing chapters of our lives. We also turned our attention to the meddlers of Hollywood, prompting Sarandon to admit that she turned down a part in the forthcoming "Independence Day" sequel because the script was a mess. (Marnie would probably be glad to participate instead.)
How does this movie make you reflect on your relationships with your own mothers?
Byrne, struggling to answer: Well, I'm choking a tiny bit on my celery. I'm so sorry.
Take your time.
Byrne: My mom is not really overbearing. I'm the youngest of four. When my mother does get involved, it's a big deal. That's when you really pay attention. My parents are very Australian, in that sense: very restrained and laid-back, I suppose. And being the youngest of four, by the time they get to you, it's different.
But I've had relationships in my life, whether it's partners in the past or girlfriends who get too involved. It's an interesting dynamic, when you put your foot down. I think it's a relatable story, whether it's a parent or a partner who's too involved. It's an interesting quality. You've got to have a sense of humor about it, which is what I think the film is.
Sarandon: I didn't have a meddling mom. I'm the oldest of nine, and she did not have time to meddle. But I'm definitely very present in my kids' life. I'm a big believer in them making mistakes themselves because I have the faith in them that they'll figure it out. It's really good to make mistakes. I'm certainly there if they want to involve me, but for instance, as a grandparent, I have different ways of doing things. I'm just letting my daughter do whatever she wants, then I'm going to corrupt that kid when she gets older. I'm gonna take ahold of that kid, and by that time, her mom will be busy and won't even notice.
For me, something that did resonate is you don't have to lose a spouse in order to have to deal with a breakup. It's losing someone you've focused on for a long time. That’s happened to me, certainly. You can see that Marnie spent so much time thinking of ways to make her husband happy, and then suddenly he’s gone. And then where do you put that energy? I think it’s a great solution, people that volunteer, [like Marnie does]. In most of the grassroots groups that I work with, the main soul and blood that keep those groups going are women. I don’t know how you can complain about that. It’s better to be openly kind and generous than to sit at home and drink or sit there watching TV all day feeling sorry for yourself. The transition she’s going through, for me, rang really true. I understand how difficult it is to be intimate with another human being after you’ve been with just one person for a long time. It’s hard.
Marnie has lived other people’s lives, and the movie becomes her journey toward realizing she can make decision for herself first and foremost.
Sarandon: And to love herself, and spoil herself. I don’t know if you remember who Elisabeth Kübler-Ross was -- she wrote about the stages of dying. She’s the reason we have hospice. She’s a very interesting woman, and anyway, she’d asked me to do a movie about her life, so I met with her. By this time, she was much older, living by herself, and she was all about other people. She had an amazing situation with other people that were dying, and she was very generous. And then when she got older, she hadn’t found the way to really love herself. She couldn’t make that transition, and she talked to me about it.
I think that’s very typical of mothers, and I think it’s very typical of competent women. You get so used to doing everything for yourself that you forget how to ask. I know that’s true with me. Asking people for help isn’t something that comes natural to me, and I think it’s important that you be able to do that. But if your identity is that you’re always doing for other people, then to turn around and find a way to accept it is a transition that’s hard.
You’ve both been in Hollywood for a while now, and the industry can be such a machine. There are so many people involved in decisions: agents, managers, studio executives, directors. Do you ever get caught up in other people making decisions for you?
Sarandon: That doesn’t happen.
Sarandon: No. [Laughs]
Do you ever get swept up in the machinery of Hollywood, though?
Sarandon: My agents wish I would get swept up in the machinery. No, look at my career. “Rocky Horror,” it was insane to do that.
What happens now, more than ever, because of social media, is that you’re more self-aware. All this selfie business? You’re just constantly aware of what you are from the outside, and that’s just something that has happened. I think living in Los Angeles, you’re bumping into everyone in the industry when you’re at the supermarket. In New York, I’m out on the street with no makeup and no concern about it. But anytime I’m in LA, I’m thinking, “Oh my God, I’m losing work by going out like this.” I can just see them saying in their board meetings, “Well, I saw her the other day in the meat department and she looked really old and tired,” blah blah blah. You become self-censoring. That’s how it influences you.
It’s a lot about going out and being seen, which I was never aware of when I was sneaking in and out of the Chateau Marmont. Nobody was catching me in an elevator, and I feel bad for all these people that are starting out and have to deal with how many clicks you have or how many followers you have in order to have any kind of validation in the business, because they look at that. So you have another job -- not only do you have to do press, but you have to keep up social media. That’s insane.
As you’ve experienced recently.
Sarandon: Yeah. Yes! And you’re developing an instinct for being self-aware in a cell phone kind of way, in a selfie kind of way. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but it’s definitely a thing, wouldn’t you say?
Byrne: Yeah, casting now is dictated on how many followers people have. Agencies are signing people with millions of followers on Instagram. It’s definitely part of the equation.
Did you feel empowered to make decisions for yourself when you were first starting out, compared to now?
Byrne: Yes and no. I still feel like there’s very little control as an actor. It’s what you get -- what comes your way and what doesn’t and what works out.
Sarandon: But your agents don’t tell you, “Don’t do this”? They might recommend a pass, but …
Byrne: No, they don’t.
Sarandon: I mean, look, you ended up in "The Meddler." [Laughs] She’s not making a lot of money! It was in the middle of all these other films she was doing!
Yeah, there’s another “X-Men” around the corner, so it evens out.
Byrne: I got to work with this lady, are you kidding me?
Sarandon: That’s true, though -- you do those big movies and then you do this.
Have you ever been offered a comic-book movie?
Sarandon: No, not a comic-book movie. Occasionally you’ll get an offer with a huge amount of money and it’s almost sure that it’s going to be terrible. I’ve been offered a few disaster movies that I just didn’t think I could do with a straight face. I don’t have anything against them, but when I read them, I was just like, “Ugh.”
Oh, actually I did just turn down a big, big Part 2 of something. When I read the script, I couldn’t understand what was going on. I just couldn’t understand it. Seriously. A lot of the people from the original one were not going to be doing it, and I read it and I just thought, “No. I can’t. I just can’t.”
Was it “Independence Day”?
Sarandon, nodding vigorously: How did you know?
Just put some pieces together. A lot of people not returning? Yep.
Sarandon: But seriously, I read that and I did not have the faintest idea. They said, “Wait till you see how your character dies.” And I read that part and thought, “It’s not so great, actually. It’s not so interesting.”
Byrne: That’s their selling point? “Look at this great death scene!”
"The Meddler" opens April 22.
A previous version of this article contained an additional quote from Sarandon that included an "Independence Day 2" spoiler. It has been removed.