Susan Sarandon on Parenting: ‘Your Duty Is to Let Them Be Who They Are’

Photo: Getty Images

For Susan Sarandon, whose daughter and two sons are now grown, parenting meant imparting core values while they were still young — and then, just letting the kids be themselves.

“Your duty is to let them be who they are,” Sarandon tells Yahoo Style. Because while there’s no recipe for bringing up grounded, well-adjusted children, she adds, “Kindness is at the root of everything.”

Those parenting philosophies are at the heart of Sarandon’s latest film, 3 Generations, co-starring Naomi Watts and Elle Fanning and tackling one of today’s most complex and thorny issues: gender identity. In the film, the three women live together and deal with Fanning’s character transitioning from female to male.

Watts, 48, plays a single mom doing the best she can to cope with her child’s transition. “I love how it plays out with the whole family in different ways,” she tells Yahoo Style during a joint interview with Sarandon. “We’re all adjusting on our own time schedule. It makes for funny moments. We’re all feeling it. My character is trying to facilitate it in the best possible way she can.”

Sarandon, in turn, plays Watts’s mother — a single lesbian and grandmother to Fanning’s character, trying the best she can to understand her grandchild’s struggle. She is “an old-school lesbian. She wasn’t interested in getting married,” explains Sarandon, 70 (a real-life grandmother to her own daughter’s 2-year-old daughter and infant son). “She’s very open in some ways, but she hasn’t gotten with the idea [of transitioning]. It’s not about being gay. It’s an identity thing. Those are stumbling blocks people don’t get. You can color outside the lines.”

Naomi Watts and Susan Sarandon. (Photo: Getty Images)

The star adds that “anyone who wants to have it tied up all neat, with labeling, is going to be frustrated. Some of it is a question of reeducation, to understand that your identity is separate from your sexuality. The joy [transgender] kids feel when they’re in the body they feel they should be in — it’s palpable.”

For both actresses, their off-screen experiences as mothers helped them relate to what their characters were going through — particularly the issue of recognizing your child for who she or he is, as opposed to who you wish they were.

Watts, the mother of two boys with former partner Liev Schreiber, echoes Sarandon when she says that the most important lesson of parenthood was letting her kids “be who they are.” As she explains it: “There’s a fine line between wanting to impart values but also being comfortable with letting them be who they are. It’s staying out of the way a little bit.”

Elle Fanning,Susan Sarandon, and Naomi Watts. (Photo: Getty Images)

That remains true as they grow, adds Sarandon, by resisting the temptation to step in and direct their social circle.

“I found when my kids got into high school, the socialization thing made them more self-conscious,” she says. “It became more about their peers. Their value system has to be in place by that time. But once they were out of school, they went back to the essence of who they were.”

In 3 Generations, Fanning’s character is absolutely sure of his path in life, while it’s the people around him who are reeling and confused, shining an at-times painful spotlight on his appearance and essence. Both Sarandon and Watts say they deal with similar pressures — in their case, the relentless focus on appearance, given that they’re film stars.

“It’s always unsettling to see yourself on a huge screen, shot badly, or lit badly. I won’t lie. That doesn’t go away,” Sarandon says. “Living in New York helps a lot. When I’m in L.A., I go to the market looking for a head of lettuce, I could lose a lot of work. I go out in sweats. It’s easier in New York, [where the city is] not about just that business.”

That being said, Sarandon refuses to judge anyone who’s been nipped or tucked. “Anybody should do anything,” she says, adding she finds botched or overdone procedures “scary.” Personally speaking, she says, “Having to use your face in our business limits certain things that I don’t feel comfortable doing.”

Even Watts, a two-time Oscar nominee and a perennial red-carpet knockout, went through her own early awkward phase. “I hated myself as a teenager. That’s why I always squirmed [in photos], I think,” she says. Like Sarandon, she jokes that looking like a normal person, with an expressive face, has its challenges. “I do the school run every day and those photographers are there. Sometimes it’s with wet hair. Sometimes it’s not pleasant,” Watts says about the resulting photos.

Not that the career of either woman is suffering. In addition to the new film, Watts has the highly hyped and top-secret Showtime series Twin Peaks premiering on May 21; Sarandon just threw down as Bette Davis in the FX miniseries Feud and is playing mother to Kathryn Hahn in the film sequel Bad Mom’s Christmas.

Meanwhile, both agree that working together on 3 Generations has helped them form a friendship that’s lasted. “We made this movie two years ago. We’ve kept in touch,” but “we’re New Yorkers,” Watts says, by way of explaining the crazy-busy state of their lives. “We catch up wherever we can.”

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