In fact, the longtime actress starred in several TV films early in her career. But outside of a handful of notable recurring roles, Sarandon, who won a Best Actress Oscar in 1995 for Dead Man Walking, had never starred on a series until 2017, when she portrayed Bette Davis in Ryan Murphy’s new FX anthology series, Feud, which launched with Bette and Joan. It seemed like a role that Sarandon was destined to play, with her likeness often having been compared to that of Davis.
Yet, portraying the Hollywood legend -- an opportunity she’d been offered time and time before -- wasn’t something Sarandon was keen to do, especially when the scripts she read were nothing more than “bitchy one-liners.” “It’s not enough to think Bette Davis is cool,” the actress told ET earlier this year. “What do you do with her then? It’s really a challenge to make an audience experience something in that moment -- and not just a camp impersonation of somebody, because that’s going to get tired really quickly.”
Feud, which co-stars Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford, went beyond anything Sarandon had ever read. The eight-episode season was more than a retelling of the legendarily messy filming of the 1962 thriller What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? It added context to the two Hollywood icons’ rivalry that peaked when the Oscars nominated Davis for Best Actress for her role as Jane Hudson while Crawford was overlooked as her crippled sister Blanche.
“You can do it a little more in-depth, because,” Sarandon said when ET spoke with her again this fall, “you can get more nuanced with things and you can get a little bit more complicated.” Ultimately, the series gave her an opportunity to dig into the many layers of Davis -- even if it was a daunting task. “I felt overwhelmed in the beginning,” she admitted. “For me, the fear-fun ratio was really not in my favor for at least five weeks.” Eventually, however, it clicked, earning the actress a 2017 Emmy nomination and 2018 Golden Globe nomination for her portrayal of the screen icon.
That positive experience on Feud is partly what led her to accept a recurring role as Samantha Winslow, a Hollywood executive’s widow with a secret to hide, on Showtime’s Ray Donovan, starring Liev Schreiber.
Excited about the opportunity to work with the actor, Sarandon was also interested in playing a powerful yet complicated woman who, according to the actress, is very unlike herself or the roles she’s played in the past. “It’s always more fun to play someone who is twisted,” she said of Samantha’s “cool and calculating” demeanor.
With her arc left open-ended, Sarandon will reprise her role when the series returns with a sixth season in 2018. “I have no idea what’s going to be happening, but I’m so excited,” she added.
Unlike Feud, however, the Showtime series was written as it was being filmed -- an entirely new experience for the actress that required a “leap of faith,” as she put it. “You really don’t know what’s going to happen -- that’s one of the strange things about doing a lot of episodes.”
But both shows have proven that TV is the place to be -- especially for women. Over the past year, as the 2017 Primetime Emmys demonstrated, women have dominated onscreen and behind the scenes. And Murphy, whom Sarandon said she would gladly work with again, has not only injected energy into the careers of the likes of Lange, Angela Bassett and Kathy Bates, he has become a champion of female storytellers.
“There’s much more diversity than there is in film,” Sarandon said, adding that the expansive range of platforms and content means that “TV has more chances for really unusual stories to be told. Very often they can be edgier and they seem to have many more spots for women -- and older women -- and there are more women’s stories being told.”