Su­san Saran­don on her Emmy-nom­i­nated turn as Bette Davis


Bette Davis fi­nally caught up to Su­san Saran­don. Af­ter mul­ti­ple op­por­tu­ni­ties to por­tray the screen leg­end, Saran­don was fi­nally en­ticed by Ryan Mur­phy for his Emmy-nom­i­nated lim­ited se­ries “Feud: Bette and Joan.”

Fac­ing off against old pal Jes­sica Lange as the equally for­mi­da­ble Joan Craw­ford was not an enterprise into which the Os­car-win­ning ac­tress en­tered lightly, but Saran­don's nu­anced take on the iconic star re­sulted in an Emmy nom­i­na­tion. (Lange also net­ted a nod.)

We re­cently chat­ted with Saran­don about fi­nally tack­ling the role and get­ting the bal­ance of fear and fun just right on the set of “Feud.”

Q: You'd been ap­proached over the years about por­tray­ing Bette Davis, and you nar­rated a doc­u­men­tary about her. So, part of the ap­peal of “Feud” must have been be­ing able to re­ally stretch out in the eight hours of this project.

A: Well, orig­i­nally, (Davis) ap­proached me through a director when I was a kid and her daugh­ter had just writ­ten the hor­ri­ble book. And she said she wanted me to play her, but there was no script and I didn't have the where­withal to fig­ure out how to make that hap­pen. So that would've been the early days. Then there were a num­ber of… (Chuck­les) She went to the Hamp­tons once when she was older and stayed with the fam­ily to get an award and didn't leave for months, dis­rupted the en­tire fam­ily. So that was a script that came to me. Then there were a cou­ple of plays, one that in­volved Joan. So it's been kind of fol­low­ing me.

And then Ryan. Orig­i­nally, it was a film, and when I read it, I just said, “It's just kind of a one-joke thing, you know? They're bitchy.” But what's in­ter­est­ing is the last line, “If only we could've been friends,” or what­ever that is, “You mean all this time we could've been friends?” I said, “That's in­ter­est­ing to me.” You know, if women band to­gether, they're so pow­er­ful and what a shame that this hap­pened. So years later, he came and he said it was go­ing to be all these episodes, and I thought, “How can he stretch that out?” And then he said, “Well, we're go­ing to look at it in the con­text of Hol­ly­wood and tell that story. And has it changed? And what about women?” And then it started to get much more in­ter­est­ing.

Q: And you hadn't worked with Jes­sica be­fore, but you knew her.

A: Yeah, we're East Coast gals and we've run into each other a lot. I had spent a lit­tle bit of time with my fam­ily, with her fam­ily in Mex­ico. And, you know, you sur­vive in this busi­ness long enough and the ones that are left stand­ing you kind of feel bonded with.

Q: And you end up in these roles where peo­ple are in a feud, and there's so much venom and vit­riol go­ing back and forth be­tween the — A: So much pain. Q: And that de­noue­ment of they could have been friends. They had so much in com­mon. I'm won­der­ing, if in be­tween takes, you were do­ing some laugh­ing and hug­ging to sort of, like, tamp that down.

A: Yeah, in the be­gin­ning, we would turn to each other and say, “Are we just do­ing, like, a se­ries of memes? You know, what's go­ing on here?” Be­cause we were so afraid of be­ing over­pow­ered by the kind of cliché of who these women were, es­pe­cially Bette Davis, who's been im­i­tated so dras­ti­cally. So how could we make that live? And so I think we fo­cused on mak­ing the scenes work, rather than what­ever the an­i­mos­ity was. But it's al­ways fun to fight when it's not real, you know? Then all those things you wish you could be bitchy enough to say. Q: Cathar­sis. A: But I was ter­ri­fied for at least five weeks. I couldn't get the fear:fun ra­tio in my fa­vor, just lis­ten­ing to the di­alect coach, try­ing to get that very idio­syn­cratic pat­tern down. And she al­ways chose to em­pha­size the weird­est words in ev­ery sen­tence. I like to have a good time. I mean, I love the col­lab­o­ra­tion of film and TV. That, for me, is ev­ery­thing. And I come from a large fam­ily and I like to re-cre­ate that. So for me to be un­com­fort­able, even though I knew I was do­ing it be­cause I wanted to be out­side of my com­fort zone, it was just so much more un­com­fort­able than I had an­tic­i­pated. And in the be­gin­ning, when Ryan asked me, I said, “I'm just re­ally scared.” And he said, “Well, I'm scared too.” And for some rea­son, I found it very con­sol­ing. I don't know why that made me feel at ease that he was ter­ri­fied also, but…

Q: It could've had the op­po­site ef­fect.

A: It ended up be­ing re­ally fun, even­tu­ally. And I frac­tured my foot, so I was in a boot for about seven weeks of the whole thing, but luck­ily, her walk was like a truck driver, so it didn't mat­ter.

Q: That brings up a good ques­tion. There were so many idio­syn­cratic things about her — her look, the way she walked, the way she talked — was there a spe­cific thing that un­locked it for you?

A: Oh, well, Lou (Eyrich), it was just amaz­ing what she did with the wardrobe, recre­ated so much, you know, the dress from “All About Eve” ex­actly. So many things that she found and even painted the fab­ric to look like it. And that cer­tainly helped. And I shaved my head. She had a very wide fore­head and I don't, and so with the wigs and ev­ery­thing, shav­ing it to make it wider and more straight across I think helped a lit­tle bit. And, of course, when you can hide be­hind white makeup.

Q: If they ever make a movie of your life, who would you like to see play you?

A: I was think­ing of Tom Hardy, ac­tu­ally. Q: Tom Hardy can do any­thing. A: I love Tom Hardy. I would like him to be me, or I would like to be him. But I think he could do just about any­thing.


Su­san Saran­don as Bette Davis in “Feud.”

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