Cover Story

Behind ''Dead Man Walking''

Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins discuss the potential Oscar-winner

Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins are dancing, cooing, cuddling, and boogying across the floor of a downtown Manhattan photo studio. They look impossibly gorgeous, impossibly in love, impossibly Hollywood. With her newly coiffed Pre-Raphaelite-red hair and the kind of cheekbones and buxomness cosmetic surgery can't buy, Sarandon looks better at 49 than she did at 25. Robbins, 6'5'', his blond hair beginning to silver at 37, is more angularly handsome than on screen.

A day later, in the New York City office of Robbins' production company, Havoc, a few blocks from their Chelsea brownstone, they've seemingly morphed back into human form. Sitting down to their first joint interview for print, they are all business, more professional partners than pirouetting lovers. Sarandon, in a baggy sweater and stripped of her photo makeup, looks every bit the mom who got up at 6:30 with their children, Jack Henry, 6, and Miles, 3, and Eva, 11, Sarandon's daughter with Italian filmmaker Franco Amurri. Robbins, in jeans and a sweater, slouches in a chair beside her. He is quiet and droll and often interrupted by Sarandon, who speaks in a voice pitched to rise above the din of her kids, whose company she prefers to any Hollywood setting.

''If I were 22 and trying to build a career, I don't know who'd be watching the kids as happily as I do,'' says Sarandon, taking a bite out of a cookie she brought for Robbins. ''It takes so much to get me to break out of domestic paradise. There's hardly anything that interests me as much as my family.''

On the other hand, questions about marriage bore them both; after eight years together, they seem to have no desire to make it legal. ''How many more rings can she have?'' asks Robbins, pointing to his companion's gold-bedecked fingers. As for the band on his right hand? ''It's a right-handed marriage.''

If a left-leaning one. The very serious side of this very political couple has always threatened to overwhelm the side that just as forcefully awes with talent: At the 1992 Oscars, the two presented the Best Film Editing award along with a lecture on Haitian internment camps that got them banned from the dais for one year. ''I don't want people to be inspired or offended by what I do,'' says Robbins, in odd defense. ''If you determine your behavior by what [other people] want, you're screwed.''

It is precisely by not giving a damn — and making a movie few thought would succeed — that they got invited to next week's Oscars. This time, they are nominees for their extraordinary collaboration on Dead Man Walking — Robbins for Best Director and Sarandon as Best Actress for her role as a nun ministering to a killer on death row. It's the first time in 21 years that a director has received a nomination for collaborating with his also-nominated current companion. (In 1974, John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands were honored for A Woman Under the Influence.)

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