What’s the secret to Susan Sarandon’s happiness? A few months after revealing her surprising split with her partner of 23 years, Tim Robbins, the star, 63, barely paused before answering the question at a pre-Oscar party. “I hate to sound like the old hippie that I am, but I think that even the bad stuff can turn into good,” she told PEOPLE with a smile. “I am happy to have that challenge.”
Now, four months after they announced their separation, friends say both members of the Oscar-winning former power couple are enjoying the single life in their own way. While Robbins has danced nights away in jazz clubs in New Orleans, Sarandon, who credits her youthful appearance to steering clear of cigarettes, has popped up at indie rock concerts, traveled to Peru and Haiti and spent long evenings hanging out at SPiN, the Manhattan Ping-Pong club where she is an investor. “Susan is not having tea in Central Park,” says her friend, Iron Man 2 actress Olivia Munn. “She is really on point with what is cool out there. Her cool factor is beyond all of us.”
Of course, she’s capturing the most headlines for her are-they-or-aren’t-they relationship with a younger man: her thirtysomething SPiN partner Jonathan Bricklin. The seemingly inseparable pals have been spotted strolling together in Manhattan, sharing late-night drinks and regularly hanging out for hours at their club-and even traveled together to Machu Picchu in April. While Bricklin has said the relationship isn’t romantic, Sarandon has ducked a definitive answer: “It’s more interesting for people not to think [we are just business partners], I guess,” she told PEOPLE May 8 at the Mayor’s Cup Table Tennis Championship in New York City. “The only time I think about it is if someone asks me about it.”
The unlikely friendship between the veteran actress and the Ping-Pong impresario started in early 2008, when Sarandon attended one of Bricklin’s buzzed-about “Naked Ping-Pong” parties at his TriBeCa loft. They became closer working on a short film together-ironically, a tribute to Robbins for his 50th birthday. Bricklin “has always been popular with the ladies,” says his older brother Mark, a Vail, Colo., marketing director. “He’s charismatic and he’s off-the-wall and he’s funny.” When it comes to Sarandon, “there’s no question they enjoy each other’s company,” Mark adds. “He finds her really interesting and fun to be around. But I really got the sense that they are just business partners.”
Sarandon says her sudden interest in Ping-Pong has less to do with romance than smart investing. “I totally believed that [SPiN] was a great idea and eventually would be a popular place to come with your family, but still I’m surprised at how quickly it happened,” she says. “It was a huge success almost immediately.”
Table tennis is also something she can share with her kids, avid players. She has regular games with her two sons with Robbins, Miles, 18, a music lover and frequent deejay at SPiN, and Jack, 21, a film student at the University of Southern California, as well as her daughter with director Franco Amurri, actress Eva Amurri, 25. “Miles is the best at Ping-Pong, but Eva plays really well [too],” says Sarandon.
While it may be surprising to see Hollywood royalty like Sarandon joyfully acting half her age-on the Late Show with David Letterman she boasted that she took pole dancing lessons with her daughter and showed off a new tattoo-her friends say she is as happy as she has ever been. “Susan seems to have handled the breakup with Tim really well,” says a friend. “Things are really good with her right now.”