April 02, 2012 12:00 PM

Susan Sarandon sips her bottle of iced green tea, Ping Pong balls whizzing past her head at her Manhattan bar-slash-table tennis mecca SPiN, and it’s hard to believe she’s already qualified for Social Security. In skinny jeans and sneakers, with a bra strap peeking out of her sweater and a safety pin earring, Sarandon looks like she could be one of the decades-younger hipsters who frequent the club’s late-night parties. But as she talks about aging, romance and her unconventional career, it’s clear she has the life experience-and earthy confidence-to speak her mind more than your average movie star. Plastic surgery? She’ll tell you what she’s had-and won’t have. Her split from longtime partner Tim Robbins? “It rebooted everyone’s life,” she says. And staying a sex symbol in her 60s? Well, “breasts certainly help,” she says. “But it’s really more of an attitude. Sexuality means that you’re saying yes to life.”

Fresh from interviewing potential interns for her Ping Pong parlor, Sarandon quietly bids goodbye to her near-constant companion, Jonathan Bricklin, 34, her partner in the club, and they make plans to meet up later downtown. It’s quiet in the club in the early afternoon, with just a few matches going on, and Sarandon pauses occasionally to call out “Nice shot!” as she settles in at a back table to reflect on her 40-plus years in the spotlight. From her career-launching turn in The Rocky Horror Picture Show in 1975 to her feminist road trip in Thelma & Louise in 1991 to a current guest turn as a student-seducing schoolteacher on 30 Rock, the Oscar winner has found success on her own terms, embracing edgy roles and liberal activism and becoming a first-time mom at 39. “Every time I had a baby and dropped out for a while, I never thought I’d work again,” Sarandon says. “I’ve been really lucky. I’ve had a career past a certain age, and you’re not supposed to do that.” Her latest movie is the comedy Jeff, Who Lives at Home, about a buttoned-up mom (Sarandon) and her two dysfunctional sons (Jason Segel and Ed Helms). “The hardest part of this movie was not looking like I was super attracted to my mother,” jokes Segel. “She’s the coolest ever.”

Part of that appeal is her knack for reinvention. When she and Robbins, 53, separated in 2009 after 23 years together, becoming suddenly single in her 60s “was terrifying,” Sarandon says. “Simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating. Up until then, I’d been a very contented house frau. I had to go into the world in a completely different way.” Why things went wrong “is not particularly interesting and isn’t that complicated,” she says matter-of-factly. The exes remain friends. “Tim has been a great father to our children [Jack, 22, and Miles, 19] and my daughter [actress Eva Amurri, 27, from her earlier relationship with director Franco Amurri], who’s his bonus daughter.” Last fall Sarandon and Robbins walked Eva down the aisle together at her wedding.

The split, says Sarandon, “has given both of us a chance to live a more authentic life,” one that for her has included dancing onstage at indie concerts and presiding over the revelry at SPiN, usually with Bricklin. They’ve been inseparable for more than two years, but she still won’t be pinned down about the exact nature of their relationship. “Dating is such a stupid word,” she says with a smile. “You can say”-slight pause-“we are collaborating in a lot of different areas.”

As for navigating Hollywood as she’s gotten older, Sarandon’s take is bluntly realistic. “It’s hard to be in this business and not be an alcoholic or a drug addict or bitter as an older woman,” she says. “I’ve had disappointments about not getting projects. You have to make your peace with it or get out. Everyone has these moments-maybe not Meryl Streep, who seems to get 90 percent of the projects, and deservedly. So you make your own”-like 1995’s Dead Man Walking, which won her an Oscar with Robbins directing. Her survival strategy also includes taking smaller parts-“you have to be joyful about what you do have”-and seeking inspiration from actresses older than she is, like Vanessa Redgrave. And she tries not to take any age-related slights personally: “You’d have to be a real narcissist to think that it was some kind of personal persecution. It’s not like you’re the only one.”

Nor does she have anything to hide on plastic surgery. “I’ve had some lipo under my chin and under my eyes,” she says. “I’m not saying I would never. I have these two huge frown lines here.” (She points to her forehead.) “But if you can’t move your face or you’re unrecognizable, I don’t see how that’s a productive enhancement. You don’t want to look like a female impersonator of yourself.”

She credits her kids with keeping her focused on what’s important. “Being a hands-on mom is such a strong part of your identity that it makes the transitions you go through a bit easier,” she says. The eldest of nine kids herself, Sarandon grew up in Edison, N.J., attended Catholic schools and married actor Chris Sarandon at 20, landing her first part when she accompanied him on an audition. (They split 12 years later.) In short order she became famous for sexy roles and controversial opinions-Sarandon has never shied away from using her celebrity to spotlight causes that include abortion rights, repealing the death penalty and opposing the Iraq War. Personally she’s confronted the same obstacles as any woman in Hollywood. Director John Cassavetes “told me if I became a mom, I would not be sensual anymore,” she recalls. “You put off having kids as long as possible, and you didn’t talk about being married. I’m happy that has changed.”

In fact, Sarandon didn’t think she could have kids after her diagnosis with endometriosis in the early ’80s, but at 39, she gave birth to Eva-and later Jack and Miles. Jack graduated from USC last year after studying filmmaking, and Sarandon takes a break to respond to his latest e-mail about his job hunt. “I tell him not to put pressure on himself to be successful, to find his voice.” Miles is a college sophomore and deejay, and Susan beams with pride about Eva’s success in TV’s Californication and movies like the upcoming comedy That’s My Boy, roles that “can be fun and sexy and smart. It wasn’t always like that.”

Except when women like her mom made it so. As Sarandon heads out to meet Bricklin and speak at an Occupy Wall Street rally, she looks back on her life’s unexpected turns. “I’ve done everything wrong,” she says as she tucks her curls into a newsboy cap, dabs on lipstick and strolls off down Broadway. “I didn’t follow the plan. I’m happy to have so many things that I still haven’t figured out.”

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