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'WALKING' IN FAITH\Focus of Sarandon-Robbins project humanity over death-penalty\issue.

Byline: Amy Dawes Daily News Staff Writer

Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon say they are against the death penalty, but you'd scarcely know it from their new movie "Dead Man Walking."

Based on the true story of a New Orleans nun who became a spiritual counselor to Death Row inmates, this intensely moving drama takes an evenhanded look at the human consequences of violent crime and capital punishment - so evenhanded that it's not likely to change anyone's position.

"It's not a conversion film; it's about the human situation," said Robbins, who wrote and directed the movie based on Sister Helen Prejean's book. "If you can look into this door and still feel the same way about things, then I respect that."

Starring Sarandon as Prejean, and Sean Penn as a Louisiana sharecropper's son who is about to be executed for his role in the kidnapping and brutal murder of two teen-agers, "Dead Man Walking" has grabbed three Golden Globe nominations (for Sarandon, Penn and for Robbins' screenplay) and was included on some critics' lists of the year's top 10 movies.

It opened Dec. 29 exclusively in Los Angeles and New York in a bid for Academy Award consideration and will widen to theaters nationwide Jan. 19.

The movie focuses on the spiritual journey of the nun, who finds her Christian faith tested and illuminated when she's caught between the needs of the victim's families and the needs of the condemned man.

"For me, it was always a movie about the power of love and redemption," said Sarandon, who met Prejean while in New Orleans filming "The Client," and eventually persuaded Robbins to make it his next movie. "Here's this woman with this incredible faith, and her job is to go in and be there for this guy, and to believe as Jesus did that no matter how horrible you are, you're still a child of God. She has to go from the company line of how this thing is supposed to work, to actually loving somebody who's despicable. And how do you do that?"

"I prayed, I prayed often in the course of this movie, to be able to not comment on it, to have a certain purity in terms of my function in the story, to be able to put my ego aside and do all the things that she had to do."

Robbins and Sarandon, who live together in New York with their three children, admitted that the movie also became a test of their relationship.

"We definitely had those days where the tension was high," said Sarandon, who appears strikingly glamorous in person, with glossy red curls and a stylish pin-striped jacket, but appears in the movie sans makeup and wearing the nun's conservative clothes and haircut.

"My ass was on the line in a major way, and I'm out there working unadorned - without lipstick or mascara. So I definitely had moments when I wasn't particularly tactful in terms of trying to figure out what I was doing."

"The question was whether two people who are very intense in what they do can co-exist at full strength without one of them having to back down. If I had, it would have been not a good idea for our union, and it would have been a terrible idea for the film. And I wouldn't do it for any other director."

Added Robbins, who had directed Sarandon in a smaller role in his previous film, "Bob Roberts": "I'd be lying if I said there weren't some rough spots, but we got through it. We're still together."

Robbins, who met Sarandon on the set of the baseball comedy "Bull Durham," in which they co-starred with Kevin Costner, said, "I really like opinionated actors who have a strong idea of their character. As a director, I just have to be adaptable and egoless."

Part of their strategy going in was an agreement not to live together during the filming, which took place during the hot, muggy spring months in the New Orleans area and at the Louisiana state penitentiary at Angola.

"We learned while he was doing 'Bob Roberts' and I was doing 'Lorenzo's Oil' that it's better not to co-habitate while we're doing these things," said Sarandon. "Because a director's on call 24 hours a day, and when he walks in the house, the kids have these expectations that he's going to be there for them, and he's not. And he has these expectations that after working the same hours, I'm going to have a hot meal for him, and I'm not."

"So we found early on that it was much better that he be there only when he really wanted to be. So, during the filming, we live separately. ... I take care of the kids (ages 3, 6 and 10) and bring them to the set, where he can see them, and he's free to make the millions of decisions that he has to make as a director."

One of Robbins' coups as a director was persuading Sean Penn - his first choice to play convicted killer Matthew Poncelot - to take the role despite Penn's avowed retirement from acting in favor of writing and directing.

Even though the character is hateful, Robbins said Penn didn't hesitate. "I sent him the script, and he said it really moved him, and he had to do it."

Sarandon, whose role required her to be a sort of blank slate, or "vessel," through which the audience experiences the film, faced the challenge of creating intimacy with someone from whom she was separated by a prison grating. "We didn't have much to work with - I had him and he had me, and we couldn't even get to each other. It forced us into a higher place of intimacy than I've experienced in the other love stories I've done. For all of the pain, when it was over, it was quite shocking. I don't think I've ever done a love story where you have a countdown to the killing of your co-star."

Robbins said he asked Prejean, who has written and lectured widely against the death penalty, whether it concerns her that "people are coming out of the movie and not being rabidly anti-death penalty. She said, 'No, because something is making them cry, and something is touching their hearts.' She doesn't see change as something that happens overnight."

"Sister Helen said a great thing ... that our job is to just be a plow, and to break the hard ground. She's said it's not our job to tell people what to think or what to feel," said Sarandon.

As for their own feelings, Robbins said his experiences among prison guards and inmates while researching his role in "The Shawshank Redemption" left him stripped of any romantic notions about criminals, but nonetheless, "I have a problem with the fact that it's a poor person's punishment. You'll never see a rich person killed."

In the movie, there is only one line - Penn's final line of dialogue - that clearly states the filmmakers' position.

"I believe that movies do change society, and that every movie is political - it's just that some reinforce the status quo, and some challenge it," said Sarandon. "I just hope that this movie gives a face to all the different people who are affected by this issue, and that it gets people talking and disagreeing."

CAPTION(S):

PHOTO

Photo (1--Cover--Color) Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn in 'Dead Man Walking' (2) "For me, it was always a movie about the power of love and redemption," says Susan Sarandon of "Dead Man Walking." (3) Sarandon stars as Sister Helen Prejean, with Sean Penn as a sharecropper's son who is about to be executed for his role in the kidnapping and brutal murder of two teen-agers. (4) Director Tim Robbins, right, scored a coup by persuading Penn to play convicted killer Matthew Poncelot despite Penn's avowed retirement from acting. "I sent him the script, and he said it really moved him, and he had to do it," Robbins said.
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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 5, 1996
Words:1340
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