liberal Catholic institutions in New Jersey (‘1 was told that I had an overabundance of original sin’). Sarandon was immediately struck by Sister Helen‘s directness. honesty and pragmatism. So much so that she later talked Robbins into writing and directing a film based on Sister Helen‘s harrowing autobiographical account of her relationship with two Death Row prisoners.
‘In fact. I met Sister Helen before I read the book. and she didn’t square with the idea I‘d had about nuns previous to that. She was so life affirmative. such a great storyteller. a big eater
and a big laugher. l was exposed to a lot of
bitterness during my Catholic childhood. it was not a very generous picture of the way nuns could be. And she certainly wasn‘t Ingrid Bergman in The Inn 0/ The Sixth Happiness.
says Sarandon. ‘There was an execution when we were there — the warden‘s first — and. being a Christian. he had a great deal of trouble giving the nod.
‘Unless I had gone there and seen the surreal ordinariness of the whole thing. I would never have been able to imagine it. I would never have been able to imagine the look in the prisoner’s eyes. or the massiveness of the whole institution. To actually be filming in the space where they had killed somebody a few hours before. and to see life going on. you just can't get your mind around it. It makes it clear that the question is not who deserves to die. but who deserves to kill.‘
Although Robbins‘s carefully balanced film dedicates a sizeable slice of screen time to Sister Helen's distressing attempts to console the
which was the film cliche victims‘ angry. grieving version of a nun that I‘d , , , parents. the later scenes grown up with.’ To acmally be mmmg Ir! the inevitably home in on the
Diverging from Sister 39309 Where they had kllled intense. claustrophobic Helen‘s account. Robbins’ somebody a few hOIIIS before, exchanges between Sister script updates the story from and to see life going on . . . It Helen and the aggressive. the early 80s to the present makes it clear that the manipulative Poncelet.
day. conllates two Death Row killers into one. and replaces the electric chair with the now more common lethal injection. However. the focus remains the same — whether it‘s the frenzied rape and murder of a teenage boy and girl or the state's calculated execution of those responsible. killing is wrong.
When Death Row prisoner Matthew Poncelet. played by Sean Penn. writes and asks her if she will help with his ﬁnal appeal. naive Louisiana nun Sister Helen becomes his spiritual advisor. embarking upon a painful emotional journey that may. failing a last-minute reprieve. end with the long walk to the Death House.
Sarandon was already opposed to the death penalty. l-ler opinion was confirmed when she visited the Louisiana State prison at Angola. where Sister Helen had visited the two Death Row prisoners on whom Penn’s character is based. ‘When they let us into the prison for that week. it was as if those people — the guards. the warden — never got a chance to talk to anybody.‘
question is not who deserves to die, but who deserves to kill.’
Separated by far more than the perspex screen that divides them. the unworldly middle- class nun and the cunning white-trash prisoner become locked in a complex psychological game which she hopes will lead to Poncelet‘s accepting responsibility for his part in the double murder.
Filmed in bare rooms. with neutral lighting and seemingly no dramatic possibilities. these scenes posed a special challenge for Penn and Sarandon. who even when they were acting directly into the camera. were forced to feed off their fellow actor‘s performance.
‘All he‘s got is you and all you've got is him.‘ says the actress. ‘and the fact that we had nowhere to hide. and no props except for his cigarettes. forced us to have a very pure. strong. simple connection. one that we might not have been courageous enough to find had it not been for those limitations. So in a way. what looks like an actor‘s nightmare actually turned into a dream.‘
Dead Man ll’a/king opens on Friday 29 Mare/1.
i e 2 ‘.
Oscar-nominated: Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon as crlmlnal and potential saviour
SUSAN SARANDON FEATURE
Sister Helen Prejean, the real woman behind Susan Sarandon’s screen character, talks to Sue Wilson.
phone-call from a ﬁlm star to a nun isn‘t
ordinarily the way an Oscar-nominated picture
gets off the ground, but then there’s little that’s ordinary about Dead Man Walking. Least of all the woman on whose life and work it’s based, Sister Helen Prejean. who answered the phone in her Louisiana ofﬁce one day to ﬁnd Susan Sarandon on the other end. Sarandon was reading Prejean’s book, the basis for Tim Robbins‘s movie. and had been struck immediately by its cinematic appeal.
‘Susan was coming to New Orleans for two days ﬁlming The Client.’ recalls Prejean, ‘and so we met, and I liked her immensely, she is so solid and true. Next thing I know, Tim’s calling me. so 1 met them both in New York. and when I met him, he had such good ideas. his values were just the same as mine. he just had such tremendous integrity, I knew right offl could trust him.’
Prejean collaborated closely with Robbins On the screenplay —- ‘every scene, every line’ — and unlike most authors is delighted with the result. ‘The miracle of the ﬁlm is the way he’s shaped the story — who would have thought that a ﬁlm taking you on this difﬁcult a journey would be a box-ofﬁce hit? Nobody could have predicted that. But Tim’s hit a universal current - it‘s not just a horror story, about crime and execution. it’s a redemption story; at heart, it’s a story about universal love.’
Given her continuing work with Death Row prisoners and as a prominent campaigner against capital punishment, Prejean is greatly heartened by the ﬁlm’s broader impact. ‘It has deﬁnitely introduced a level of debate in the mainstream consciousness that we haven’t had before. Tim reckons it’s really going to boost the beer and wine industry, because after pe0ple see it. they have to go and have a drink somewhere and talk about it.’
In any case, Prejean believes, US survey ﬁgures showing vast majority support for capital punishment present an overly simplistic picture. ‘For twelve years now I‘ve been talking to groups around the country on this issue, and I have real hope. So many times I’ve walked into a room full of people and asked for a show of hands - who's in favour of the death penalty - and most of the hands' go up. But when you’ve ﬁnished working with them, bringing them through the experience, most people have changed their minds. All they normally get is the rhetoric about the death penalty;when they get the real information, they’ll listen.’ ‘ Dead Man Walking is published by Fount at £7.99.
The List 22 Mar-4 Apr 199613