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TV Preview: Sarandon is South Pole doctor in crisis

Friday, April 18, 2003

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Some Oscar-winning actresses might sniff at the prospect of doing a TV movie. Not Susan Sarandon, appearing this weekend in CBS's "Ice Bound: A Woman's Survival at the South Pole."

'Ice Bound:
A Woman's Survival
At The South Pole'

dot.gif WHERE: CBS

dot.gif WHEN: Sunday at 9 p.m.


"It doesn't really matter to me if the story's on TV or in a film, because I've done what I consider to be really great, original, interesting films that the studios have just not known what to do with and have dumped. ... So, I'm just interested in entertainment and possibly something that challenges your perspective, so it doesn't really matter to me if it's in the theater or on film or TV."

Sarandon did not want to do "another disease-of-the-week TV movie." But what made "Ice Bound" different was its setting, the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station on Antarctica. Its remote, unreachable location forced Dr. Jerri Nielsen to rely on her colleagues when she discovered a breast lump that proved to be cancerous.

"She really was totally dependent on people she wouldn't have had even a conversation with prior to her going down there. So, though it didn't turn out to be this idyllic, meditative, pure place, she did end up having to go from being a person who was not exactly a team player to someone who -- with great difficulty, or at least that's the way we chose to interpret it -- has to ask for help from someone else."

And what help she needed. Just wait until you see three of her fellow "Polies" (all men) practice using syringes on fruits and vegetables in preparation for a biopsy on Nielsen's breast. It's not pretty.

Unlike the book Nielsen wrote, the movie focuses exclusively on her time at the Pole. It doesn't go into what she calls an abusive marriage or how her ex-husband engineered her estrangement from their three children.

"We weren't really at liberty to take the entire life and do with it what we wanted," says Sarandon. Viewers sense that Nielsen is not an adventurer, but someone who escaped to the Pole and who must learn to run toward and not away from what scares her the most.

In fact, Sarandon thinks the most crucial scene of the movie is when Nielsen is forced to learn to operate the generators in the power plant -- duty regularly rotated -- and must ask for assistance. "The really tough thing is for someone to ask for help, especially when you're a confident woman who's not in the habit and especially when you're a doctor who's not in the habit."

She hopes the movie will encourage women to get mammograms or face their bodies, potentially troublesome lumps and all, and ask for help if they need it.

Unlike some actors portraying real people, Sarandon did not spend much time with Nielsen. "The book is quite clear and I saw a number of videotapes of everything, from the operation to party tapes and I saw interviews with her on 'Oprah.' ... So, I hope we got the essence of what she's about and what she felt, and she did come to the set later on in the shooting."

Filming on Lake Simcoe north of Toronto provided authentic snow, cold and men in frogmen's suits "like little action figures" stationed nearby in case the lake gave way.

Sarandon, who got an unexpected look at Canadian hospitals when one of her sons (they're 10 and 13) broke his arm snowboarding, juggles work with her New York-based family. "I just turned down something because I've got the boys' birthdays in May. It's pretty hard to find something you want to give up. I don't know. I'm just greedy that way. I really enjoy my family and I don't want to miss anything."

Barbara Vancheri can be reached at bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632.

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