Grant Finds the Character in Hollywood
Issue   |   Mon, 11/12/2012 - 21:50

Although the name of Susannah Grant '84, might not be immediately recognizable, the names of her various screenplays most certainly are. From the Disney classic “Pocahontas” and the much-loved fairy tale retelling of “Ever After” to the acclaimed “Erin Brockovich” and equally star-studded “The Soloist,” Grant is no stranger in Hollywood. In the almost three decades since graduating Amherst, the respected screenwriter and director has managed to touch the hearts and minds of millions throughout the world with her many films.

Fairytale Beginnings

Born in 1963 to a doctor father and teacher mother, Grant grew up in Englewood, New Jersey as one of four children. Grant credits her maternal grandparents as her biggest inspiration in her upbringing. Through her frequent visits to a hospital in Haiti that her grandmother helped build and run, she learned to broaden her world view beyond suburban New Jersey and found “an example of a grand vision of life’s possibilities.”

“My inner life was far more dramatic, romantic, perilous, amusing and heroic than the actual life I was living,” Grant said.

As a child, she had a vivid imagination — she spent much of her childhood convinced that she would one day grow up to be a princess. However, despite fantasies and dreams of different worlds dominating much of her youth, it would take much longer before she realized that these visions could actually be taken further.

A Gendered Transition

Grant’s time at Amherst, however, was far from a fairy tale. She entered the College in 1980, only five years after the school had turned co-ed. As such, at only 17 she found herself moving from an all-girl prep school to Amherst during one of its greatest periods of transition and struggle.

She remembers a time of gender-based exclusion.

“I was hearing rape songs sung at rugby games, seeing strippers at parties,” Grant said.

She joined a fraternity and sang “Gang Bang” with many other girls, all attempting to be included in an institution that had acknowledged them only in name. At the same time, she watched as her favorite young, female art professor was ostracized by the older, male department. In the face of these intense gender power dynamics, she could neither fit in with the more extreme “womyn’s center” nor face the blatant prejudice present.

However, despite this and her assertion of being a “mediocre” student, she recalls fondly her classes with Professor David Sofield and former Professor Ben DeMott. Grant credits DeMott with offering one of the best writing tips she has ever gotten (“Every single character has an fascinating inner monologue”) and named a character after Sofield in her script for “In Her Shoes” (though the name was never uttered on screen).

In spite of her ongoing struggles throughout the four years, Grant did have some fond memories.

“I came away with great friends. Deep, loving, lifelong relationships with good-hearted, intelligent, witty compatriots. That was worth everything,” Grant said.

Finding Her Hero Cycle

After leaving Amherst with an English major, Grant moved to New York with a job in publishing. However, she quickly felt as if she were floundering.

“I was living in New York, holding down respectable jobs in publishing, looking as if I was living a real life, but in truth, I felt as if I was flopping around, gasping for air, like a beached fish,” Grant said. “It was that sense I think many people get — that the life you’re living is not your destiny, that you’re on some path that wasn’t meant for you. I decided that the only way to a more meaningful life was to move toward things that pulled at me, even if I didn’t know why, or what the end game or payoff would be.”

Following this decistion, she zig-zagged from job to job, searching for a path that was meant for her. She spent four years trying out acting, journalism and “some of the most godawful jobs,” but she always found herself quickly losing interest and wanting something new.

“The problem was, I would take jobs that interested me — but once I figured out how to do them, I would lose interest and want a different one. In maybe a different town. With maybe different people,” Grant said.

Throughout this period, her one constant became the movie theater.

“I went to movies all the time. Constantly. Every good movie, every bad movie, every old movie, foreign movie, genre movie,” Grant said.

Movies became a home base for her, the cushioned seat, bag of popcorn and new story offering comfort in a tumultuous time.

Eventually, she found herself in the middle of a job that took two hours a day of the eight she had to spend at the desk. So, she decided that she would begin to write her own movie to pass the time. It was then that she realized that with each new script she wrote, she had a new job, a new town and new people — exactly what she had been searching for.

Grant quickly moved to LA and enrolled in the American Film Institute. In 1992, she received the Nicholl Fellowship for screenwriting from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Though still at school, she was hired for her first screenplay — co-writing “Pocahontas.” She has been screenwriting steadily since.

“I do believe in accountability for our actions and creations. I think everything we do does make an (admittedly small) impact on the world at large, so I’ve tried to make movies and TV shows that make the world a teensy bit better rather than a teensy bit worse. I haven’t always succeeded at that, Lord knows. But I’ve tried. I strive to give every character — regardless of gender, station in life, race — complexity and honest humanity,” Grant said.

Soon after her first work, Grant was called to work on a new version of Cinderella (which became the sleeper hit “Ever After”). Less than two years later she penned the screenplay that would result in her first Oscar nomination, “Erin Brockovich.”

For Grant, every script she works on is new and impossible.

“I love my job. Every script is new and impossible and daunts me when I start and rewards me when I finish. It is incredibly gratifying, and for the part that my deeply flawed Amherst experience had in guiding me toward where I am now, I am very grateful,” Grant said.

A Humanitarian Cast of Characters

Though her several films since have ranged greatly in genre, each of them involved multifaceted characters with both flaws and victories, regardless of their gender, status or race. Tom Bezucha, a close friend of Grant’s, points out that this exploration of depth, drama and conflict is what manages to continuously draw “big fat movie stars” looking to play interesting characters into her work.

“So much of what she does and what’s so valuable is that it’s so character-specific in an industry that mostly features flaming robots and people fighting about wedding dresses. She’s really interested in character journeys and really understands how difficult life is on the earth plane,” Bezucha said. “She has enormous empathy and is a committed humanitarian.”

It is this aspect of Grant that contributes to her belief of accountability for her actions and creations, from her writing to her directing.