Susan Sarandon and Sister Helen Prejean Look Back on Their 30 Years of Friendship After “Dead Man Walking” (Exclusive)

"She's been inspirational to me," the Oscar winner tells PEOPLE about the famed death penalty abolitionist

<p>Richard Sweeney</p> Susan Sarandon and Sister Helen

Richard Sweeney

Susan Sarandon and Sister Helen

Susan Sarandon will always answer Sister Helen Prejean’s calls, especially after the acclaimed actress and the Catholic nun grew close while working on the 1995 release of Dead Man Walking.

The movie, based on Prejean’s book and real-life experience as a spiritual advisor to death row inmates, brought the two together, with Sarandon portraying the nun in Tim Robbins' adaptation and eventually earning an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance.

Thanks to their mutual civil rights advocacy work, the two have stayed in touch following the success of the film. During the past three decades, Sarandon and Prejean were notably brought together in 2015 after the nun was connected with death row inmate Richard Glossip and was asked to be with him as he was executed.

"The first person I called was you, Susan. Because I knew we had to get it out there to the people," Prejean says, referring to Sarandon while chatting exclusively with PEOPLE about the new documentary, Rebel Nun, which documents the nun's journey to abolish the death penalty and the prominent figures that have joined her in the fight, including the Oscar winner and Kim Kardashian.

<p>Universal Pictures Content Group</p> Helen Prejean in 'Rebel Nun'

Universal Pictures Content Group

Helen Prejean in 'Rebel Nun'

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During that time, Sarandon explained why she took up the cause, telling PEOPLE in 2015, "Sister Helen Prejean called me and convinced me that this guy, Richard Glossip, was innocent and needed another chance to have better representation to present new information that would establish a reasonable doubt as to his guilt and save him from being executed."

The phone call pattern lives on as the nun personally recruited Sarandon to appear on-screen in Rebel Nun, which had its world premiere at the 2024 Tribeca Film Festival on Thursday, June 6.

<p>Dave Allocca/StarPix </p> From Left: Sister Helen Prejean and Susan Sarandon

Dave Allocca/StarPix

From Left: Sister Helen Prejean and Susan Sarandon

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"Well, Helen called me and I said, 'Of course,' " Sarandon says. "She's been inspirational to me and, you know, it's hard to work against opinions that people form without having any real knowledge of what it means to, you know, consciously kill another human being."

She continues, "Nor do most people understand how problematic the legal system is, and also how racist it is. And I think that was a real education to the film Dead Man Walking, now, people still watch Dead Man Walking, but the important thing is the book."

Sarandon says the documentary helmed by director Dominic Sivyer is "another reason" to have the conversation that Prejean has already introduced and "to just inspire people also to believe that there is compassion and empathy still alive in the world."

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Despite her interest in participating, the longtime actress reveals that the project was filmed during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes. While the latter didn’t impose on the creation of non-scripted works like documentaries, the former limited her time on set with Prejean.

"I couldn't be in it until the strike was settled. We had to wait for a while and then we spent about over an hour, just sitting together and having a good time. That was worth it," Sarandon adds.

Though, as revealed in the documentary, Sarandon was the first to initiate their ongoing game of phone tag as they started working on Dead Man Walking. "One night, shortly after that, I get a call. 'I think we need to have a film made of this book,' " Prejean recalls in the movie. "And I go, 'Who? Who is this calling?' It was Susan Sarandon.”

Prejean wasn’t familiar with Sarandon’s work at the time, so she rented Thelma & Louise to watch with her fellow nuns. Because she didn't know what Sarandon looked like, she recalls watching the movie and fearing that Geena Davis was going to portray her in the adaptation. “And she’s the ditzy one,” she says of Davis' character.

<p>Gramercy Pictures/ Everett</p> Susan Sarandon in 'Dead Man Walking'

Gramercy Pictures/ Everett

Susan Sarandon in 'Dead Man Walking'

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"So when Susan walked in the restaurant, I went, ‘Oh, thank you Jesus,’ ” the nun continues.

In the documentary, the two cozy up on a couch and reflect on their first encounter and their friendship. "We keep on sister," they say to each other.

Much like Sarandon, Prejean tells PEOPLE that she’s hoping to educate and grow awareness for her cause through Rebel Nun. "So the documentary, here's my hope for it. First of all, it gives people a sense of hope that if you just stick to your guns — just like a little acorn planted — and just hang in there, you can be an oak tree, you can do something with your life," she says. "That's significant, because there's a lot of cynicism around, a lot of paralysis."

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Sarandon adds that she hopes “open-minded people” will find it.

That said, Prejean also wants people to be aware of Glossip, who was granted a stay of execution in 2023 by the U.S. Supreme Court until further review is conducted, and his ongoing case. "It's so broken," the nun says of the death penalty.

"Richard Gossips’ case is featured strongly in the documentary. I'm most happy about that, because he's still alive and they haven't killed him yet," Prejean says. "And if we can get enough people aware, that's what we need is to wake up just ordinary citizens that the death penalty is a terrible thing we're doing and we got to stop it."

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