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Actor with substance

From Hollywood
Last Updated 05 December 2015, 18:34 IST

She was a flight attendant, short and smartly dressed, in a blue cap, blazer and miniskirt. It was 1981, and Donald Sutherland was at Glasgow airport, waiting for a charter helicopter to take him to the Isle of Mull, where he would spend the next eight weeks making Eye of the Needle, a Second World War spy thriller set on an island off the Scottish coast. He remembers the woman’s jackboots clack-clacking on the concrete as she walked towards him out of the mist.

Sutherland is physically imposing at 6 ft 2 in. “And she stopped in front of me and said, ‘Ye’re Donald Sutherland, aren’t ye?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ And she said, ‘Och, ye’re not near as ugly as ye are on the telly.’ ”

Still going strong

Sutherland grins. It’s a hungry grin, wide and wolfish. Easing from one memory to the next. Sutherland stars in Mockingjay — Part 2, the fourth and final film in The Hunger Games franchise. He plays President Coriolanus Snow, the tyrant. This is a far cry from the kind of roles that made Sutherland’s name. His early characters, like MASH’s army surgeon Hawkeye Pierce, were mavericks and rascals, loping around authority at a wary distance and occasionally snapping at its heels. But Snow is authority.

For Sutherland, The Hunger Games is not just another blockbuster. It’s a catalyst for political awakening. “I hadn’t even heard of the books, but it became patently apparent to me that this was something,” he says. “It was the first thing I’d read in years that could become a creative political stimulus for young people.”

Sutherland’s own political activism is well documented. In the late 1960s, just as a role in Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen was making him famous, he became a voluble critic of racism, poverty and the Vietnam War. “Oh, you know, we tried back then,” he says. “But we were feeble and not well organised, and we were easily co-opted, and taken over as product for profit.”

Death seems to weigh on him, but it also suits him. As Mr Bennet in Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice, he spent most of the film being told by Brenda Blethyn’s Mrs Bennet that he might drop dead at any moment, and from Don’t Look Now’s haunted John Baxter to his masque-like title role in Federico Fellini’s sexy-grotesque Casanova, his screen presence can have a certain cadaverous quality.

Great influences

His formative moviegoing experience was a double bill: Fellini’s La Strada and Kubrick’s Paths of Glory in uptown Toronto, while skipping a class in his engineering degree studies. Those two films fed him. He came to Britain to train at LAMDA, but dropped out after a year. But a year and a half with the Perth Repertory Theatre Company — “best time of my life” — sanded off his edges.

Sutherland speaks about certain directors, particularly Nicolas Roeg and Fellini, with such filial admiration it makes me curious about his relationships with his own children, all five of whom have followed him into the film industry. The best-known is Kiefer Sutherland. Last year, they made their first film together, the western Forsaken in which a prodigal bandit attempts reconciliation with his estranged, straight-living reverend father.

“He’s a wonderful actor and he thinks I’m okay. We felt we each had something to say about fathers and sons but, frankly, that’s a subject of such manifest psychological intricacy that I don’t think it could ever be satisfactorily examined in a film.”

“With respect to experience after all these years: it’s akin to the affairs of Casanova. Every time he fell in love, and he fell in love a lot, it was the first time and the last time. He’s never been in love before. Time stopped. And then it started again. And then, after many liaisons, it was gone.”

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(Published 05 December 2015, 15:14 IST)

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