Going like 70
With a new series that has him "set for life," septuagenarian Donald Sutherland refuses to slow down
Thu Nov 10 2005
Donald Sutherland is something of an oddity in Hollywood. The roguish Canadian has played everything from sissy husbands to sniveling corporate worms, and yet he still comes across as a sex symbol. Never short on work, he's made more than 100 films and, despite an array of creepy choices in the '70s (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Casanova) and a string of regrettable '80s flops (Gas, The Rosary Murders), he's busier than ever. This year, the 70-year-old actor appears in six new projects, including Pride & Prejudice, where he portrays the long-suffering Mr.
Donald Sutherland is something of an oddity in Hollywood. The roguish Canadian has played everything from sissy husbands to sniveling corporate worms, and yet he still comes across as a sex symbol. Never short on work, he's made more than 100 films and, despite an array of creepy choices in the '70s (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Casanova) and a string of regrettable '80s flops (Gas, The Rosary Murders), he's busier than ever. This year, the 70-year-old actor appears in six new projects, including Pride & Prejudice, where he portrays the long-suffering Mr. Bennet, and the ABC series Commander in Chief, in which Sutherland plays a mean-
spirited misogynistic conservative—a role that couldn't be further from the actor's warm, fuzzy lefty leanings. We encountered his inimitable baritone over tea at an uptown hotel suite, where he seemed especially keen on setting some records straight.
Time Out New York: You almost turned down Pride & Prejudice on the basis that you were too old, too busy and too Canadian. Why the change?
Donald Sutherland: They were very insistent. They convinced me that I was exactly the age of Elizabeth Bennet's father. I'm glad I changed my mind. I had six of the most wonderful women surrounding me for weeks. It was glorious.
TONY: I've read that you think Keira Knightley is the Marilyn Monroe of our time.
DS: Wow. Is it hot in here? I'm suddenly sitting here thinking interviews don't normally make me nervous. What's going on? [Turns on air conditioning] Yes, I said that. It was like working with a Zen artist. Unlike Marilyn
Monroe, Keira's a very confident and skillful person.
TONY: In Britain, the film finishes with you giving your tearful blessing to Darcy and Elizabeth, but in the U.S., the couple share a romantic embrace. Do Americans need the extra sugar?
DS: I loved the way it ended before. Henry James once said, "What Americans like is a tragedy with a happy ending." It's disappointing, but it's the director's choice.
TONY: You're also filming the show Commander in Chief, which is your first recurring role in a TV series. Why did you decide to do television now?
DS: One of my sons, who's an agent at CAA, told me that if I did it for five years I would be set for the rest of my life.
I told him, "If I were to do this for five years, that would be the rest of my life."
TONY: Is the project's political content important to you? You play a sexist Republican who wants to take down the first female President.
DS: It seems to me that in the United States, the culture is particularly
manipulated by television. It's not that this show could ever lead anyone into a political view, but if it could inform people, make them think positively about the possibility of the first female President, that wouldn't be a bad thing.
TONY: It's interesting that you've never shied away from roles that other leading men might have avoided, films like Animal House...
DS: The director wasn't supposed to put that scene in! The scene where you saw my bum. That was a joke that made it into the film.
TONY: But honestly, you've shown your butt a lot. I'm assuming you didn't use a butt double.
DS: No, no, no—but Bobby Duvall should've had a butt double. Seriously, I would never do frontal nudity because, well, my cock is my cock. If
people saw it they wouldn't say, "There's a character's cock," they'd think, There's Donald's cock.
TONY: Speaking of which, I just rewatched Don't Look Now and, of course, that famous sex scene. I have to ask: Did you really have sex?
DS: God, no. That would have been impossible. I didn't know Julie [Christie] at all, it was three or four days into shooting, and we had a camera that made an incredible noise like a very loud sewing machine. We were naked, and Nick [Roeg, the director] would say, "Okay, lie down, Donald." [Makes loud whirring sound] "Okay, Julie, arch your head back." [Whirring sound] "Donald, put your mouth on Julie's neck." [Whirring sound] "Okay. Now, Julie—come!" [Whirring sound] It was like that for three hours, and we came out of there like zombies. In fact, it really kind of wrecked sexuality for me....
TONY: For how long?
DS: Well, for a little while, but not for very long.
TONY: You've managed to stay more of an actor than a movie star—I've never even seen pictures of you and your wife, actress Francine Racette, on the red carpet.
DS: 'Cause she always runs away. I wish my wife would be photographed. My wife is very, very beautiful. She's magnificent.
TONY: And you've been married for 32 years. That's odd for Hollywood.
DS: It's because she tells me what to do. And we both love it. It's a collaborative life.
TONY: Coming up on 50 years as an actor, is there anything you regret, any roles you wish you'd done?
DS: Jon Voight's role in Deliverance is the only one that comes to mind. The author, James Dickey, personally asked me to take it, and I said I wouldn't do it because it was too violent. That was stupid—all that political bullshit about violence was futile.
TONY: Do you have any plans to
DS: Actors don't retire—they die.
Pride & Prejudice is out Friday 11. Commander in Chief airs Tuesdays at 9pm on ABC.