Donald Sutherland Reflects on Long Run of Success, Looks to ‘Snowy’ Future

Donald Sutherland gains new fans with Hunger games
Rene & Radka for Variety

In a career that spans six decades, Donald Sutherland has traversed all mediums and genres, thanks to talent, preparation and, by his own admission, sheer luck.

He discovered the extent of his latest professional good fortune about three years ago in, of all places, a doctor’s office.

“I was at my dermatologist, and she asked me what I was doing next,” Sutherland recalls. “I told her I was about to do something called ‘The Hunger Games.’ She gasped and started calling everyone into the room, and they all came running. That was my first inkling it might be something big,” says the actor, who wasn’t familiar with Suzanne Collins’ popular sci-fi trilogy when he first read the script.

Thanks to his steely turn as President Snow, the 79-year-old actor has attracted a new generation of fans. He’ll reprise his role as Katniss Everdeen’s nemesis in the series’ third film, “Mockingjay, Part I,” debuting in theaters Nov. 21, and the final installment, “Mockingjay, Part 2,” out next November.

Sutherland, who stands 6-feet-two, says it’s not unusual for him to be stopped by young girls who have to stand on a chair to get a photo taken with him. “Usually right before the picture is taken, the young woman will say, ‘Why do you look so mean?’ ”

photo credit: Rene & Radka for Variet

Sutherland refuses to see Snow as a total villain. “He doesn’t kill anyone … unless it’s essential,” he points out. “He maintains a tight control, but he’s not a war criminal like so many presidents and people throughout the world who have killed millions.” As for butting heads with Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss, the actor believes Snow adores her. “She wows him,” he says. “She delights and amuses him because he knows more than anything she has a particular kind of genius he’s been looking for all his life.”

When Sutherland signed on to the original “Hunger Games,” the script had only one small scene for the actor. It was after meeting with director Gary Ross and discussing the character that additional sequences were written for the role. But Sutherland says it’s never about the size of the part; it’s always about the material.

Then again, sometimes its about kismet.

Take his big break, in 1967’s “The Dirty Dozen,” in which he appears in a memorable scene as an inmate pretending to be a general. It came about when actor Clint Walker refused director Robert Aldrich’s instruction to do the scene. Says Sutherland, “Bob looked at me and said, ‘You, with the big ears. You do it.’ ” The scene caught the eye of producer Ingo Preminger, who cast Sutherland as Hawkeye Pierce in “MASH,” the 1970 movie that made him a star.

The same year, Sutherland got to know director John Landis when Landis was a gopher on the 1970 film “Kelly’s Heroes.” In 1977 Landis was directing low-budget comedy “Kentucky Fried Movie,” and asked Sutherland to appear in a walk-on role as a clumsy waiter who drops a cake. “He was at the height of his stardom, and he came out to shoot this goofy thing for a day,” Landis recalls fondly. “It would be the equivalent of Brad Pitt appearing in a student film today.”

A year later, Landis was set to direct “Animal House” for Universal, but the film was in constant danger of being put on “double-secret probation” — because there were no known actors in the cast. “I was basically told I had to deliver a movie star or we were shutting down,” Landis says. “The only movie star I knew was Donald. And because he said yes, that’s why we got a green light. All these actors who got their start with that film, from Kevin Bacon to Tom Hulce, owe him a huge debt.”

Sutherland, for his part, says “Animal House” is a perfect example of the good and bad choices in his career. He loved the low-budget movie, but regrets having passed on a deal that offered him 2% of the backend. “I told them, ‘No, you need to pay me my daily rate,’ ” he recalls. “So I got $25,000 for the day, when I could have ended up with $14 million.”

Sutherland and Landis do have a difference of opinion on one famous scene, where it’s revealed Sutherland’s professor is sleeping with one of his students, played by Karen Allen. As Sutherland turns to exit, he famously bares his ass — something the actor claims he did only to make the crew laugh when watching daily rushes, and was never intended to be used in the film. But according to Landis, Sutherland dropped trou because Allen was hesitant about baring her own bottom. “Karen was nervous, and I talked to Donald about it, and that’s why he did it. And she was like, ‘If he can, I can,’ ” Landis says. As for Sutherland’s story, Landis just laughs. “Here’s the thing about movies: It’s ‘Rashomon.’ Everyone has their own version.”

Sutherland spent much of the 1970s starring in other critical and box office hits, including “Klute” and “Don’t Look Now,” with leading ladies Jane Fonda and Julie Christie, respectively; he played Casanova for Fellini and worked with directors Bernardo Bertolucci and Robert Altman. And in 1980, he starred in Robert Redford’s “Ordinary People,” which won the best picture Oscar.

One of Sutherland’s most memorable screen moments came in that film, in which he played the grieving father. In an emotional scene in which he tells wife, played by Mary Tyler Moore, that he no longer loves her, Sutherland cries. “When we looked at the rushes, I turned to Bob and said, ‘I screwed up,’ ” he recalls. “I should have been sitting there for a long time crying, and this scene should just be played frankly.” Redford assured him it was fine.

Three months later, Redford called and said he believed Sutherland was right, and wanted to reshoot the scene. The only hitch was that they no longer had the set, and Moore was out of town doing a play. “Bob said, ‘But I do have the curtains and the window. If I played Mary, could we redo it?’ ” Sutherland reveals. “And that’s what you see in the movie.”

Yet for all his success, Sutherland didn’t work for about two years following “Ordinary People.” (1981’s “In the Eye of the Needle” and “Threshold” were both shot before the Oscar-winner opened.) “I couldn’t get a job, I couldn’t get an audition, I couldn’t get an interview,” Sutherland recalls of the dry period. He read the script for “Dirty Dancing” and asked his then-agent, Ron Meyer, to get him a meeting with producers for the part of the father. “He told me that when he suggested me for the role, they replied, ‘Ronnie, you would have a better chance of playing that role than Donald Sutherland.’ ”

What’s never been in question is Sutherland’s commitment to any role, no matter how small.

For his one scene in “JFK,” he estimates he prepared for four months. “I didn’t want to simply be repeating the words,” he explains. “It had to come from my gut.” When he played a pyromaniac in two scenes of “Backdraft,” his wife of 24 years, Francine Racette, told director Ron Howard he ruined their vacation. “She said, ‘Our whole summer was made up of that pyromaniac,’” Sutherland recounts. “I don’t think I’m an actor who takes their characters home with him. But I certainly do take the preparation home.”

Rod Lurie, who cast Sutherland in his first regular TV gig on “Commander in Chief,” paints a portrait of dedication. “He doesn’t just show up and hit his marks,” Lurie notes. “When we were nominated for the People’s Choice Award, he was asked to present. He wouldn’t just read from the teleprompter, he insisted on memorizing his entire speech. As far as he was concerned, it was a performance.”

Lurie says Sutherland hides a wicked sense of humor. When he arrived to the set to shoot his first scene, he was asked to sign his contract. “He insisted he couldn’t sign without his lucky pen, which he couldn’t find,” Lurie recalls. “We were all having a heart attack and, of course, he was just messing with us.”

Though Sutherland was leery of doing episodic TV, he has warmed to the medium since “Commander in Chief,” starring in shows like “Dirty Sexy Money” and “Crossing Lines.” And he’s still taking on new challenges after all these years. He’s penned his first produced screenplay, for the animated film “Pirate’s Passage,” set to hit television in December in his native Canada.

Landis speaks for many when he says he’s excited to see what Sutherland does next. “I really believe he’s not appreciated for the fine actor he is,” says the director. “He’s not undervalued — he works all the time — but he’s underrated. There are so many great performances. He’s so consistent; I think people can lose sight of just how great he is.”