After living in the skin of J. Paul Getty Sr. for months last year, Donald Sutherland found empathy for the oil magnate whose family was caught up in a kidnapping drama that is recounted in the Danny Boyle-helmed FX series “Trust.”
Getty Sr. was one of the richest men in the world at the time his 16-year-old grandson, J. Paul Getty III, was held for ransom in Italy in 1973. The younger Getty was in on the plot in the beginning but his effort to extract $17 million from his moneybags grandfather went awry when the kidnappers turned on him. The 10-episode series premieres March 25.
From Getty Sr.’s perspective, paying the full ransom was a non-starter because it would have invited opportunists to take aim at his 13 other grandchildren. That decision was viewed harshly when the kidnappers sliced off Getty III’s ear. The family eventually negotiated the price down to $3 million.
“He wasn’t cruel. He was pragmatic and precise,” Sutherland said Thursday during a panel on the show following a screening in New York. “It was a practical decision. J. Paul Getty was a decent man.”
Sutherland’s assertions brought some chuckles from Boyle, writer Simon Beaufoy and his co-stars — Michael Esper, Brendan Fraser, Harris Dickinson –who attended the luncheon gathering at the Lotos Club on the Upper East Side.
“J. Paul Getty did nothing wrong,” Beaufoy exclaimed. But Beaufoy added that given the emotional dynamics at play in the fractured family, it wasn’t hard to have sympathy for the Getty III (Dickinson) who turned to larceny for attention and money, or his father, J. Paul Getty Jr. (Esper), who was powerless in the situation because he had no money of his own.
“There were no easy villains here,” Beaufoy said. “Everybody was trapped in their own psychological difficulties.”
Boyle noted that the questions about the corrosive influence extreme wealth and power that are illuminated in “Trust” are easily applicable to the mega-billionaires who make headlines today. He pointed to the ” ‘Hunger Games’-like competition that Jeff Bezos is running in American cities to give him tax credits” for building a sizable new Amazon corporate office. Getty Sr. would have approved of Bezos’ effort, Boyle opined. “If you swapped out the word ‘oil’ for ‘data’ the scene is absolutely applicable now,” he said of a sequence in which Getty Sr. expands on his views of capitalism and the oil business.
Sutherland read all he could find about Getty Sr. to prepare for the role, including books written by the billionaire “which were not completely true,” he said. Sutherland had his own familiarity with the rough-and-tumble environment in early 1970s Italy, having worked there as an actor. While filming 1976’s “Casanova” for Federico Fellini, he had travel by car with a white cloth bag over his head because the production had taken out kidnapping insurance on him. “That was one of the requirements of having kidnapping insurance,” Sutherland recalled. “The other was that they were not to tell me they had kidnapping insurance.”
Sutherland heaped praise on working with Boyle (who directed the first three episodes) and Beaufoy. “Every single word was just perfect,” Sutherland said. “Sometimes it was as if I were channeling (Getty).” The veteran actor also had kind words for FX Networks chief John Landgraf and his team. “Landgraf is the ideal man — intellectually, emotionally, sympathetically — to work for on something like this. I adore him,” Sutherland said.
Fraser plays Getty Sr.’s strapping American security chief, James Fletcher Chace, who is brought to London to help sort out the kidnapping mess. Chace immediately has a sense that not all is as it seems with the kidnapping and ransom effort. “He trusts his gut and knows that some things just don’t add up,” Fraser said.
Beaufoy noted that it was Fraser who help inspire the idea of having Chace break the fourth wall to serve as a kind of narrator and Greek chorus while the Getty family’s sordid story unfolds. Fraser confessed he’d hoped to make his big entrance in the series atop a horse. That led to an inside-joke sight gag in episode two in which Fraser picks up a small plastic horse, Boyle added.
Fraser enjoyed playing a character who was such a contrast to Getty family and the English and Italian figures who populate the story. “He’s the brassy American in the room, wrapped up in the Stars and Stripes,” Fraser said. “He doesn’t carry a gun. He wears a Stetson.”
Beaufoy told Variety the hope is that “Trust” will be renewed for a second season, which would examine Getty Sr.’s early years of empire-building in the 1920s and ’30s.