SAN SEBASTIAN — While Donald Sutherland has never shied from speaking his mind, events of recent days have lent his voice an extra tremble of urgency.
“The attitude at the U.N. is bulls—,” said the Canadian actor, echoing the frustrations of climate activist Greta Thunberg that world leaders are not reacting with sufficient gravity to the crisis of climate change.
“I have children, I have grandchildren, and the world that I have left them, and am going to leave them, is not one they’ll be able to live in,” Sutherland said from the San Sebastian Film Festival, where the actor is promoting his latest film, “The Burnt Orange Heresy” and is due to receive the Donostia Award.
“[In China] individuals now have to pollinate flowers because there are no more bees. When you’re driving your car, there are no more bugs on your windscreen. We’ve lost 2.5 billion birds. That’s what we should be talking about!”
As the 84-year-old performer explained from this San Sebastian press conference, he has allowed his social conscience to steer his career choices – and that includes accepting roles in big budget franchise productions.
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Asked about his work in “The Hunger Games” series, Sutherland replied that he took the role because, “I thought it could energize the youth of the United States and politicize them – revolutionize them, maybe.”
“It didn’t,” he shrugged, “but it had a shot.”
Despite his work on studio fare like the “The Hunger Games” or the recent “Ad Astra” – which he praised, noting he was grateful to director James Gray for opting to shoot on film — Sutherland does not view himself as industry man.
“I don’t know anything about Hollywood,” he said. “I just work.” He noted that “The Burnt Orange Heresy” is an Italian production and implied that he felt more like a citizen of the world. “I [divide my time between] Canada, France, and Miami Beach… which is a separate state. It should be an island onto itself, [and] maybe have a relationship with the United States, or maybe not.”
The actor reflected on his illustrious career, talking about his roots in Canada, his memorable collaborators, and some of the uniquely strange situations he’s found himself in since starting out a screen actor in the early 1960s.
While shooting the 1970 film “Kelly’s Heroes” on location in Eastern Europe, the actor contracted spinal meningitis and soon fell into a coma.
“I had that out of body experience where you watch your body go down this blue tunnel,” he reflected. “I was lying in my coma in the bed in the hospital, but I could still hear. And I heard the producers dictating a telegram to my then-wife telling her not to come, and that they would ship the body home.”
The moral of the story? “If you’re ever with anyone in a coma, talk to them. They can hear you,” he added.
Sutherland was quick to praise his “Burnt Orange Heresy” director Giuseppe Capotondi and co-star Elizabeth Debicki (“She’s wonderful – and taller than me! Very impressive”), and loving cited his work with Nicolas Roeg and Robert Altman, but he pointedly refused to answer when asked whether he himself had a favorite Donald Sutherland film.
“It’s like asking me which is my favorite child,” he began. “I have five children, and if I said one was my favorite, the other four would kill me. [My films are also] my children… so I don’t have a favorite. I have huge relationships with them all.”
He then waited a beat, and a knowing wink, added, “but I really loved working with Fellini.”