(I held this back for the week after release since we openly discuss the fate of several characters in THE HUNGER GAMES. If you haven't seen it and are planning to, tread carefully.)
Anarchic, menacing, erudite, shy, certifiably insane... Donald Sutherland has been one of our most versatile and inimitable stars since making his big-screen debut alongside Christopher Lee in 1964's CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD. He seemed destined for a character actor's career with his agreeable portrayal of the dim Vernon Pinkley in THE DIRTY DOZEN, but everything changed in 1970 when he rolled into Robert Altman's M*A*S*H on a stolen Army jeep. Suddenly, Sutherland was an anti-establishment icon, a counterculture leading man. Throughout the '70s, Sutherland kept viewers off-balance, bounding from the brooding suspense of KLUTE to the good-natured provocation of STEELYARD BLUES to the sorrow-drenched terror of DON'T LOOK NOW. Sutherland is different in all of these films, but that strange, lanky magnetism is always there; he rarely dominates a frame, but he's almost always the most interesting figure in it. Later in the '70s, he goofed on his rebellious persona in John Landis's ANIMAL HOUSE as the pot-smoking Professor Dave Jennings (a stalled-out intellectual who beds idealistic young undergrads while struggling to finish his "piece of shit" novel), and starred in Philip Kaufman's post-hippie reconfiguring of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. At this point, he seemed well aware that the provocation of the protest era had blown itself out; all of the rabble rousers were settling in the suburbs.
And so in 1980, Sutherland displayed a more conservative and conciliatory side as Cal Jarrett, the well-meaning patriarch of a crumbling upper-middle-class family in Robert Redford's ORDINARY PEOPLE. It's unlikely the histrionics of Timothy Hutton and, in particular, Mary Tyler Moore would've been palatable without Sutherland's understated portrayal of this decent, but far-too-accommodating man who must decide between his rancorous wife and tortured son. There were more lead roles in the '80s, but, as the decade wore on, Sutherland once again began to evince an affinity for idiosyncratic character turns; by the time the '90s arrived, he was appearing almost exclusively in a supporting capacity in films both excellent and VIRUS (one exhilarating exception being Fred Schepisi's severely underrated adaptation of John Guare's SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION). But regardless of the quality of the films, Sutherland never phoned it in. His curiosity and, most importantly, sense of play remain undiminished - which cannot be said of most of his contemporaries (you know who they are).
As you'll read in the below interview (which really should be presented as audio given that the man possesses one of the most sonorous baritones in existence), Sutherland finds the character of President Snow in THE HUNGER GAMES especially invigorating. Though his scenes are few, he loves how director Gary Ross has elegantly expanded his character, and is eager to return in the sequel as the primary adversary of Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss Everdeen. Sutherland is effusive in his praise for Lawrence's work, and eloquent when expressing his admiration for the material - which he thinks could reignite the flames of last fall's Occupy conflagration.
And then I asked him about his brilliant turn as The Clumsy Waiter in KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE...
Mr. Beaks: You convey so much with President Snow with a limited amount of screen time? Does your approach to a performance differ in relation to the size of the role?
Donald Sutherland: No. I'm working with the director. And every time you do a role, it's an incrementally small piece of something. So the size of the piece is really kind of irrelevant.
Beaks: But what is it in that piece that interests you? What does it take now for you to get excited about a role?
Sutherland: With this? When this script came to me, I was totally unfamiliar with the books. I hadn't even heard of them, let alone read them. It was presented to me, and I read it. I was overwhelmed. I pushed it away, and I said to my wife, "This film has a chance of being something that can change things. This film, through that character of Katniss Everdeen, could be a catalyst, could be a motivator that makes a generation of young people who have been by and large dormant stand up and take some kind of political action." I wasn't trying to define the political action; I just thought that through this allegory they could become aware of the political structure surrounding them, and the injustice that there is inherent in it. So when Gary asked me to do it, I went to North Carolina and continued that discussion. He wanted to come together with some kind of a scene that would address how you administer this kind of oligarchy of the privilege and the underclass that they need to sustain. So he came up with those two scenes in the rose garden: they're not in the book, and they're extraordinary. How he controls Wes's character [Seneca Crane]. [Snow] is seventy-six years old; he was two years old when the Hunger Games started. He's trying to groom Wes to take over for him when the time comes; he gives him very careful and specific instruction, and he embraces it with affection. He cautions him to be careful. But he isn't careful. He gets sucked in by the underdog, and so he dies.
But what happens is that out of this milieu comes a Spartacus. I know that that's going to happen someday - maybe not in my lifetime, but I know it's inevitable. And when it does happen, there's a kind of relief. I was with a friend who has breast cancer, who died from breast cancer, and on the first day we were in the car together. She's an extraordinary athletic champion, and one of the women on her team called her and said, "Well, you're lucky." And she said, "Why?" She said, "You're lucky because we're all terrified that we're going to get it. Now you know that you have it, so you don't have to worry anymore." So he sees Katniss Everdeen appear, and there's no more concern. This is it. This is the battle, and it thrills him. It delights him. He's so anxious to tangle with her. In SAINT JOAN, George Bernard wrote a preface, and in the preface he defined among political people - and he calls Jesus Christ a political person - he talks about them all each having a genius. Katniss Everdeen has that genius. And it becomes so evident when it's played with the kind of brilliance that Jennifer Lawrence plays it with. I said to someone that she should change her name to Jennifer Lawrence Olivier.
Beaks: (Laughs) She's quite something.
Sutherland: She is. She's extraordinary. And she picks up those berries in a way... I mean, I know because I've read the script that she needs them later on. But she picks them up in a way... almost every actor would in some way do that action indicating somehow that they need them later on. She doesn't. The genius that her character is sees them as a weapon. And this character of mine sees things like that, and knows the kind of competition he's up against. I can taste it. But when I saw the movie, I looked and thought, "My god, that's Elizabeth Taylor in NATIONAL VELVET!" There was one scene where she looked like her; she looked like the young Elizabeth Taylor. There was another scene where she looked like the bloody Mona Lisa. I couldn't believe it! (Beaks laughs) No, one shot, and there she was! I can't say enough about that child.
Beaks: One thing I really loved about this movie was that, as you were saying, it could be a catalyst for change. It's a science fiction film of ideas like they made in the '70s.
Sutherland: You know, when we did INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, Phil Kaufman was making the body snatchers McDonalds. That was what his image of the body snatchers: McDonalds. (Laughs)
Beaks: It was an amazing era for studio films. Movies could both entertain people and get them riled up. I think of something like M*A*S*H. It's hilarious, but it had a huge cultural impact.
Sutherland: Absolutely. It was against the status quo.
Beaks: As is THE HUNGER GAMES. How rare is something like this on a studio level?
Sutherland: I got it once before. It's not rare; it's impossible to find. I've found things that I thought maybe would do something, but they frittered away: the director wasn't adequate or the script got screwed up.
Beaks: There's something to your demeanor in movies... perhaps it's because one of the first movies I remember being really affected by is ORDINARY PEOPLE. I've always associated you with that role. There's a warmth and gentleness there. So when you play someone with a touch of malevolence...
Sutherland: A little Machiavellian.
Beaks: Yes, like Snow. When you play these kinds of characters, it's unnerving to me to see that gentleness sort of corrupted.
Sutherland: I take a little piece of my own DNA, feed the script into it, stick it in the petri dish in the middle of my belly, and out comes a character that talks to Gary Ross. And Gary then says, "You do this, and this, and this." I'm his concubine. I love him to death, I have to be truthful. But [Snow] doesn't think he's bad; he doesn't even think he's a great administrator - but he is. And he does think that Katniss is something to deal with. He can taste it. The idea of moving the pieces in that chess game so thrills him. What a way to end his life! If he were to die as a result of it, he would probably die giggling. I've got to tell you that when I went to see the screening, when she puts those flowers around the body of Rue, and then stands up and [makes the District 12 farewell gesture], I just wept.
(I'm informed that I have one more question.)
Beaks: I'd be remiss if I didn't mention this: among the many things you do well, I've always thought you're one of our great comedic actors. And you have a real penchant for physical comedy, particularly as the Clumsy Waiter in KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE. (Sutherland laughs and claps his hands.) I have to ask: how did that come about?
Sutherland: Look what you just did. (Pulls back his shirt sleeve to reveal very real goosebumps.) My hair's standing up! (Laughs) Okay, I'm in Yugoslavia; I've had spinal meningitis, and I've died on a table for five seconds or something. Whatever. Anyway, I'm shooting this film [KELLY'S HEROES], and we have a gopher, a fellow named John Landis. And the word came through when we were shooting that M*A*S*H, this film that I had done that was not yet released, had screened with extraordinary success in San Francisco. And John Landis said, "I hear your film's a really big hit. Well, I'm going to be a big-time director." I said, "If you're going to be a director, whatever films you make I will be a part of. I'll be on a billboard, I'll do something." Hence KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE.
So you cut to 1978. I'm making INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS*, and I get a phone call from Landis. "Can you come up to Eugene, Oregon for the weekend? I want you to play this teacher." I said, "Okay, I'll be there." He then said, "They want to offer you two percent of the profits." I said, "Who wants to offer me two percent of the profits?" He said, "The studio." I said, "It's a studio picture?" He said, "Yeah, it's Universal." And I said, "Fuck them! They've got to pay me my daily rate." So they paid me my daily rate, and I probably lost two or three million dollars. (Laughs)
Nice that Mr. Sutherland can laugh about talking himself out of a few million dollars. Can't say that I'd be laughing.
I'd love to one day get more time with Sutherland and discuss his amazing performances in M*A*S*H, DON'T LOOK NOW, KLUTE, SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION and so many others, but I'm grateful for these fourteen minutes with one of the our finest actors.
THE HUNGER GAMES is currently in theaters, and more than lives up to the hype.