The Canadian-born actor walks us through his greatest hits, from 'Dirty Dozen' to 'Mockingjay,'
You might know him best as President Coriolanus Snow, the cold tyrannical leader of Panem. But even prior to sending children to their deaths for sport, actor Donald Sutherland, 80, has been scene-stealing for five decades. As his reign comes to a close in the Hunger Games franchise, the eclectic actor — who’s somehow never been nominated for an Oscar — spoke to EW and reflected on his illustrious career.
As a television actor working primarily in England, Sutherland was one of the lesser-known actors cast in The Dirty Dozen, dubbed the “back six.” -Originally, he had only one line, but that changed when costar Clint Walker balked at doing a scene that required him to impersonate a general. “[Director Robert Aldrich] looked at [Walker], turned, and looked down the table at me and said, ‘You, with the big ears, you do it,’” Sutherland recalls. That scene got him noticed by Ingo Preminger, the producer of M*A*S*H, who would cast him as Hawkeye.
Preminger may have wanted Sutherland for the role in M*A*S*H, one that ultimately propelled him to stardom, but director Robert Altman had other ideas. “Altman’s first suggestion was ‘I don’t want Donald Sutherland. Get him out of there,’” says the actor. But Sutherland stayed, and got an education in Altman’s unorthodox school of film-making, which involved a lot of pot and little direction. “I guess he never particularly liked me, but he certainly was very generous with me on the film. Every idea that we put forward, he embraced.”
Sutherland, along with Clint Eastwood, Don Rickles, and Telly Sevalas, spent six months filming another war comedy, this time in Yugoslavia. What Sutherland remembers most is the $1,500 he earned playing poker during that half a year — enough cash to purchase a bright red Ferrari 275 GTB/2 in Bologne at the end of the movie that he shipped to New York so he and his stuntman could drive it to Los Angeles — in a quick 33 hours. But Sutherland, with two young children at home at the time, couldn’t keep the two-seater, and he traded it in for a Volkswagen camper, making a $2,500 profit. Only years later was he watching television in a motel in Vermont, and they were auctioning off his Ferrari — for a cool $1.25 million. My son says, ‘Dad, don’t feel bad about it, because now it’s worth four!’
Sutherland first met Jane Fonda at a benefit for the Black Panther Party in Los Angeles, but it was on this Alan J. Pakula crime thriller that they first worked together. From there, he and Fonda entwined their liberal politics and personal lives for a brief, fiery love affair. “She had, at the time, the most beautiful breasts in the world,“ says Sutherland before digressing into a juicy, not-fit-for-print story about his costar.
After turning down roles in John Boorman’s Deliverance and Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs due to their violence, Sutherland agreed to star in Nicolas Roeg’s bloody classic Don’t Look Now. While the film came under fire for his graphic sex scene with Julie Christie — many believed the actors were actually having sex, which Sutherland denies — what he remembers most are the lengths he was willing to go for his director. That included attaching himself to a quick-release Kirby wire 50 feet above a marble floor inside an Italian basilica. It was only afterward when talking to a stuntman that he comprehended the risk. “His face went ashen, and he said, ‘A Kirby wire breaks when you do that.’ It was a lucky film,” Sutherland says.
Sutherland only bared his assets in his memorable Animal House scene as a joke to entertain the cast, but director John Landis put the take in the film anyway, despite promises that he wouldn’t. “I said to John, ‘Okay, just this one scene
with Karen Allen, just as a joke, you have to promise me you will not use it in the film.’ And he said, ‘Absolutely, I won’t use it!’ ” recalls Sutherland. “Then he used it. And my wife has never spoken to him since. All the other takes had a pair of underwear. Otherwise, it never would have been done.”
According to Sutherland, Robert Redford, in his directorial debut, was deciding between casting Mary Tyler Moore
or Angie Dickinson as the embittered mother in his brutal family drama. “If he had cast Angie, he would have cast Gene Hackman. Angie was terrific, but Mary was breathtaking, so he cast me,” he says. “I’m not quite sure why. I guess Mary and I look more WASPy. Whatever it is, I’m grateful.”
Sutherland was asked to play X, the mystery man who steps out of the shadows to deliver all the answers behind the JFK assassination conspiracy. The dialogue-heavy scene required a lot from Sutherland, who spent months ahead of the shoot walking in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris with his wife Francine and his dog, while he recited his lines. “I wanted to be able to do it like it was in the middle of a conversation, and I wouldn’t lose it. It was so deeply embedded in my heart and soul,” he says. “And I’m proud of it. It’s used in classes and stuff, and we shot it in one morning.”
Sutherland, knowing nothing about the book phenomenon, joined the franchise as President Coriolanus Snow after responding to the script. “I thought it was a very powerful, necessary, political film,” he says. Plus his role as the terrifying, enigmatic leader of Panem introduced him to a new generation of moviegoers. “Young people ask if I will take my picture with them. Then just before the camera snaps, they turn to me and say, ‘Will you please look mean?’”