He’s a legend and a true Hollywood survivor. Ferociously intellectual, deeply passionate and a man of conviction, Sutherland plays a man with Parkinson’s in his latest film, with as much conviction as the man who would be President in the short-lived Commander in Chief. But when you talk to Donald Sutherland, you get candid, lengthy responses, as Paul Fischer discovered.
Question: Were you disappointed that Commander In Chief was canceled?
Sutherland: Yes, I was disappointed. Um, no. You know something? I loved doing it. I really did love doing it, but it seemed to lose its focus a little bit. You know you get three producers and I got confused. Somewhere along the way it’s gone.
Question: Do you do a movie like this because of the character or the script?
Sutherland: I didn’t want to do it. I don’t know. I didn’t want to do Pride and Prejudice either. This happens, whatever it is. Often when you fall in love with someone the first part of falling in love with them, you don’t like them. I mean, you are in love with them, but you don’t like them. But you don’t want to be in love with them. I presume that must have had something to do with this except that I was terribly, terribly, terribly depressed, very, I don’t think I’ve ever been so down in my life and when you are that far down you have very negative thoughts. I mean you are not optimistic about the future. I’m circling around a reality my publicist says I must not say, so I went into the meeting with them four days before they started production and I explained to them why I should not do it. I had a raft of reasons. My wife was sitting there kind of where you are sitting. I was standing up, and Rick Bieber and James Burke, were, Rick was arguing pretty vigorously and James, was, was trying to work some sense out of what I was saying and in the middle of it I heard my wife way quite sincerely, “Do it.” And that was it.
Question: So she wears the pants in this relationship?
Sutherland: She carries a gun. She’s just right. She just is right. It isn’t a question of pants or no pants, she’s just right. She’s just right. I haven’t ever, well a couple of times, she is just right. And so we did it. We decided to do it and as soon as I got some information from the Parkinson’s people, some videotapes to look at, I did some intellectual research, not physical research, intellectual research on Alzheimer’s and my mother died of dementia, my father had Parkinson’s. And the guy was like I was injected and suddenly he took over me. Not when I wasn’t working, but he was put in the wheelchair or whatever he took over. He changed words and not intentionally. There was nothing premeditated about it, it just happened. I loved him. It was a, and I loved working for James. I loved the, I loved working with Josh with Louise a lot, and Juliette. It was just very pure. And it was about things that were important. It was about generational differences and love. It was about saying goodbye to someone you love and taking care of the physical shell that had enclosed that person that you had loved. That’s very hard. It was about a man who knows that sometime in the next little while he will be dead and he wants to accelerate that process so that he doesn’t waste the time of the woman that he loves. And to, and have some dignity, to get rid of yourself before you aren’t yourself, before your true self has disappeared, and to try and give something. Maybe I hadn’t, maybe he hadn’t, Ronald, given anything to his son? And to have a child ??? is terrible. And so you put so much on that. You know, because I was thinking of it last night when Kiefer accepted that award. Oh, it was wonderful. And I remember Ronald saying to Juliette how skillful a hockey player he was, the Josh character. All this morning I kept showing. Everybody who came to the room I said, “Look at this!” That’s the envelope, outstanding lead actor in a drama series. You open the envelope and the Emmy goes to Kiefer Sutherland for 24. And so he came down the aisle after he came back from walking backstage and grabbed me and gave me a kiss and said, “This is you.” And then I had the sheet of plastic put on it.
Question: Since you discouraged Kiefer from taking the role, do you feel TV and film productions have changed since then?
Sutherland: I didn’t feel that way then. I don’t know. Sometimes…maybe I said something like that to him, but I can’t imagine myself saying things like that. I don’t interfere. It’s a pretty strict policy. I don’t interfere in that kind of way. I try if I can with my children and I’m pretty rigorous about it so I question whether in fact that’s the reality.
Question: What kind of advice do you give you son?
Sutherland: I don’t give advice. No. What kind of advice am I going to give? I’m my, my life is ridden with mistakes. No, it just to ask, to try and examine, you know, ask questions about what this does for your future, what it does economically, what it does creatively. I don’t know anything about television. Why would I suggest something about it? What kind of cameras? What? So you ask questions so that they can form themselves and make a decision. For me to say I think you shouldn’t. I never said that to him. Certainly not in the beginning of his career. Why would I take somebody who is 34 or 35 years old and say na na na?
Question: Did you encourage him to be an actor?
Sutherland: No. No, I did not. No I didn’t. The way it started was he had run away from school and he came to me in Los Angeles, he was living in Toronto, he was in a private school that he hated, and I got him to come home to Los Angeles. He came here and he was living with us, Francine and me, and I was doing a film. I had been a year out of work. I had done Ordinary People and I was not offered a job for one year, not an audition, nothing, nothing, nothing for one year. And Ronny Meyer got me the film with Herb Ross that Neil Simon had written that Marsha was doing and Jason, Jason Robards Jr. called Max Dugan Returns and there was a part in it of my son and I said to Herb Ross, you know, can my s, maybe he had one line or something, he’s an athlete, he’s a baseball player, my son’s a wonderful athlete and he looks like me and he wanted money, he wanted to earn money. He didn’t want to be an actor, he just wanted to earn money. And, and so he, Herb Ross said and I don’t want to trash the dead so he, he said, well I need to audition him. Bloody hell what do you want to audition him for? But he took him into his trailer and kept him there for like an hour and a half and he came out and pontificated and said no, this boy is not an actor. So he got some kid who didn’t look like me who couldn’t play baseball…anyway. So I got Kiefer a job as an extra on the film and he earned some money and he was happy and then, but I mean I think somewhere I mean, who knows what people’s dreams are and they don’t talk about them, but, but he started to work and I, I remember, he came to my, I had a kind of downstairs study bedroom, I was sitting on the bed reading and knocked on the door and came in. He must have been 17 or 18. And he came, I don’t remember if this was before or after Bay Boy. Dan Petri came and asked me to be in Bay Boy and I said this is just wrong. I would, this is a terrific picture and I would overbalance it and ruin it. My presence in it would destroy the natural life of it, it would, you know it’s…I said we’ll you’ve got this kid, have a look at my son for it and he looked at Kiefer and auditioned him and auditioned him again, auditioned, and Kiefer worked really hard and got the part. But the thing with, he came into my room and said, Can I, I’m there, I had to do an audition tomorrow, can I do it for you, because that’s, whoa! I said okay and he did it. It was fantastic, I mean really just breathtakingly good. I had, the relief flooded through me and I said, That’s terrific and he said, no can I just say something, that’s the way they want me to do it, can I show you how I want to do it? I could hardly tell the story without breaking down. He said, okay, and he did it again and it was totally different. It was definitive. It was pure truth. It was absolutely brilliant. I just said, Goodbye chief, you are on your own. He was wonderful, so it, it, you know I had done a lot of television, I mean I never done a I did a series this year, so I would never have told somebody not to do anything, only because the burden of guilt, you know if a, if you’re right or wrong.
Question: Are you less depressed now?
Sutherland: The thing about doing Ronald, it a, I came out of it with no depression. I was depressed about work and a bunch of things.
Question: And the world we live in?
Sutherland: The world we live in at that time was, was that, that was before, how long has this film been? I can’t remember. Was this post 9/11? Yes, um, you know, somebody asked me last night, what do you think about Sumner Redstone and Tom Cruise and I said, I only think about Joe Lieberman and Connecticut. You know, that’s, what in God’s name is going on in that man’s head? I had a pretty good idea about it when he wouldn’t give up his senate seat when he was running for Vice President. You know, hedging your bet, anyway.
Question: You teach people how to treat their grandparents differently.
Sutherland: That would be wonderful. My mother-in-law lived with us until she died this September a year ago, nearly a year ago, 11 months ago at the age of 93, and it’s everything. It’s life.
Question: Are you still working?
Sutherland: Still working? I’m going to be working until, you know, I’ll be helping them with the shovel. No, I, I, it’s a passionate work and I love it. I’m going to do a film I cannot remember the title of, oh God. I don’t remember any of it.
Question: Are you interested in working on 24?
Sutherland: I’m looking forward to watching it. You know something, that’s a whole other thing. I love my son, but maybe we should do stand-up comedy. I don’t know.