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He still loves the job

The acting legend discusses The Italian Job and many other movies.
LIZ BRAUN, Special to The Free Press   2003-06-10 04:18:14  

Let's all talk about Donald Sutherland. He's so elegant. He's so accomplished. He's one of the stars of The Italian Job, a heist caper about safe-cracking, gold bullion and driving like crazy in a Mini.

The Italian Job, which is in theatres now, also stars Mark Wahlberg, Ed Norton, Charlize Theron and Seth Green. The film is directed by F. Gary Gray. Before Sutherland turns up to talk to reporters about The Italian Job, all the other actors and the director talk about him. And they all say just about the same thing: How nervous they were to work with an actor of his stature and what a sweetheart he turns out to be.

When the great man finally turns up, the first thing he says is, "I was so nervous."

And, says Sutherland, "I'm nervous now. This is hard work." With the ice not only broken but entirely melted, Sutherland eases into telling stories about The Italian Job and many other movies. He had just finished playing Nicole Kidman's father in Cold Mountain when The Italian Job came up.

"And I wanted the opportunity to play Charlize Theron's father and the chance to go back to Venice, after I'd shot there 30 years ago."

(Sutherland was there in 1973 to shoot the psychic thriller Don't Look Now, with Julie Christie. He was in Venice at the time with his third wife, Francine Racette, with whom he has three adult sons. His other children, by his second wife, Shirley Douglas, are Kiefer and Rachel.)

We'll let Sutherland take it from here:

What's your strongest memory of Venice?

"Oh, it's where we conceived our first child. His name is Roeg after Nick Roeg (the director of Don't Look Now), but the other thing is that every time you go to Venice, no matter what, you'll walk down a street and suddenly around a corner, you'll just see the little flicker of a red raincoat going over there. It's a wonderful city. The food is also -- well, the best food is in Florence. God, we had the best meal that I've ever had in my life there, absolutely perfect."

Are you not claustrophobic in Venice, given your height? (Sutherland is six foot, three.)

"It's terrible, but it doesn't bother me so much now. I couldn't be there in '68 when I was shooting Kelly's Heroes because I was so sick with spinal meningitis, but we went back before I agreed to finally do Don't Look Now just to see whether or not I could survive in the city, but I love it."

To what would you attribute your acting longevity?

"I'm cheap. I can't tell you. My participation in this life is very subjective, and yours would be the objective view. I have no idea. I only ever did what I wanted to do, and if what I ended up wanting to do kept me in work, that was terrific. I certainly did not want to get to be 67 years old and not have work."

Have you given your son Kiefer career advice?

"I have given him none and I have no objective viewpoint of his career, none at all. I mean, the series that he's doing (TV's 24) just takes your breath away. It really does. I hadn't seen it for about five weeks maybe, and (then) I looked at it . . . and you're immediately sucked into the vortex of it. He did come to me one night when I was living in Los Angeles, and -- how old is he now, 36? -- so this would've been a good 22 years ago, and he stood at the end of the bed, and he said, 'Can I do my audition for you?' And I was, 'Oh, God, puh-lease, oh, dear.' 'OK,' I said. And he did it and it was brilliant. I was so relieved. And he said, 'Well, that's the way they want me to do it, can I show you how I want to do it?' -- and so he did it again, completely different. And it was way better. Oh, it was just, the hair stands up. I don't even remember whether he got the part, but he was wonderful."

Any special memories of Ordinary People?

"I remember the house that I lived in at the time caused me to do Edward Albee's Lolita. It was a Frank Lloyd Wright house and he was very short, Frank Lloyd Wright, and he was having an affair with the wife of the fella for whom he was building the house. So he built booby traps into it. The husband was tall and so you walked down a hallway and suddenly you'd hit your head . . . and you're on the ground. I had gone to answer the telephone, it was Edward Albee, and I literally zeroed in for the telephone, hit my head, was on the ground, picked up the phone and I must've been out of my mind because I said yes. My memory of Ordinary People was that Bob Redford was really skilful."

Any special memories of M*A*S*H?

"Elliot Gould was just wonderful, wonderful. He's an extraordinary character. (M*A*S*H director) Bob Altman wanted to get rid of me, but the studio would not let him. It was just Bob Altman, he just didn't like me and still doesn't.

Is it true you never watch your own movies?

"No, I watch them now, and mostly because of Kiefer. When I did Fred Schepisi's Six Degrees of Separation, Fred and I let the movie start and Kiefer was there, and he went to watch it and I went and hid in a restaurant and had a cup of tea. Afterward, he said, 'Dad, you really should have a look at that,' and I did. Since then . . . it's hard, because you create a character out of 900 pieces of material and you put it all together and it's all tiny, infinitesimally different pieces added together and then that's your character. And then the director takes it, because it's really his character, and he cuts it up into little pieces and puts them back together again and it's a different person. Which is fine by me, but the character that is still alive inside me hates it, can't bear to see what surgery they've done. It drags me out of theatres."

Was there one that wasn't cut up? That you liked? Klute, maybe?

"Oh my God, Klute -- no, no. In fact, no. Was that clear? No! But certainly, when I saw Six Degrees, it was very close to what I imagined."

Do you still love acting as much as when you started?

"More so. It's changed, but it's more profound because then it was my whole life, and now it's just something that I'm devoted to, that informs my life."

Any regrets about roles you didn't take?

"We don't have nearly enough time."

One in particular you wished you'd done?

"John Boorman came and kind of lived with me for two weeks trying to persuade me to do Deliverance.

"I said, 'I don't want to do a film about violence. I think that it's incorrect.' And Jon Voight did it. Sam Peckinpah came right after that and said, 'I want you to do Straw Dogs.' I said, 'I'm not going to do Straw Dogs, it's about violence.'

"I regret not having done those pictures, but if I had done them, the course of my life would've taken a different pattern. I would not, maybe, have ended up in 1971 in Duck Lake, Sask., doing Alien Thunder. And I would not have turned around and seen Francine Racette. And then I would not have had her for the last 31 years of my life. So, I would rather have that than the other."

Copyright © The London Free Press 2001,2002,2003

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