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Donald Sutherland on 'Trust,' '70s Cinema and Sympathy for the Devil

Legendary actor opens up about a career that spans 'The Dirty Dozen' to Peak TV and why he won't watch his own work

Donald Sutherland opens up about new FX show 'Trust' – and sex scenes, being seduced by Jane Fonda, self-doubt, a 60-year career onscreen and more. Credit: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

There are several Donald Sutherlands you're likely to meet if you start spelunking through the nearly six decades of this Canadian actor's screen career. There's the sparkle-eyed Sixties hippie in he-man war films, the type of wonderfully anachronistic presence that enlivens movies like The Dirty Dozen ("Madison City, Missouri, sir!" "Never heard of it.") and Kelly's Heroes, and which he parlayed into a countercultural double act with Elliott Gould in MASH. There's the curly-hair-and-mustache combo of the mid-Seventies leading man Sutherland, which turned him into a blue-eyed hangdog sex symbol. There's the straight-arrow Sutherland, who bookended his most fertile decade with performances as a fish-outta-water detective (Klute, 1971) and a WASP-under-pressure father (Ordinary People, 1980). And there's the éminence grise Sutherland, the reliable over-50 supporting player who shows up as curdled authority figures, corrupt commander-in-chiefs, conspiracy whistleblowers and the occasional YA-dystopia despot. 

It's that last one, the older and wiser Sutherland, that greets you in Trust, Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy's new FX show that premiered on March 25th. Cast as industrial titan J. Paul Getty and revisiting the story of his grandson's kidnapping over 10 episodes (if this rich-people-behaving-badly tale seems familiar, it's because Ridley Scott recently explored the same territory in All the Money in the World with Christopher Plummer), the 82-year-old actor plays the business magnate as a walking corpse, the sort of rancid billionaire for whom the word sepulchral was invented. From the moment you see him awakening in the morning, downing a raw-eggs-and-Worchester mixture and padding around while practicing his Chinese, his Getty is like a black hole – a frowning, powerful force that sucks everything into its dark gravitational pull. And after dominating the series' first episode, you get the sense that Sutherland is just getting started with this 20th-century monster.

Sitting down to talk about Trust, the self-admittedly shy star starts by sorting through his feelings about playing the oil tycoon – "I felt sorry for him," he says – before eventually opening up about his career: his big break, borrowing cash to get to Hollywood, Altman, Gould, Fonda, Nic Roeg, good advice, bad decisions, body snatchers, Ordinary People, extraordinary performances and a lot more. "I knew I wasn't going to be a sculptor," he says, in regards to his original bohemian career choice. "I needed the response. I needed an audience."

How did Trust come to you?
I'm not sure … I remember Danny and Simon came to Miami – when I'm in the United States, I live in Miami Beach. I did a bit of research on it, wrote some notes on Getty. We talked it over, but it didn't take a lot of convincing. Simon's work is brilliant. I mean, really, really brilliant. So often, you read a script and you say, "Ok, well, that doesn't fit in my mouth, I need to move that around, if this goes from here to here well, then this bump here doesn't work … so we need to work this into shape." That wasn't the case here. It was like – how can I put this? What he had written for Getty felt as if it was born inside me already.

Did playing him make you think any different about the industrial aristocratic class – these sort of old-world, old-money figures?
I mean … to be absolutely truthful, yes, it did. I've always thought of them as evil. You know, look at Monsanto. Look at British Petroleum in Iran, in 1953! They have a different outlook on the world than you and I do, the very rich. But Getty – I had sympathy for him.

Why?
He's immensely intelligent, he's pragmatic and he's incredibly tragic. He seems to have been rendered totally incapable of loving. There's no emotional connect with him. He doesn't really have any friends of substance, or an instinctive affection for his children. When Timmy [Getty's grandson] was dying in New York, John Paul got a letter begging him to come see the child. And instead of writing them back to say, you know, "I don't take boats" – which was a bullshit excuse, but still – Getty sent a letter back with corrections to the grammar. That's who he was.

But nevertheless, I understood him. In a way, I knew where he was coming from. You know, I can't see movies that I am in. To many people, it's incomprehensible. But I understand that in me. And that particular kind of denial in Getty, I understood it. I felt sorry for him.

You keep wondering, why did he refuse to pay the ransom? He acts like it's losing a negotiation if he does that – but it feels more like Getty is offering his love, he gets spurned and then that's his way of acting out. It's like he's been jilted.
Precisely! I mean, it's not the entire reason – his rationale was that he had 14 grandchildren and he wasn't about to set a precedent. But I think that's absolutely right. The instinct was not to pay it, but …even with all the love and affection he had for the boy, he couldn't just give it to him. It was a loan on the basis of doing six months' work on an oil rig. And then, just look at that kid – six months of hard labor is just not going to happen! [Laughs] But it boils down to love. To hear you say that … I don't know that I'd articulated it that way when I was playing him. But I certainly felt that.

To me, J. Paul's mother setting up the trust fund – that's the Rosebud. She did that because his father thought he'd never amount to anything, and he ended up earning way more money that his father ever did. And then his sister died of typhoid fever, a few years before he was born, and he could never, ever eliminate his mother's sense of loss over that the passing of that baby girl. His need for a mother's love that he never felt he fully got – you can't underestimate how important that was to understanding Getty, in my opinion. It drove a lot of his ambition.

There seems to be a void at the center of so many 20th century titans of industry – that there's some sort of hole that's endlessly trying to be filled.
I don't think that's applicable just to industrialists, David. [Laughs] I don't think Getty was even aware of it; it's a subconscious thing, as these things usually are. But yes, I think it certainly affected him.

I've heard a story about how you ended up getting bumped up from having one line to a slightly bigger part in The Dirty Dozen
The Clint Walker story? It's true. Imagine a table like this one, about twice as big and covered with green felt like a pool table, [director] Bob Aldrich is at the top, Clint is there, I'm here, Lee [Marvin] is sitting next to me, Charlie Bronson is right there. Who wasn't cooperating at first, by the way.

He wasn't?
He wanted to peg his trousers and wouldn't cut his hair; we'd all shaved our heads or had WWII buzzcuts, but he had this long hair. Bob always had this big telephone in front of him; one time it rang, he went, "Uh huh, uh huh, yeah." Then he hung up and said to everyone, "Charlie, that was your lawyer in L.A. He wants to know whether he should come over to cut your hair or whether you're going to get it done here." [Laughs] That fixed that.

But yes, we're at that green table, we're reading the script, and Walker was supposed to do the scene where the general is inspecting the troops. He very graciously held his hand up and said, "Mr. Aldrich, as a representative of the Native American community, I think it's incorrect that I play this stupid character that pretends to be a general." And without even looking, Bob just said "You with the big ears, you do it!" He didn't even know my name. And I got the scene.


My other big memory of The Dirty Dozen is being at the wrap party and Lee's wife was there. His mistress was there too – she showed up with a lot of empty luggage – and Mrs. Marvin was not happy. Things were very tense. And at one point, I'm going up this staircase past them and his wife turns goes, "Oh Lee, look at Donald – he's just like you when you were young." I thought, Oh, thanks. I'm about to get punched, aren't I? Fuck me!

Did you and Lee get along?
Really well. He came up to me when I was working out something I was going to do for a scene. "Whaddaya doing, kid? Do you know what lens that is in the camera?" No, Mr. Marvin, I don't. "Well, that particular one is going to cut you from here to here [points from head to stomach] so anything you do below that isn't going to be seen. You have to make it all work up here." Whoa! It was like Screen Acting 101.

You predated Robert Altman on MASH, right?
I was there first, right. What happened was [producer] Ingo Preminger apparently wanted me for the role. But I was in London and I had no money. I got a call from Aldrich's agent, who said "Listen, that scene in The Dirty Dozen, people are really taking notice. You could really have a career in this business if you get out here to California." Great, but I'm broke. "Well, then you had better stay in London."

I told my wife at the time about this, and after a few days, she said, "Why don't you call Chris?" That was Christopher Plummer, who I'd been in a few plays with. Small parts, but I knew him a bit. So I called him – he was in Stratford, Canada, and I think I woke him up – and explained my situation. He asked me if I had a pen; then he gave me a name to write down and said, "That's my lawyer, call him up in the morning, there will be $1500 for you."

It's just one future J. Paul Getty helping out another future J. Paul Getty.
[Laughs] Indeed. So thanks to him, I got on a plane with Kiefer, Rachel [Kiefer's twin sister], my wife and her son and we headed to California. The minute we landed, Kiefer threw up on me, so we walk through customs, me covered in vomit, and the man said, "How long are you here for?" I said two or three months and my stepson starts crying: "You said we were going to live here forever!" They just waved us through. That's how I got to do MASH. Because I was there, I got to read for it. Then they hired Elliott. And then Altman.

And he tried to have you fired?
Yeah, Altman told Ingo, "I don't want this guy Sutherland, I have my own guy." And Inge said, No, he stays. "Okay, well then he can't have first billing!" No, he gets first billing. That was the beginning of our relationship.

What was it about you and Elliott Gould, in your opinion, that made you guys such a great team?
I loved him. We were like blood brothers. It was just magical. We've since grown way apart, but at the time, we were very close. I did another picture with him a few years after that, to save him – he'd punched [producer] Ray Stark in the nose or Ray tried to punch him, or something [Editor's note: It was the latter.], and was having a hard time getting a job. It was a project originally called Wet Stuff, which 20th Century Fox thought sounded a little dirty – and I mean, they're not wrong. [Laughs] It's an onomatopoeia of the Russian word for blood, but they changed it to S*P*Y*S. The first day driving to the set, Elliott is in the car with me and he rolls down the window and throw the script into Cadogan Square. It went downhill from there.

Did you have any idea that MASH would be as big as it was?
I didn't – but everybody else did. There was no publicity and it had had only one screening in San Francisco, which had been a huge success. But nobody knew if it would play well outside of there. [Producers] Richard Zanuck and David Brown went to check out the one theater it was booked at in New York for its opening … and at 11am there was a line twice around the block. I mean, how did they know?

How did it change your life?
Have you ever seen those old Dick Cavett talk shows?

I have.
Once, Mike Nichols and Orson Welles were on his show, right after they'd shot Catch 22 – which is a great movie but just came out at the wrong moment, I think. Nichols felt like it was a huge setback. But Cavett asks him, "Well, Mike, talk to me about success!" And his face just drops … he looks like he's about to be sick on TV. And Welles, sitting next to him, just says: "Better late than early." That sums it up. I'm glad it happened when it did.

Had you already become involved in radical leftist politics at the time?
Well, my wife was a friend of the Black Panther Party, and I remember Elliott and I went to my house one night when the party was having a meeting at my place – and we weren't allowed in because we were a security risk, So that was the extent of my involvement with radical politics.

Ok, but you had supported the anti-war movement and had done the FTA (Free the Army) tour …
Oh yeah, Jane [Fonda] and I had done Klute, and it was something she'd been very passionate about, so I became involved with that through her. We were dear friends, and also lovers for a few years, so …

Had that started before or after Klute?
A little bit before. We'd already been cast but had not started shooting. And one day, she made it very clear, via a somewhat provocative suggestion, that I should come home with her. And I just said, [pause] "Ok."

Klute is funny, because … like I said, I don't watch my movies. I have never seen it. And last fall, 60 Minutes decided they were going to do a profile on me. Anderson Cooper and a crew came up to where I live in Canada, they set up a screen and began projecting clips from my films as he asked me questions. And we got to Klute, and they start showing a scene with my character and Bree. And I started watching, and it was like, "Oh … oh, wow … that guy is good. He's good, I like him." [Laughs] Really, it was fascinating – I was so distant from it that I could look at the actor and onscreen and think "That's wonderful, what that man is doing … I really love this actor."

So after 47 years, you might finally be ready to see Klute?
I may have to watch that one finally, yeah.

I'd read somewhere that you said making Don't Look Now was what really taught you how to be a film actor …
Well, kind of … not really in terms of the acting. Let me explain: They told me that Nic Roeg wanted to do this movie, and he wanted me to be in it. So I went and watched Peformance and Walkabout, I read Daphne du Maurier's novella and the script, so I was prepped for the telephone call. He had seven Jack Russell terriers in his house, and I had had a considerable amount of experience with Extra Sensory Perception – you know, ESP. So I had some strong feelings about the end of the story.

We called each other, and had this wonderful talk. Then at the very end of the conversation, I said to him: "Nic, I'd like to talk about the ending, I think it's incorrect, I don't think people should be punished for having ESP, this is a tool that people use to survive." And there was this very pregnant pause, and I heard all of his dogs making this huge racket through the phone, for a long period of time. And then Nic spoke, at which point the dogs all went mysteriously silent: "Do you want to do the film or not?"

And I said, "Yes, I would very much like to do the film."

And that taught you about acting?
That taught me that directors are the film-makers on a set. That line of respect has never left me. I can make a bunch of suggestions, absolutely – even if I'm wrong, even if the director is wrong. But the director is the director is the director.

Everyone talks about the love scene in that film, which feels so incredibly intimate and almost voyeuristic, but …
It's not voyeuristic.

You don't think so?
No, not at all. But go ahead.

Well, hold on a second. You don't think that scene makes audience members feel as if they're witnessing something between two people that feels incredibly private – that because of how it's filmed and cut, it's not a little voyeuristic?
I feel like that scene, in the end, reminds you of your own intimate experiences. There's a difference. And I think that's why it works.

There was no sound from us when we shot it. It was in a small hotel room, just a bed and barely room for anything else. Nic was there with this old Arriflex camera that sounded like a Singer sewing machine on methamphetamines. The takes were 15 to 20 seconds, with Nic just yelling out orders: "Ok, Julie, lift your head up and arch it back!" BRRRRGGGHHH. "Ok, Donald, move your body a little to the left!" BRRRGGGHHH. "Ok, Julie, now cum!" BRRRRRGGGHHH. I mean, it was literally like that. But we loved him. There's a photograph of Julie and I standing across from Roeg, heads down, just listening intently to him talk. That shot encapsulates the whole experience of making it.


What was it that attracted you to remaking Invasion of the Body Snatchers with Philip Kaufman in the late 1970s?
One night during filming, Phil asked me: "Do you know what this film is about?" "I think I know what it's about – but I don't know what you think it's about." And he just said: "McDonalds." [Laughs] I mean, that's why I did it in basically one word. It was that sense of everything feeling like it was being homogenized to death at the end of the Seventies.

There are some folks who prefer that version to the 1956 original.
That's crazy but god bless ‘em. I remember being in the middle of filming that when I got a call from John Landis … he and I go way back, to when he was a gofer on Kelly's Heroes. We were in Yugoslavia filming when MASH had that first screening in San Francisco, and just took off. So John said, "You're going to become a big movie star, Donald, and I'm going to be a great director." And I said, "Well, if you become a director, I will do every movie you do." Never thinking it would happen.

That's the kind of promise that leads to cameos in Kentucky Fried Movie, sir. 
[Laughs] That's how you end up on a billboard in The Blues Brothers. But I was filming Body Snatchers in San Francisco and John reminded me that I'd made this promise. He said, "It's just a day's worth of work on the weekend, it's up in Oregon … it's this thing that Universal is making, they want to offer you two-and-half percent of the profits." And I think I screamed at him, "No fucking way! They're screwing me over, I know it! They have to pay me my daily rate." So that's what they did. [Sighs]

Wait, are you talking abut Animal House? You could have had back-end points on Animal House and you turned them down?
Someone told me later it would have been two, three million dollars. For one day's work. I'm still angry at myself for that.

So much of your work throughout the Seventies feels really outward and expressive, and then you get to Ordinary People
You don't think John Klute feels like an interior performance?

Ok, yeah, John Klute is an exception. He's the square who's being guided through this New York filled with prostitutes and killers. But compared to Calvin in Ordinary People, he seems positively giddy. Did you and Robert Redford discuss how emotionally close to the vest you wanted to play him?
Well, it was going to be either Gene Hackman or me who played him. The two questions were really: Sutherland or Hackman, and Angie Dickinson or Mary Tyler Moore? You know, is Beth going to be a blonde or a brunette? I don't know how those decisions were made, but we were the ones who were cast. The very first day we went to read, Bob said, "Well, why don't we improvise a little?" And I replied, ‘Please, this script is so carefully, elegantly written, why would you do that? It's easy to come up with quick, quippy lines, but coming up with the truth is hard. And this script is the truth." That was really the only discussion. I mean, the Calvin you see on the screen, he's all in that script.

The scene that most people mention – the part where Mary comes downstairs in the middle of the night and I'm at the dinner table – the first time I did it, I wept. I say, "I don't know if I love you anymore" and then I felt myself just going [begins to make whimpering, sobbing noises]. I saw the rushes later – I will go watch the rushes – and then I turned to Bob and said, "I think I fucked you." Meaning that I'd given him the wrong thing. "No, no, it's terrific, the editor thinks it's terrific, the producer thinks it's terrific, it's great, Donald." I just kept saying, No, no.

Three months later, after we'd finished shooting, Bob calls me and goes, "You know, I think you're right." Mary was in New York doing a play on Broadway at that point and [cinematographer] John Bailey was off on another job; he told me that he could get Robert Surtees [who shot The Graduate] to film it and while he didn't have the set, he did have the curtains and a window. "I'd have to play Mary's part … would you mind doing it again?" So we reshot it. That's me acting against Bob Redford there.

Lastly, is your interpretation of Mr. Bennett's speech at the end of Pride & Prejudice just a great example of Austen's prose on screen or the greatest example of her prose on screen?
[Laughs] I kept trying to quit that damned job. Joe [Wright, the director] wouldn't let me! "Joe, goddammit, I'm not right for this, why the fuck did you hire me for this?" "You're fine, you can do it." It's one of my favorite things out of all of the movies I've done. Originally, the movie ended with me saying, "If any young men come for Mary or Kitty, send them in, for I'm quite at leisure," and focus groups said, you can't end it this way. You need a romantic ending. So they added that extra scene, which Joe fought like crazy. If you see it in England, I think it still ends on me. [Pause] Be sure you see it there. [Laughs]


It's not a bad career for a guy who originally wanted to be a sculptor.
I knew I never could be a sculptor. I needed the response, I needed an audience … you know, my brother was a poet, and he could do things privately. But me, I needed the theater. I still remember struggling with the idea of what to do, and ended up going to the movies one afternoon – I didn't even know what was playing. But the credits started, and it was Fellini's La Strada. I thought, my god, this is amazing!

Did you ever tell Fellini this when you worked with him [on 1976's Casanova]?
Of course I fucking did! But at that moment, it was just: You can make movies like this?! And then there was another screen next door in the theater, so I snuck into that – and it was fucking Kubrick's Paths of Glory!

Wow.
That's what I said. That was my double feature for that day. I was so angry when I left that I picked up gravel stones and threw them down on the street as hard as I could. There was no other way for me to vent at the sheer injustice of it. I mean, you asked me about politics earlier – that day was really what politicized me as much as anything else in my life. That's when I decided I wanted to become an actor. That's where it all kind of starts.