Donald Sutherland aced the first film audition he ever went on. The then-twentysomething actor read in front of the writer, producer, and director, all of whom seemed very impressed. "I thought I had gotten to where I wanted to get to in the truth of the character," Sutherland recalls. "The next day the phone rang, and it was all three of them in the room. They said my performance had been definitive; it had informed them so much they changed the script afterward. I was thrilled. And they said, 'All of us are phoning to tell you what it meant to us for you to do this and for us to explain to you why we aren't giving you the part.'" He laughs but says the remark still stuns him. "They said, 'We're not giving you the part because, for us, this character has always been a guy-next-door. To be absolutely truthful, you don't look like you've ever lived next door to anyone,'" Sutherland says, marveling at the memory. "They were telling me this like they thought they were being nice. I sat in a closet for three days."
Almost 50 years, 100-plus films, and countless accolades later, Sutherland has disappointing news for actors starting out: "It doesn't get any easier," he says solemnly in that famous dry, deep voice. "I taught a master class recently at Idyllwild's theatre school, and when I stood up and looked at all these 18-year-olds, I held out my hand, and it was shaking. I said, 'Look at that. All these years later, I'm still shaking.' And that's what the life is like. You will be nervous for the rest of your life. It's wonderful and it's passionate, but it's a hard life."
Yet the veteran actor makes it all look so easy. In the 1970s he redefined the leading man with thoughtful, quiet performances in seminal movies such as M*A*S*H, Klute, and Don't Look Now. He has rarely been absent from the big screen since, a reliable presence in films that veer from popcorn entertainment (the film version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Italian Job) to highbrow (Six Degrees of Separation, JFK) to somewhere in between (Cold Mountain, the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers). And at age 70, Sutherland shows no sign of retiring: He has no less than six films set to be released within the next year.
Currently he is enjoying wildly varied roles in two acclaimed projects. In the new ABC series Commander in Chief, Sutherland is hypnotic as wily politician Nathan Templeton, out to bring down the first female president (played by Geena Davis). His Templeton couldn't be further from the genteel Mr. Bennet embodied by Sutherland in Pride & Prejudice, the latest adaptation of Jane Austen's revered novel, starring Keira Knightley as the headstrong Elizabeth. Sutherland portrays the father of five young women in a new light: full of life and madly in love with his worrisome wife (played by Brenda Blethyn). "People read Mr. Bennet incorrectly," Sutherland remarks. "Everyone said to me, 'Oh, you're going to play the henpecked husband?' He's not henpecked. He adores his wife—he loves her. He just has crazy sexual desire for her; she's scrumptious."
Though Pride has been done before—most notably in 1995's BBC miniseries starring Colin Firth and a 1940 film with Laurence Olivier—Sutherland disagrees that the previous versions were perfect. "You look at Colin Firth and Laurence Olivier—they're both men. It's about women, not men," he explains. He then details how the period was a crucial time for women. "You had women in a terrible stage. This was the time of the Industrial Revolution, and you had the beginning of the change of manners and morals from the Victorian era," he notes. "They could no longer depend on the bloodline, which had saved their lives for years; they had to depend on the conjugal line. They had to find a husband and create a family. Women were sacrificing everything on the promise of marriage. Austen was writing about a critical time for women, and that's what her book is about. And that's why this film needed to be made."
Given his insight into the project, it's interesting to note that he originally turned the role down. Director Joe Wright managed to convince him otherwise. "I said I was too Canadian and too old, but Joe said, 'No, we'll fix that,'" says Sutherland. "And we did. I worked with Jill McCollough, the dialect coach, and had a wonderful time." He reserves particular fondness for one onscreen daughter: By coincidence, a Pirates of the Caribbean poster hangs in the office where this interview is taking place, and every few minutes Sutherland pauses to praise Knightley. "Look at her—she's amazing," he says. "She's as good an actress as you'll find in any movie."
Sutherland's career began at age 14, at a radio station in Nova Scotia, Canada. "They didn't call them deejays then," he notes. "I would read commercials and do whatever was necessary. But you have to understand, it was a tiny radio station with three or four people in it. This was before 45s even." Though he had an interest in acting, Sutherland also says he was "in denial" about it—something he says his son Kiefer Sutherland also went through. Still, he was savvy enough to choose the University of Toronto as his school, as it was in a major city with a theatre center. "My father said that he would give me a year in England if I would get a degree in engineering, so I would have something to fall back on," he recalls. "So I said, 'Fine.' And I went to England and worked in the theatre and had a lovely life."
Though he claims it never occurred to him to pursue a movie career , he made a trio of horror films in the 1960s—the titles of which give a good indication of their quality: Die, Die My Darling!, Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, and Castle of the Living Dead. It was while rehearsing for a one-line role in The Dirty Dozen that his career path changed. Co-star Clint Walker balked at performing a scene in which his character pretended to be a general. "The director, Robert Aldrich, looked down the table and said, 'You, with the big ears—you do it,'" Sutherland recalls. "And it changed my life."
M*A*S*H film producer Ingo Preminger (brother of director Otto) singled out Sutherland's scene and attached him to star as Dr. Hawkeye Pierce in the dark war comedy before Robert Altman was even on board to direct. Sutherland hints that Altman tried to fire him, but Preminger stood firm. Still, the actor remained a small-town boy at heart. "When the Canadian version of Time did a story on me after M*A*S*H, they went back and interviewed people in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia," he says. "The journalist phoned me to say he wasn't going to use this bit in the story, but he wanted me to have it. The quote was [from] a guy who I used to sit in front of in school. They asked him what they thought of me being a star in Hollywood, and he said he didn't know, he hadn't seen the movie. All he knew for sure was, I couldn't be any good because he sat behind me in school. That's where we came from. It never occurred to us that you could be a part of that kind of life. It was a fairyland."
One of Sutherland's greatest performances was as the repressed father dealing with the drowning of his son in 1980's Ordinary People, a film he perfectly describes as "a painful picture." It was also a role Sutherland had honed to perfection playing introspective, reserved characters in Klute, The Day of the Locust, and Don't Look Now. While some actors scream and shout to let you know they're performing, Sutherland has mastered the art of internalization. "I don't think I have any other choice," he says. "My job is to get to the truth, and you can't get truth by demonstrating. You get it by being it. You just try to be as honest as you can."
And whether the role is a grieving father or, say, a wise killer of the undead, Sutherland always approaches the part with the same seriousness. "You have to," he says, noting that he prepared for six months for one scene in JFK. But he admits that his main purpose for participating in Buffy the Vampire Slayer was to raise his profile. "I really did believe Buffy would be an immensely popular film with younger people," he says. "I had just done a film that was very important to me, Bethune, about [Canadian doctor and humanitarian] Norman Bethune, and I thought by making Buffy that younger people would recognize me and go to see Bethune." While it didn't work out that way—Buffy tanked at the box office—Sutherland doesn't dwell on his mistakes. "A lot of people in this business become bitter," he notes. "Luckily, I don't have anything to be bitter about. I can be bitter about my own stupidity and mistaken decisions, but really that's my own fault, isn't it?"
Asked to elaborate, he groans. "Oh, my God, I've made so many bad decisions," he says. "The only recourse I have is my wife, that I can say, 'Well, if I hadn't done this, maybe I wouldn't have met her.' So better I made the mistake." He cites as one of his biggest regrets turning down the Jon Voight role in Deliverance. "It's embarrassing, because John Boorman is a brilliant filmmaker, and my reasons were all dumb," he says. "I didn't want to be in a violent movie. Dumb, really dumb. And I regret that. But if I had made it, maybe my life would have gone somewhere else, and I wouldn't have ended up in Saskatoon in 1971 and met my wife." In the end Sutherland insists there isn't a single movie he wishes he hadn't made. "Some of them didn't turn out so well, but there were pieces in them and characters I loved," he notes. "If, in the end, the character wasn't fulfilled in the editing room, it's painful, and I have to live with that."
He's also philosophical about working with a wide range of visionaries. One might assume that because two of his sons are named after directors—Kiefer after Warren Kiefer, Roeg after Nicolas Roeg—Sutherland is a fan of filmmakers. "I don't know if I'm a fan of directors, but I love them," he responds. "I'm in love with them when I'm working with them, and I admire them. Their ability to deal objectively with everything is astonishing to me." He recalls when Roeg first sent him the script for Don't Look Now and asked for his opinion on the character, who possesses supernatural powers that land him in danger. "I said, 'I think it's terrific, but I think it's incorrect that you take extrasensory perception, which I think happens and has to be examined, and you use it as a negative thing for terror. I just think that's the wrong message to send to people. I think it should be positive, and his ESP should finally enlighten him.' And Nic said, 'Look, do you want to make the film or not?'" Sutherland says, laughing. "And I said yes. From that point on, the director is the filmmaker. You transfer everything to them. Even if other people say, 'Oh, why would you respect, love, or admire that person?' You do it."
Even with a distinguished career, Sutherland knows there are no guarantees for actors. "After Ordinary People, I didn't get offered a job for a year," he says with a shrug. "They couldn't imagine what I could do." This is why he says he still "eagerly and happily" auditions for parts. "It's better to go and audition and show people what you can do," he offers. "I auditioned for something recently…I can't remember what. I must not have gotten the part." There have even been times when Sutherland hasn't been allowed to audition. "Years ago, I wanted to be in Flashdance as the older man," Sutherland recalls. "I asked my agent to see if they would consider me. And they told him he had a better chance at playing the part than I did. They wouldn't even let me read."
Their loss. And for every person who might not "get" Sutherland, there's a Rod Lurie, the creator of Commander in Chief, who pursued the actor for the part of Templeton. Sutherland had never been a series regular on a TV show and wasn't looking to become one, but the opportunity to partner with Lurie was too good to resist. "We were going to do a movie together, and it got canceled," explains Sutherland. "He's a really bright, energetic, soulful man.... And he has great sense." At the same time, when he shot the pilot, Sutherland didn't believe the show would go to series. "I honestly didn't think it would get picked up," he admits. "It was just so smart and such a good script. And Geena's wonderful. Then it did get picked up, and more than that, people seem to like it."
Lurie has left the show, but stepping into his place as executive producer is Steven Bochco, whom Sutherland calls "an incredibly impressive man." The actor seems comfortable with the new management and is concentrating on adjusting to life on the small screen. "I've never done TV before, so it's new," he says. "But it's really quite wonderful. When I started I was, like, 'How am I going to do this?' I was lost, completely. I'm used to the beginning, the middle, and the end and having those parameters and working within them and calling out whatever truth I can get out of it. And I didn't have it on this; I just had the beginning. It's, like, I'm alive and living. Now it's extraordinarily exciting."
It might seem that Sutherland has done it all in his vast career, but he insists he still gets a thrill from performing. "It sounds pretentious to say, but just recognize you have to pursue the truth, and if you're able to find some of it and get people to recognize it, that's wonderful," he notes, pointing to a commencement speech Joseph Brodsky gave at Dartmouth about boredom. "In the middle of it he says, 'Try to stay passionate. Leave your cool to the constellations. Passion alone is a remedy against boredom.'"
And while Sutherland sings the virtues of hard work and perseverance, he is also aware that luck sometimes plays a role. "I was standing with my wife in a line to go see Coming Home when a producer of Invasion of the Body Snatchers saw me and said, 'You look good. Come and see us tomorrow.' So that was like that," he recalls. "There are so many wonderful actors, and so much of it is left to chance. It requires such bravery, you know?"