LOS ANGELES -- There's that old Canadian joke," Donald Sutherland is saying, "about the Brit, the Frenchman and the Canadian, who are going to be executed. And they're given a last wish. The Brit says he'd like a cup of tea with milk and sugar. The Canadian says he'd like 15 minutes to talk about Canadian identity. And the Frenchman says he'd like to be shot before the Canadian."
Sutherland, who has played his share of iconic Americans -- Hawkeye Pierce in Robert Altman's M*A*S*H, the father in Ordinary People, the pot-befogged professor in Animal House and, right now, nefarious House speaker Nathan Templeton in TV's Commander in Chief -- is himself Canadian. But the veteran actor, war protester, Bush critic and father of Kiefer refers just as easily to "us" as "you" about the U.S., which is understandable: As any moviegoer knows, Sutherland has been one of the most visible and versatile Hollywood screen figures of the past 40 years. He takes so many roles that one is tempted to call him the North American Michael Caine.
"I don't have a lot more time left to live," the 70-year-old says, mock-seriously, at his publicist's L.A. office. "Whadya gonna do? I was standing with Goldie Hawn and Ellen Burstyn at Cannes -- it must be 35 years ago -- and I was in awe: They were describing their careers, their choices of this picture, after which they were going to do this picture and having done those two pictures, the correct picture would be this picture."
Sutherland, conversely, took a scattershot approach to career planning.
"You know, I did this one, that one -- I had a banana, a grapefruit, a papaya, three potatoes and a bunch of other stuff and it was OK, though, because it was a big plateful. But they were very vertically organized. Which is curious, because women are usually horizontally organized," says Sutherland, who has been married to Francine Racette for 34 years.
'Whatever he wants'
Sutherland's penchant for work, and for working with young directors, led him most recently in American Gun, a thoughtful, notably unhysterical, anti-gun drama co-starring Marcia Gay Harden, Forest Whitaker and Linda Cardellini. The film follows three distinct story lines about firearms and American life. And although a Columbine-style incident is essential to the story, the script by first-time director Aric Avelino and Steven Bagatourian proffers no moral platitudes or easy answers.
"I thought this young fellow, Aric Avelino, was just terrific," Sutherland says, as his Jack Russell terrier, Porque, scrambles around the room. It's a relatively chilly day in L.A. -- about 60 degrees -- but Sutherland has dressed for the Yukon Territory: black parka, tattered tweed jacket and sweater, from under which a regimental tie is peeking. Flecks of white are arrayed on his coat. Traces of Porque? "No, they cut my hair every six weeks," he says of the Commander in Chief production staff. He's just come from the studio and his mane of white is the most orderly thing about him.
"I remember Olivier, and it must have been Alec Guinness, were asked to do Waiting for Godot," Sutherland says, in what initially seems a wild digression. "And they said they needed the writer from Paris to come to London and explain it to them. They were kind of arrogant about it. And Beckett said no. And that was it. And I remembered because -- I would have been 16 or 17 -- I had just read Waiting for Godot and it was as if it was written in blood, with my DNA. It was the most perfect piece of theater that I'd seen.
"And I remembered making a note to myself: Whenever I didn't understand something that a young person with confidence and passion had in mind, I made a pledge that I would just go along with it. And Aric was young and he had passion. So I said, 'OK, whatever he wants.'"
"He probably didn't tell you about this," said Avelino. "But there was a moment during shooting when Linda Cardellini had done her final scene and it was a great take. I told her, 'That's it, that's the one,' and when I turned around, Donald had tears in his eyes. He wasn't even in the shot, but he allowed himself to be present in the moment. And I think that's what allows him to come off so fresh in everything he does."
Takes work seriously
Avelino said that during their two-day shoot at the gun shop owned by Sutherland's character (the story takes place in Charlottesville, Va., the Oregon suburbs and Chicago), Sutherland had to do a crash course in pistol assembly. "We went outside to do one shot and by the time we came back in, Donald was taking the gun apart like he'd been doing it for years. It makes you appreciate acting as a master craft, especially when you see someone just fall into it like he does, and make things so comfortable."
Sutherland, who is as self-deprecating about himself as he is complimentary of others, says that European directors have always appreciated him more than their American counterparts, even if he seems to have worked with everyone.
"I worked with a lot," he agrees. "You know someone I never worked with? Francis Coppola. I never worked with Scorsese. I never worked with Spielberg. Really. David Lynch. Terrence Malick -- there's another one. None of those guys. And I would have liked to."
Why didn't he?
"They didn't like me," he says. Whether he's being funny or honest isn't clear. "I don't know, I guess they didn't like me. Steven is lovely to me, though. I saw him in a restaurant and he was so generous about a film I had done, Pride & Prejudice. He was just so generous. Wonderful."
Sutherland refers to the Oscar-nominated Pride & Prejudice as if it were just one of the many movies he does that occasionally get lost. ("I'll be in the supermarket or something and someone will say, 'Why did you stop making films?' And I'll say, 'I made four this year ... '")
For all his casual charm, Sutherland takes performing seriously. "If you look at Fred Astaire dancing -- not that I would ever compare my work to Fred Astaire's -- but if you look at Fred Astaire dancing, he practiced and practiced and practiced until it was perfect. And then what he did after that was an improvisation on that perfection.
"To do a film like JFK? It took me six months of preparation. You had to be able to say the text from your gut. ... You can't just memorize it, because you've memorized a rhythm. So it has to be like Fred Astaire did with his dancing steps. An integral part of your being."
John Anderson is a reporter for Newsday.