Donald Sutherland sits at ease in a darkened hotel room deep in Soho. Bathed in white light, wearing a pink tie and Croc shoes and with a chiseled cardboard cut-out of Jason Statham positioned just behind, he still, somehow, commands the room. Publicists buzz with anxiety, journalists shuffle self-consciously, but here Sutherland is completely and perfectly at home; the ultimate pro, the born performer.
Sutherland is in town to promote The Mechanic, the new ultra-glossy, ultra-violent ‘Stath’ vehicle in which he has a small yet significant role. “How are you?” Fan the Fire asks in a timid attempt to build rapport. He takes his time to respond. “I’m 75. Never ask anybody how they are at 75.” Nervous laughter all round.
Sutherland’s voice purrs. He looks, a little, like a humanised lion, with his long, stately face and shock of grey hair. It’s a face and a voice that has starred in over 150 movies, including The Dirty Dozen, MASH and Don’t Look Now. And yet Sutherland is still going strong, appearing in six movies this year. What keeps him going? Why, as a 75 year-old millionaire, does he carry on acting?
“It’s a drug, acting. It keeps you young for a very short period of time because when you walk off the set you’re still yourself. It’s the pursuit of truth, I think. It’s really a boring thing to say but it’s true. I have a hero – Michaelangelo – and when he started a sculpture it would start fat but it would become wire thin. He cut it down to the essence of the character. So you try and look for that.”
Before interviewing Sutherland, Fan the Fire had heard stories. He’s known as the Sutherland Express – however much you try and guide the interview, he’ll pick you up and take you wherever he wants to go. He’s been in the business, and played the game, for over 50 years and has picked up a few stories on the way. When asked what he thought truth was in acting, this is what we got:
“Brecht wrote a poem to the factory workers of Denmark when he was escaping the Nazis in Germany and heading to Hollywood. And he wrote this poem to the guys in the theater. It’s a long poem but at the centre of it is that they must compare and observe, compare and observe, and to distill it down until what you give to the audience is like what Alexander Pope said: ‘True Wit is Nature to advantage dress’d,. What oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d.’
“You know Sam Goldwyn years ago addressed the screen writers guild and he said that he had discovered the secret of acting. He said the secret of acting is honesty, and once you learn to fake that, you’re in. But you can’t fake it, it has to be honest.”
This is man who has received direction from Fellini, Roeg and Altman and acted opposite Brando. The film he is here to promote doesn’t seem to fit in with his oeuvre. Maybe he’s too good at the press trail, but he seems genuinely excited by his new film, and by the force that is Statham.
“To see a young actor like Jason Statham come from what he was in the Italian Job. He was a performer in the Italian Job, and he was good. He held himself well. In this film, and in the scenes with me he was stoic and implacable. And golly the stuff he did at the end, it was exquisite. His love, his grief, his love, his loss. He was able to bring that out and I was thrilled. It’s an action film, it’s a violent film. But more than that, Simon West has been able to make a film about the relationship between fathers and sons, which is important to him and it’s important to me. And those two boys did a wonderful job.”
He has, to be honest, got a point. The Mechanic is burger and chips after a few pints cinema, but even a good burger and chips has its own distinct charm. Something suggests The Mecahanic won’t be an experience Sutherland will remember for the rest of his days. But this is a man of the movies, through and through. What, Fan the Fire wonders, is it that he loves so much about movies?
“A good movie takes you to another world. It lifts your psyche and your intelligence and allows you to participate in a world that you would never have been invited in. And for two hours time stops. And with any luck, it informs you. La Strada, or Paths of Glory – those two films sit in my heart. All Quiet On The Western Front sits in my heart. Klute, even still my own film, sits in my heart and speaks to me.”
And so he raises to shake hands, before passing his hand through his grey mane, and shooting a glance at the stoic, implacable cardboard cut out of Jason Statham.