Some people work themselves into an early grave. Actor Donald Sutherland works at a feverish pace to ensure that he keeps himself out of it and stays healthy. Still, his approach can backfire sometimes.
When he first met the press to promote his role as President Snow in The Hunger Games, he was wearing an eyepatch. And no, he wasn’t just off the set of a pirate movie. He’d injured himself acting too hard.
“This thing is a pain in the ass,” he said, not overly grouchily. “It’s very uncomfortable. But I won’t inflict upon you the sight of what’s underneath.”
He had just come from shooting a TV pilot and had been instructed to play a scene with “pent-up, repressed anger and I burst a blood vessel,” he explained. “They’ll probably figure out a way to get rid of it with CGI. I asked the doctor what causes this kind of thing. And he said, ‘Well, typically it’s a result of constipation.’”
Taking on life with a smile
Sutherland doesn’t laugh at his own jokes and anecdotes, but his go-to expression is a bemused smile. He has a wry, dry wit and, at age 82, he seems to regard both life and death as a wellspring of humour – hence his most recent role, opposite Helen Mirren, in the tragicomic The Leisure Seekers.
In it, he plays a respected English professor who is rapidly losing his memory and his past to Alzheimer’s disease. His wife decides to take him on an RV road trip to relive their travel memories one last time. The best thing about The Leisure Seekers was the promotional tour/comedy act Sutherland and Mirren took together from city to city.
If work has its occupational hazards, Sutherland also credits it for his longevity. Actors his age do retire – Gene Hackman, Sean Connery, Jack Nicholson. But his best friend and (believe it or not) mentor, 88-year-old Christopher Plummer has shown him the way: “I owe Chris my career, so I owe it to him and to me to keep working. I honestly don’t know what I’d do if I retired. Aging is hard enough as it is.”
True to his word, Sutherland has 18 credits since that interview, including the current TV series Trust, where he plays tycoon J. Paul Getty (the same role that earned his pal Plummer an Oscar nomination this year in Ridley Scott’s All The Money In The World).
Keeping busy the key to a long life
If he credits work for his longevity, he jokes that the kind of roles he is offered remind him of his mortality: “I seem to get offered a lot of roles where the guy comes in and says, ‘Hello, I have a terminal disease,’ and then he dies.”
Recently, when he and his wife, Francine Racette, to whom he has been married 28 years, were having dinner, he had an epiphany. “She said, ‘You make so many movies nowadays where you die.’ And she said, ‘I wonder if I could get clips of those scenes.’ And then I realized she wanted them for the funeral. I took some offence and complained about it. And she said, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll let you do the voiceover.’”
Sutherland takes it all in stride as a leading member of the icons-getting-older club. It provides a kind of comfort for him. He knows he’s not alone and his contemporaries, like Willie Nelson, keep him laughing. He recalls driving in Los Angeles and listening to National Public Radio as Nelson (now 84) was being interviewed on the occasion of his 75th birthday.
“The interviewer said, ‘Is there anything about being 75 that has surprised you?'” Sutherland recalls. “And Willie said, ‘Yes!’ And you could hear in his voice the excitement when the young woman realized she had asked a good question. And she said, ‘What was that?’ And he said, ‘I never thought I would outlive my penis.’ And I laughed so hard, I kind of inadvertently moved over in the lane a bit. And there was huge traffic on the 10 [the Santa Monica Freeway] going east. And one car out of six would go like that. And so, you’d know who was listening to NPR and who wasn’t. But I mean, can you imagine the wit of that man?”
Los Angeles is another important piece of Sutherland’s plan to live as long as Christopher Plummer. He says he avoids it as much as possible: “I moved. I live part of the year in Florida now. We’ve got a place in Quebec [Georgeville in the Eastern Townships] that’s an endless source of comfort. And we have a house in Paris. So, Miami was kind of en route,” he said, wryly.
“The thing is, I’m from the east coast [New Brunswick], and the more I thought about it, the more I realized I absolutely did not want to die on the west coast.”
Judging by his full slate of gigs, he simply doesn’t have the time.