He helped define cinema in the 1970s with numerous iconic roles and went on to become one of Hollywood’s finest character actors. But now Donald Sutherland is making it big on the small screen as Patrick ‘Tripp’ Darling III, in the glossy drama Dirty Sexy Money. Time Out asked him why he took the role, why money doesn’t always corrupt and why the Chiliean Sea Bass does not exist. Interview: Matt Pomroy
We’re sitting in the middle of the road, outside the front door of the Darling’s upper-east side New York mansion, when Donald Sutherland wanders down the street. ‘Impressive set, isn’t it?’ He says, rapping his knuckles on a large concrete pillar, causing it to boom out a hollow sound. It is in fact just painted fibreglass, but it is an impressive set, one of the most lavish ever created for a television series. While the pilot episode was actually filmed in New York itself, the series is now shot on a huge sound stage in Hollywood, but it’s not just the set that’s big.
The budget, the story, the ambition and the cast are also at the upper end of television production values, but for 73-year-old Sutherland it was the writing of series creator Craig Wright that convinced him to join the cast. ‘This is exceptional, because it offers me the opportunity to work with a genius,’ he says grinning and raising his hands in a praise-the-lord gesture. ‘Craig gives me words to say that I can’t remember having had in a modern-day piece of work, he’s brilliant, he really is consistently and extraordinarily brilliant.’
Television may have more rubbish on it than ever, but it also has more exceptionally good drama as well. Wright’s last big piece of work was the fantastic Six Feet Under. Peter Krause (who played Nate in Six Feet Under) is also the lead here, while Sutherland plays the enigmatic patriarch of the family who employs him as their lawyer. While the lawyer is constantly getting the Darlings out of trouble, he’s also investigating the death of his father, which he suspects was not the accident the authorities say it was.
It’s Sutherland’s character, ‘Tripp’, who seems to have the answers and the extended plot arc is one of the draws that television has for big name actors. ‘It offers me 22 hours of character in one year,’ Sutherland explains, ‘and Craig gives me the opportunity to find out pieces of the character and put them on film. Regrettably, a lot gets cut out by the powers that be, but anyway, I get to actually do them myself and that’s thrilling.’
The fact that he is still excited by acting shines through. Unlike many actors in press interviews, he’s lively, enthusiastic and talks at pace, occasionally heading off at tangents, sometimes apropos, of nothing: ‘Did you know the Chilean sea bass does not exist? It’s a Patagonian tooth fish… absolutely true’, he tells me at one point. He also informs me, ‘My granddaughter goes out with a young man from Dubai…’
He’s warm and intelligent, but open about his frustrations of seeing what he believes to be a fantastic series get chopped and edited. ‘They’re writing long scripts and then they cut the gut out of everything you do,’ he sighs. ‘I mean, last night there was a scene where…’ he tails off deciding against specifics. ‘But, you know, they are forced to cut them out because they’ve got a 56-minute result and you’ve got to get it down to 42 minutes – It breaks your heart, so you have to deal with a broken heart.’ Then, smiling again he leans in. ‘But you also have the opportunity to deal with this incredible piece of literature that Craig Wright puts together.’ But that’s showbiz. It’s 10 per cent art and 90 per cent commerce, and in a show about the filthy rich, the corrupt and the corruptible, it’s not an irony that will be lost on this elder statesman of acting. It was also hit by the writers’ strike, so series one was truncated to 10 episodes, with three more being held over to season two.
Wright has said that the idea behind his writing in the series was to show ‘the ways in which a person blinded by the effects that their wealth has can continually attempt to do loving things and do nothing but destroy.’ So I ask if it’s possible to stay sane and honest if you have billions in the bank. Sutherland nods furiously: ‘Oh sure. You know, oh boy. Look at Warren Buffett, look at Bill Gates, they’re really sane people. I don’t know them, but I know a bunch of people who have a lot of money. They certainly feel their power, but they feel an obligation to participate economically and socially in the community that they live in. You just have to look at his libraries.
He shuffles in his seat, deceptively tall and fidgety like Kramer from Seinfeld. ‘But,’ he says, ‘If I had the money of the Darlings, I’d give it all away very quickly.’ Really? You don’t covert great wealth?
‘I mean, I have a lot of debts and mortgages and stuff, so I’d cover those, but give it away, yeah. And that’s what my wife would love to do. She’d love to be able to do what Bill Gates does, you know? It’s wonderful.’
So money isn’t really dirty or sexy then? ‘I never thought about whether money was dirty of sexy,’ he replies with a loose-limbed shrug. ‘I mean, there are certain aspects of power that are associated with money. If you looked at Bill Clinton, you know that power corrupts, and absolute power makes you really horny.’ He grins. ‘So in that sense, it’s sexy, but you sure don’t have to have it.’
Sutherland has had financial problem in his life and tax issues, but wealth and happiness have never been intrinsically linked. ‘My first job, I earned 30 cents an hour and I was a radio announcer, but I was only 14,’ he explains. ‘My first job as an actor I worked for Straw Hat Players in Canada, and I might have earned 20 bucks a week or something like that. But I went in 1959 to Perth in Scotland to work in a repertory theatre. I was the second lead, and I was paid about US$12 a week and I was incredibly happy.’
Sutherland made his TV debut in 1962, in an episode of The Saint, the first of three appearances. He went on to appear in most of the spy thrillers that were popular back then (Gideon’s Way, Man In A Suitcase, The Avengers etc) usually playing oddballs with a foreign accent. ‘I was always cast as an artistic homicidal maniac… but at least I was artistic!’ It was on a run of three war films that he made his name – The Dirty Dozen (1967), M*A*S*H (1970) and Kelly’s Heroes (1970) – and from he grew, but returned to the small screen a few years ago – the series was dropped and he believes that was because it was the wrong time to have a series about a female President of the United States.
Returning to television so quickly surprised some people, but far from being second best to the big screen, it’s a place that has been attracting film actors who have made big money and had big hits. Not least of all his son Kiefer with the drama 24. ‘I just talked to him an hour ago,’ Sutherland says when I mention the influence his son has had on television drama. ‘He asked me to do something in 24 and I said that I couldn’t because I had a whole bunch of other things. But I would love to.’ I later learn that the role would have been as Jack Bauer’s father, but with Sutherland senior unavailable it went to James Cromwell, another actor who appeared in Crag Wright’s Six Feet Under.
It would have been a great role to play Bauer’s father, but with schedules and decisions over what to take and what to pass on, Sutherland has found himself at this point where he’s happy. And money has nothing to do with it. ‘When I look at my career, yeah, I made a lot of mistakes,’ he says ‘Although I don’t call them mistakes, because I had my wife who’s been with me for 36 years. I remember the film Deliverance – John Boorman came and lived next to me, and then John Dickey, the writer, was there and trying to get me to do Deliverance. But after two weeks, I said, “No, I do not wish to do a violent film,” and John Voight went and did it. And I look at the success of that film, and I just love John Boorman and I should have made a film with him. But I think if I had made that film, then maybe I could have gone on a different path and wouldn’t have my wife, who I met around that time. It’s a great film… but I’d rather have the wife.’
At this point his mobile phone goes off. ‘Just hang on a second,’ he says with an apologetic expression, then pulling out a phone to see who’s calling. Shaking his head and muttering, ‘No, no, no’ he puts it on silent hastily returning it back to his trouser pocket, ignoring the caller. ‘It was Rudy Guiliani,’ he says, and gets back to the point he was making. But in a roundabout way the point has just been made. You can be successful, famous, influential and have a former Mayor of New York and US Presidential candidate calling you up but still remain humble, witty and give time and attention to the person in front of you. Sometimes real wealth does not involve money.
Dirty Sexy Money starts on March 2 on ShowSeries at 10pm
From Time Out Magazine, March 2008