Cinema Stalwart Donald Sutherland Follows His Passion with ‘The Leisure Seeker’

(l-r) Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren star in THE LEISURE SEEKER. ©Sony Pictures.


Front Row Features

HOLLYWOOD—After dozens of outstanding performances over a six-decade career, Donald Sutherland finally received an Academy Award last year. The long-overdue recognition was bestowed on the Canadian octogenarian to celebrate his contributions to the film industry. To date, he has appeared in more than 150 films including “The Dirty Dozen,” “M*A*S*H,” “Klute,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “Space Cowboys” and many more. The tall, lean distinctive-looking character actor also counts among his trophies an Emmy, for his performance in the 1995 Cold War era-set thriller “Citizen X.”

Sutherland co-stars alongside fellow Oscar holder Dame Helen Mirren in the heartbreaking drama “The Leisure Seeker.” The duo play a longtime married couple who, against their adult children’s wishes, embark on a road trip from their Massachusetts home to the Florida Keys. Sutherland’s John Spencer is afflicted with dementia but that doesn’t stop him from taking the wheel of their aging Winnebago nicknamed “The Leisure Seeker.” In the days-long journey along the Eastern seaboard, the couple laugh, quarrel, make love, celebrate their differences and come to a mutual understanding about their finite remaining time together. The drama is directed and co-written by Italian filmmaker Paolo Virzi, who last year won the David di Donatello award for directing the film.

Sutherland, who has five children, three of whom are involved in show business, graciously sat down for a press conference to chat about the film. He spoke about working with Mirren, whom he previously co-starred in 1990’s “Bethune: The Making of a Hero,” but shared little screen time then. He also revealed his secret to successful aging and fondly recalled that time he bought a used Ferrari for a song.

Q: How did you find that balance in achieving the level of dignity and caring that you brought to John throughout the film?

Sutherland: Truthfully?

Q: Yes.

Sutherland: I have no idea. It’s a job, regrettably. It’s filled with passion and affection and love, and (John Spencer) was a man that came out of me. I read the script. I talked to Helen (Mirren, who plays John’s wife, Ella). I talked to Paolo (Virzi, the director), I talked to Steven Amidon (the co-screenwriter). And John just took over. He said things that surprised everybody sometimes; that weren’t in the script, even. He loved his wife as much as I love Helen Mirren. So, it was not something that I thought objectively about or consciously. It just existed. I had done a bunch of research about dementia, which fell by the wayside. I loved him.

Q: You travel the Eastern seaboard in an RV for a road trip in this film. How did you balance that RV trip between the filming schedule and then the actual mobile set?

Sutherland: I have no idea, because it was not the kind of specific North American schedule. It was an Italian schedule. It was lovely; I don’t think it was very balanced.

Q: How was it working with Italian director Paolo Virzi?

Sutherland: I’ve worked with a lot of Italian guys. I did “Casanova” (with) Federico Felini. I did (British filmmaker Nicolas Roeg’s) “Don’t Look Now,” which was shot in Venice. I even did an Italian scene in “Trust” (upcoming TV series about oil tycoon J. Paul Getty) where all of my dialogue was in Italian—and I don’t speak Italian. I was very much a subjective entity in this; Paolo was objective. And Helen, just by nature, is an extraordinary technician, exquisite, and has beautiful, really well-observed elements that participate in the creation of her character. She really does have a better grasp. When we do interviews together, I just sit in awe of her, and listen and think, “Oh yeah, that’s right. Okay, yeah. That’s right.”

Q: For those of us who’ve reached middle-age, this film is a real reality check.

Sutherland: You try it at 83. (He laughs.)

Q: What is the key to getting older? How do you stay involved, stay happy and engaged in life? What keeps you going?

Sutherland: Passion. (Russian-born poet and essayist) Joseph Brodsky gave the commencement speech to Dartmouth College in 1988. He went on about how “you’re graduating today. It’s the best day of your life. It’s going to be straight downhill from now on.” And, he gave a quote in the middle of it, an instruction to the students, and it stayed with me since. He said, “Try to stay passionate. Leave your ‘cool’ to the constellation. Passion, above all else, is the denial of boredom.” And, it’s true. For me, this business of acting—of working—is a passionate endeavor. To cull out the truth. To persuade people. To advance, maybe a little bit in their lives because of my experience with the characters that I’ve played.

Q: Do you consider yourself an explorer?

Sutherland: My work is a constant exploration into the human condition. If you live in Canada or in the United States, you take trains, you take cars. Sometimes you take buses. I took an RV once but only because it was part of a movie I was working on. But, mostly in cars. In fact, when I was making “Kelly’s Heroes,” I went (to Italy to shoot) for six months. I got in the car and the driver took me over to Bologna and through Trieste (in Northeast Italy). I had a bag full of $1,500 worth of lira. I wanted to buy a Ferrari. It was three years old. It was a 275GTB (two-cam)—an extraordinary car, red, in the window (in a dealership). They wouldn’t talk to me. I had a beard. I looked how I looked (scruffy) in “Kelly’s Heroes.” What was I going to say? “Woof! Woof!” So, finally I said, “How much is the Ferrari,” and nobody would pay attention. There were two guys sitting (inside the showroom) talking, and finally I dumped this bag of lira and they gave me the keys. I drove it. I went to learn some stuff and then I went to Genoa and put it on a boat to New York. I drove it with the fellow that was working with me on the film and we drove from New York to New Mexico to Los Angeles in 33 hours. It was a very fast trip but it was a trip across the country, and I’ve made many of them since.