Sutherland plays the small but pivotal role of the quietly vicious President Coriolanus Snow in “The Hunger Games,” a part that calls for few words but much emotion.
It’ll take you quite a while to scroll down Donald Sutherland’s page on IMDB to get through his resumé. The Canadian actor started out in television, moved up to small film parts, and first gained widespread attention as a troublemaking goofball soldier in “The Dirty Dozen.” The type of role has never mattered. Sutherland has added a touch of class to comedy (“M*A*S*H”), drama (“Klute”), horror (“Invasion of the Body Snatchers”), political thriller (“JFK”), and frock flick (“Pride & Prejudice”).
Now he’s got the small but pivotal role of the quietly vicious President Coriolanus Snow in “The Hunger Games,” a part that calls for few words but much emotion. Sutherland plays the character as a villain, but one that isn’t all that villainous. President Snow is the one who calls for and oversees the deaths of 23 out of 24 young contestants every year, but Sutherland adds a subtle edge to the part, making it appear that Snow might just be another pawn in his own game.
“He wasn’t there at the beginning,” he said, referring to the lottery and deadly competitions that politicians hold over the heads of the public that once rose up against its rulers. “He didn’t design the government. He was 2-years old when the Hunger Games started.” These days Sutherland, 76, wears his flowing white hair down to his shoulders, and covers most of his face with a full beard. When he strode into a hotel room for his interview last week, it was difficult not to stare at the big black patch over his right eye.
“Oh, I was doing a part recently,” he said, smiling, “and the director wanted me to put on an intense look. But I got so intense I burst a blood vessel in my eye.” He spoke with perfect enunciation, measuring each word, sounding like he was delivering an entertaining lecture. But his ire quickly rose when a question was prefaced by, “Mr. Sutherland.” “That’s Donald!” he actually shouted.
After which he happily proceeded to share how excited and delighted he was to be a part of “The Hunger Games.” “I hadn’t read the books when the script was sent to me,” he said. “I hadn’t even known of them. “But I received this script by (writer-director) Gary Ross. I sat at my desk and I read it, and I pushed it away, and I believed that I had just read something of such import that even though the role was tiny, peripheral, I really wanted to be a part of it. Later on Gary wrote a couple of (President Snow) scenes that weren’t in the book.” Soon after saying yes, Sutherland read all of the books, and got into a series of discussions about the character with Ross (who also wrote and directed “Pleasantville” and “Seabiscuit”). Those talks led to Ross’ eventual direction of Sutherland, or at least some inner portion of him.
“He literally, figuratively, directed me,” said Sutherland, then added, “Well, not me. He directs the character. You know, I give the character a little piece of my DNA and stick it in a Petri dish inside me somewhere, and out of it comes this character, because it’s eaten up Gary’s script. And the two of them talk. And then I only think about what the character thinks about.” Asked if he drew inspiration from any real-life people for his portrayal of the president, Sutherland gave a brief, emphatic answer: “No, I don’t do that. I don’t know how to do that. But I like wearing costumes.” Sutherland admitted that he knew he wanted to be an actor when he was 16. But over the years he found himself becoming more concerned with scripts and directors than with other actors.
Of Ross’ adaptation of the Suzanne Collins novel (the first part of a trilogy), he glowingly said, “I hadn’t seen a script that made me feel like ‘Battle of Algiers’ or ‘Paths of Glory’ or ‘Spartacus.’ I hadn’t seen a script that I thought could motivate or catalyze a generation of young people who, I guess to put it politely, have been dormant.” Switching over to praise of the book series, he said, “Suzanne has written a terrific allegory for our state, the state of this union, and maybe they will stand up, occupy Wall Street, recognize the fact that they live in a particular kind of political structure that needs some change. And then maybe they’ll do it.” But he also had special praise for the film’s lead actress, Jennifer Lawrence, who plays the heroic, Joan of Arc-like Katniss Everdeen.
“She’s so brilliant, it’s quite breathtaking,” he said. “What comfort you get. I’d get the same kind of comfort when 40 or 50 years ago, I would sit watching Marlon Brando’s films. I’d be way back up in the cinema watching, and you knew that no matter what, right or wrong, you were going to be in the hands of someone who would take you into a fantasy that was just lovely. And Jennifer does that.”