Donald Sutherland has been making movies for nearly fifty years, and in that time he’s had a number of roles that could be considered all-timers: M*A*S*H, Klute, Don’t Look Back, National Lampoon’s Animal House, and 1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers are a lot of great movies for one career, and now he’s added another signature role to his body of work–President Snow in The Hunger Games. Sutherland recently spoke to ScreenCrave about this role, and how he approached playing someone whose politics are the opposite of his own. Check out our interview below.
What do you look for at this stage of your career when you’re with all of the different roles that you’re tackling?
Whatever strikes my heart, you know? I mean this script. It came, I read it, I couldn’t read it actually. I pushed it away, I sat back and I said to my wife, “I think I just read something that can change everything.” I had no idea about Hunger Games, anything about the books, the fascination, nothing, nothing. I only discovered that in the dermatologists office. I was getting – at my age you get barnacles taken off your head and stuff. I mean, they’re not really barnacles, but my wretched dermatologist calls them that. And she said, “What are you doing?” And I said, “I just finished shooting Hunger Games.” I got maybe the “m” of Hunger Games out and the office was suddenly filled with people jumping up and down in hysteria. And these are adults! So I figured it out.
This script came and it seemed to me that it was a game changer, that it had the possibility, if it were properly done, to catalyze, motivate, mobilize a generation of young people who were, in my opinion, by in large dormant in the political process. You have Occupy Wall Street and all that, but it has a limited base or it seems to have a limited base. And I hoped, I felt that this could maybe spread out across the country. I don’t care what they do, just so long as they stand up and do something so that they identify the political situation that we’re in. I was thrilled at that possibility.
And then when Gary [Ross] asked me to do it, to play the president, it was at that time a very peripheral part. We were in North Carolina and talking about that nature of the oligarchies and the privileged and how to administer them. And he said, “I’m going to write,” – god, he’s brilliant. He’s an amazing man, he really is. You loathe to use the word genius, but he’s quite extraordinary from my point of view. And he went away and he came back with a couple of scenes of such economy of language. Of such specificity. He said, “I think what we have to talk about is hope and fear.” And those scenes aren’t in the book. He wrote them and Suzanne Collins loved them.
But it so perfectly described what someone, an administrator, a bureaucrat, not even a leader, that Coriolanus Snow is, that he has to do. How do you keep that underclass in control? You offer them a little bit of hope. He thinks that Wes Bentley’s character would probably take over his position. He is 76 years old, he was 2 years old when the Hunger Games started. And he’s looking for a successor. And he tests Wes’ character. “You’ve allowed this girl, this underdog…do you like underdogs? You’ve allowed her to take some kind of position of power.” You know and I know – you’ve seen the movie right? – so you know that scene. And Wes, of course, fails and when you fail you die. You’re not really of any use. You have your chances. It’s kind of the same in this business these days, you know? You have that one chance and you either succeed or fail.
But then Gary nor I knew Jennifer Lawrence. I hadn’t seen Winter’s Bone. But she is, evidenced by that picture and this picture, I would say one of the very best actor working around today. I talked to Gary about George Bernard Shaw and “Saint Joan.” And I’m not a big fan of the play, but the premise is extraordinary and Shaw talks about Joan and all those guys being genius. In their particular moment of their political ascendancy they were genius, and she, Katniss Everdeen, is a genius. You know, she doesn’t know it when she goes into the arena and she’s in the middle of this coliseum, but it develops. Everything she does is correct. When she reaches down and picks up those berries and puts them in her pocket, I know that she needs them for that scene later on. I’ve read the script. But the character doesn’t know it, just the genius of that character knows that that might be a weapon that she can use. But most actors who play that will give you some, just a little hint of an indicator, that they actually know that they need it later. This girl…[laughs]. I said to her, I said, “You should change your name to Jennifer Lawrence Olivier” [laughs].
As scary and terrible a person as President Snow is…
Okay, I don’t find him scary or terrible.
Well, I was going to say that there is some sympathy because we don’t know this world and we know that something very bad happens and you can almost see fear in him. And I was wondering you’re reading on that.
I don’t think you see fear in him. I think you see challenge. At my age the only thing you’re really afraid of is Depends [laughs]. I think he sees challenge and I think he sees in this [motions mist to the wind] this Katniss Everdeen. I think he sees in her the challenge that he’s been waiting for. You know, sitting there, somebody someday is going to come up sometime. And this particular one, given how it’s all gone, you can’t just kill her. You have to find some other way of controlling her, containing her.
Your character is the only one who seems to really understand that there is a world possible outside of the Hunger Games.
Yeah, sure there is. You know, you think when General Electric doesn’t pay tax on four billion dollars they don’t know that there is another world possible where they did pay the bloody tax? Sure they do.
It’s interesting that you could really connect it to the Occupy moment. That was one of the first thoughts I had while watching this. The underdog speech is something you might hear on conservative radio.
Exactly, yeah. Yeah. Except for Rush [Limbaugh] [laughs]. I bet Lionsgate doesn’t want us to dwell too much on Occupy Wall Street [publicist walks up from behind, gives the “no” signal, everyone laughs]. But you’re right. I went there. I went to Occupy Vancouver. It felt so good. Somewhere around ’74, whatever we were doing was co-opted. It was commercialized. It became a brand and everybody lost heart. I have here [reaches for his briefcase], I have it here I don’t want to take it out, “The Port Huron Statement,” that the SDS made in 1962. Have you read it?
No, I haven’t.
Oh god, read it. Read it! Read it! It’s so…it’s just brilliant. It’s really brilliant. It’s brilliant today and I can’t read it because I can’t see properly, but it ends with something to the effect of “You might think that what we are proposing is unattainable. But we’re proposing that because otherwise what is going to happen is unmentionable.” And that’s what happened.
Can you talk about President Snow viewing this position in the world of Panem and the challenge…
No, no, I don’t see it as a challenge. That’s a grave misconstruction of what I said. He expects someone to come and challenge his position. He’s very confident. His main priority, actually, are roses. I mean, you see that he looks different from people in the community. He’s much older and he comes from a different generation, in the same sense that my parents didn’t really like Elvis Presley. I was crazy about him, and so to with President Snow in that I’m not sure how much he approves of all that. But it’s okay. Now I got out in that hallway and all those loads of people have tattoos. I don’t have any tattoos, you know? I could have “RH Negative” on there, I don’t even have that [laughs]. So that’s why he looks like he looks.
So if you’re being in the skin of President Snow and understanding him, making connections like the Occupy Wall Street, does that make you have understanding of people who are on the opposite side of that movement?
That actually doesn’t really enter into the character, but it enters into the process of my thinking around the character. Yeah, sure, sure. What he does, any actor they give the character a little piece of DNA, my DNA, and stuck a script on it and put it in a petri dish inside your belly and out comes this fella. So he’s part me, he’s part the script, and so he really is off on his own, and he certainly isn’t thinking about Occupy Wall Street or anything else. But me, sure, I muse about those kinds of things.
The Hunger Games opens March 23. Check it out