Many Hollywood actors like to sound off about politics. But few have been on the sharp end of it quite like Donald Sutherland. ‘I was in Yugoslavia when I found out,’ he says, with a fond smile. He is telling me about the day in 1969 when he discovered that his then wife, Shirley Douglas, had been arrested for providing arms to the Black Panthers. ‘Clint Eastwood came walking out of the sun like it was a spaghetti western and said, “I have some bad news for you. Your wife’s been arrested. For buying hand grenades. From an undercover agent of the FBI. With a personal cheque.” And when he got to the personal cheque, he started laughing so hard he fell to the ground. I had to help him back up.’
At a stately, white-haired 72, Sutherland is every inch the patriarch. He is equally well known these days for his famous offspring (he is the father of Kiefer) and his own impressive back catalogue, which includes classics like Don’t Look Now, as well as more standard commercial fare (Backdraft, Pride and Prejudice). He is also part of the radical 1960s generation of actors for whom Hollywood was a vehicle for achieving social and political change.
In the 1960s and 1970s, while married to Douglas (a Canadian actress whose father, Tommy, led the first socialist government in north America), Sutherland specialised in anti-war films such as Kelly’s Heroes and M*A*S*H. During a later relationship with Jane Fonda, the pair collaborated to produce the anti-Vietnam war film FTA, a series of sketches and interviews with the US troops on active service. He still has something of the iconoclast about him, and seems to carry the 1960s torch with more wit and enthusiasm than pay-cheque protestors like Jack Nicholson. For instance, he’s backing Obama for president – the first time he’s been enthused by a candidate for years.
‘ I promised my publicist that I wouldn’t speak about this, but there hasn’t been one person since Robert Kennedy that I desperately wanted to be president,’ he shakes his head. ‘There have been lots of guys that I wanted not to be president, and therefore I wanted the other person to win. But I just read this letter from an African-American woman saying it was the first time she felt proud of her country just because of Obama’s speech on race.
‘ And if that dialogue can really open up – and it’s a hard dialogue, its not going to have any effect for donkeys’ years – but if it leads to recognition rather than suppression, then I think that’s wonderful.’But didn’t the radical 60s feel more pregnant with possibility than the potential of an Obama candidacy today? ‘No. I felt that there was potential for social change, and I felt that the Black Panther party was struggling to create local political change, but not nationally, and certainly not internationally. There were revolutionary cadres. There was even a cinema of change, and yet change didn’t happen. It was co-opted. Really extraordinarily well, in the course of two years, just as the Vietnam War was coming to an end it slithered away because there was no leadership. It was all coming from the bottom, and there was no one to understand and reflect it. We were in a pretty desperate situation in 1970. Not as desperate as we imagined it, but now we’re in a really terrible state.’
In the long term, however, he believes the future is safer if we wrench control from the coarse fists of men. ‘If I were to trust either my wife or myself as a reaction to whatever happens in reality, I would go 100 per cent with my wife because her natural instinctive reactions would just embarrass me with my inadequacy. I think it’s about motherhood or the capacity for motherhood, which is extraordinary. The three happiest days of my life were when we birthed our three children. We were there in the hospital for an hour and it was just beyond – beyond sex, beyond loving, beyond everything.
It was – I can taste it in my mouth still. It was – God, it was almost impossible. It was so sensuous during that moment of delivering the baby. And men have not done very well, so it’s time to give somebody else a chance.’
So how does such a sensualist describe the flavour of these times? ‘It’s very spicy,’ he chuckles, perhaps at the absurdity of the question, then flips it back to make a serious point. ‘Look, the people are waiting. The people have a lot of saliva in their mouths – they’re hungry. I believe that’s what we’re sitting with the potential for. And you see, individuals can affect history. The people I really admire are Bono, Angelina Jolie and Audrey Hepburn – they did good work taking their cultural position to a socio-diplomatic position.’
It seems strange that, given his passion, he hasn’t taken that route himself. ‘I’ve been financially strapped my whole life.’ He spreads out his hands as if to prove how empty they are. ‘If I had some money to give away I would be so happy.’ Which leaves him with his acting – to pay the rent and, in some films, to poke sly digs at the wealthy who bankroll and control. He brings such intensity to the performance, and to our discussion, that I wonder how he keeps the fire burning in his 72-year-old belly. Does he still get the same buzz he did when he was younger?
He laughs. ‘I don’t get the same buzz out of anything,’ he looks briefly away, out of the window, and then turns back. ‘Possibly the only thing that’s more pleasurable is farting. Brodsky talked to this graduating class in Dartmouth in 1988 – he’s a Russian poet who died ten years ago. Wonderful, brilliant, Nobel Prize-winning. Read him. Anyway, he looked at the class and he said, “You know, this is the best day of the rest of your life. Everything else is going to go downhill from now on. You’re going to get things. The more things you get, the more boring it’s going to be.” And in the middle of it, he said, “Try to stay passionate. Leave your cool to the constellation. Passion alone is a remedy against boredom.”’