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Donald Sutherland’s preparation for ‘The Leisure Seeker’ took him to a dark place

The acting icon stars in Paolo Virzi’s latest alongside Helen Mirren.

Donald Sutherland stars alongside Helen Mirren in

Donald Sutherland stars alongside Helen Mirren in "The Leisure Seeker." Photo Credit: Daniel C. McFadden / Sony Pictures Classics

In Donald Sutherland’s latest film, Paolo Virzi’s “The Leisure Seeker,” the 82-year-old acting icon had to face down something new: his own death.

Sutherland plays John Spencer, an Ernest Hemingway-obsessed former English professor suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Spencer wants to take one last road trip with his wife, Ella — Helen Mirren, who Sutherland calls “brilliant beyond compare” — before taking his own life. It’s a deeply-felt story that manages to be as darkly humorous as it is heartbreaking.

So naturally, when amNewYork sat down with Sutherland to discuss the movie, now in theaters, it was a conversation equal parts dark and warm, covering passion, Hemingway and the actor’s own relationship with suicide. “Hey, I’m almost 83 years old,” he says, laughing despite the subject. “People kill themselves all the time.”

Are you a fan of Hemingway yourself?

I was, 50 years ago, but then I had kind of forgotten him. His suicide worried me, for the purest, technical of reasons. I couldn’t understand why. All the people I know who have committed suicide have in some way made an effort to keep it away. My mother’s aunt hanged herself, but she left notes saying, “get someone else to come into the garage.” People take care. But he didn’t. He got a 12-gauge shotgun and he blew his head off. He killed himself in the living room. All I could think of was the mess for everybody to clean up.

That’s actually in the script. Helen’s character says to you, “Just please don’t do it in the living room.”

That’s me. That came from a conversation with me.

Even with his sickness, your character can always remember Hemingway. Is there something about art that sticks with us?

It’s true. And the truth resonates. Because you remember events. I can quote pieces of poetry that I’ve known for 50 years. They will stream out of me. But I won’t remember some things that I did yesterday.

What’s been the most constant thing over your career?

Passion. Joseph Brodsky gave a commencement address at Dartmouth College in 1988. He was talking to the graduating class. In the middle of it he said, “Try to stay passionate. Leave your cool to the constellations. Passion alone is a remedy against boredom.” If I had a mantra, that would be it.

What’s changed the most?

Video taking off. It destroyed the relationship between a director and an actor. For the first 50 years of my life, directors were sitting beside a camera watching you. Watching your eyes. John Huston didn’t even watch you, he just sat there and listened to you. But it was visceral, it was intimate. You were only working for them. It was love. It was passion. It had force. Now you’re working for someone who is looking for you on a screen. They can’t see [expletive]. There are directors who still sit beside the camera, though. Paolo [Virzi, director of “The Leisure Seeker,”] does. Danny Boyle does.

How has that changed your performances, personally?

I’m just a little lonelier. It’s like your marriage suddenly doesn’t have sex anymore. But you’re still married. You’re still in love.

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