In Paolo Virzì’s new film, The Leisure Seeker, Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren star as John and Ella, an older couple who run away from their children and health problems for one last road trip in their RV, dubbed “The Leisure Seeker.” While on their way to the Hemingway House in Florida, they bicker, reminisce, reconnect, and see early stirrings of Trump’s America. But Trump wasn’t necessarily meant to be a theme of the film, Sutherland told Vulture in a recent conversation: “It was an American artifact that an Italian director driving down the road in a 1973 Winnebago with an English actress and a Canadian actor sees.”
Instead, Sutherland sees the theme of The Leisure Seeker as the intimacy between a couple that’s been together for decades — a delicate, emotional, and sensual bond, something rarely seen in films, especially by actors of this caliber. However good both Sutherland and Mirren are, they’re even better together, which is thrilling to watch onscreen.
Before the film’s release, Vulture caught up with Sutherland to talk about his love for Mirren — and an important lesson she taught him. He also talked about his infamous sex scene with Julie Christie in Don’t Look Now; his wife of 46 years, Francine; and how he feels he owes his career to the critic Renata Adler.
Is this the first time you’ve worked with Helen Mirren?
No. We played man and wife 30 years ago, in a film called Bethune.
You’re so wonderful together.
I’m so sorry she’s — we just normally do interviews together, at which time I don’t say anything!
Yeah. I just laugh and giggle, she talks.
She’s the alpha of the pair?
I don’t know what she is. I love her to death.
I saw in festival press for this movie that Helen Mirren gave you a good talking to you for being a white male.
Well, yeah! I didn’t even know what she was talking about. We were just sitting talking and suddenly she turns around and says, “You’re the most privileged person in the world.” I went, “No I’m not, actually.” I’ve had a very good life and I’ve earned some money, but I don’t have much. But I’ve been fortunate, that’s for sure. She went, “No, you’re the most privileged person in the world.” And I went, “What are you talking about, Helen?” And she said, “You’re a white male.” And I went, “Okay.”
You thought about it?
Yeah. And I still think about it.
But what can you do? But white men are responsible for most of the tragedies in the world, you know? You look at Africa. You look at indigenous people in North America and South America.
I agree completely. Do you think, as the saying goes, “Time’s Up” for white men?
No, no, no, no. I don’t think “time’s up” for anybody. I certainly think it’s time for gender equality, that’s for sure. But “time’s up” is like a threat. You know, this is about people having been threatened, so you have to approach it differently than that, I think.
I think you’re right. It’s about trying to regain power in the same way.
Regain? I don’t think “regain.” Establish maybe. Reclaim? I don’t know, you should talk to my wife.
I was happy to see in your recent honorary Oscar acceptance speech that you thanked Renata Adler. Which was a little bit of a surprise. So I looked up her 1968 review of the film Joanna where she mentions you. Tell me why you thanked her.
Oh, do you suppose she knows about it?
I don’t know if she knows. Let’s let her know. Maybe she’ll know from this.
Forever, I’ve always had in my head, if I was ever awarded an Oscar, I would thank Ingwald Preminger, Robert Aldrich, Brian Hutton, and Renata Adler. It was so important to me, that review. When I walked down the hall to go see my agent they all said, “Hey what’d you do? Renata blah blah …” They just thought it was dumb that she would say those things about me, because they didn’t have much hope for my future. And it gave me a great sense of purpose.
Do you remember some of the highlights that she said about you?
[Laughs, then lisps.] She said I had a lisp!
She also said you were an attractive gopher.
Exactly. Gene Siskel … Do you know who Gene Siskel is?
Well in 1980, 1981 maybe, he had done this long interview with me. Then he said, “I’m going to get married next month.” I said congratulations. He said, “Can you answer a question for me?” And I said, “Well, I’ll try.” He said, “My fiancée finds you attractive. Why?”
That leads to your new movie, which was a really wonderful depiction of intimacy between an older couple.
You know something, the film with Julie Christie, Don’t Look Now, was a depiction of married intimacy. There’s a scene where they make love in the movie, and it’s not voyeuristic. You don’t watch people making love. What happens when you watch it is you remember having made love, having been in love yourself. And I think so, too, with this one. You understand the love your parents feel. You understand that these people, who are so much older than you are, have a life and a future, have a sexual existence, have a sensual existence. The fact that they’re 40 years older than you are, it doesn’t change who they think they are.
That’s an interesting comparison with Don’t Look Now, because that still gets listed as one of the best sex scenes ever made.
But it’s not a sex scene … You know something, you know how that was shot? It was shot with unblimped Arriflex cameras. We were in a room by ourselves. I don’t know about Julie, but I’m never naked in front of somebody! I’m not even naked in front of my children. I’m naked in front of my wife — that’s it. I was shy. For a couple of very specific reasons, she was physically shy. But we got over our shyness, went into the room, and were standing like Adam and Eve waiting for somebody to give us an apple. And in one corner was Nic Roeg, and right beside him was [cinematographer] Tony Richmond. They had two unblimped Arriflexes. An unblimped Arriflex sounds like a Singer sewing machine on methamphetamines.
Oh yeah. [Makes loud AAAAAAGHHHHHH noise.] It’s like that! You can’t do sound with it. So there was no sound. They were very short, 15- to 20-second takes. It was literally like, “Julie, tilt your back. Donald, put your head towards her.” AAAAAAGHHHHHH. “Now Julie, move your head to the side.” AAAAAAGHHHHHH. It was like that! The whole thing. It took your gut away from you. But then, what [Roeg] did, was he cut it together with getting dressed. It was perfect. No sound, just music. I’m very proud of that. I have a son named after him.
Your first line [in The Leisure Seeker] is: “You farted, darling.” And all the way to the end it’s about all of these moments of intimacy, not just the sex scene.
Yeah, yeah, yeah … That’s what it’s about. Where is my wife, Francine? Oh, she’s upstairs. She’s one of the great farters of the world.
How long have you been together?
My wife and I? Forty-six years. Crop-dusting all the way.
Do you feel close to the character of John?
He took over. I ceased to exist. Yeah, he was very powerful, very powerful. I miss him.
Did you model him off of anyone?
No. Well you have to do some research. I didn’t look at people who suffered from Alzheimer’s or dementia. I looked at a woman named Teepa Snow who trains caregivers for dementia patients. I studied what she was treating and why, how they would confront certain things. So it was kind of reverse engineering. John wasn’t copied, he just came, and he was just born. Oh, it sounds so stupid when I say it … [laughs]. He was born, and he took over. Periodically, the character that I played would speak. From inside me he would speak.
So he was born inside you, and he lived inside you …
He lives inside me now. I can’t get rid of him. He won’t go away.
What about all the other characters you’ve played? Are they there, too?
Yeah, they’re pushing him away!
Is one dominant in there?
At the moment it’s Oddball in Kelly’s Heroes. But Casanova is sitting there looking at him.
I wanted to ask you, too, if you have a relationship with Hemingway like the character you play, John.
I read it all before. And then I reread it all before we shot the film. And I had recorded The Old Man and the Sea [for an audiobook]. I loved him.
Do you have feelings about his suicide? Because it kind of haunts the film. He was quite young.
No, he wasn’t quite young.
Well, early 60s.
It was kind of like Rothko. When men at that time discover — their impotency overwhelms them. Masculinity was so important to Hemingway. I think it’s fine to go and shoot yourself. I just don’t know why he was walking outside, and he did it inside. He did it in the living room before he got outside. That’s an awful mess for people to have to clean up afterwards. Something about that has a complete and utter lack of elegance for me.
I had a friend who jumped off a bridge in Toronto. I loved him and he didn’t tell me anything. Nothing. I was in Poland at the time and as soon as I heard, I flew back. [Sutherland turns to the fidgeting publicist, as he goes over allotted time.] You need to go to the bathroom?
So I came back, did the eulogy, expressed my dismay to the family. And when I went to look his grave a year later, the tombstone was there [motions nearby]. And I said to my daughter, “I don’t want to stay here, take me to where he jumped.” And as we were driving towards the bridge, my daughter said, “This is where he jumped.” And I looked up and suddenly there’s the sound of fire engines and police. And a woman jumped.
[Gasps.] You’re kidding.
Oh no, I don’t kid you. And it was an awful noise when she landed and then absolute silence. People screaming and yelling and then [SLAP] nothing.
[Glances at publicist.] I think I have to go. But thank you, I’ve never had an interview quite like this.
This interview has been edited and condensed.