People: Interview – Rossif Sutherland
The Sutherland with the curious accent makes a dark turn in River before preparing for a new Catastrophe on French-Canadian television
By Katherine Monk
As far as Sutherlands go, he’s the tall one. You could see it when he appeared on stage next to his legendary father, Donald, at the recent Canadian Screen Awards. Rossif’s thick brown hair stood just a shade taller than his father’s flattening white pate.
Career-wise, however, there’s still a ways to go before he reaches the same stature as the Sutherland who appeared in M*A*S*H and Ordinary People. Or even that of his half-brother Kiefer. Not that he really cares.
“I don’t care much about what people think about me. If they don’t like me, they don’t like me. You can be the nicest person in the room… it doesn’t matter…. And I’ve never been very strategic with my choices, and maybe my career has suffered for it,” says Vancouver-born Rossif Sutherland from Toronto.
“But I do these things selfishly. They are an experience I want to live and whatever comes out of it comes out of it. Fun is not the word, but I look to be challenged and inspired. And all these characters I have had the privilege of playing have taught me a lot.”
Recently winning starring roles in Paul Gross’s Hyena Road, in which he played Ryan, a Canadian soldier in Afghanistan, and River, for which he received a Canadian Screen award nomination for best actor, Sutherland is about to start production on a brand new television series based on the BBC series Catastrophe. It’s for Radio-Canada. He’s the lead. It’s a comedy. And he’ll be speaking exclusively in French.
Pas de problème.
“I can’t wait to work in French. I grew up in France and lived there until I was 19. I’ve been aching to work in the language that I grew up speaking. I always had this crippling accent in English that makes you think I should be in the middle of the ocean. Let me tell you when you’re first starting out, they’re trying to put you in a box,” says the sleep-deprived new father of a six-week-old.
“But I get it. When you’re entrusting an actor to bring a part to life, you want something you recognize. I didn’t fit in any category. But I have no accent in French. A real little Parisien, and in this show, I get to make people laugh. I’m not usually offered those sorts of things, which is why I had to say yes. And working in Quebec seems like so much fun.”
Sutherland’s natural ability in French is thanks to his mother, Quebecer Francine Racette, Donald Sutherland’s third wife. Racette insisted the family move to France to escape the fishbowl of celebrity in North America. As a result, Rossif and his siblings grew up with little knowledge of their father’s fame.
“People would treat him with the same respect you’d pay to any artist, but it was really a big shock when we’d come to America to visit. It wasn’t the reality I grew up in at all.”
“I can’t wait to work in French. I grew up in France and lived there until I was 19. I’ve been aching to work in the language that I grew up speaking. I always had this crippling accent in English that makes you think I should be in the middle of the ocean.”
After nearly two decades in North America, with time in Princeton, Los Angeles, and now Toronto, he says his French is a bit rusty, but he had a chance to get back into it on the new movie River, which opened in theatres this week.
Taking on the role of a young American doctor who ends up in a skirmish that leaves a diplomat’s son dead in Laos, Sutherland had to carry the whole movie on his shoulders as the film follows his attempt to flee the country.
It’s the first film from director and writer Jamie Dagg, not to mention the first foreign feature entirely shot in Laos, and Sutherland says he made it because he didn’t think it could be done.
“I really didn’t think it was possible to make this movie with the little money that he had. I had just finished Hyena Road and I was tired and really just wanted to be at home. And how do I tell my beautiful girlfriend, who was so patient, that I’m heading off again? But I ended up packing my bags and getting on a plane.”
Sutherland says he had to do it, even if that meant working on a shoestring with amateur actors.
“I wanted to see if it could be done. It was a steep learning curve for just about everyone because we had a small crew, we were in a foreign land. A lot of people were heading up a department for the first time. It felt like my film school. I wasn’t just an actor on this one.”
Yet, it was the acting that pulled him in.
“I wanted to try soloing. It’s all one character. The movie is all me. And I wanted to see if I could find a way to make it compelling, given that I’m not really talking to anybody. You know, I don’t do it embracing the idea these films will be seen. If I did, I probably wouldn’t be able to muster the courage to be an actor.”
Even as a Sutherland, being an actor was something he resisted until someone failed to show up for their part in a school play, and voila! A star is born.
“I didn’t want to live my father’s life. I didn’t think it’s what I wanted to do, but it’s like falling in love with your neighbour. You see her every day, and say hello, but you don’t really know her until it’s raining one day and you’re at the bus stop and you get to know her and you realize the person you love has been living next to you all that time.”
He pauses after the romantic interlude.
“Then again, I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. All the members of my family are involved in the business one way or another. My brother is an agent. My other brother is a producer. My sister is a script supervisor. My niece is an actor.”
Sutherland says they don’t sit around the family dining table talking shop, but they do check in on each other, and offer support.
“We avoid talking about work. But if not for my dad, I would not be an actor. His advice and support mean the world to me.”
Sutherland says his dad left engineering for a life in theatre because he got laughs the first time he stepped on a stage, and was immediately hooked. He sees his own career as a similarly happy series of events – because that’s just the way he looks at things.
“I remember when I was a kid my mother asked me what my ambition was. And I told her it was to be happy. And she said that wasn’t an ambition, but I think my mother was wrong about that,” he says.
“I remember when I was a kid my mother asked me what my ambition was. And I told her it was to be happy…”
“I think if you can find joy in your life and surround yourself with people you love… Look. I know how short life is so I am just enjoying whatever is given to me. Seriously. I once dated this very religious woman – I am not religious at all – and she said I was the most religious person she’d ever met. I think it had to do with dreaming with your eyes open. Stuff like that.”
And while it’s not always easy to feel like a spiritual creature in show business, Sutherland says he still finds satisfaction in telling the story, and pursuing the art of doing it well.
“I love watching soccer players. They have no illusion about what they do. But they spend their entire lives mastering the art of kicking a ball around. They are not pretending to do anything else. I find it so refreshing.”
River is currently playing in select theatres.
THE EX-PRESS, March 16, 2016