THE BACK PAGES

Not just another Sutherland

He’s Donald’s son and Kiefer's half-brother, but acts more like Brando BY BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Brian D. Johnson December 10 2007
THE BACK PAGES

Not just another Sutherland

He’s Donald’s son and Kiefer's half-brother, but acts more like Brando BY BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Brian D. Johnson December 10 2007

Not just another Sutherland

THE BACK PAGES

film

He’s Donald’s son and Kiefer's half-brother, but acts more like Brando BY BRIAN D. JOHNSON

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Rossif Sutherland used to find auditions so nerve-racking they would make him sick. He says he could feel himself being judged even before entering the room. It’s that last name. As the son of Donald, and half-brother of Kiefer, this late-blooming talent from the Sutherland clan has a lot to live up to. With just a few minor acting credits to his name, Rossif, 29, has come out of nowhere to deliver a knockout performance in his first starring roleplaying a Halifax boxer opposite Hollywood veteran Danny Glover in Poor Boy’s Game. But when work was scarce, he remembers how his father cheered him up with a story from his own days as a struggling actor.

“He did this audition and apparently he was incredible,” says Rossif, speaking from Winnipeg, where he’s now playing a junkie in a heist comedy called Highlife. “Dad was so confident he got the part, he went back home and started packing his bags because he was convinced he was going to get that call and get on a plane. So he gets the call and it’s the writer, the director, the producer—they’re all on the phone. They say, ‘Hey Donald, we wanted to say what a terrific job you’ve done. But the thing is, we’re looking

‘It’s the family business, a small acting mafia'

for a guy-next-door kind of guy, and we don’t think you live next door to anybody.’ Well, I’ve suffered from that. People don’t think I live next door to anybody. They haven’t really known what box to put me in.”

Rossif is the first to admit he doesn’t look or sound like his father. Although he shares Donald’s imposing height—standing an inch taller than him at six foot five—unlike Kiefer, he hasn’t inherited a trace of his fierce, vulpine features—just his large ears. But the actor Rossif gets compared to is Marlon Brando, and not just because his working-class boxer in Poor Boy’s Game has echoes of On the Waterfront. Or because he has a strong brow

and sensual mouth. With his strange, unplaceable accent, Rossif also sounds eerily like Brando. And while it’s unfair to compare a young newcomer with perhaps the greatest actor of all time, he has a similar talent for being “in the moment,” with a sensitive, smouldering charisma reminiscent of the man who revolutionized the art of acting.

After just one major role it’s too early to tell, but Rossif may be the first Sutherland

who’s cut out to be a leading man. Sure, Donald played leads opposite Jane Fonda and Julie Christie in the early ’70s, when you didn’t need to look like a movie star to be one. But he and Kiefer are primarily character actors. Rossif “could be a matinee idol,” says director Clement Virgo, who cast him in Poor Boy’s Game. “He has an ease about him, and a natural sexuality. After the premiere of the film, he had hordes of young women coming up to him.”

As yet another Sutherland steps into the spotlight, we’re seeing the emergence of a unique acting dynasty. The New Brunswickborn Donald Sutherland has five children:

Kiefer and Rachel were born to his second wife, actress/activist Shirley Douglas, and he has three sons with his current wife, retired Quebec actress Francine Racette. Donald imprinted all four of his sons with a cinematic pedigree, naming each after a director he worked with—Kiefer, 40, was named after Warren Kiefer; Roeg, 33, after Nicholas Roeg; Rossif after Frédéric Rossif; and Angus, 25, takes his middle name, Redford, from Robert Redford. But none of the Sutherland boys turned out to be directors. All are actors except Roeg, who is an actors’ agent.

Rossif, who had literary ambitions, resisted acting for years. He says, “Angus was always the turbulent one who needed attention and liked to look at himself in the mirror with a guitar without playing it.” But his father finally spotted his talent and urged him to embrace it. “It’s the family business,” Rossif concedes with a soft laugh, “a small acting mafia.”

Born in Vancouver, Rossif lived in Los Angeles and New York until he was eight, when his mother moved the family to Paris, his home for 11 years. She didn’t want her sons growing up in a showbiz bubble, he says. “Dad was away all the time anyway, shooting. He would come visit between films.”

In Paris, Rossif attended a strict Jesuit school near his house, the only non-Catholic enrolled. His childhood dream was to be a writer. With his father away so much, he kept up a correspondence with him from an early age. “But I wouldn’t write letters where I would tell him what I was doing with my days,” he says. “I’d write short stories.”

©Rossif’s only teenage acting experience, in a school play, was traumatic. “I had to play a soldier who’d had his legs chopped off. I forgot my lines and was so embarrassed I walked offstage. A miracle. Dad was there in the audience. He could have said, T hope you don’t want to do this for a living,’ but instead he said that was when I was closest to the truth, because I lost track of text, I lost track of everything—I was living in the moment.” His next role was an accident. Studying

'Dad dropped me off for the audition. He was so nervous.’

philosophy at Princeton University, Rossif agreed to direct a short film, filling in for a female student who was overwhelmed. He also had to fill in for the lead actor, who failed to show up. When his father saw the film, Rossif recalls, “all he saw was the acting—he told me I should do that with my life.”

Yet Rossif wasn’t convinced. At a college dorm party, when someone picked up a guitar and asked him to sing, he stumbled upon another vocation. “I wasn’t completely sober,” he says. “I don’t know what took over me. Once I discovered that, it’s all I wanted to do. Acting didn’t make much sense to me—spending my life pretending to be other people.” But a New York acting teacher convinced him otherwise, saying “You’ll always get to be yourself. Acting will only help you celebrate all the people dormant within you.” Quitting Princeton after two years, Rossif pursued both acting and music. (He’s currently working on a CD, and his songs can be found on MySpace.) Like Kiefer, who landed his first starring role with The Bay Boy (1984), he got his break with a movie shot in Nova Scotia. When he read for Poor Boy’s Game, his resumé— which includes a recurring role on 11 episodes of ER—was still pretty thin. “Dad dropped me off for the audition like he would drop off a kid in school,” he says. “He was so nervous. He really wanted me to get this part.” Virgo, who saw Rossif’s audition on video, says, “It wasn’t great, frankly. He was over-

weight. He had a beard. But something on that tape struck me, something about the stuff he did in between takes. He was immensely watchable.” Virgo glimpsed a vulnerability he’d been looking for. “In my mind, the character was a throwback to men who were allowed to have a duality, a male and female energylike Paul Newman or Montgomery Clift—as opposed to all male, like Russell Crowe.”

But Virgo took a risk casting an unknown. “Although I do have a last name,” says Rossif, “it doesn’t make that much difference, not for people who finance films. I had to wait until Danny Glover came on, and then they could take a chance on me.”

In Poor Boy’s Game, Sutherland plays Donnie, a boxer who’s released from prison nine years after being convicted for an assault that left a black teenager mentally handicapped. The victim’s father (Glover) wants personal vengeance. But as racial tensions escalate, Donnie is lured into a prizefight

with a ferocious black athlete (Flex Alexander) that is expected to be an execution.

Sutherland does not have a lot of lines. He’s an actor who knows how to communicate with silence. And his performance—which includes a homosexual love scene with a cellmate, a tender love scene with his brother’s

wife (Laura Regan), and a marathon 10-round fight—is largely physical. To prepare, he transformed his physique with rigorous workouts, then trained with the boxing team that worked with Russell Crowe in Cinderella Man. But his sex scene with Regan gave him the most trouble, says Rossif. “When it came to making love with a character, knowing there is also an actress there, and to be respectful of her—it was difficult for me to let go.”

The earnest, thoughtful actor still can’t quite fathom that he’s performing “for an audience of strangers.” He says, “I do things for myself. I love the luxury of being able to discover these things inside of me that I didn’t know were there. But if I had to impress anybody, it would be my father, my brothers.” Kiefer was not part of his upbringing. “He had his own life and his own kid, so rarely do we see each other,” says Rossif. “But I saw Kiefer four years ago after shooting my first film {Timeline), which was not a very good one, and he gave me his blessings. He said I could do this because I was very serious and he knew I’d be committed.” Rossif also expressed support for the star of 24 after the ordeal of his drunk-driving arrest. As for the

spectre of his own celebrity, he hopes “I can pull off being a working actor and not be a movie star—and still have the freedom to walk down the street and look at people’s faces, which feeds so much of my work. I can’t imagine that part of my life changing. If it does, I’ll try to treat it as gracefully as I can.” M