Donald Sutherland on Producing, Writing for 'Pirate's Passage'

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Donald Sutherland plays Captain Charles Johnson, damned to sail the seas forever.

His starring role in the animated family film about a boy who meets a legendary pirate is his passion project.

MIAMI BEACH — Donald Sutherland has acted in many movies and TV shows — everything from M*A*S*H to The Hunger Games — in a career that has spanned over 50 years, but he has rarely produced anything.

However, the lanky, literate 79-year-old star was so taken with the children's novel Pirate's Passion that he not only produced and starred in an animated version, but also co-wrote the script with Brad Peyton, worked with the animators and even modeled for the character he voices.

"I was intimately involved in every element of it," said Sutherland on Thursday. "Before they started drawing the character of the captain, I took off all my clothes and walked around in my underwear, and they would film it so they would get an idea of what his body was like."

The family movie aired on the CBC in Canada on Jan. 4. Sutherland was at NATPE this week promoting international sales for Tandem Communications (a Munich-based company owned by Studio Canal), which is distributing outside Canada. It has yet to land a deal for U.S. distribution.

The book had been sent to Sutherland by the author, William Gilkerson, wrapped in brown paper without any address. He gave it to a friend headed to California. It was finally given to Sutherland by Matthew McConaughey when they were in Australia making Fool's Gold.

"Matthew said a fellow gave it to him," recalled Sutherland, "and he got it from somebody who knows somebody who knew a guy who knew the fellow who wrote it."

Sutherland immediately read the book twice in one night. He was affected by the story that takes place in Nova Scotia, Canada, right where he grew up. Set in 1952, when Sutherland lived there, it's about a fatherless 12-year-old boy who meets the captain of the Flying Dutchman, a legendary pirate who is damned to sail the seas forever.

Sutherland called the author from Australia the next day and told him he wanted to make it into a movie. Eventually it evolved into an animation project because live-action would have been much more costly.

Sutherland next goes on to shoot the third season of the European co-produced series Crossing Lines (which aired for one season on NBC in the U.S.) and is in the next Hunger Games movie coming out in November. He has also completed work on the period drama Henry Clayton, starring with his son, Kiefer.

He also will be one of the stars later this year in a movie version of the novel The Hunters, playing a Russian. It is about a group of adventurers who seek a lost Romanian fortune said to be hidden in underground vaults under the Kremlin.

One thing Sutherland is not looking for is another movie to produce. "Oh my god, no," he said. "I wasn't actively looking for [Pirates' Passage]. It is when things come to me and they say would you like to do this? It's the opportunity."

Sutherland loves what he does and said he has no plans to ever retire. "If I did, what pleasure would I get?" he said. "I have great pleasure in going into a character and finding some kind of truth and playing it. it's the most wonderful job in the world. To sit and twiddle my thumbs? I don't play golf or tennis."

He said the only secret he has to living this long is his third wife, Francine Racette: "We've been together 42 years. It's the best thing that ever happened to me. I would be long dead if it wasn't for her. I stay alive because she makes me laugh. She's the funniest person alive. She's just wonderful."