MIPCOM: 'Hunger Games' Star Donald Sutherland on Returning to His Roots With 'Pirate's Passage'

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Donald Sutherland

“When I read the book, I saw my life flash before my eyes, and I wasn't even dying!” says the veteran actor about the Canadian-set children's tale

After more than 50 years in the business, acting legend Donald Sutherland has done it all, from playing the insubordinate pacifist Hawkeye Pierce in Robert Altman's M.A.S.H. to the demonic dictator President Snow in The Hunger Games franchise.

But for his latest role, Sutherland is going where he's never gone before, back to his childhood roots in rural Nova Scotia, Canada.

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Pirate's Passage, a 2-D animated film adapted from the book of the same name by Canadian writer William Gilkerson, is a passion project for Sutherland. He produced, co-wrote and provides the voice of the lead character, pirate captain Charles Johnson, in the tale of a fatherless boy who seeks help from a 500-year-old pirate to confront a school bully.

“The book came to me via a tortuous route,” Sutherland told THR. “Bill Gilkerson sent it to me. He gave it to a kid, wrapped in brown paper, and said, 'Give this to Donald Sutherland when you get to Hollywood.' It ended up in Matthew McConaughey's hands, and I ended up with Mathew in Australia [on the set of Fool's Gold].”

Once he read it, though, Sutherland was hooked. The story, set on Nova Scotia's south shore, where the actor grew up, triggered a wave of childhood memories in the 79-year-old actor.

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“I couldn't believe it, it was like my life flashed in front of me, and I wasn't even dying!” he recalls. “I read it again and then I looked at my watch and saw the time was OK, so I called Bill Gilkerson in Nova Scotia and said, 'I want to do this.' ”

From the start, Sutherland said he wanted to do the project in Canada, which is why he chose an animated approach instead of live-action. “I wanted to make it in Canada, and I knew it would hard to make something I was proud of on the budget we had if we did it as a live-action. But with animation, I knew we'd get there.”

Sutherland describes Pirate's Passage almost as a love letter to the world he grew up in. He recalls his first job, at 14, as a radio announcer for Nova Scotia station CKBW, hearing the radio series Jake and The Kid, based on the coming-of-age tale from Canadian author W. O. Mitchell.

“It captured my imagination then, and this book did it in the same way," he said. "So I said, 'I want this to be Canadian and to go out on [public broadcaster] the CBC.' ”

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Brad Peyton co-wrote the film adaptation of Pirate's Passage with Sutherland. Mike Barth and Jamie Gallant directed. Sutherland gathered together an all-star Canadian voice cast, including Matrix actress Carrie-Anne Moss, child actor Gage Munroe (Immortals) and Megan Follows of Anne of Green Gables and period drama Reign, which CBC produced and which airs on The CW in the U.S.

Tandem Communications, producers of Crossing Lines and Pillars of the Earth, have picked up world sales rights outside of Canada for Pirate's Passage and have been pitching the movie to buyers at MIPCOM this week.

Twitter: @sroxborough