Donald Sutherland brings the bad to 'Catching Fire'
You know you've made it in the villain business when you get a shout-out in the promotions of a blockbuster movie.
The poster for “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” features heroine Katniss Everdeen with the tag line “Remember who the enemy is.” She might as well be aiming her bow at the menacing President Snow, played with clipped-beard perfection by Donald Sutherland.
“Everything that happens in this story is driven by the antagonist, which is why President Snow is so vital,” says director Francis Lawrence. “It gets very personal with these characters.”
“Fire,” which opened last week, puts the evil mantle squarely on the shoulders of 78-year-old Sutherland, who says he relishes the opportunity to go to the dark side again as he has done in films such as 1976's “1900” and 1981's “Eye of the Needle.”
Snow's iron grip on “The Hunger Games' futuristic government keeps the Capitol of Panem decadent while the 12 outlying districts remain poverty-stricken and fighting an annual televised battle to the death. Sutherland steps into an even larger role in the franchise's second film as he tries to squash the growing, rebellious threat posed by Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence).
When Sutherland was preparing for the part three years ago, he wrote letters back and forth to the first film's director, Gary Ross, about how he should play the character.
The letters highlighted some of history's biggest names on which Sutherland planned to base his performance, including Stalin (“particularly him”), Hitler, Mao Zedong and even President Lyndon Johnson (“he killed so many Vietnamese unnecessarily”).
Sutherland presciently added Syria's president to the list. “I said at the time that I didn't know whether Bashar Assad fit the picture, but, of course, three years later, he's right there,” he says.
The actor grew out his beard so that he and Ross could craft Snow's look. Extensive mutton chops were considered, but they finally decided on a short, well-groomed beard, which gives a sense of “the oligarchy of privilege” that Snow represents.
Sutherland even brought on a signature item — a Victorian-era silver tube that he wears prominently on his lapel with a white rose. It's more than just a dashing fashion statement: The back story is that Snow has poisoned all of his adversaries and taken smaller poison doses to avoid suspicion.
“He has just enough in his system to not be convicted of poisoning everyone else,” Sutherland says. “But the reason the rose is there is because (Snow's body) smells with all the blood and poison.”
The toxic digestive problems are so pervasive that during one chilling moment, Snow's glass of Champagne turns blood-red from diseased backwash. He doesn't bat an eye.
It all makes for impressive evil, which will only grow as the series, based on the Suzanne Collins novels, reaches its climax in “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1” (due a year from now) and “Part 2” (2015).
Sutherland “turns President Snow's evil up to a 9 in ‘Catching Fire,'” Francis Lawrence says. “By the end of ‘Mockingjay,' he'll hit 11.”
Sutherland looks forward to dancing a dangerous tango with Katniss in future episodes.
“In any other sense, it would be a love affair, because love affairs often start with people hating each other — the attraction is so deep and profound,” he says. “This is going to go on until it all ends. Snow only gets better.”
Bryan Alexander is a staff writer for USA Today.