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The Pillars of the Earth

Preview: The Globe and Mail

Gayle MacDonald in The Globe and Mail, 21 July 2010

When Donald Sutherland was approached last year about co-starring in the miniseries The Pillars of the Earth, the New Brunswick-born actor did not hesitate, gamely agreeing to hop on a plane to Hungary to dig his teeth into the role of the morally upright Earl of Shiring.

It’s the second time in his five-decade-long career that the 75-year-old Sutherland has been in a Ken Follett-inspired project, his first being German secret agent Henry Faber in Eye of the Needle, which was filmed in Scotland’s Isle of Mull almost 30 years ago.

The Pillars of the Earth, the veteran thespian, television and film actor says, was a “no-brainer”, adding that he is a huge fan of the British author, whom he describes as “reticent, private, and a masterful, masterful storyteller.”

“Bartholomew is not a man like me… I had to go and think about him because my instinctive reactions for his responses were wrong.” – Donald Sutherland

“I’ve had a long association with Ken Follett and I respect his talents immensely. I don’t know if Ken liked Eye of the Needle, but I liked that film”, says Sutherland, who has five children, including actors Kiefer and Rossif. “When I watched the first two episodes of Pillars of the Earth, I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen, and believe me, not because I’m in it. Ken Follett just knows how to weave a tale that is mesmerizing, and he crafts multilayered characters that are a dream for any actor to try to interpret.”

Sutherland’s Canadian co-stars in the $50-million Canadian/German co-production include the seasoned Gordon Pinsent and up-and-comer Alison Pill.

Pill, 24, has wowed Broadway, recently finished filming Scott Pilgrim vs. The World in Toronto and is now in Paris filming Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris with Marion Cotillard, Adrien Brody and Rachel McAdams.

Like Sutherland, the Toronto native took one look at the script and told her agent to accept the role of Queen Maud, King Henry’s daughter and only surviving legitimate heir who incites civil war in her battle to win back the throne from King Stephen.

“I read Maud’s scenes and thought this would be so much fun,” Pill says. “I mean, who gets to play a queen that often? Especially one so strong. So complex. And unafraid to shove her weight around in a society totally dominated by men.”

The eight-hour miniseries – directed by Sergio Mimica-Gezzan and executive-produced by Tony and Ridley Scott and Canadian Rola Bauer, a former executive at Alliance Communications who now lives in Germany – premieres on The Movie Network and Movie Central on Friday.

It is set in 12th-century England in a time known as the “end of the divine right of kings.” The story kicks off when King Henry’s legitimate son dies when the fabled White Ship sinks in the English Channel off the coast of Normandy. Civil war erupts, traumatizing the country – and its citizens – for years. But central to the drama is the construction of the fictional Kingsbridge Cathedral, a masterpiece of architecture that took generations to build.

Sutherland, who lives in Santa Monica, describes his character, Bartholomew, as “stoic, principled and a little overweight.” The latter, he adds, was not part of the script and was a “mistake” he has since rectified. “I watched the first two episodes, thinking how incredibly beautiful it was shot – but then I saw myself, and noted the pounds I’d put on, and was horrified,” says the lanky actor, who at 6-foot-4 towers over his castmates, including Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell, Matthew Macfadyen, Hayley Atwell and Eddie Redmayne.

“Bartholomew is not a man like me,” he says. “He doesn’t have the same thoughts I do. And he’s not rooted in the same place, intellectually, emotionally or theologically. So this role required work.”

“I had to go and think about him because my instinctive reactions for his responses were wrong. But I think I conquered them. I just found him so amused by life, and by his daughter. So willing to die for what he believed in. That’s what I tapped into and was what drove me,” he says.

For her part, Pill says her mother was a factor in her ready decision to play the feisty Maud. “Pillars is one of my mom’s favourite books. And I couldn’t put it down once I picked it up. It’s just such a fun read. Every single character in the book, and the miniseries, is so strong. They’re not only archetypal, but conflicted. It’s interesting work for all the actors involved,” she says.

“Maud is first and foremost a mother, which makes her a fighter. She’s incredibly proud, incredibly family-oriented, and she’s also a warrior and ruler. There is this delicacy and femininity to her as well as this really, steel core…”

“Filming in Hungary was breathtakingly beautiful,” she adds. “I love what I do. Not many people get to wake up in the morning and feel they’re doing the only thing in the world they could do. It’s a pretty big gift.”

Sutherland, who has roughly 200 acting credits to his name and appears next in the Seth Gordon comedy Horrible Bosses with Jennifer Aniston, couldn’t agree more. “I’m getting old. And this keeps me feeling young.”