If Rossif Sutherland were a musician, you'd say he sits back on the beat. Vancouver-born and Los Angeles-raised (and son of the actor Donald Sutherland), he seems to live a moment off-sync from everyone else, with a lazy-sexy languor that sets him apart. His delivery is slow, like a tiger's purr, with an untraceable accent – half delicately formal, half marble-mouthed, like Marlon Brando, whom Sutherland, in jeans and a black motorcycle jacket, somewhat resembles.
There's his height, too, six-foot-five. The actor makes the Toronto hotel-room sofa upon which he's sitting look like a toy, whether he's lolling back on the cushions or leaning forward, elbows on his long thighs. In either posture, he appears both engaged and slightly aloof, watchful. He doesn't just look at you – he regards you. He's one of those beautiful, beatific, semi-stoned-looking boys who can be found in the corner of any truly great party, hair falling in his eyes, who inspires you to talk about something Deep, like Life. He himself might not speak for a while, but when he starts, he's both thorough and lulling. If he ever has kids, he'll be an ideal bedtime storyteller.
Sutherland's slow burn is used to great effect in I'm Yours, a Canadian road romance that opens next Friday: It helps the audience believe that a guy his size would play along with the petite con-woman ( Pan Am's Karine Vanasse), who kidnaps him after a one-night stand. It also characterizes his Genie-nominated ATM robber in 2009's High Life, in which he deploys his masculine wiles to woo women and men alike. (His reaction to being shot in the shoulder is one of my favourite acting moments.)
It might have seemed inevitable that Sutherland, 33, would enter the family business. His father is one of the underrated greats. His mother, Francine Racette, was an actress. His older brother Roeg is a Hollywood agent, his younger brother Angus (middle name Redford) is an actor, and both were named for directors with whom Donald had worked: Nicholas Roeg in Don't Look Now and Robert Redford in Ordinary People. Rossif also was named for a director, the late French documentary-maker Frédéric Rossif. Half-brother Kiefer (named for Warren Kiefer, who directed Donald's first film) has done pretty well for himself, too.
However, "It wasn't inevitable to me," Sutherland says. "My brother Angus was the showman of the family. He's turned into such a beautiful man, but he's the kid who had the electric guitar at Christmas, and instead of learning how to play it, he'd just look at himself in the mirror. We thought, 'That's an actor.'"
A grin meanders across Sutherland's face. "I thought actors were crazy," he says. "I really admired my father's journey, and I recognized that acting was an art, because he was on this constant quest for truth. He was so passionate about his work. But it wasn't a journey for me, because I didn't want to pretend to be other people for the rest of my life. I wanted to figure out who the heck I was."
He was always "the kind of guy who holds back and listens and finds the humour in life. I look for details." When he was five years old, his kindergarten teacher became concerned that he wasn't playing with the other kids. "I'd sit on a bench and look at everybody, and I took great joy out of it," he says. "I could see the interactions. How this boy was shy, how he finally spoke to the girl. The theatre of life." His mother, called in to look him over, reassured the teacher that her son was "doing just fine," and the matter was dropped.
"It's a big reason why I moved from L.A. to Toronto [a year ago] because I like to wander the streets and observe," Sutherland says. He bunked at his half-sister Rachel's house for six weeks ("She normally has a two-week rule, but she made an exception," he rumbles), and found work in film ( The Con Artist) and TV ( King). "Canada's been the place that's helped me nurture this love I have for acting," he says. "It's so wonderful to be part of a community."
Sutherland's first acting gig happened by accident, though: When the lead in a short film he was directing stood him up, he stepped into the part. He showed it to his dad, who told him, with tears in his eyes, "Kid, that's what you're supposed to do."
He signed up for acting lessons with a New York-based teacher, Harold Guskin, whose students included Glenn Close and Kevin Kline. Sutherland would go to Guskin's basement apartment, where his wife Sondra would feed them dinner "and we'd talk about life for 50 minutes out of the hour," Sutherland says. "Then the doorbell would ring and he'd realize, 'Darn, that's right, I've got to teach you something.' And we'd pick up the book. It was all about taking it off the page. Giving some reason to a line. It was the constant exercise of connecting."
Sutherland found it diverting, but remained uncommitted to "pretending" – until Guskin set him straight. "He said, 'Acting is not about pretending to be other people,'" Sutherland remembers. "'It's about celebrating all the people you could have been. It's you at a different address.' When I heard that, it sounded like permission to live all the lives I could have lived. And for somebody who's trying to figure out who he is, that seemed like a really lovely shortcut."
When writer/director Leonard Farlinger ( The Perfect Son) approached Sutherland to play the initially straight-laced Robert in I'm Yours, the actor wrote him a 20-page reaction to the screenplay. "I do that for my own sake," Sutherland says. "I walk my way through a script, making sense of it. Robert has followed the capitalist mould, he's gone to the good schools, he's making a bunch of money, he was engaged to the right girl. But he was waking up every morning, putting that blade to his face to shave, and starting to think, 'I don't know who I am any more.' So when he finds himself in this girl's car, he decides, 'I'm going to go for the ride and see where it takes me. This is what I want my life to be from now on: I want to live.'"
Similarly, Sutherland now thrills to his profession, because "ultimately, it has the weight of a very simple truth, which is that life is about connection. It's about love and never forgetting you're surrounded." He pauses, melting me with his gaze. "We find ourselves in this concrete jungle and we make it our home," he says. "But on this beautiful little Earth, there's enough to see to fill up a lifetime. To fill up a few." Whatever he's saying, I agree.