Watch: Donald Sutherland enjoys the chess behind ‘The Hunger Games’

Donald Sutherland is a titan, and it is a genuine pleasure to get a chance to engage him in conversation.

Sure, I wish it had been in circumstances other than the sort of forced five-minute intimacy of a press junket, but for a guy like this, you take what’s offered.  His career has been filled with so many remarkable and eccentric high points that it’s hard to even know where to start complimenting him or how to even dig into his body of work.

His presence as President Snow in “The Hunger Games” is crucial.  Although Snow plays a key role in the trilogy as a whole, he’s really not a figure of any weight in the first book.  In adapting it, Gary Ross has built Snow into the film organically, and I think he is an important part of the film as a whole.  He has to be.  If you’re going to really make the final film pay off, you need to introduce Snow as early as possible.

It also helps that they cast Sutherland, because he’s a smart actor who brings this real weight of experience to the table.  I think one of the things that made him such a popular presence in films is that laser-sharp intelligence of his.  He was the perfect Hawkeye in “M*A*S*H*” because it seemed impossible that he could ever lose any verbal joust.  He’s drawn from the tradition of a Groucho Marx or a Bugs Bunny.  He not only enjoys the contest that good repartee can be, he is also unquestionably great at it.

That’s what makes him valuable to “The Hunger Games.”  Katniss Everdeen spends this first film proving what sort of person she is, what sort of force she represents.  And for that to really matter, it’s important that we see who she’s up against.  For this to resonate as a story of the 99% versus the 1%, we have to meet both adversaries and set the stage for what is ahead.  And Sutherland is just one of the many smart casting decisions Ross made for the film.

Best part of the encounter?  Toshi joined me at the press day, since we drove right over from his baseball practice, and when we walked into the room, he saw Sutherland, who cuts an imposing figure to say the least.  The actor put out his hand and said, “Would you like to introduce yourself?”

Toshi walked over to him and put his hand out, shaking Sutherland’s hand, and told him his name.  Sutherland beamed down at him, and with that great big booming voice of his, said, “Have you ever been introduced to a pirate before?”

Class act, plain and simple.

“The Hunger Games” arrives in theaters March 23.