'Trust': Donald Sutherland, Hilary Swank talk about telling Getty kidnapping story in new FX series

Harris Dickinson (left) as John Paul Getty III and Donald Sutherland as John Paul Getty in a scene from Sunday’s premiere of “Trust,” a new FX anthology series about the Getty family and its fortunes whose first season focuses on the younger Getty’s 1973 kidnapping

Do not even think about trash-talking John Paul Getty to Donald Sutherland.

The actor plays the late billionaire in Trust, a new FX drama about the Gettys whose 10-episode first season, premiering at 10 p.m. Sunday, focuses on the 1973 kidnapping of Getty’s teenage grandson and namesake, John Paul Getty III (Harris Dickinson), and on the elder Getty’s reluctance to part with a penny of his fortune to ransom him.

It’s a story told, somewhat differently, in Ridley Scott’s recent film All the Money in the World, in which Christopher Plummer was brought in only weeks before the film’s release to replace Kevin Spacey as Getty, delivering, in a nine-day reshoot, an Oscar-nominated performance as a man who seemed irredeemable, a miser who withheld both love and money from his unhappy family.

That’s not how Sutherland sees the man once called the richest in the world, and who kept a pay phone at his Surrey estate, where he also apparently housed a virtual harem of mistresses and at least one pet lion. (More about the lion in a bit.)

“He’s not that simple. The answer is not black and white. It’s not even black, gray, and white. It’s red, and pink, and a bunch of others,” Sutherland said during an interview in January. “He’s very regimented. He’s a mathematician who has an extraordinary memory and a collection of numbers that he can pull off just in a second. He sits and learns languages off a record, and ends up speaking them fluently. Because of Ibn Saud, and that deal in Saudi Arabia] [that helped make Getty’s oil fortune], he learned Arabic. That’s hard, but he learned it.”

Donald Sutherland in FX's "Trust"
Camera icon Kurt Iswarienko/FX
Donald Sutherland stars as J. Paul Getty: “He’s not that simple,” says the actor of the late billionaire, also played by Christopher Plummer in “All the Money in the World.”

Not only doesn’t Sutherland, 82, consider his character, who died in 1976 at 83, irredeemable, “I have great affection for him, and admiration for him,” he said. “Because he was so disciplined, the lack of discipline, the lack of ambition, the lack of negotiating facility of his sons, really disappointed him. And he gave them every opportunity, but he stuck his nose in, couldn’t resist. And fathers do that. I do that. Regrettably. Shamefully.” 

Which doesn’t mean the actor is disappointed in his own children, who include  Designated Survivor star Kiefer Sutherland. “My kids have turned out fine,” Sutherland said, laughing. “But it’s in spite of, not because of,” any interference of his.

‘Trust’ controversy

One of Getty III’s  sisters, Ariadne Getty, has claimed, through her lawyer, that Trust, which depicts her brother (known as Paul) as being initially culpable in his own kidnapping, defames her family,  and she has threatened legal action, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

It could be familiar territory for FX, already facing a lawsuit from 101-year-old Hollywood legend Olivia de Havilland over her depiction in Ryan Murphy’s Feud: Bette and Joan.

Asked about the discrepancies in that story between the FX version and Scott’s film, Trust writer and executive producer Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) cited his research.

“There’s a very good book written by Charles Fox [Uncommon Youth: The Gilded Life and Tragic Times of J. Paul Getty III], who interviewed everybody in the family, including little Paul Getty and Martine and Jutta, his girlfriend and her twin sister,” Beaufoy told reporters in January.

“It became clear, reading in between the lines —  and we did a lot of research ourselves —  that he actually kidnapped himself. It was a hoax gone wrong. He owed money to some guys in Rome,” Beaufoy said.

So he cooked up a kidnap plot, and when it went terribly wrong … he was sold on to the Mafia in southern Italy, a whole other, much more serious bunch of people,” said Beaufoy, whose take on the former CIA agent working the case for the elder Getty (played here by a cowboy hat-wearing Brendan Fraser) is also very different from the character depicted by Mark Wahlberg in All the Money in the World. 

Two-time Oscar-winner Hilary Swank, who’s playing the kidnapped Paul’s mother, Gail Getty — easily the most sympathetic character in either version of the story — hadn’t seen Scott’s film when we spoke in January, and said she’d never met the woman she’s playing.

Executive producer Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) “wasn’t interested in us looking like them and being like them. It was the idea of telling the story through the interpretation of what Simon wrote, and then how we visualized that,”said Swank, who first appears in the second episode. 

“I think it’s an illustration of how nobody knows the full story,” said Boyle, who directed the show’s first three episodes, and who’s also a fan of Scott’s movie (“I enjoyed it very much”).

“And what you can do is do your take on it. You take what you can research — and it’s very contradictory research — and then you have to take, as Simon has done, a somewhat Shakespearean approach. Which is that you use history to tell a story, to write your story now, which is what he’s done, really. It just happens to be 1973, rather than 1600.”

Directing the lion

Shakespeare didn’t write scenes requiring  real lions, though.

“This is how naïve I am — but I like naïveté, it’s very important, I think  — so I’m like, ‘This is the room we’re going to do it in,’ ” Boyle said of a scene in which the elder Getty introduces his new pet, a lioness, to some of the women in his life.

“I was like, ‘So I’ll have the lion there and obviously there’ll have to be a cage, but obviously because it’s a dangerous animal, we’ll either have it on a chain or we’ll take the chain out in CG or the cage and we’ll take the bars out in CG.’ And they said, ‘You’re not serious. You’re bringing a lion to a  national treasure house. … If that lion goes amok in here, it doesn’t matter if there’s any humans killed as well,’ ”  Boyle said, jokingly.

So the scene was filmed with the actors at Hatfield House, about 21 miles north of London, “with me playing the lion,” Boyle said. Then he traveled to a place outside Oxford where a lion could be filmed in a circus cage against a green screen.

“There are five lions there. Four of them are male; they work all the time. And there’s one female lion, a lioness. No one wants a lioness. She never works. So she’s very unpredictable,” said Boyle, who’d assumed, incorrectly, that the trainers would be armed, just in case.

Danny Boyle, FX's Trust
Camera icon Frank Micelotta/FX/PictureGroup
“Trust” executive producer/director Danny Boyle during an FX session at the Television Critics Association’s winter meetings in Pasadena, Calif., in January.

“They have bamboo canes. And there are three of them  And the main guy, he has these two canes and he uses them like this,” said Boyle, jumping out of his seat and waving his arms to demonstrate. “And the other two guys — this is the job I wouldn’t want — they have a saddlebag on their back and in it are bits of meat. And they then reach in, get a bit of meat out and put it on the end of his bamboo canes … and the lion tracks it.” 

Swank’s return to TV

For Swank, who hasn’t done a TV series since her character was written out of Beverly Hills, 90210 20 years ago (and whose career has worked out just fine since then, thank you), a show like Trust, in which she appears in eight of the 10 episodes, felt like a good fit.

Hilary Swank in Trust
Camera icon Philipe Antonello/FX
Hilary Swank as Gail Getty, the kidnapped teen’s mother, in FX’s “Trust.”

“I got to dive into this character, and all the gradations of emotions that you [only] touch on when you’re doing a movie” she said, without then having to play that same person for years.

“I want to step in a bunch of people’s shoes and explore life through a bunch of people’s eyes, and [a long-running series] doesn’t allow you the opportunity to do other things,” she said. Plus, Boyle approached her, “and I’m in at Danny. I almost didn’t have to read it,” though Beaufoy’s writing “is some of the best out there.”

And as someone who didn’t come from much money herself, she found she could identify with Gail, who only married into it, and who didn’t have the means, once divorced, to pay her son’s debts, much less his ransom.

“I think that the idea of money, when you don’t have it … is something that you’re kind of gawking at. Like, whoa. But you don’t need it to get by, and you don’t need it to feel good about yourself,” Swank said. 

“I think when you don’t grow up with it and then you come into money — in my case, working really hard, not marrying into it or not experiencing it in the same way that she did — you recognize, yes, all that can come with that… I’m grateful for the opportunities that money has given me, but I don’t rest my head on it.”

Trust. 10 p.m. Sunday, FX. Premiere runs 86 minutes.