Trust director Danny Boyle: Donald Sutherland is the perfect man to play J Paul Getty

The acclaimed director Danny Boyle and writer Simon Beaufoy explain why casting J Paul Getty was crucial to the success of their new series Trust

Donald Sutherland as J Paul Getty Sr in new drama Trust (FX Productions LLC)

Early in Danny Boyle’s ten-part BBC series Trust, we see a long-haired hippie bolting through a field of Italian sunflowers, wealthy young people lounging around a Hollywood pool and a man in a Hawaiian shirt, stoned out of his head, fatally stab himself in the stomach with a barbecue fork.

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The year is 1973 and the hippie is John Paul Getty III, who owed money to the Mafia and was soon to have his ear chopped off by kidnappers. The man in the Hawaiian shirt is his uncle George, eldest son of oil magnate J Paul Getty. Getty was American but lived in a huge stately home in England with a harem of women, a pet lion and a pay phone. When his grandson was kidnapped in Rome, he declined to pay the ransom.

As Trust’s writer Simon Beaufoy (of The Full Monty) says, you couldn’t make it up. Having read a book about the Getty family and realised that the story “wasn’t just about one kid being kidnapped, but about three generations of an incredibly dysfunctional family”, he immediately spoke to film director Boyle, with whom he’d worked on Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours, about turning it into a television series. Casting was going to be key.

After finding Harris Dickinson to play the teenage grandson (“he has the swagger of a young Robert Plant,” says Boyle) and securing Hilary Swank as his devastated but determined on-screen mother, Boyle and Beaufoy flew to Miami for an audience with Donald Sutherland. Filming was to take place in Italy.

“We didn’t want to age an actor up,” says Boyle. “Donald turned 83 while we were shooting, so he was the perfect age to play Getty. He’d made several films in Italy, including Don’t Look Now, and spoke fluent Italian. I was slightly in awe of him when we first met, but he soon distracts you.”

“He’s so naughty,” says Beaufoy. “Getty is devoid of empathy but, because he occupies so much screen time, you have to like him. So I made him witty, which was easy because Donald is so dry and witty.”

“He’s also ferociously committed,” says Boyle. “We shot on an oil rig in Aberdeen in torrential rain. Donald kept saying he was going to get pneumonia, but refused to let me use a double for him.”

The ten episodes of Trust are directed by five directors and each part is deliberately different in tone. The first three are shot by Boyle with his trademark kinetic energy (see the opening sequence, set to Pink Floyd’s Money) and relentless boundary-pushing. “Film is risk averse,” says Beaufoy, “but we were encouraged to take risks, which I found liberating.”

Boyle remembers being sent the script for Slumdog. “I’d seen The Full Monty, which was great, but my agent said this new script was about Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, so I thought I’d read just enough to be able to send Simon a polite note,” says Boyle, laughing. “I had no idea it was set in India! By page ten, I knew I was going to direct it.”

Harris Dickinsomn and Donald Sutherland in Trust (BBC, EH)
Harris Dickinson and Donald Sutherland in Trust (BBC)

Since his first film, 1994’s Shallow Grave, Boyle hasn’t stopped working. After finishing work on Trust, he directed Richard Curtis’s as-yet-untitled musical comedy about an Ed Sheeran-type singer/ songwriter, who wakes up one day to discover he’s the only person in the world with any knowledge of the Beatles and becomes famous for playing their back catalogue.

It seems, however, that Boyle may have taken one too many risks with the Bond franchise. He was due to direct the next film, but five days after I interviewed him for this piece came the news, via a tweet, that “due to creative differences Danny Boyle has decided to no longer direct Bond 25”. It isn’t clear what happened — Boyle wasn’t available for comment — but when we spoke he was clearly still relishing the prospect.

“The books were everything to me when I was a kid,” he told me. “I read them multiple times. Like everyone else, I saw the films, but I’d already read the books so I had a different relationship with the characters. Although I think it’d be impossible for a Bond aficionado to write or direct a Bond film. You’d be hampered by how much you knew. They want you to bring a freshness to it.”

Or perhaps not… As Beaufoy said, film is risk averse. But, whatever went wrong, it’s clear Boyle will be back. And, if we’re lucky, it will be on television.


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Trust begins Wednesday 12th September at 9pm on BBC2