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To research his latest movie role, Donald Sutherland didn't have to go beyond his own doorstep. The memories of his father's struggle with Parkinson's disease and his mother's dementia would give him just what he needed to play a Parkinson's sufferer with dementia.
For all the Parkinson's literature and videotapes he studied, it was the wealth of personal experience that enabled the 72-year-old actor to give what critics are praising as a mischievously heartbreaking performance in the just-released Aurora Borealis.
“Suddenly the guy took me over,” Sutherland says of his character, Ronald Shorter, who feels his Parkinson's and dementia have made him a burden to his wife at the same time he's reestablishing a relationship with his grandson. “It was about saying goodbye to someone you love and taking care of the physical shell that had enclosed that person who you had loved. It was about generational differences and love.”
Witnessing Ronald's long, painful slide into dementia, the grandson matures from a 25-year-old slacker in the coming-of-age film. Their growing connection makes him the only person who believes his grandfather's improbable claim of seeing the northern lights known as “aurora borealis.”
At the time he took the role, Sutherland was “terribly, terribly, terribly depressed,” lower than he's ever been in his life. “But the thing about playing Ronald,” he muses, “is I came out of it with no depression.”