The Set Decorator and Donald Sutherland

I was a new set decorator so excited to be working on “My Life as an Experiment,” a pilot that was produced by Jack Black. I was even more excited to learn that Donald Sutherland was one of the actors. One day, an A.D approached me, telling me that The Donald Sutherland wanted a meeting…with me. The set decorator.

I knocked on the door, and there he was.  He was tall and a very large person, not like many actors and not at all what I expected. He had a huge presence and his voice moved through you, not in a threatening way, but in a way that almost reverberated your energy. He wanted to talk about his character and what the set could do to help bring him to life.

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We had a long meeting and I listened to Mr. Sutherland share everything about every component of this person’s life — a much longer meeting than I thought it would be. He was very thorough and he knew everything about the history and the depth of the man he was playing. He handed me a few Xeroxed pages with images of very specific items his character would have and what he thought should be showcased on the set. Donald was a hand surgeon in the show, so models and sculptures of hands were a few of the items he wanted on display, like a master’s collection. He was passionate about his character’s space and I was beyond thrilled to be collaborating.

This meeting with Donald forever changed how I approach my work. I now ask all the questions up front, long before I start to pull furniture. Understanding who lives and works in the space is half the battle when you begin a new project.  Where is the character from, where did they go to school, who are their parents, what is important to this person, what other details can you provide? When this info is readily available I know this is a tight writers room and I am both comforted and excited by that.

I was a newer set decorator and was tickled pink that I was face to face with a legend having such an in-depth conversation about the essence of this person. From that day forward I made sure that every single drawer, bookshelf, and hidden compartment on all my sets were fully dressed for the actors. Every single one. You need to have the info as the actor and director and writer understand it,  you can’t fake this part. I guess you can, but it doesn’t have the same effect.

This was a level of depth in acting that I’ve rarely seen before or since. And as a side note, I met Donald in his trailer and we were alone. I had nothing to worry about, he was a true professional, but I never have taken a meeting alone since. I always bring backup now. Partly because he was so passionate about it all. It was a little intense, so I didn’t want to miss a single detail. I SO wish that I had a witness to that day, it was very Hollywood in the most surreal way. Looking back, after what many would consider a career with a few amazing shows, this meeting was a turning point for me and I never knew it then. Thank you, Donald, for sharing your process with me. How lucky I was to witness it.

Amber Haley is an Emmy Winning set decorator based in Los Angeles. She’s been in the industry for 27 years and started in property before working her way up and finding her passion in set decoration. Some of her recent projects include “Your Honor,” “The Mysterious Benedict Society,” The Politician,” “The People V. OJ Simpson,” “Barry,” “Insecure,” and “Modern Family.”

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