Kiefer Sutherland on the end of 24
As 24 reaches its explosive last episode, Kiefer Sutherland reflects on its legacy – and the day it brought him to tears.
Published: 3:19PM BST 04 Jun 2010
You might expect Kiefer Sutherland to be as unflappable in person as he is in the guise of Jack Bauer, hero of 24. So it’s surprising to hear how close he was to tears during his final moments on the programme’s set, which after eight seasons is bowing out on Sunday on Sky1. ‘All the crew were there,’ recalls the 43 year-old. ‘And as I went to speak to them my voice started to falter. Then my bottom lip started to go and I had to look down at my feet to get out what I wanted to say. It was profoundly difficult.’
Sutherland has every right to be sad. The compulsive thriller, which follows Bauer and his colleagues at the fictional Counter Terrorist Unit, has been a phenomenon since it first aired in the US in 2001. Aside from winning just about every TV award going, the series has regularly attracted millions of viewers, all of whom found themselves in thrall to 24’s dramatic tension, explosive action sequences and innovative format. (For the uninitiated, each series represents a single ludicrously action-packed day in Bauer’s life, and because it plays out in real time, there are 24 episodes.)
As a result, Bauer has become the ultimate onscreen special agent for the 21st century: a heroic hybrid of James Bond and Dirty Harry. Indeed, Sutherland owes a lot to his onscreen alter ego. Before 24 arrived, Sutherland was a fading Brat Pack actor, who, in 1994, after a string of tabloid scandals and dismal role choices, had quit the film industry to become a tournament-winning rodeo rider. He returned to Hollywood in 1996 but it wasn’t until the advent of 24 that his face became instantly recognisable to millions worldwide.
Sutherland, however, admits that neither he nor 24’s creators believed the drama’s high-octane premise could be sustainable. ‘I’ll never forget what Joel Surnow, the co-creator of the show, said,’ he says, referring to the moment that the second half of series one was commissioned by the Fox network. ‘He comes and says to me, squarely in the face, “I don’t know if we can write another episode”, because the writers were really [struggling with] the time aspect of the show.’
The fact that it’s lasted nine years is a testament to 24’s writers. In that time, Sutherland has spent 14 hours a day, five days a week, 10 months a year on the set. He calls this period ‘the greatest education I’ve ever had as an actor’, which is perhaps not surprising given that in the Eighties he evidently believed in the adage that less is more when it comes to how many films a year an actor should star in.
‘It took 24 to get me out of that mindset,’ says Sutherland, who’s also executive producer on the series. ‘It allowed me to break down the script in a way that I certainly was not capable of doing before. And most importantly it gave me a sense of confidence that I will be indebted to for the rest of my life.’
Sutherland was one of the first of a recent wave of Hollywood actors to take a lead role in a long-running television drama. ‘I think it’s a reaction to what’s happened with the film industry,’ he says. ‘When I started working there were five major studios and all five studios made 50-odd movies a year. Now they’re making fewer than 13, and there are only three studios.’ He thinks actors who want to work on intelligent dramas are migrating to television because that’s the only place they are being made.
Despite its success, 24 has at times been condemned for its depiction of torture. By showing Bauer employ ends-justifies-the-means torture methods to extract information, it has angered some American liberals.
‘They were a fantastic dramatic device for us to create a sense of not only urgency but the importance of the information that Bauer needs to acquire,’ Sutherland says in 24’s defence. ‘Am I recommending this for people at home? No. Of course I don’t support anything that happened in Guantánamo Bay, but I think we’re also being very naïve to pretend that torture doesn’t exist out there. It’s a television show: take it for what it is.’
Bauer has also been lambasted for being too Right-wing. Although 24’s co-creator Joel Surnow is a vociferous Republican, Sutherland still believes the drama is not politically partisan.
‘That’s one of the funniest things about 24,’ he says. ‘I’ve always considered Jack Bauer to be an apolitical character. Like any secret agent, he cannot, and will not, get to choose a president to protect. What I love is that you had the Clintons saying it was their favourite show – and you had people from the Right doing the same thing.’
A 24 film is now in production. Written by Billy Ray, who penned the movie adaptation of Paul Abbott’s political serial State of Play, it’s not going to be restrained by the ‘real time’ structure of the television series. Instead it will condense a 24-hour day into two hours, without the need to follow Bauer’s every move – something that excites Sutherland. ‘With the television show, we always had to have the crisis come to Bauer because we couldn’t move him [away from the US],’ he says. ‘But in the film we can get Bauer from, say, Eastern Europe to England without having to watch him sit on a flight.’
Still, after this movie, Sutherland may struggle to avoid being typecast in Bauer-like action roles. This doesn’t bother him, though. ‘If 24 is the thing that defines my career,’ he says, ‘and nobody else wants to work with me again because of it, I would have to say I would take it – without a second’s hesitation.’- 24 is on Sky1/Sky1HD on Sunday 6 June at 9.00pm & 10.00pm