Kiefer Sutherland: Not Jack Bauer any more
Published On Fri Apr 08 2011
Kiefer in That Championship Season on Broadway looks strikingly similar to famous grandpa Tommy Douglas.
NEW YORK — Can you save the world and lose your soul?
Ask Kiefer Sutherland.
For eight seasons, as the indestructible Jack Bauer on 24, he kept conquering insurmountable odds to keep the forces of global evil at bay.
But while it’s true that playing the human Timex watch who could take a licking and keep on ticking made Sutherland rich, powerful and famous, it also led him down a road of excess that landed him in the tabloids and — occasionally — even in jail.
“I am incredibly proud of the fact that 24 made it big around the world and was one of those things that transcended languages and cultures,” is he how he begins discussing the phenomenon backstage in his modest dressing room at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, where he’s currently part of an all-star cast packing the house with a revival of the 1973 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, That Championship Season.
He’s quieter, gentler and more elegantly spoken in person than the man he played to such great effect on television for so many years. In fact, he’s the first one to admit that “No, no, no, I am nothing like Jack Bauer.
“And at the beginning, that made it all a great deal of fun. There’s Kiefer doing all that stuff he would never dream of doing in real life. Adolescent fantasies come true. But you can’t live that for eight seasons.”
He looks up at me as though he were almost in a confessional, asking for forgiveness.
“The more I’ve stepped away from that character, the more I look back and say ‘How did I come up with that? How did I dig that out from inside me?’ Because there is nothing in Jack Bauer that you can find in Kiefer Sutherland’s personality.
“And after a while, playing someone so unlike you for so many years takes a toll. It gets very stressful. I found my own way of cutting loose. And was it the smartest? Hell, no. I’ll be the first person to admit I’ve been guilty of making some dumb decisions.
“How old am I now? 44. Okay, Kiefer, time to get on with life.”
In truth, he seems different than he has on previous encounters over the years. “I feel cool, settled and in a good space in my life right now.”
But he’s the first person to admit, “that the demons stay with you.”
He instantly backpedals a bit, insisting that “I haven’t been tortured or tormented or had any deeply rooted demons tearing at me. I’ve taken things for granted, I’ve been a bit reckless, but there’s no darkness eating away at me. I’ve had a great childhood, a great life.”
Indeed he has. He comes from a combination of Canadian political and artistic royalty that’s never really been matched. His father is the international screen star Donald Sutherland, while his mother, Shirley Douglas, holds two trump cards: not only is she a fine stage actress in her own right, but she’s the daughter of one of the most revered political leaders in Canadian history, Tommy Douglas.
Watching Sutherland in That Championship Season, in fact, I kept having the uncanny feeling I was seeing someone else: the eager overbite, the nodding head, the outsized eyeglasses.
The day after I’d been to the show, the penny dropped and I Googled a picture of Tommy Douglas. The match was uncanny.
When I confronted Sutherland with it the next night, he grins, caught.
“I didn’t set out to play him as Grandpa and the two characters couldn’t be less similar, but the more I worked on the hair, the teeth, the glasses, the more I saw him emerging.”
He blushes shyly. If there’s a heroic crush in Sutherland’s closet, it’s the one he has on his grandfather.
“Don’t you think he’s the Prime Minister that Canada could use right now? A man who understands what’s wrong and knows how to fix it. That’s what was fantastic about him. He said he was going to do a very few bold things and he did them: pave the roads, bring electricity to all of Saskatchewan, give people indoor plumbing, provide health care.”
While it’s the health care that Douglas is remembered best for today — especially in the contentious atmosphere throughout America as Barack Obama fights for what Douglas made reality in Canada 49 years ago — that wasn’t the toughest part of his struggle.
“It was the infrastructure of paving the roads and bringing electricity to the province, that’s what nearly broke his spirit.”
Sutherland looks up, eyes shining. “I have to make a movie to tell his story. With all respect to anyone else who’s done it in the past, you need to feel his passion in your guts to know how to make it all real.”
He smiles, a kid telling fond stories about his beloved family …
“Grandma Irma always did all the driving, while Tommy would be passed out next to her, exhausted from speaking. On one trip, they were way up north, coming back home to Weyburn.
“The sun was setting as they got near, when off in the distance, she saw the lights going on, one at a time. That had been Tommy’s dream and he was asleep next to her, too tired to see it.
“First she laughed, then she cried and that’s where the film would end. It’s a story I absolutely have to tell.”
But if the memory of his grandfather’s political heritage is one strong strand in the Sutherland DNA, the theatre is another. After his parents divorced when he was six, he moved back with his mother to Toronto, where she resumed her theatre career.
“It all came back to me the other night when (co-star) Brian Cox had to bring his son to the theatre. I saw him sitting in his dad’s dressing room and I said ‘I want you to know I spent my entire childhood in a room like this.’
“I grew up doing homework in the back of the National Arts Centre. Listening to Roland Hewgill, one of my favourite actors of all time, watching him over 10 years, man, that was the greatest theatre school of all time.”
Although he studied briefly at Young People’s Theatre, his father got him a small role in the 1983 U.S. film, Max Dugan Returns, opposite a young Matthew Broderick.
That led to his leading role in the 1984 Canadian film, The Bay Boy and soon he was in Hollywood, starring in movies like Stand By Me and The Lost Boys, where his co-star was Jason Patric, the son of Jason Miller, author of That Championship Season and the driving force behind this revival.
I ask Sutherland why, of all the flamboyant roles in the show, he picked the mousy, self-hating James.
“I didn’t pick him, he picked me. Or more precisely, Jason told me that his father always said it was the hardest role and he needed me to pull it off.”
Sutherland does wonders with the part, making him a kind of failed Tommy Douglas, “the ruined idealist who could have, would have, should have done more with his life.
“God, you listen to these dour, middle-aged white guys whose lives didn’t come out right and now they’re blaming everyone else. It’s like the first meeting of The Tea Party.”
What this production has done is renew Sutherland’s appetite for theatre. “But I want to come back to Canada to do it. My experience at the Royal Alex was one of the greatest I ever had,” he says, speaking of the 1997 production of The Glass Menagerie he appeared in there with his mother. “I think of that theatre as a church and I miss it a lot.”
When I mention that his father had once suggested to me appearing in Long Day’s Journey Into Night with his son on stage, Sutherland’s eyes grow wide. “Oh my God,” he barely breathes, “that would be amazing.”
So the stage is set for an incredible reunion, but first, Sutherland would have to deal with some psychosexual baggage from the past.
Peter Bart has recently published a book that says when Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie shot their famed lovemaking scene in Nic Roeg’s 1973 film Don’t Look Now, they actually had sex, which he witnessed
The son shakes his head over this accusation. “I doubt it, because my father told me that everyone was so nervous that literally just Nic and Julie and him went up to a hotel room and shot it. Did they actually do it?” He grins. “The fifth has been taken.”
But then he blushes. “I’ve got to tell you, it was the most awkward moment in a movie I’ve ever had, because that’s one of the sexiest lovemaking scenes on the planet and it really turned me on, but it shouldn’t be because it’s my father. I had to finally get up and get out of the theatre.”
That moment from his teens reminds Sutherland of his early success in The Lost Boys and his friendship with actors like Patric and the late Corey Haim. His laughter fades and he suddenly grows reflective.
“You know, I wish I wasn’t so young when I made some of those movies, because I thought that’s what the rest of my life was going to be like and I’d have all the time in the world to enjoy it.
“It wasn’t and I didn’t.”