A Lot Going On Behind the Eyes
Published: January 11, 2012
WHEN, exactly, did Kiefer Sutherland gain access to my head?
Mr. Sutherland is returning to television this month in a Fox drama called “Touch” in which he plays the father of a 10-year-old boy who has never spoken and doesn’t communicate in any traditional way. That’s a world I know something about, since I too have such a child.
It’s a frustrating, anguishing place to live, full of challenges and conflicting emotions that are difficult to convey to an outsider. Yet in the “Touch” pilot, which will be broadcast Jan. 25, Mr. Sutherland and his young co-star, David Mazouz, did a pretty good job of convincing me that they know something about it too.
“Touch” was created by Tim Kring, whose previous shows include the much-loved “Heroes,” about ordinary people who discover they have superpowers. That lineage is clear in “Touch” because the mute boy, Jake, has a superpower of sorts: He has a relentless fascination with numbers and finds patterns that, if deciphered properly by his father, lead to connections among disparate people all over the globe. The pilot involves a British man’s lost cellphone, a broken oven in Baghdad, a lottery jackpot in New York, a sex worker in Tokyo and more.
Mr. Kring said that finding the right actor to play Jake wasn’t easy; the role requires an ability to affect the blank, isolated look often seen in autistic children, yet also to suggest there is a lot going on behind the eyes.
“David is an extraordinary child,” Mr. Kring said. “He is extremely focused, and you can see the internal life in him. He’s also very still. Most kids we auditioned, you’d catch moments here and there between their general fidgetiness.”
The casting was made all the more difficult by the fact that Jake is silent to the other characters but not to viewers: his thoughts are heard in voice-over, and are fairly complex for a 10-year-old.
“Because we hear his internal voice, we have an understanding of just how intelligent he is, so we had to cast someone who fit that,” Mr. Kring said. “Some of the kids, they had wonderful-looking faces, but you just could not imagine the very bright kid inside.”
Mr. Sutherland said David was the first of about two dozen children he read with during auditions. “There was just something really natural between the two of us,” he said, something that wasn’t there with those who came after. “Around the 25th kid I was like, ‘Would you guys just hire the first kid, please?’ ”
What makes his co-star right for the part? “David does an amazing thing where he is completely physically disconnected from you, but I always felt I could feel him listening,” Mr. Sutherland said.
The role of Jake presented one sort of acting challenge, but Mr. Sutherland, of course, has a lot to convey as well. Raising a child like Jake — or like my own, who has a disability called Rett syndrome — requires letting go of a lot of traditional parental goals and peak experiences.
“There was a book that I got for Kiefer about parenting children with these kinds of disabilities,” Mr. Kring said. “I remember there was one chapter on something called chronic sorrow. Both Kiefer and I kind of focused on that.”
It’s a term coined in the 1960s by the sociologist Simon Olshansky to refer to the day-to-day grief parents of severely disabled children experience over the challenges they and their children face, the lost opportunities, the unforgiving future. Mr. Sutherland seems to find the essence of it in his character, Martin Bohm. This struggling father is a long way from Jack Bauer, the tough terrorism fighter of Mr. Sutherland’s best-known series, “24.” As Mr. Kring put it, when Martin is punched in the stomach in the pilot, “he reacts very much the way you or I would: he doubles over in pain.”
Being the parent of an uncommunicative child may entail sorrow, but it also requires not giving up on him, even if others do. The pilot introduces what Mr. Kring said would be a season-long struggle for Martin, a widower, to retain custody of the boy — institutionalization, for Martin, being something like throwing in the towel and acknowledging that there is no potential behind Jake’s intense gaze.
“Have you ever truly communicated with him?” a child services worker barks at Martin. “Does he even know who you are?” Maybe not, but a parent in Martin’s position constantly has to tell himself that those questions are irrelevant.
The problem with making a series about a family dealing with disability is not unlike the problem with making a medical drama or a police procedural: What actually goes on in these worlds doesn’t make very good television. Just as most real police work is drudgery, raising a child with a profound disability is mostly a daily slog in which simple things like feeding or bathing can take hours.
That’s why Mr. Kring and his team try to establish early on that, though Jake may look autistic, “Touch” is not about autism, and Jake’s condition is something else entirely.
“In the pilot we were pretty set on trying to state that as early as possible,” Mr. Kring said. “Clearly the autism community deserves to have champions out there, but by the same token we wanted to have the ability as storytellers to float above reality a little bit. There’s something special going on with this child, something metaphysical, almost supernatural.”
Carol Barbee, an executive producer of the show, added, “We also wanted to be sure not to be coming from a place of saying your autistic child is also a magical child.” To real-life parents that approach would be dismissive, like the old “special gift from God” line that well-meaning strangers often use because they don’t know what else to say.
In the premiere Martin finds his way to a cryptic fellow played by Danny Glover who tells him that Jake and others like him have psychic powers of sorts.
“Your son sees everything,” Mr. Glover’s character says. “The past, the present, the future. He sees how it’s all connected.” Then he adds, “It’s a road map, and your job now, your purpose, is to follow it for him.”
That paranormal-sounding assignment actually mimics the role that a parent of such a child assumes in real life. Though you try to provide tools that might let the child use language the way other people do — my daughter is currently working with a MyTobii, a keyboardless, mouseless computer that reads the gaze of her eyes in order to speak for her — you come to realize that the real task is to meet the child where she lives and decode what you can. For Martin, Mr. Sutherland said, that realization brings a breakthrough.
“That’s the first kind of real empowering moment that Martin has as a father,” he said. “One of the things that’s so fantastic in the first five episodes is you really see their ability to communicate take leaps and bounds.”
For Mr. Kring, Jake and his father are a means into a subject that has long interested him. “I’ve been really exploring this theme of interconnectivity between people,” he said. “With ‘Heroes’ I sort of buried the interconnectivity under the theme of superheroes. Here I wanted to put it front and center.”
Why make the linchpin a child without words? “How I arrived at him being mute was really just by trying to create a character who had this extraordinary gift but was possibly the most disenfranchised person on the planet.” Mr. Kring said. “If the theme was about interconnectivity, the microcosm of it was about a father who couldn’t really connect with his own son.”
The “haiku storytelling,” as Mr. Kring called it, will stretch all over the globe. Future episodes will include plotlines set in Russia, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Australia. “Anything that we can make Southern California look like,” Ms. Barbee said, “that’s where we’re going.”
Wherever it goes “Touch” seems as if it has a chance to do what many shows that use characters with disabilities don’t: go beyond the superficial and avoid easy, feel-good solutions. Jake’s disability may be a fantastical construct, but the communication challenges are real.