First off, can we all take a second to agree that Kiefer Sutherland has had one hell of a career? The son of a pair of Canadian actors, Sutherland started in Hollywood when he was a teenager, and you probably first laid eyes on him as the switchblade-wielding, mailbox-slugging, Wil Wheaton-harassing bad guy Ace Merrill in Stand by Me. That came out in 1986, which means for many of us Sutherland has been in our lives for a full 30 years at this point.
After Stand by Me, Sutherland continued playing mysterious/dirty/scuzzy/coke-addicted characters in films like The Lost Boys, Flatliners and Bright Lights, Big City. In fact, when we first saw him in those movies, we were too young to realize how good of an actor he was; we just sort of assumed he was a real-life asshole that they focused a camera on.
Fast-forward through some low years and a DUI or three, and everything changed for Sutherland in 2001 when he became counter-terrorist director Jack Bauer in 24. Suddenly he was the clean-cut good guy, protecting our country and saving the world. Things really haven’t slowed down for Sutherland since. He’ll be appearing in a Flatliners remake (!) slated to come out next summer, and last month he released—to mostly positive reviews—his first album (!), a country-tinged record called Down in a Hole.
Of course, all of this takes a backseat to his new show, Designated Survivor, which premieres tomorrow night on ABC. The premise of Designated Survivor is about as compelling (and timely) as TV show premises get. If you’ve seen the promos, you know it already. During the State of the Union Address, one cabinet member is taken to an undisclosed location and, in the event of a catastrophic attack on our government (read: everyone at the State of the Union Address is blown up), that cabinet member becomes President of the United States. In the case of Designated Survivor, Kiefer Sutherland is that cabinet member—and a politically insignificant and soon-to-be-replaced one at that. Except now he’s the bewildered Leader of the Free World.
Interesting jumping-off point, right? We wanted to hear more, so we recently caught up with Sutherland for a wide-ranging discussion on the show, his music career, his involvement in next year’s 24 reboot, 24: Legacy and his favorite character of all time—which might surprise you.
“I remember getting to the very end of the pilot script for Designated Survivor and realizing that I was potentially holding the next ten years of my life in my hands.”
You said you wanted a break from TV after nine seasons of 24. What changed your mind?
24 was the greatest experience I had as an actor. Never once did I feel that I was playing the same character over and over. And I love the TV medium. But I had no intention of doing a television show. I hadn’t read anything very good and I didn’t want to just do something for the sake of doing it. But I felt I needed to give this script a cursory read so that I could at least respond with some intelligence and explain why I couldn’t do it, and I was just quite caught off guard by how special I thought that script was.
It was so beautifully structured. It had the thriller aspect of trying to find out who had done this. It had a family drama. What happens when, overnight, you go from a very structured life to the life of the President of the United States and the First Lady? What happens to your children? What sacrifices are made there? I remember getting to the very end of the script and realizing that I was potentially holding the next ten years of my life in my hands.