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.

Where does it go from the pilot?
One thing that you’ll find out very early, in episode two, is that there are actually two designated survivors. The party in power, Democratic, has one, but the Republicans have a designated survivor too [played by Virginia Madsen] in case I was killed as well. She and I have to put the government back together. The choices we have to make in the beginning are quite grand and we’re quite progressive in that we get a lot done. As the government is put back in place, you start to see the wheels grind. That I think will be very interesting for a public that might not know the inner workings of the Senate and the Hill.

Do you see a similarity to Lyndon Johnson, also an accidental president as the result of a tragedy?
I have great respect for LBJ. He never gets credit for everything that he did with civil rights, and he was unfortunately saddled with the Vietnam War that he never got out of. He was a remarkable president. But LBJ had a temper, and I don’t think my character, Tom Kirkman, does.

Were the glasses a conscious choice? Your idea?
Yes. The company that made them made Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s glasses. During the Depression, those glasses were made available to anybody who needed them for free, so that’s why you saw so many people wearing them. I thought that would be an interesting place to start.

Kal Penn, who plays Kirkman’s aide, worked at the real White House. Was it handy having him around
Kal Penn is amazing. I can talk about him as an actor for days. But he’s also led a really diverse life. I’m not just talking about working at the White House. He’s done so many interesting things in the film industry as an actor and writer. He’s one of the best storytellers I know. And I can look over and ask him what would be happening in the West Wing at any given time and he’d have an answer.

Where does Kirkman rank on your list of favorite characters?
Right now it’s my favorite ’cause I’m doing it. I don’t want to cast any aspersions on Jack Bauer or what that role did for me, but my favorite will always be the one I’m in the process of working on at the time.

What’s your involvement in 24: Legacy? Will you appear?
There are absolutely no plans for that. Howard [Gordon] would run ideas by me or let me know what they were thinking, almost as a courtesy. And he certainly didn’t need to. But I told him that I thought the direction that they were heading was really exciting and really cool. The first few scripts are really solid. I think they’ve cast them really cleverly. I think this new version of 24 is going to be really exciting. And I wish him the best.

You released a country album, Down in a Hole, in August. The first video is going a bit viral online. How does music fit in with your acting career?
We were touring small bars and clubs around the U.S. and Canada. That will obviously be curtailed. Luckily for me, I often play music or will write as a way of relaxing or getting out of my head from whatever else I’m doing. So I certainly have been writing quite a lot musically. It’s a way of separating from constantly learning dialogue, constantly doing this. Right now, they seem to have a nice balance.

Do music and acting fulfill you in a different way?
Yes. As an actor, I love telling the story and being involved in this show and being one spoke in the telling of that story. And as a songwriter, I like telling a story that’s probably much more personal and mine, and not behind that of a character. The common denominator is that I love to tell stories.

Middle photo: ABC