Kiefer Sutherland on Pompeii, 24 and Guantanamo

Kiefer Sutherland as Corvus declares the 'Games' open in Pompeii. Picture: Contributed
Kiefer Sutherland as Corvus declares the 'Games' open in Pompeii. Picture: Contributed
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Kiefer Sutherland is an old-fashioned hellraiser with charm to spare. He talks to Claire Black about the return of 24, the politics of Guantanamo and finally getting to act with his father, Donald

Dressed all in black, neat v-neck sweater, smart casual trousers, slip-on shoes, Kiefer Sutherland is strikingly slight. Mobile phone and specs in one hand, he shakes my hand with the other and sits lightly.

The night before he was a guest presenter at a national awards ceremony. I don’t think it’s too mischievous to suggest he looks and sounds like a man who enjoyed the after party. His eyes might be just a tiny bit pink. His voice is a gravelly growl, and for the first few minutes that we speak, his words don’t make it past his teeth without incident. But if he’s underslept and feeling the need for hydration, his demeanour doesn’t show it. Not at all. In fact, Sutherland is the model of affability.

Easy to talk to, he’s a man who knows how to tell a story. He’s game for any question and unfailingly conscientious in talking about the projects he’s duty bound to promote. About his new film, Pompeii, a 3D extravaganza replete with a doomed love story and gushing lava that looks like it’s oozing out of the screen and on its way to swallow you and your popcorn, he’s “hugely proud”, relishing the chance to drive a chariot and deliver the lines of his villainous character, Roman senator Corvus, in a high-camp English accent. About his upcoming return to the small screen as the world’s most reliable counter-terrorist operative, Jack Bauer, he’s “enormously excited”.

Sutherland is a pro. He’s been an actor for more than 30 of his 47 years. And before acting was his career, it was the world he grew up in.

When Sutherland was born in London in 1966, his father, Donald, was a movie star, his mother, Shirley Douglas, a respected stage actor. His parents split up before he was four years old and Sutherland lived with his mother and twin sister in Toronto, only getting to know his father later in life. By the age of 15, Sutherland jnr had dropped out of school in order to take a role in a film. It was coming of age story called The Bay Boy. He clearly recalls his first review.

“I remember I was sitting with my mum,” he says. “I couldn’t have been more than 16 years old. The review said, ‘Kiefer Sutherland…’” he pauses, smiling, “it was the last review I ever read, ‘Kiefer Sutherland… has all the charisma of a mowed lawn’.” He grimaces, rubbing a hand over his face. “My mum was smiling and I said, ‘that’s not good, is it?’ and she said ‘oh, sweetheart, it’s not going to get worse than that’.”

Much later, he asked her why she had been smiling and she explained that it was a lesson learned because ‘it’s the worst one you’re ever going to get and because it can’t get any worse now you can move on’.”

He shifts in his seat, warming to his story. “I got a letter from that reviewer later in life, he was a fantastic journalist, Jay Scott from the Globe and Mail, and he apologised for what he’d written. It was a beautiful letter but I’ve never forgotten that review.”

Sutherland is genuinely and surprisingly modest. His stories are delivered self-deprecatingly, making himself the butt of every joke. It’s not necessarily what you’d expect from a man born into Hollywood royalty who has made more than 70 films. But Sutherland’s career hasn’t exactly been a textbook example of easy success.

Just a year after that unforgettable review, when he was 17, Sutherland drove himself to Los Angeles determined to become a movie star. He shared a house with other aspiring wannabes including Sarah Jessica Parker and Robert Downey jnr and got his breakthrough in Stand By Me when he was 19. After that there was Lost Boys and Young Guns and by the age of 21 Sutherland was a fully fledged star, married with a daughter. But things didn’t quite go to plan from there.

In those early bratpack movies, Sutherland was a bad boy. Combine his fondness for having a good time, to hell with the consequences, with some dubious movie choices and by the mid-1990s his movie career was on the ropes. So much so that he jacked in Hollywood, bought himself a ranch and became a rodeo rider. He was good at it too, winning a few tournaments along the way.

And then Jack Bauer came to the rescue.

The first series of 24 began in 2001. It was an instant success. In part, the real time format, something that had never been seen before, ramped up the tension as counter-terrorism agent Bauer battled to save the president of the United States. But there was also something about Bauer himself that hit a chord. And for nearly a decade, through 192 episodes, before the show ended in 2010, his popularity hardly wavered, earning Sutherland a slew of awards including an Emmy and several Golden Globes, and making him the highest paid TV actor in the world.

Cut to 2014 and the new series, 24: Live Another Day and it seems Bauer has lost none of his appeal. The hashtag for it is #jackisback. The trailer, all of 34 seconds, is edited in such a way as to provoke hyperventilation. There are explosions, guns and enough glimpses of Jack to let us know he’s looking a little leaner than he once did but he’s just as mean. So how does Sutherland feel to be back in his shoes?

“It’s great,” he says with a grin. “I think we have an opportunity – whether we do it or not – to make the best season of 24 yet. There are a few factors involved in that: we took four years off so the writers have had a lot of time to think about what they want to do and we’re doing 12 episodes instead of the usual 24, even though they will represent a 24-hour day.”

Having faced some criticism that the format was getting overstretched, this new style means, he says, that if Jack Bauer wants to go to Austria, “we don’t have to watch him sitting on a plane eating peanuts for two hours, we can end the episode with him getting on a plane and pick up the next one with him being there.”

Created long before the events of 9/11, (“we had done nine episodes by the time that happened,” says Sutherland, clearly well practiced in trying to explain the phenomenon of the show) nevertheless 24 was the perfect vehicle for a rattled America. Bauer was the ultimate special agent for a terrorised world, a man who knows the rules but isn’t bound by them. “Whatever it takes” is his motto and in an age when knowing who the enemy is can be tragically complex Bauer was reassuringly black and white.

“I think people felt vulnerable so they really attached themselves to this guy who took matters into his own hands,” says Sutherland. “For better or worse. It’s certainly not something I would advise anyone to be doing but within the context of a show when people do feel vulnerable, the show can become quite cathartic. It alleviates something in a moment.”

If the argument sounds well rehearsed then that’s only because it is. Playing Bauer has meant that Sutherland, actor, party animal, the man caught on camera wrestling a Christmas tree in a London hotel in 2007 has had to develop a clear line on world politics because seldom does he get through an interview without being asked as to whether he supports torture, or if he’d close Guantanamo.

For the record, his answers are no and yes.

“It’s complicated,” he says, with seemingly infinite patience. “Barack Obama in both campaigns advocated his desire to close Guantanamo but what are you going to do? You have people there who are clearly terrorists and no one else wants them. You don’t want to bring them to the States. It’s a very complicated situation. But the law is the law and I don’t believe in the Patriot Act and you either bring them to the United States and try them for what they’re accused of having done or you let them go. It’s that simple. That’s democracy – your rhetoric only works if you follow the law. In terms of civil rights and our respect for freedom I think we’ve taken a big step backwards.” He pauses, smiles and raises his hands. “But I’m not undermining how complicated it is. I get it.”

Sutherland’s easy manner and his willingness to talk openly are surprising because his life, messy as it’s been, has been lived out splattered across newspaper front pages and gossip columns.

His engagement with Julia Roberts that was called off three days before their wedding in 1991; the drink driving which resulted in a prison stint in 2007; and pictures of him worse for wear in various cities around the world.

In a world of image management Sutherland is an old-fashioned hellraiser. He has the 140 stitches in his head to prove it and a whole gallery of tattoos. One peeps out of the cuff of his inky black sweater as he fiddles with his glasses. Yet he doesn’t scuttle away at the end of the interview but instead hangs about, looking a little awkward, making small talk. He does a bad impression of my Scottish accent and tells me that he’s loved Scotland since his daughter was married in Edinburgh in 2004. You’ve got Scottish heritage, haven’t you? I ask. “All of my grandparents,” he says, beaming. If you were looking for a Hollywood star to have a pint with and shoot the breeze, I’m not sure you could do better than Sutherland.

As a boy Sutherland hardly knew his father, Donald, but they’ve become close in Sutherland’s adult life. He first saw his father’s films when he was staying at a friend’s house. They had VHS videos of M*A*S*H, Don’t Look Now and Kelly’s Heroes. He watched them all in a day. His opinion? He said he felt embarrassed that he hadn’t known how good an actor his father was.

In the hiatus of 24, Sutherland threw himself not only into the high jinx of Pompeii, but also into arthouse cinema with a role in Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, and a stint on Broadway. “As you look back on your life and see the different opportunities, you feel very glad that you’ve had them,” he says, sounding like a man who knows what it feels like to come back from the brink. “Every one of them is different and you take them for what they are.”

When 24 began, Sutherland was on set 14 hours a day, five days a week for ten months of the year. It sounds gruelling, but he credits it with providing him with a kind of structure to his life that he’d never had before, and giving him confidence as an actor that he’s relied on ever since. “If you’re going to train to run a marathon you run every day,” he says, “if you want to really work as an actor, do an hour-length drama, 24 episodes a year. You will really start to learn some stuff about what you know and don’t know. For me it was invaluable.”

And that was never more true than on another of the projects he worked on while on a break from Mr Bauer. Forsaken is a western in which Sutherland plays a quick-draw killer who hangs up his guns and heads back to his home town to repair his relationship with his estranged father. The interesting bit is that the role of the father is played by his real dad, Donald.

“Everyone who’s known me is like, ‘oh my god you’re going to work with your dad? I’ve got to see this’,” he says, leaving it open as to whether they meant that in a good or a bad way. So, what was it like?

“It was an amazing experience. But the night before, we were staying in the same hotel, and I called him up. I said, ‘I know you’re going to bed – because he goes to bed very early – but I just want to tell you I think we’re going to have a great day tomorrow. I’m a little nervous…’ And he was like ‘oh thank god, you’re nervous? I’m scared s***less’.” He laughs. “And we went to work the next day and it was fantastic. At first, we were like those cartoon characters ‘oh, after you’, ‘no, after you’ we were being so polite. Finally, he just looked at me and said ‘F**k off’ and then we started working.”

With that, another handshake and a winning smile, Sutherland departs.

Pompeii (12A) is in cinemas on Friday. 24: Live Another Day starts on Monday 5 May on Sky 1.