Ahead of his return to the small screen as Jack Bauer, Kiefer Sutherland talks about the fame game, working with his father and his time at the rodeo.
Imagine this conversation. It's the late Eighties and Kiefer Sutherland is in a swimming pool with Robert Downey Jr. Former college room-mates, they had just made 1969 together – "not a great movie by any stretch" – and were kicking back at a friend's apartment, basking in their new-found stardom.
Sutherland had come to prominence in The Lost Boys and Stand By Me, while Downey Jr had made a splash in Less Than Zero. "I remember telling Bobby, 'If we can just make it to 40, if we don't screw it up so bad, then we'll work forever,'" smiles Sutherland, settling back in a chair in London's Soho Hotel. "And we were right."
At that point, there was no way of knowing that Downey Jr would suffer from serious substance abuse issues, before resurrecting his career in the Iron Man franchise. Or that co-stars like River Phoenix and Corey Haim would die before their time. But even then, Sutherland sensed that life in Hollywood was no cake-walk for these lost boys. "I was conscious [that] 'This is going to be a tricky road to navigate'," he says, "'and if we can just get to this point, then we'd be a little safer ... but a lot of people are going to fall by the wayside between now and then.'"
Sutherland, of course, had all the reasons to be a screw-up. Famous parents (actors Donald Sutherland and Shirley Douglas), early success (he starred with Sean Penn in At Close Range before he was 20), a Hollywood romance (with his Flatliners co-star Julia Roberts) and a media scandal (Roberts famously jilted him three days before their wedding, heading to Ireland with his actor-friend Jason Patric). There was even the obligatory comeback with 24, the real-time TV drama in which he plays counter-terrorism agent Jack Bauer.
Yet, now 47, he's made it this far. Dressed all in black, he still has a youthful air about him. Maybe it's the tattoos that can be glimpsed on his right arm or the fact he still loves to play guitar. "If I was better, it's what I'd be doing for a living," he laughs. Bar a few round his blue eyes, the wrinkles are largely non-existent (thank the lord for Hollywood dermatologists) and his body is fit enough to keep Bauer on the road, which is just as well. When we meet, Sutherland is back in London to film a new series of 24, the first in four years.
Set in the English capital, it's subtitled Live Another Day – which seems apt for a Hollywood survivor like Sutherland – and for the first time will be twelve episodes, and not twenty-four. Adjusting the concept will help make it "the best season ever", he says. "The twelve episodes will obviously represent a twenty-four hour day and the twelve episodes will themselves be in real-time, but if I need to get from here to France, the hour on the train of me eating peanuts, we can cut that out! And that's a huge opportunity for the writers."
Partly, the show has been off the screens since 2010 because one of its chief creative forces, Howard Gordon, had been enjoying such success with TV drama Homeland. It was Gordon who rang up Sutherland with the idea for 24: Live Another Day. "I said, 'Well, why don't you do it for Homeland?' And he said, 'No, this is absolutely for 24. Would you be interested?' I said, 'How good is your idea?' He said, 'It's pretty good.' And he didn't have to tell me; we've known each other that long. I just said, 'OK, I'm in.' And it is really good."
Arriving just shortly before the first episode premieres, Sutherland can also be seen on the big screen in a new blockbuster, Pompeii. Set in 79 AD, around the infamous eruption of Mt Vesuvius, it stars Game of Thrones' Kit Harington as a slave-cum-gladiator and Emily Browning as the lady he falls for. As the lava starts to flow (in glorious 3D, no less), it's just the sort of spectacular cheese-fest we've come to expect from Hollywood when it comes to the summer months.
Playing the lascivious, corrupt Roman senator Corvus, who makes a beeline for Browning's waif-like character, Sutherland more than enters into the spirit of things. "He's an absolute pig, but he enjoys it so much," he says. "He's unabashed about it. He's as bad a person as you could find." He can remember getting kicked by a female friend when he was trying out some of the lines. "That's when I knew I was having a little too much fun – because I was starting to offend the person I was working with!"
In truth, Sutherland hasn't made a major Hollywood 'event' movie since the days of Young Guns II and 1993's The Three Musketeers, and Pompeii rather came by surprise. "It wasn't something I was specifically looking for." When he's not been making 24 this past decade, his film choices have been more eclectic – whether it's working for Lars von Trier on Melancholia or Mira Nair on The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Put simply, television is where it's at. "It makes the stories I want to be a part of."
He draws up closer on his chair, elbows on knees, preparing to tell me that they simply don't make 'em like they used to. "When I was growing up, films like The Godfather, Terms of Endearment and Robert Redford's Ordinary People, which my father was in – those were films that really moved me." While he cites various movies that his father starred in that proved formative – Kelly's Heroes, Don't Look Now, Eye of the Needle and MASH – it was Redford's Oscar-winning 1980 family melodrama that "had a profound effect on me as a young person".
He still remembers the scene at the end of the movie, when Timothy Hutton and his father were sitting on a porch. "Tim starts crying and they talk about how much they love each other, and I was like 'I want to be sitting there with him, having that scene with him for real.' I told Tim Hutton once, in a restaurant, 'You stole my scene!' And he knew exactly what I meant." Still, there are no hard feelings from the actor – who was named after Warren Kiefer, director of his father's first ever movie, a low-budget Italian horror, Castle of the Living Dead.
Born in London, with a twin-sister Rachel, he spent the early part of his life in California before his Canadian-born parents split and he moved to Toronto with his mother in 1975. He began to take acting classes, and can still recall a time his father gave him "a great piece of advice" when he was 15-years-old. "He said, 'Within the context of the character, don't ever get caught lying – because [the audience] they'll never forgive you for it. Don't try to find a short-cut or do what you think the audience wants to see. Do what you actually feel is right.' The times I've tried to do something different, I've got nailed for it."
Can he compare himself as an actor to his father? "Oh my God, I wouldn't even dare!" he exclaims, shock crossing his face. "The thought would never enter into my mind. Wouldn't even dare." Remarkably, father and son have just worked together for the first time in their careers on Forsaken, a forthcoming western. "I called him the night before and said, 'We're going to have a great day tomorrow. And if anything is a little awkward, just know that I'm really nervous.' And he went 'Oh my God, you're nervous too? I'm scared shitless!' But it was one of the greatest experiences I've ever had."
Like his parents, Sutherland knows what it means to experience divorce. His first marriage to Camelia Kath – widow to Chicago guitarist/singer Terry Kath – lasted for three years, during which time they had a daughter, before they divorced in 1990 and Sutherland got together with Roberts. In 1996, he married model Kelly Winn, but it only lasted three years – a bleak time for Sutherland, where his film career looked to be on the wane.
He'd even spent two anonymous years as a cowboy on the rodeo circuit. "I needed to get away," he admits. "I was doing awful work and justifying it on the basis that I had bills to pay." Yet it was 24 that saved him in 2001. Now, thirteen years later, he's coming full-circle – shooting in the country where the show really took off. "Had it not been a very big success here, I don't think the show would've continued," he says. "So I think it's fitting that we do our last season here." It promises to be a memorable finale.
Pompeii opens on May 2nd. 24: Live Another Day starts on Sky 1 on May 7th.