By Mark Leiren-Young
Photos by Tav Rayne
When someone asks 24 star, Kiefer Sutherland, about his famous family, they’re usually wondering about his father, iconic actor, Donald Sutherland (MASH, Hunger Games). Maybe they’re curious about his mom, actress and activist Shirley Douglas (Wind at My Back, Nellie McClung). But this is Canada. I was more interested in his grandfather - former Saskatchewan Premier, NDP founding leader, our country’s conscience and “the Greatest Canadian” - Tommy Douglas.
Sutherland was at the 2015 Whistler Film Festival to promote his new movie - Forsaken - which opens this month and is, shockingly, the first movie he and his dad have ever done together. The made-in-Alberta production is a western from the Shane school, with Sutherland the younger as the gun-slinger who puts down his weapon to honour his preacher father (Sutherland Sr.) Since we were talking westerns I was also curious about Sutherland’s career as a professional rodeo cowboy.
We met in a hotel suite at a posh Whistler ski chalet. As the snow fell on the slopes, Sutherland was hospitable, charming and really did talk with that cool low growl that makes his 24 character, Jack Bauer, the terror of fictional terrorists. When we started our twenty-minute conversation I mentioned I’d once had a four-hour lunch with his mom where she regaled me with stories about her dad. Sutherland laughed and told me that wasn’t surprising.
Sutherland: Between she and my father you’re talking about two of the best orators I know and story telling seems to be a family proclivity. Both of my parents I think are perceived as being very kind of stern and very serious and they are that, but they both of them have two of the greatest senses of humours that I’ve ever seen and known in my life. So when you describe a four-hour lunch there would have been some funny stories in that.
Observer: The one that really stuck with me was she talked about the War Measures Act and when your grandfather was the only person who was standing up and saying -
Kiefer: Tommy Douglas said, I think his famous line was, “The War Measures Act is like trying to open a walnut with a sledgehammer.” And he fought very hard against it. And ultimately history proved, very much like the Patriot Act, once you start in the name of protecting society, start suspending civil liberties that we’ve fought incredibly hard for for 150 years to acquire, it’s a very dangerous thing. I’ve been very surprised in the United States that they haven’t amended the Patriot Act during the eight years of Obama’s administration. But they haven’t, but I think history will tell that they’ve made a mistake there as well.
Mark: How did politics not end up being the family business instead of acting?
Sutherland: Well, I think when you have a grandfather like I do, who has accomplished what that person has accomplished, the idea of trying to go into it is so daunting. Like, what are you gonna do?
Politics certainly played a huge part in my mother’s life and she was an honest activist. Whether it was Performers and Artists For Nuclear Disarmament, whether it was working with the Black Panther Party in the US to organize breakfast programs through the AME TK Churches or things like that, she was very politically active, but she also loved acting.
My father is an actor and although he had moments of activism they certainly were not of the kind that my mother was working on.
I think my mother’s sense was the idea of running for legitimate office was just not as interesting as what she felt was happening on the ground in the late sixties, early seventies. So all of her kind of political ideology was channeled through that. And you have to remember that certainly from ’67, ’68, ’69, ’70, ’71, ’72, there was a lot of stuff happening on the ground whether it was Cesar Chavez or whether it was the Black Panther Party, real change was happening. Whether it was Martin Luther King or Bobby Kennedy you could do more organizing a march than you would if you were a congress person at that time. So I think politics was her life in a much greater way.
For me, acting was the thing that from the time I was about ten - I had done a play as a favour to a friend of my mother’s and it was the first thing that anybody told me I did well, other than sports. And I responded to that in a very serious way and got into it at a very young age and just fell in love with it. It’s what I chose to do.
I’ll tell you a very quick story because it’s a big question that you just asked me.
I always wanted to be an actor, but I was always aware of the selfless kind of work that my grandfather did and was really impressed and very proud of what he had accomplished and knew that he was working for a better tomorrow for people and that what he was doing was right.
And I’m doing a film called The Bay Boy and the night before we start shooting the producer, John Kemeny, takes all of us - and all of us is Daniel Petrie who’s directing the film, myself, Liv Ullmann, Peter Donat, Leah Pinsent, Isabel Mejias and Peter Spence - and we’re all sitting around in the only restaurant on Cape Breton Island that was big enough to have a table that we could all sit at, a Chinese restaurant at the opposite end of the island. So, we’re all sitting there, we have dinner, and I have to tell you I’ve never been more excited about my life. My life starts today. This is gonna be my life. The audition process was grueling for four months, but this is it, my life is going to begin today. And I open a fortune cookie and it says, “Go home.” And I died. I mean, I absolutely died because I’m as superstitious as they get and I just went “No!” and I threw the fortune down and I don’t think I ate the cookie. So now I’ve got this bullshit rule that if you don’t eat the cookie it wasn’t meant for you. But, to this day, I often wonder what would’ve happened if I had just gone home? What would I have done with my life, you know? Because politics and law was always something that was very interesting to me.
I didn’t have the grades to accomplish that, I would’ve had to have really overhauled some aspects of my life, but I mean I’m 48 years old and I’m still holding onto that fortune cookie story from when I was fifteen. So you asked a very large question and it’s not been fully answered. But the acting, it was something that I’ve just always enjoyed immensely and again it was one of the few things that people told me I did well when I was young and I think when you’re young you grab onto those things.
Mark: Did you get to know your grandfather at all?
Kiefer: Oh my gosh, yeah, I spent every summer with him from the time I was seven years old and he passed away when I was eighteen. And so we would always get there three days before the House closed, so I’d be up in the House of Commons in the bleachers with my sister - or my sister would be off with our grandma Irma - and I’d be up in the bleachers and my grandpa would be down there and Stanley Knowles would sneak up and give me a hot dog and stuff like that and I watched some amazing speeches. And then we would go up to Wakefield Quebec and spend the summer.
So he taught me how to drive. He taught me how to drive once where Irma knew about it. And he taught me how to drive once before when no one knew about it and I was sworn to secrecy, but I don’t think he’d get cross with me for telling you now. We had a lot of fun together.
It was great and talk about a man who commanded reverence and he did, you just knew it. But, for whatever reason, he was like my friend. And he was the one who was always like “you know, I get sometimes you don’t do well in school, but don’t let your mom make you feel bad, you’re a really good boy.” And it was so funny because I don’t think he was like that with my mom I think he was probably a little tougher.
I think my mom was like, “he said what to you?!”
He said you shouldn’t be so mad at me.
But he was amazing. We had a wonderful, wonderful time together.
Mark: How did rodeo happen?
Kiefer: Well, I don’t know anybody who’s had a career that went - okay that’s not true I know one person - Tom Cruise’s career went up to here and kind of stayed up there for thirty years. The rest of our careers don’t. And I was in one of the dips, this was like an eight-year dip, and I had to find something to do. And the reason - I have to have an activity or work or a reason to get up in the morning, otherwise I’ll just get massively depressed and the wheels will come off. And for me I had a kind of natural affinity with horses and I was living up in Whitefish, Montana, and I was getting into horses and I was kind of traini
ng ranch horses and trail horses. And most of the guys there were cattle guys and I got invited to a couple of what we called, “ropings.” And that was ultimately what the sport is, it’s called team roping where there’s a header who ropes the head of the cow and a heeler who gets the back end of the cow and it’s a timed event. And the reason you would have that event is for if you had to inoculate your cows for a disease, if you had to give them vitamins, for instance, on my farm we had a lot of copper in the soil so we would give them vitamins to counteract that, etcetera etcetera I thought it was really cool and I started roping and I had a natural affinity for that and ended up with a guy who’s still a very dear friend, a guy named John English - he was my heeler for about eight years - and we entered a bunch of rodeos, one in Phoenix and then won a bunch really quick and I think the last rodeo I did was the LA Open. We won that. And then 24 started. It was something I really got into. I ended up loving the people.
Oddly enough I learned a lot about the interior of the United States. I thought it was going to be really racist and I thought I was going to have a real problem with that and it wasn’t. In fact, not only were there African American cowboys, Native American cowboys, Mexican American cowboys, there were a lot of women that were doing it. There’s not a lot of women in the NHL, not a lot of women in the NFL, and here, this is a tough sport. You can break your hip. I’ve watched a couple of bad wrecks. But everybody could do it. If you qualify, you can compete, which I thought was really cool and I kind of fell in love with middle America that way going from town to town to town. One-on-one everybody I met was kind of fantastic.
Mark: So this led up to 24?
Kiefer: It led right up to 24, yeah.
Mark: What was it like seeing Jack Bauer become iconic?
Kiefer: It was odd. And it was odd and it was made complicated by so many circumstances. We had shot eleven episodes before 9-11 had happened. So, 9-11 happens and the first thing that went through my mind was, “Why are you doing this for a living?”
And for a while I think everybody felt if you weren’t a first responder, a nurse, a doctor, or somebody that could help - a firefighter or police officer - then you were just wasting your time. And then I remember a week later a guy walked by me and said, “I can’t wait to see your new show.” And I remember saying, “thank you,” but I remember thinking in my head, ‘How could you say something like that at a time like this?’
And then over a few hours I kept thinking about what he said and it dawned on me that after a few weeks of mourning the way people were mourning they’re going to need something to pull them out of it. And that’s what we do, whether its comedy, whether it’s a show like 24, whether it's a rock band an album, whatever, that’s what we do, we give you a place to go think about something else that’s more frivolous than what might be really happening in your life at that moment.
There was a lot of ambivalence in my head whether 24 should even come out given the new circumstances of 9-11. Obviously it wasn’t my choice. Fox put it out and people had a real reaction to it and I felt that the reaction, ‘cause I certainly felt this way, not necessarily about the show, but there was a kind of helplessness at that time. And if you watched any of the footage of, you know you’re watching people make a choice of burn to death or jump, and that had a profound effect on me when I saw that and I just thought of my family and if someone in my family had been in that circumstance. And so you felt helpless and you felt angry, but there was no way to express that.
Then all of the sudden 24 starts and here’s a guy facing insurmountable circumstances and odds and he goes and does something. And I think people galvanized around that character in a kind of an odd way at a very difficult, odd time.
So watching the show kind of progress over what ended up being a decade was always a mystery, because it kept morphing for different reasons and different things, because obviously the world was changing for that entire ten year period too. So it was one of those things where you kind of divorce yourself from how people are perceiving the character, or taking it and taking the show, and why do you like playing the character and what do you like about playing the character and start focusing on that. And so for ten years I kind of did that. And then, every once in a while, giggle when someone makes me sign a Jack Bauer doll.