Kiefer Sutherland: Redemption Song
Men's Vogue Dec/Jan 2009
By Kevin Conley
Photographed by Norman Jean Roy
Like the counterterrorism agent he plays on TV, Kiefer Sutherland lives life at full tilt and sometimes takes a beating for it. But despite some well-publicized travails, he's back—and nothing can get in the way of making the most addictive 24 yet.
In 24: Redemption, the two-hour kickoff of 24's seventh season on Fox, Jack Bauer, the freewheeling counterterrorism operative in self-imposed exile in the fictional country of Sangala, kills more than a dozen African insurgents—at first, almost reluctantly. He does so mostly from a distance, on the move and under heavy fire. Then, when he is momentarily captured and his hands are tied, he pulls out the flying scissor lock he used to kill Vladimir Bierko in Season Five, snapping the neck of his torturer with his legs before the bad guy can reach a group of nearby schoolboys and turn them into child soldiers forced to fight a military coup. Welcome back, Jack.
Kiefer Sutherland, who plays Bauer—and who famously spent nearly seven weeks this past winter in an L.A. city jail in Glendale, California—has also been out for retribution lately. And so he arrives at the back table of Grano, a Manhattan trattoria, dressed like a poet in a trim tweed vest, checked tie, and pair of Yeatsian spectacles. He orders sparkling water (the following takes place between the hours of 1:00 and 3:00 P.M.) and plays nervously with a butter knife, without a trace of menace.
Unlike the trained assassin he portrays on television, Sutherland is Canadian, and therefore modest and polite by nature. He instinctively adds phrases like "thank you" or "excuse me" to Bauer's gruff, pared-down dialogue, which, the actor admits, have to be edited out. Still, after surviving 144 hours of national crisis with the man (104 hours if you watch the entire series commercial-free on DVD), it's jarring to see him in real life daintily bringing his hand an inch or so from his mouth while he eats. I've watched the guy chomp down on the neck of a hostile interrogator and spit out an Adam's apple onto the floor, and now he's worried about a stray piece of chicken parm?
Two autumns ago, Sutherland was gearing up for 24's current season, when, at 1:10 A.M. on September 25, 2007, he was pulled over for an illegal U-turn and failed a field sobriety test. After it came out that he was still on probation for a DUI three years earlier, he received a sentence of 48 days in jail. The actor worked out a deal with the L.A. city prosecutor to serve eighteen days over Christmas break and then complete the sentence the following spring, once the show had finished filming. But after the writers' strike shut down all film and TV work, Sutherland checked himself in to serve his entire sentence at once. Still, despite this change in circumstance, one aspect of the original deal remained: Prisoner #1085109 would not be eligible for time off for good behavior.
Now here we are, barely ten minutes into our conversation when a tall, dark-haired woman brushes his shoulder, excusing herself for interrupting. "I left my phone in the studio," she says, apparently referring to Sutherland's apartment in the city. The actor, squeezed against the wall, half stands in a courtly fashion. The woman turns out to be Siobhan Bonnouvrier, the style director at Allure magazine and Sutherland's girlfriend of several months. She has been, by all accounts, a stabilizing influence. "I'll find you in a minute," he says, veering into his signature smoke-and-a-shot-glass whisper especially for her.
But does anybody really look to Kiefer Sutherland for good behavior at this point? After his more than 20 years in the spotlight, it should be clear that his talents do not lie in that direction. Nobody's rooting for bad behavior, exactly. But it's a bit uncomfortable when he starts talking dutifully about the aftermath of his arrest, about damaging his family and losing his freedom. "It was just a really dumb mistake," he says of his most recent DUI. "It certainly wasn't intentional. I wasn't thinking, and I was being careless."
Like it or not, on-screen and off, Sutherland specializes in deeply flawed behavior. On-screen, after a decade or so of star turns playing likably repulsive shitheels and sociopaths in low-budget shoot-'em-ups and police procedurals, his talent has been rewarded with a $40 million contract that will carry him through a Season Eight of 24. Offscreen, he has weathered his share of tabloid humiliations without once casting blame or complaining. In the mid-nineties, he disappeared entirely from the Hollywood scene and threw himself into team roping on the rodeo circuit. "I got into roping mainly because I was up in Montana," he says. "I moved up there to ski, and I didn't know what to do in the off-season. And if I don't have something to do, I get myself in a lot of trouble."
When Sutherland began to land big parts back in the eighties, he got the charming enfant-terrible roles—the cokehead friend in Bright Lights, Big City, a cupid-lipped vampire in The Lost Boys—and he played them with a precocious glint of evil at odds with his baby fat and flawless skin. By now, the baby fat is gone, and his skin bears the record of his long days and late nights. When we step outside to smoke his Camel Lights, I spot a raw, red bruise on his left temple from a hockey game and a gash over his right eyebrow from 24. But when I ask him how that happened, he deflects the attention. "I have less than the camera operator has," he says. "Generally, whenever I'm running, he's running as well. And he's hit a couple of things that have knocked him senseless."
Sutherland's instinctive, winning modesty is not just an act for interviews. It fits the profile of a flawed, Bauer-like man who takes his punishment and still tries to do his absolute best in every situation. Long before extended families became the Hollywood fashion, Sutherland stuck around through two divorces, helping to raise his 20-year-old daughter, Sarah Jude (from his first marriage, to Camelia Kath, widow of the late Chicago guitarist Terry Kath), three stepchildren, and even a stepgrandson, all of whom he calls his own. "They're my family," he says. "We have Christmases together, my ex-wife Camelia, her boyfriend, Jeff. Look, in all fairness, when people have those problems, it's economic. It's difficult enough to go through the anguish and pain that separation will bring. But then to go from living in a house to a tiny apartment and half of your check disappears?"
Sutherland has inherited a pugnacious lefty take on economics: His grandfather, Tommy Douglas, the Socialist premier of Saskatchewan from 1944 to 1961, introduced public medical insurance to Canada. (In 2004, when the CBC held a nationwide "Greatest Canadian" contest, he won.) His mother, the actress Shirley Douglas—who was briefly married to Kiefer's father, Donald Sutherland, in the late sixties—was known for her campaigns on behalf of such causes as civil liberties and the Black Panthers. She has continued to fight against the erosion of Canada's system of universal coverage to the present day.
In conversation, Sutherland taps both sides of his background, moving quickly from politico-historical overviews to actorly personal detail. When I brought up his team roping, for instance, he talked about the roots of rodeo events in small frontier towns. This led to a discussion of the unrivaled ability of the United States to raise cattle, and to feed not just this nation but other nations as well. Soon afterward, he was talking about how his single mother raised him, his brother, and his sister on Hamburger Helper and minute steaks.
During this same era, his famous father was getting leading roles in M*A*S*H and Klute and Fellini's Casanova. But despite such good fortune, Donald Sutherland's contribution to the family welfare seems to have been largely notional. Longstanding evidence of the father and son's closeness is surprisingly thin and primarily genetic: They share certain eerie and uncommon traits—the distinctive voice; the scornful and sensual upper lip; the louche, insinuating, feline presence. "The weirdest one was: He had a photo," the younger Sutherland says. "An old eight-by-ten from when he was maybe 35 or 40. And I had some done when I was 20. And when he saw it, he went, 'Oh my God! Hold on.' And he went running upstairs, and I could hear cartons of stuff he was throwing about. Then he came down with it. You have to understand—I didn't live with him, I didn't grow up with him, or any of that. And he shows me the photo, and there he is, sitting like that." Sutherland cradles his head in his hands, with two fingers thoughtfully across his lips, demonstrating the same pose the father and son actors assumed years apart for the head-shot photographer.
By contrast, with his own family (or families) Kiefer Sutherland has for the most part been present. He's in New York today because his daughter Sarah's in college here, and he's been renovating a place nearby that he can move into once 24 is done. (When that might be, he wouldn't say.) "There's a sexiness to the people here that's extraordinary," he says of the city. "Everybody's full of purpose. No one's just fucking around. And you can spot a tourist a mile away. I'll be walking down the street with friends of mine, and I'm the only one who stops at the light. 'Sorry, that was very Canadian of me.' " Manhattan seems to represent a homey alternative for him, as he lives in a former iron foundry in Los Angeles that doubles as a recording studio and is consequently filled with musicians at all hours of the day and night.
Sutherland—whose record label, Ironworks, is getting too big to run out of his (albeit large) home anymore—certainly doesn't seem ready for 24 to end just yet. "The truth is, we haven't made our perfect season," he says. "And I'm a relatively competitive person, so I want to make it." This season, Jack is lured out of exile in Africa back to Washington, where he must appear before a Senate subcommittee reviewing the counterterrorism unit's history of torture and covert investigation. Coincidentally, on the very day he testifies, President Taylor uncovers evidence of far-reaching conspiracy on the part of Jonas Hodges (played by Jon Voight, the vocal right-winger and oft-estranged father of Angelina Jolie) to supply arms to brutal African insurgents. You can only guess that Jack Bauer will be called in to bring this unsavory business to an end.
There are further surprises, of course, including the reappearance of Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard), who died at about 7:50 P.M. back in Season Five. This time, Almeida pops up as a villain; in one trailer, Bauer shoves him against the wall, yelling, "So help me, God. I will kill you, and you will stay dead this time!" I tell Sutherland that this line cracked me up, and he takes it as a compliment. "Jack's had two laughs over eight years," he admits. "Which is not a high ratio. One of them was just a look he gave to Chloe O'Brian"—the sexy tech geek parked in front of a computer at CTU's Los Angeles headquarters—"after I killed Kim Raver's husband." (Raver played Audrey Raines, a Defense Department operative who falls in love with Jack.) "Chloe asked me if I wanted to talk, and I just gave her a look. We laughed so hard when we did that, and then we just decided to keep it."
For many years, 24 has been written off in some parts as a right-wing pro-torture fantasy vehicle, a characterization that seemed confirmed when both Dick Cheney and Rush Limbaugh called it their favorite show. Accosted with such accusations, Sutherland, who calls himself a "deep-red-diaper baby," cites certain counterweights to this reputation. "We had the first African-American as a president in television history," he says. "We indicted a right-wing president and had him arrested. Explain to me how the show is right-wing." If you've seen 24, you know that Sutherland can be quite persuasive.
The producer Howard Gordon, who has written for the show since the first episode, also doesn't believe the criticism has been evenly distributed. "I'm of the mind that if we're going to get blamed for Gitmo and Abu Ghraib, then I have to insist that we also get credit for Barack Obama," he says. "24's been given an unfair rap. Frankly, I think the show has been used by people on both sides of the aisle to popularize and sensationalize some very real issues." Sutherland agrees, and even seems willing to consider the effect 24 might have had on Obama's run for the White House. "What's that great maxim from the Kevin Costner baseball film? I forget the title."
"Field of Dreams?"
"Yeah. If you build it, they will come."
Sutherland fully expects this season to be the best so far. "Jack has finally reached a point where he says: 'No, I won't. I won't take a bullet for this specific person just because that's my job.' " In previous seasons, he says, Bauer was apolitical in the way that the military is apolitical—they fight for both Democratic and Republican administrations. "But out of his huge disappointment at what this blind faith in his government has led to, his conscience has actually developed."
Ironically, it was the writer's strike that gave 24's producers the chance to look at the bigger picture: to think about plot twists and to deepen the show's conscience. "The relation between Kiefer Sutherland and Jack Bauer is a very close and complicated one," Gordon says. "So the idea of Jack Bauer being called upon to serve time for his conduct and of Kiefer, who actually had to serve time for his conduct—you know, this is not necessarily coincidental."
Sutherland spent much of the strike in jail, but back on the set, his efforts to arrange his sentence to minimize its impact on the show was not lost on the cast and crew. "He didn't want to put the production in jeopardy," Carlos Bernard says. "So he basically asked the judge to throw the book at him but make sure it didn't affect other people's lives or livelihoods."
For his part, Sutherland takes on the subject of his time served with surprising openness and humor. "I was told, you know, 'You'll have your own cell,' " he recalls. "But I didn't for the first two or three weeks; I had a cell mate. He got out—but not for long. He came back in pretty quick." Judging from the gleam in his eye, Sutherland—who tried to make the most of his time inside by catching up on reading and reflection—seems to believe he won't be reentering the system as quickly as his former bunk buddy.
But, of course, he has been widely noted for his sailor-on-shore-leave approach to alcohol. He favors J&B Scotch, and, in fact, can be seen in a photo widely distributed on the Internet at a Halloween celebration between DUIs dressed as a J&B bottle. He's also known for never missing a day of work, no matter the circumstances of the night before. Still, I couldn't help wondering if those 48 days gave him any trouble in this area. "My drinking was not a daily thing, so it wasn't an issue," Sutherland says. "And, oddly enough, neither was the smoking."
"You can't smoke in prison?"
"No. In the L.A. municipal jails, there's no yard. There's no smoking. The lights never go out, 24/7. You can't cover anything. You can't even put your head under a blanket. All the cells have cameras in them." After this brief recitation of horrors, Sutherland shivers, then brightens unexpectedly at his prospects for reform. "For me, the smoking was the thing. I was very glad to know that I could quit. And one day soon I will." He picks up his Camels, and we head outside again.
Out in the sunlight, I notice his beat-up cowboy boots for the first time—paint-splattered, the steel toe peeking out of the worn leather. It's precisely this beleaguered Everyman quality that you can't miss whenever Sutherland faces the camera as Jack Bauer. "He's a normal guy who never gets it all right, you know?" the actor says, raising his gashed eyebrow. "He's a normal guy—aside from some unique skills." He fires up a last cigarette and that old-school rascal grin.
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