Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Kiefer Sutherland’s decision to pursue a career in acting may have had more to do with his mother, Shirley Douglas, than his father, but sharing a last name with Donald certainly didn’t hurt him any when he first arrived in Hollywood. Films like Stand By Me, The Lost Boys, and Young Guns helped turn Sutherland into one of the most recognizable young actors of the ’80s. While the ’90s held some peaks and valleys for his career, he found himself experiencing a career renaissance in the new millennium as a result of playing Jack Bauer on 24. Currently, Sutherland can be seen in the new western Forsaken, which hits home video on March 29 and marks the first time that Donald and Kiefer have played father and son in a film.
Truth Or Consequences, N.M. (1997)—“Curtis Freley,” director
The Confession (2011)—“The Confessor”
Forsaken (2016)—“John Henry Clayton”
Kiefer Sutherland: Forsaken is the project of a lifetime. I’ve wanted to work with my father for 30 years, and I’m really grateful that I finally had the opportunity, and it ended up—the experience and, I believe, the film—better than I could ever have hoped for.
A.V. Club: You must be tired of people asking, “What took so long?”
KS: Well, you know, I think my perspective was that I just kept waiting for this perfect piece of material to kind of land on my desk. What I ended up doing was kind of crafting an idea for a story, presenting it to a writer—a dear friend of mine, Brad Mirman—and he ended up writing a beautiful script. I should’ve done that a lot earlier.
AVC: You worked with Brad Mirman first on Truth or Consequences, N.M, right?
KS: Truth or Consequences, N.M. was the first time, and then a thing called The Confession, an internet series that we did five or six years ago. Yeah, we’ve worked together a few times.
AVC: And you’ve worked with [director] Jon Cassar a fair amount as well.
KS: Yes! Jon and I worked on 24 for 10 years together.
AVC: So how was it to finally work with your father? You probably had the whole father-son relationship down, but what was it like to square off against him as an actor?
KS: Well, yeah, but the father-son thing, that’s a separate thing. This film was not about that. This was a film about two actors wanting to try and tell a story… and taking advantage of the fact that we looked like a father and son. [Laughs.] It was amazing. I think one of the things I was most interested in finding out was how differently we approached our work. And my reality was that we didn’t approach it very differently at all, which was funny. When I was about 15 years old, I saw a headshot that he had done, and his hands were in exactly the same place as mine were in the headshot that I was using at the time. And I didn’t grow up with my dad, so it was always very funny to me, and always has been, what an important part DNA plays in one’s life. And that was a great example of that. So, yeah, we approached the work, at least, very similarly. I think that we are very different actors, but it was cool for me to see that.
AVC: You clearly have an appreciation for westerns, as Forsaken was in no way your first one. Do you enjoy venturing into period pieces like that?
KS: It’s not so much the period pieces that I like, but westerns just thematically, as a genre, have kind of a few tent poles that I really admire, and one of them is this perception that life was simpler back then. And with that perception goes that people were good or people were bad. You survived by your strengths or you perished by your weaknesses. So that’s a very simplistic backdrop that ultimately allows you, I think, to tell complicated stories. There are very few films that I’ve ever seen in my life that would be as silent or vacant as something like Jeremiah Johnson, and that to me was unbelievably captivating. You can see the same about [The Outlaw] Josey Wales: there’s very little dialogue, and yet it contains such a deep, rich story. I’ve always thought of the western as American storytelling at its best.
Max Dugan Returns (1983)—“Bill”
The Bay Boy (1984)—“Donald Campbell”
AVC: It looks like your first on-camera role was in Max Dugan Returns.
KS: Um…I don’t even consider that part of my career. I mean, I was an extra on the street and said hello to Matthew Broderick as he was walking into school. That was the extent of my work in that, so I don’t really consider that work.
AVC: Did that come about just because you were out visiting your father?
KS: Yeah, I was visiting my dad, and I went to visit him on the set, and became friendly with Matthew Broderick. Matthew was from New York and didn’t know anybody out there, and I was just a year or two younger than he was, so we just hung out together. And then they needed somebody to do that part, and I hopped in and waved “hello” and said, “Hey, man!” as he walked into school. [Laughs.] And that was that!
AVC: How did you find yourself in a career as an actor in the first place? The DNA was there, as you said, but was it something you’d always wanted to do?
KS: My mother was an extraordinary theater actor in Canada, and when I would finish school, I would go to the theater. I would do my homework, we would have dinner there, she would do her play, and then me and my sister would go home. So I grew up in it that way. And for me, I just always liked the company. The people who hung around her were amazing storytellers, whether it was actors or crew. They were just exciting people. And I knew that they were different when I would go see a friend or stay at someone else’s house. It just wasn’t as cool. So I always loved the theater, and that’s where I started: at a theater up in Canada. And I ended up doing a film in Canada called The Bay Boy, which enabled me to come to the States, and my career started that way. But, really, even when I was doing Stand By Me, I had still done much more theater than I had film. And then obviously over time that changed, but my introduction to acting as a career and everything else really came out of my experiences growing up with my mom.
AVC: How did The Bay Boy come about? Was it an audition?
KS: It was about three months of auditions. [Laughs.] Daniel Petrie cast me. He auditioned actors from Vancouver all day to Nova Scotia, so it was a long, long process. The thing I remember about it was it is not all of the auditions, which were numerous, but when I actually got the film. I was living in a basement apart in Toronto, and the ceiling was so low, and I was so excited when I got it that I knew I had to walk outside to jump up and down because otherwise I would’ve hit my head on the apartment that I was living in, which always made laugh. But I look back on that as one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had, because for me, I’ve always thought of it as the moment where I felt my life started.
AVC: And not a bad transition to having Liv Ullmann as your mom on screen.
KS: No, it was phenomenal! And Peter Donat played my father, from ACT. He just had extraordinary actors in that film. And Daniel Petrie had directed Fort Apache The Bronx, Raisin In The Sun, The Dollmaker… It was a really big deal. He had come back to Canada to tell his own personal life story. But he was as big a director in the U.S. as you could find at that time.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)—“Special Agent Sam Stanley”
KS: I think David Lynch is a very cool guy… and it was kind of a transitional time for me. [Pauses.] It was an odd time for me, working-wise and personally. I had kind of gone through a lot that year. I remember being really grateful that David Lynch had actually even thought of casting me in it, because I was a huge fan of his. And I wish I had been more familiar with the television show when I had done the film.
AVC: You had the advantage with your scenes where the only person from the television show that you were working with was Lynch himself.
KS: Yes. Absolutely. You know, I think had I known the show a little better and known how quirky it was—even though I think my character was quite quirky—I might’ve gone a little farther with it.
AVC: How was it working with Harry Dean Stanton?
KS: I’ve worked with Harry Dean a few times. Harry Dean always makes me laugh. I mean, he’s a journeyman actor. He’s always reminding me of Dennis Hopper, in kind of that loose yet quick-witted way. Harry Dean… I mean, he’s an icon. And I was smart enough to know that when I worked with him. [Laughs.]
Beat (2000)—“William S. Burroughs”
KS: I loved that character. I mean, I was a huge fan of Burroughs to begin with. I loved my experience shooting in Mexico. I’ll never forget, I had dinner with Dennis Hopper before I went down there, and he said, “Be careful, man, when you go down there.” And I said, “Don’t worry, I’ll watch my back.” And he said, “No, you’re not getting me. Be careful.” I said, “I will.” He said, “No. Be careful.” And I said, “Well, Dennis, I don’t get what you mean.” And he said, “Well, when I went down there, I fell in love with it so much, I didn’t come back for 20 years. And I regret that.” And it was very funny: I was lucky that he said it, because I had such an amazing time down in Mexico—we shot in Mexico City and Merilia—that I remember at one point thinking, “I could live down here! I don’t need to go back to L.A.!” And then I remembered Dennis saying that… and, like, three days later I’m on a train going home. [Laughs.] So it actually ended up being really great advice.
AVC: Burroughs had passed away by the time you did the film.
KS: He had just passed away.
AVC: Had you ever encountered him at any point prior to that?
KS: I had not, no. The closest I got to him was [watching] Drugstore Cowboy.
AVC: Did you do any additional research beyond what you already knew about him when you set off to do the film?
KS: I did a little more research within the context of the whole Beat movement, because that really wasn’t my thing, you know? But, again, the script was really, really well-written. And Burroughs was a guy and a character that fascinated me. I think maybe the thing I was most focused on was that he had such an interesting speech pattern. And because he had done so many live poetry readings, that was something I could try and tap into. He also had such a specific gait and walk. So his physicality was probably the thing I researched most.
KS: Again, an amazing experience. Lars Von Trier is one of my favorite people on the planet. And I liked the character. I thought the character was interesting in the context of... I consider myself to be a relatively helpful person as well, and there’s an interesting line when hope starts to become the way you actually mask or hide from what’s really happening. So I found it to be a very cerebral character for me, and my experience with Lars Von Trier and everything else was really cerebral as well.
AVC: It’s very much a different sort of role from what the average 24 fan would necessarily think of you playing. Was that a deliberate attempt to step outside the box, or was it just something that interested you?
KS: No, I think when you get the opportunity to work with someone like Lars Von Trier and the rest of that cast... I mean, you know, Alexander Skarsgård, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, just to work with those actors, you take that opportunity when you get it.
L.A. Confidential (2003)—“Lt. Jack Vincennes”
KS: Um…can’t even remember it.
KS: Nah, it was a pilot. You know, it never got picked up. To be honest with you, I couldn’t tell you.
AVC: I didn’t know if you had any particular recollections of trying to step into the shoes of an established character, given that it fell on the heels of the film.
KS: No, because I wasn’t trying to do a play or do what Kevin Spacey did. I was trying to do my own thing with it. It’s just, you know, it was 20 years ago, and it did not end up becoming a big part of my life, so I just couldn’t tell you.
Freeway (1996)—“Bob Wolverton”
KS: Oh. Uh… [Starts to laugh.] I think that was one of the most freeing experiences I’ve had as an actor, because the character was just so wrong and so awful that you could kind of just let go and have some fun with it and go with it.
The great memory that I have of that was when it came out, it was the only film ever to be sold to HBO that HBO put out into theaters. And I remember my daughter was at the University Of San Francisco at the time, and I think that’s the only time she ever called me and said, “I saw this film you were in: Freeway. You were really cool.” And so for 10 minutes in my daughter’s eyes, I was cool. [Laughs.] Because she and all her college friends went and saw it, almost in the same vein that you would go and see The Rocky Horror Picture Show, she thought I was cool for 10 minutes, which I will hold onto forever.
AVC: When we talked to Brooke Shields for this feature, she said she loved working with you, but that it was kind of a disconcerting role for her.
KS: Yes, I think it was probably disconcerting for everybody but myself. And maybe Reese Witherspoon. [Laughs.] But we both had a lot of fun with it. But like I said, that’s why I refer to it as a really freeing experience: with a character like that, you’ve got to just let go and let it be what it is.
Amazing Stories (1985)—“Static”
KS: Oh, man, that was the most exciting time of my life! I was 18 years old in Los Angeles, and Steven Spielberg had just hired me. I got to work with Kevin Costner and Casey Siemaszko. Great actors. Yeah, just a really exciting time. I can’t say more about it than that. It was just a thrill to be doing it.
AVC: For any flaws that Amazing Stories may have had, that episode was one for the ages.
KS: Well, thank you, man. And for Steven Spielberg to have directed that one… Again, it just felt like one of the coolest, luckiest things on the planet.
Dark City (1998)—“Dr. Daniel B. Schreber”
KS: One of the most enjoyable performances for me. I think Alex Proyas is a genius. When I look back on my father’s career, I can see… You know, he had done cinema, certainly. If you’re going to break cinema, film, and movies apart, very rarely to you get the opportunity to even think that you’ve been a part of cinema. My father’s would be Don’t Look Now, [Bernardo] Bertolucci’s 1900, and [Federico] Fellini’s Casanova. Well, the only two films that I’ve done that I think would even qualify for that category would be Dark City and the Lars Von Trier film we just talked about.
AVC: The visuals in Dark City are staggering.
KS: Oh, yeah. And Alex Proyas wrote that as a comic book when he was 15 years old!
KS: Yeah! Which I’ve always found really impressive.
AVC: How did you come up with your delivery in the film? Was that Proyas’ direction, or was that your own choice?
KS: No, I had a meeting with him in a hotel lobby, and I really wanted to do the film, and I just started riffing in the bar. And I stood up, and I had a pretty good memory, and I just remembered a bunch of the dialogue, and I started saying, “What if he did this? Or what if he did that?” And I started kind of taking a bunch of actors from the ’40s and just kind of came up with just this very weird, bizarre thing. I think it was just based off of the conversation we were having. And I kind of auditioned for him right there, and I got lucky, and he went for it. But it really was just riffing, trying to do something bizarre enough that I caught his interest. [Laughs.]
The Lost Boys (1987)—“David”
KS: The funny thing about that film for me is that it’s the number-one thing that people come up and say, “Man, I grew up with that,” or, “That film mattered to me,” or whatever. I was 19 when we made that, and I wish I’d been a little older or a little smarter, because... [Hesitates.] I wish we had known what we were doing when we were doing it. You know? It’s been such a part of my life, and I wish in the process of making it I had enjoyed it a little more.
Young Guns (1988) / Young Guns II (1990)—“Josiah Gordon ‘Doc’ Spurlock”
KS: The first Young Guns was the most fun I’ve ever had on a film. We were shooting in Santa Fe, New Mexico, most of our stuff was in the day, and it was winter, so there was only eight hours of daylight, so we had a very quick schedule. I had never gone to college, I left school at a really early age, and all of a sudden I’ve got six really great friends hanging out with me every night. And we were a really tight group, and we just had an absolute blast.
I think the second film is probably a better film, because I think we didn’t have as much fun on it. [Laughs.] But the first one was an absolute blast. And it was nice for me to play a character that wasn’t a complete asshole!
Renegades (1989)—“Buster McHenry”
AVC: Between the Young Guns films, you and Lou Diamond Phillips had the opportunity to go it on your own with Renegades.
KS: Lou is one of my dearest friends and one of the most generous and kind people I know. And we had a lot of fun. My daughter was about seven months old when we were shooting that film. And we were still very young. I was maybe 21? It was just an exciting time in our lives. We shot it back in Toronto, which is where I’m from. So for all of those reasons, I remember it really clearly and fondly.
Corner Gas (2008)—himself
AVC: Speaking of Canada, how did you come to make your appearance on Corner Gas?
KS: [Laughs.] I think my mom talked me into it. My mom was a fan of the show and knew the people that were writing it, and in Canada, the CBC is a big family for actors and everything else. So they had asked, so she let me know that. And I did it.
AVC: Is that actually her in the clip?
KS: I don’t know. I never saw the finished version of it. It might be.
AVC: She’s not on camera, but you hear her voice offscreen.
KS: Then I would have to say it probably is. [Laughs.]
Flashback (1990)—“John Buckner”
The Last Days Of Frankie The Fly (1996)—“Joey”
AVC: We were speaking of Dennis Hopper earlier. The first time you worked with him onscreen was in Flashback. Had you know him at all prior to that?
KS: I had not. It was the first time I had gotten to work with him, and I admired him. He was one of those incredibly gracious men that obviously, with me being a young actor and him being Dennis Hopper, was going to get that kind of adulation from me. And he kind of bypassed it almost immediately, made me feel incredibly comfortable, and we became friends. And there was a generosity of spirit that Dennis had that I can’t say about many people. He was just really, really special.
AVC: He made that film particularly fun, just because of the way it had him riffing on his own reputation from the ’60s.
KS: And trust me, he had a blast with it. He thought it was hysterical. It was the one time I worked with an actor where he’d finish takes and start laughing hysterically about what he had just done. So that was kind of refreshing to see.
AVC: You worked with him again on The Last Days Of Frankie The Fly.
KS: That’s right, yeah. It was one of those independent films that we thought could be really cool, and we both kind of acted our hearts out with it. But, again, working with Dennis was always so cool, because he was just such an earnest actor, you know? You could be doing the phone book, and he’d find something about it that he could make cool. He was really quite a genius about that.
24 (2001-10) / 24: Live Another Day (2014)—“Jack Bauer”
AVC: Dennis Hopper also found his way into the first season of 24. Was that a case where you pitched the idea of him being on the show, or was that someone else?
KS: No, I wanted him to do it. Dennis and I were friends, and when I had brought it up, it was for any kind of role. And he ended up playing the bad guy, and I don’t know whose genius idea it was to make him Eastern European, but that unfortunately was an afterthought, and I don’t think a very good one. But I think Dennis was such a great evil guy. I mean, when you take a look at the work he did in Speed... I mean, he was just fantastic in that film. So those were the reasons that I wanted him to do it.
AVC: When I posted on social media that you were going to be doing a Random Roles interview, one of my friends said, “Ask him about his first 24 action figure.”
KS: Ah. Yes. [Snorts.] Tell your friend I laughed. Okay, so I was sent the first action figure, and they said, “Have a look at this, and you need to approve it, so if it’s all right, let us know and we’ll make them.” And I sent a message back after I finished work that day and I had seen it, and I said, “Yeah, it’s fine.” And then I took it out, and I took it with a friend of mine, and we went to a bar, and we got a little drunk, and we took pictures of Jack Bauer—the little Jack Bauer doll—drinking and stuff like that. And finally, you know, we got a little lit… and then we decided to light him on fire. [Laughs.]
So we lit him on fire ’til he melted in a puddle in the parking lot. Took pictures of that, too. And the next day, I got a call saying, “Oh, we’re so glad that you approved the doll! Just send it back to us, and we’ll get underway!” And I went, “What?” And they said, “Yeah, no, it’s a prototype. We need it back. It took them eight months to do it.” And I was, like, “Uh-oh.” And, uh, I said, “I think someone stole it.” [Laughs.] And it was another year before the doll came out.
AVC: 24 obviously ended up resulted in a career renaissance for you. Did you sense from the beginning, even if only because the unique real-time, hour-by-hour format, that it had the potential to be something big?
KS: Absolutely not. No. I didn’t think it was going to get picked up. [Laughs.] And neither did anybody else. Neither did the writers! And it had to get picked up twice: There’s the pilot, which got picked up, and I didn’t think that was going to happen. But I remember going up to Joel Surnow, the creator, when it got picked up after episode 13 and we had to do the next 11, and I said congratulations to him. And he looked at me, white as a ghost, and said, “I don’t know if we can do this!” So I don’t think anybody expected it to become what it became. Having said that, once it did get picked up, I had a deep respect for all the other people, because they all put their foot to the floor and went for it. And for me, it was the most exciting 10 years I’ve had in my 30-year career so far.
AVC: There’s a Jack-less incarnation coming up. Are you looking forward to being on the sidelines and watching 24 for a change?
KS: Yeah! I think it’s going to be really cool. I’ve said from the very beginning that I’ve always thought that the show was the real star. The idea is extraordinary, putting a time element in the context of a thriller, and I’ve read the first script, and I think it’s going to be really cool.
AVC: Out of curiosity, at any point in your life now when you say “damn it,” do you do a double take when you realize what you’ve said?
KS: No. No, I just say “fuck.” [Laughs.]
Last Light (1993)—“Denver Bayliss,” director
AVC: In closing, do you have a favorite directorial effort of your own? And beyond that, is there a favorite project in general that you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
KS: As far as films I’ve directed, I would say Truth Or Consequences, N.M. That, and Last Light. Those were the two films that I directed that I was really happy with. And in general... [Pauses.] I think there’s probably a few of them. But, you know, getting or not getting the love they deserve is one thing. I think some projects you have more hope for, but then I think generally the process of making them is just so difficult. The independent film world is kind of designed to break your heart. And that’s why 24 was so important to me. I mean, 24 was important to me on many levels, but as an actor, the process of making that show wasn’t difficult because it had the support of its studio and its network. And then all of a sudden you’re making something that 50 million people are watching a week, and opposed to 20 people going to see a film that really mattered to you. I just think that over the years, I’ve made 70 or 80 films, 12 of them I can tell you did really well, and the rest were a struggle. And those are heartbreaking odds. So I think just in general there’s a bunch of films that mattered to me that didn’t reach their potential, and on some level you have to assume responsibility for that. And I think over the years that gets difficult. So when 24 became successful, that was just a real breath of fresh air. It did wonders for my confidence.