A Conversation With Kiefer Sutherland
Kiefer Sutherland is a man of many talents. He’s starred in iconic films and TV shows, for which he’s won numerous awards. And, Kiefer is an accomplished musician whose second album, Reckless & Me, was recently released to rave reviews from fans and critics alike. In addition to being in 100+ movies, Kiefer has performed more than 300 concerts over the past two-and-a-half years. His creativity and passions drive him to express himself in unique ways, and Kiefer was kind enough to let me interview him about his impressive career.
You’ve said what you love about acting and making music is you get to tell stories. What parallels and differences do you see when you compare these two forms of storytelling?
The parallels are significant. Getting together with a group of actors, a cinematographer and a director, you’ve got a script. You go, “OK, what’s the best way to tell this story?” In music, you write a song, get together a band, and you try to figure out, “What’s the best way to tell this story?,” with the story being the song. The parallels, kind of, end there. One of the funny things is, I thought with 35 years of performing on stage and behind the camera as an actor that I would have a level of comfort doing this. I made the terrible miscalculation of realizing that the songs were really personal. They are private moments in my life, so that took a while to lean into, for me. We were doing a show in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which was the first time we weren’t playing in a tough bar. The people were seated. For whatever reason, I decided in that show – I was playing a song – I think it was “Truth In Your Eyes” from my first record, about someone who had passed away early in my life and this was my way of saying “hello” to her. I performed that song, and the response from the audience was so incredibly generous. That was the beginning of the kind of storytelling of the songs, for me. It became, for me, one of the most freeing experiences that I’ve ever had. I was then, and I am to this day, taken aback by the incredible generosity that I have experienced from the audiences that have come to see our shows. We played over 300 shows in the last two-and-a-half years, so it’s not like we’re just doing this here and there. It’s been a consistent thing. I’ve been really moved by that. I used to make a joke that people were coming to see our show to see a NASCAR wreck and our job was to not wreck the car. But the truth is people come to our shows because they want us to be good and they want us to do well. Maybe I’m a little too cynical for that. It really took me aback, and I’ve been moved by what has come to be known as the experience of us touring. As I look back on my life, it’s become one of the most enjoyable things I’ve experienced.
Your new album, Reckless & Me, is brilliant. How did you go about approaching it differently than your first?
Thank you so much! I think one of the nice things is because we were touring so much and the first record was received so nicely, I never got into – and I think it would be a paralyzing moment – I never got into that mindset of, “What are we going to do to make this record better?” I think because we were touring so much, I was focused on writing songs that would make a better live set. Songs like “This Is How It’s Done” or “Something You Love,” those were up-tempo songs. So, I started writing with that kind of line in mind. Then, obviously, things happen to you in your life and songs like “Saskatchewan” and “Song for a Daughter” come out of that. I was really focused on writing songs that would give us a better live set. Then, you start writing those and, all of a sudden, you’ve got 10 or 12 songs that you’ve recorded. That’s when you pick your head up and say, “Oh my gosh! I actually really like the way these songs fit together.” But it literally was chasing a live set that informed, for me, the writing of the record.
How does the instant feedback of a live crowd at a concert compare to the praise you receive for one of your acting roles?
Well, I did That Championship Season on Broadway and there’s rules when you go to the theater. You’re supposed to sit in your seat. You’re supposed to be quiet during the performance. If you like the performance, you can show your appreciation at the end. Playing a concert is the opposite. From the first downbeat, we want you up, we want you making noise, we want you involved, we want you to have the time of your life. It’s night and day. The thing, again, that I found so surprising is if you’re about to perform a song and you say, “Listen, man, this is where I was at when I wrote this song, and this is what I was going through, and this is the reason I’m playing the song and taking up your time,” the responses that I’ve received from those stories and songs are the most immediate and most generous responses I’ve experienced as a performer. When I talk about how much I’ve fallen in love with touring, I mean it, really. It’s a reaction to the audiences that we’ve played to. And, again, 300+ shows in two-and-a-half years is a lot of folks. I’ll always be grateful for that.
I read that you auditioned for the role of Glen in A Nightmare on Elm Street, which, ultimately, went to Johnny Depp and was his feature film debut. What was that audition experience like for you?
No, I’ve been asked that question a couple times.
It’s not accurate?
I don’t recall that. Granted, in the early days I’d go out on a lot of auditions. Even when I was going out, A Nightmare on Elm Street was a really big film – the first one – and I certainly wasn’t around for the audition of the first one. I don’t remember that. However, I did go on auditions for other big films, like Back To The Future. Even now, and I’m friends with Michael J. Fox, I’m like, “Oh, man, I wish I’d gotten that part.” But I don’t remember going out for A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Clearly, you’ve had your fair share of iconic films from that era that you’ve been in. One of those is Stand By Me. What was that experience like? Did you realize, at the time, that you were creating something special?
Not at all. I had been in New York for almost a year, and I had turned down a soap opera in the very early days of when I got there. You have to remember I was, maybe, 17-years-old. After I turned down that soap opera, I never got offered another job. So, for a year I was thinking, “What a terrible mistake I made.” Then some not-cool things happened in New York. A friend of mine was killed and a couple other things, so I just got out of there. I moved to Los Angeles and lived in my car for a while. Then I went on the audition for Stand By Me and it’s the only audition I’ve been on where I went and did the reading and I was hired right on the spot. Rob Reiner gave me the job right there. Even thinking about it now, I don’t think you’ve ever seen a happier person in your life. I think, even as a 17-year-old, I skipped down the street, which I’m sure was pretty embarrassing. And then we went and made the film, and we made it in Eugene, Oregon. My dad had done Animal House there, and I knew that because he was talked about still, even 15 years later, in that town. I just remember being so happy to have a job, so I wasn’t aware of how significant the film was going to become. Again, I was just so happy to have a job, and I really enjoyed working with everybody on it. It was a really special time for me.
Another film of yours that still gets talked about today because it continues to resonate with generations of people is The Lost Boys. What are your thoughts on that experience?
I auditioned a few times for Joel Schumacher and then he gave me the job. At the end of the day, at my age, you take from it what you can. I’m still really good friends with Jason Patric and I still keep in touch with Alex Winter and Billy Wirth. If I were to describe the feelings I have for Stand By Me, The Lost Boys, and even Young Guns, it’s that I wish I had been a little more mature or older when I was doing those films to realize how lucky I was. Those films have lasted and I run into people all the time that tell me they’ve watched one of those movies 30 times or whatever. I was just so lucky to have been given those opportunities and that’s what I think of the most when it comes to these films. And I think of the friendships that have endured 35 years from those experiences, and those are the moments I’m grateful for. But I do wish that at the time I had been aware of how lucky I was because I think at 22-years-old I was thinking, “Oh, OK, this is what my life is going to be like.” You take them for granted and, certainly, by the time I hit 30, the work had disappeared for a while, which is when I finally realized how lucky I was.
You also had the chance to work with Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men. I imagine that must have been an amazing experience to work with someone as talented as him, right?
I’ll tell you a story. On A Few Good Men, Jack Nicholson was doing the final speech, where he says, “You don’t want the truth.” The only other actors that were working at that time on the set were Tom Cruise and Kevin Bacon. Everybody else had the day off. Every single actor was in the gallery that day to watch Jack Nicholson do that speech. He did it in two takes. The only reason they did two takes was because Rob Reiner wanted to justify why he had scheduled the entire day to do this one scene. They did this second take and Rob Reiner, to his credit, stood up and said, “Well, you’re never going to get better than that! Everybody’s got the day off.” People stood up and gave Jack Nicholson a standing ovation. I have never, in the 100 movies I’ve made, ever seen that again in my life. He’s a badass mofo.
What was it like being able to star alongside your father in A Time To Kill and later on in Forsaken?
I think one of the funniest experiences I had – one of my favorite movies is Don’t Look Now, starring my father. Regardless of him being in it, it’s one of my favorite films. I’m a huge fan of my father as an actor and I think I’ve managed to separate that from my relationship with him as his son. When we were working together on Forsaken, there was a moment where I caught myself watching him work and they had to call “cut” because, obviously, I had a line coming up and I forgot that I was even in the scene because I was taken away by watching him do what he does. That never happens to me as an actor. I’m focused and I do my job, and I do that. But working with him, at different moments, I’ve been so moved by what he was doing that I would forget what I was there to do. As I look back on Forsaken, those are the kind of moments that I still smile about now.
Many people adore you for your work on 24. Looking back on it, what does that show and that experience mean to you?
That one is just so special. I did that for 10 years of my life. I’ve got a picture of my daughter in grade six when we started the show and I’ve got a picture of her graduating from NYU at the end of it. It represented a really long period of my life. Through the course of that show, I think there were 40-some-odd marriages and 30-some-odd children born. It always sounds trite when people talk about films and say, “We were a family.” That’s a short experience. It’s about three or four months. When you do a TV show for 10 years and you’re with the same camera operator five days a week, 14 hours a day, they become your dancing partners. The thing I remember most about that show is not an actual scene or the show itself but the cast and crew and the time we spent together. We’re still friends to this day. We still have get-togethers and barbecues, comprised of 40 members of the crew and cast, getting together to say “hello” again. We do that more than a couple times a year. It really felt like a new family that you get to have for the rest of your life.
What’s the future look like for Jack Bauer and would you ever reprise that role?
It’s the one thing I’ve done that I’ve learned not to say “no” to. When we finished the eighth season, Howard Gordon, who was the lead writer for 24, we both said, “No, it’s done.” Then we went and did a ninth season. I miss playing Jack a lot. I miss that character and I loved that show. If someone were to come up with an idea and the story was right, I would probably be the first one in.
Professional wrestlers often say it’s much more enjoyable to play a villain than a hero. What are your thoughts on being a protagonist compared to an antagonist and which one do you prefer?
I think an antagonist is often written better. My theory on that is when a writer gets to write the bad guy, they don’t think that’s them so they have a, kind of, freedom to write and be really imaginative and creative. In most cases, my experience has been that those characters are often written better. Having said that, yeah, those characters are a blast to play. David in The Lost Boys is a great example. The really hard one I had to do is Robert Doob in Eye For An Eye. That was the toughest experience I ever had as an actor. It’s a double-edged sword. But I do believe that writers find a real freedom in writing the guy in the black hat than they do the guy in the white hat. If you get really lucky and you get to play a guy like Jack Bauer, which is a bit of both, then you hit the pot of gold.