It took 30 years for Kiefer Sutherland to land the co-star of his dreams: his father Donald Sutherland, with whom he trades barbs and bonding moments in the indie Western Forsaken. Father and son have matching Emmys, Golden Globes, and a notoriously strained history that some will inevitably see translated onscreen in the tale of a retired gunslinger who returns home to his disapproving father after a lengthy estrangement.
“I’d wanted to work with my father since the beginning of my career,” Sutherland told The Daily Beast on a recent afternoon in Hollywood, hours before premiering the drama at the Gene Autry Museum. “He really did represent, for me, the kind of actor I wanted to be. The versatility that he had in his craft, the decision-making and variety from character to character, was always really unique and different.”
“The stories he was interested in telling, I was always interested by. Gene Hackman and Bobby Duvall and my father were those kinds of actors that I always respected,” added the younger Sutherland, 49, no slouch himself. Since making his screen debut in 1983’s Max Dugan Returns (which also starred Donald), the veteran of over 70 film and TV credits earned big-name status with films like The Lost Boys, Young Guns, Flatliners, A Few Good Men, and A Time To Kill, and saved America for nine seasons on Fox’s ticking clock thriller 24.
But the right project never seemed to come along. So Sutherland commissioned the script for Forsaken from writer Brad Mirman about John Henry Clayton, a scarred Civil War veteran trying to make amends for his life of violence by reconnecting with his widower father. As the two men wrestle with the wounds of their shared past, Clayton resists returning to his old ways to stop a gang of thugs from terrorizing the town.
“This is not a story about my father or I, but I think if you’re going to do this you have to take advantage of what you can bring to the table as an actor,” said Sutherland, who’s admitted to going years without speaking to his father in the past. “The fact that the father and son are very estranged at the beginning of the movie—that this is a journey of reconciliation, and acceptance, and forgiveness—those are all things that I think were important.”
“I personally don’t have a single male friend who hasn’t wrestled with those issues with their father,” he added. “I don’t have a male friend who hasn’t wrestled with them with their own son, too.”
To make Forsaken, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and opens February 19, Sutherland teamed up with Emmy-winning 24 producer Jon Cassar, who makes his feature debut with the Western. Sutherland called in favors from old friends, too, including Three Musketeers co-star Michael Wincott who simmers as a rival hired gun named “Gentleman” Dave Turner, and Demi Moore as Mary Alice, the woman Clayton left behind.
“I cannot speak highly enough of their generosity,” said Sutherland. “It was a small movie. They certainly weren’t getting paid what they deserve to get paid. And they did it as a friend. They knew how important this was to me and I will be in debt to these people for the rest of my life, and not in a negative way.”
While 24 is moving ahead without Jack Bauer, Sutherland says he’s given producers notes on the spin-off script, “which I think is fantastic.” He laughs at the idea that anyone could have taken the series’ spy thriller dramatics and Bauer’s penchant for torture tactics as an endorsement of extreme counterterrorism measures, as conservatives did at the height of the show’s run.
“In real life, I believe in due process!” laughed Sutherland. “You cannot coerce a confession out of someone by beating the crap out of them. We are also responsible as a society, and certainly within the context of this country we have a moral responsibility to set the standard of what is acceptable and appropriate.”
“I’m very much against waterboarding and electric torture and anything of that ilk,” he added. “I also think that historically it’s not proven to be very effective with regards to garnering any kind of substantive information.”
The depiction of torture tactics on 24, he says, is less political statement than an illustration of the desperate conditions in which its heroes and villains find themselves.
“We used it as a dramatic device to heighten a situation, the tension of something happening at this moment—I need this information now and this is what I’m prepared to do to you to get it,” Sutherland offered. “But it’s a television show! It should never have been confused or should be confused with reality. I would love to go see Romeo and Juliet any night of the week. It doesn’t mean I endorse poisoning yourself or stabbing yourself to death out of a loss of love. It’s a play!”
Sutherland is poised to get even more political in his next series for ABC. He’s an executive producer on the upcoming Designated Survivor, in which he’ll play a Cabinet member who’s reluctantly appointed President of the United States of America after a deadly attack during the State of the Union wipes out everyone else in line ahead of him.
“It was not something I was looking to go do, another television show. I got about 25 pages through it and I was like, oh shit,” he smiled. “But it’s a good feeling.”
“It’s a show about three really distinct storylines,” Sutherland explained. “There’s a family aspect to the show—this family overnight all of a sudden becomes the First Family. What does that do to their children, to their marriage, to them as people individually, under this kind of pressure? Any family in our history that has become the First Family has had years of working up to that transition. So that’s one aspect we’ll be dealing with on the show.”
The conspiracy thriller will also explore “the domestic and geopolitical realities of America in that vulnerable estate, with a president who had no ambition to become president, and in many ways is not prepared to be president,” he continued. “And another aspect of the show is the investigation of finding out who did this, and what is the appropriate response?”
As show about a president that premieres during an election year, Designated Survivor will address the issues facing the country in real life, he says.
“I think inherently it will, because in all honesty the issues this country is facing today are the same issues this country was facing a hundred years ago—really, since the Civil War. Whether it’s equality, racism, equal pay for women, equal rights for women, terrorism of some sort, a threat from another country, economic issues—those are staples of government. Those are staples of what every country is dealing with on some level.”
Sutherland technically can’t vote in the States where he lives but is not a U.S. citizen, or back home in Canada where he’s not a resident. But he’s keenly watching the 2016 Presidential circus, and compares Republican candidate Donald Trump to one of the most controversial presidential hopefuls in American history.
“This has been one of the most unusual political cycles I’ve seen in my lifetime,” he said, throwing back to the 1968 contest in which blustery Alabama governor George Wallace ran (and lost to Richard Nixon) on a segregationist platform that preyed on the anxieties of the American public.
“You have to go back to that first Nixon campaign where [George] Wallace managed to garner [nine million] Republican votes spewing kind of similar rhetoric to that of Donald Trump. But that’s why he didn’t get the nomination and why he ultimately lost the election.”
“In my lifetime I have watched things, in the last ten, fifteen years, move backwards which is unfortunate,” he said. “The ease with which racist comments fly on the Internet, and how they’re accepted—it’s a crime in this country, the fact that it’s not enforced by any of the major carriers, Google, that those people aren’t summarily dismissed from being able to use the Internet.”
Despite all that, “I have to say I am optimistic,” said Sutherland, looking toward the 2016 election. “Optimistic may not be the right word. I’m hopeful, always, that things will move forward.”