Kiefer Sutherland: ‘I don’t see myself going back to 24’
The sight of Kiefer Sutherland on screen holding a gun to a man’s head is not unusual. He spent nine series as Jack Bauer in 24 doing little else. But the sight of Kiefer Sutherland holding a gun to Stephen Fry’s head while Fry is lying on top of him wearing a Santa outfit, definitely is.
“He’s a big fella,” says Sutherland, with a gravelly laugh at the recollection. “I think he stands about 6’ 4” and he’s built – he’s not wire skinny. So when he landed on me I think the two of us laughed the first time. In fact, there were a couple of moments where we had to really focus because situations made us laugh so much.”
Just as you don’t think of Kiefer Sutherland with Stephen Fry on top of him, you don’t think of him in a comedy either. But Marked is a comedy, a standalone half-hour in Sky’s Playhouse Presents strand. It sees Sutherland play a middle-aged, browbeaten, debt-laden nebbish called James. When he is offered a “hit” to take out his neighbour’s archenemy it’s money he cannot refuse, but his efforts to do the deed soon descend in to a high – and festive – farce.
“I thought there was a real sweetness to this – it’s distinctly English in tone but there are aspects of It’s a Wonderful Life, too. Plus it had a real earnest kind of Christmas style to it, in the sense that it’s a time to take stock of what you have as opposed to what you want. And I thought there was an opportunity to be funny – which is not something I get to do very often.”
You don’t expect sweetness and humour from Sutherland. From Stand by Me to The Lost Boys, from Flatliners to his mid-career resurgence as Jack Bauer, his best known roles have been either action-packed, tragic or thrilling, always playing serious men in high-stakes crises. But Sutherland himself is different. For a start he is a British comedy obsessive – he was spotted in the summer going to recordings of missing episodes of Hancock’s Half Hour at the BBC – and it is that interest in British humour (he is a long-time fan of Monty Python, Alan Partridge and the original Office) that led to him working with Stephen Fry in Marked.
“I met Stephen on the tarmac at an airport somewhere way, way back – almost ten years ago. He was a big fan of 24 at the time and I told him what a huge fan I was of the Blackadder series – that was the first time that I had ever seen Stephen’s work, and that must have been some 20-25 years ago.”
Fry and Sutherland struck up an unlikely friendship that culminated in Fry being cast to play the British Prime Minister when 24 came to London to film Live Another Day this year. Yet though they’d finally found a programme they could appear in together, the demands of the script meant they never shared any scenes.
“Unfortunately on 24 our paths never crossed,” says Sutherland. “So getting to work with him on Marked is like the gift I got at the end of it all.”
Filming for Marked consisted of four low-key days in Ealing tacked on to the end of the five-month 24: Live Another Day shoot. It has meant that Sutherland has spent a large portion of this year in London.
“We loved shooting in London. I’ve always loved it. Jon Cassar, the lead director of 24, loved it too. We went off to shoot other jobs and both of us would send back texts saying, ‘Well, it ain’t London.’ London is going through an extraordinary time. I had a real sense that London was undergoing a creative renaissance just as it was between 1966 and 1969.”
He has seen several sides to the city in his grand tour – 24 filmed everywhere from the West End to the Gillette Building in Isleworth. Sutherland was actually born in Paddington in St Mary’s hospital. (“But they moved it now.”) He starts by saying that he feels bad that he can’t remember where they filmed Marked: “I don’t know the boroughs outside of London,” he says, pronouncing them bu-rows, “but it [Ealing] was actually a really beautiful neighbourhood. I don’t know the name of it and I apologise.”
That is another trait of Sutherland’s that is unexpected – he is polite to a fault. The news headlines have always portrayed him as a tearaway, wild and wayward. But talking to him he is engaged and self-aware. One particularly strained analogy about different types of acting (“If you’re building a big house compared to a small house there might be some engineering challenges but the fundamental engineering itself is still the same”) ends with a pause and then that laugh again:
“Does that make any sense at all? Probably not.”
In Marked he is happy to send himself up – his James is a washout, whose every step towards executing the job he’s supposed to be doing is beset with ineptitude. Given that it’s Sutherland, the ironic contrast with Jack Bauer’s cold-eyed competence is never out of mind – there are even nods in the script, including a line from Fry about this being the longest day of James’s life (Bauer’s catchphrase in 24.) You wonder what Sutherland and Fry’s friendship, strung between the twin poles of Blackadder and 24, might consist of.
“They had a commercial for Dos Equis beer in the US and it’s centred around ‘the most interesting man in the world.’ I would elect Stephen for being one of the most interesting men in the world.”
What did this odd couple talk about in between takes?
“Current events. Stephen can talk about anything so it ends up with what you want to talk about. History is certainly a passion of mine and then there’s enough going on in the world to talk about – what do you think is going to happen in the upcoming election in 2016? And then why do you think healthcare has been so aggressively attacked in the US.”
Sutherland has donated money to the Democratic National Committee, endorsed Barack Obama and has called universal health care “a no brainer. I believe inherently that we have a responsibility to take care of each other.”
All of which offers an interesting gloss to his work on 24, in which the pressing issues of geo-politics – Islamic extremism, global terrorism, torture and most recently the rise of China as the West’s new bogeyman – were generally dealt with what you might call a neo-conservative broad brush. As a result the recent series, while as ferociously effective a drama as 24 has always been, felt a little outmoded, as if both the real world and the TV world had moved on. But the Jack Bauer character is not dead, so has Sutherland moved on?
“Me, I don’t see going back to it. We had set out to do 12 episodes to end the show and deal with some of the past history of the show. It was also an irresistible opportunity to go shoot in England. So for all of those reasons it made sense to do that last season.”
But with no Kiefer there is no more 24. He can sense that I am a little shocked to hear him reveal that one of TV’s longest running series is, finally, finished. That also puts to bed all of the long-standing rumours about a feature film. There’s a pause and then that chuckle again.
“But I think I said the same thing at the end of season 8 so I would hate to be held to that.”