Kiefer Sutherland - From 24 to outer space

What could Kiefer Sutherland do after a massive hit series? Something out of this world, he tells Lesley O'Toole

Kiefer Sutherland could give Twilight's Robert Pattinson a tip or two about being the hunted male star of a hugely successful vampire movie. The role which made Sutherland the Pattinson of his day was bleached blond vampire David in 1987's The Lost Boys.

He subsequently starred in two Young Guns films and with the requisite famous girlfriend, Flatliners co-star Julia Roberts was, fleetingly anyway, half the "Brangelina" of their early Nineties day. The rest of the decade bar a few bright spots (1992's A Few Good Men was one) attracted less coverage for Sutherland, personal and professional, to his still apparent chagrin.

"I remember I had Young Guns 2 come out and that was the number one film in the US for that week and then Flatliners came out the next week and it was the number one film for that week. But I couldn't get a job. I could never figure that out. Then all of a sudden 10 years later along comes 24, and I'm in a position to do some of the things I really wanted to do. I try and remember to make that second chance go to other people in my life."

A classic animated film was one of those things, and a guest appearance on two Simpsons episodes in 2006 and 2007 as an army general may have sealed his deal for Dreamworks' new animated 3-D feature, Monsters vs Aliens, which also features the voices of Reese Witherspoon, Hugh Laurie, Seth Rogen and Stephen Colbert as the president. Sutherland's General WG Monger is George C Scott with a jet pack, initially a bellicose scaremonger, latterly a deceptively concerned father figure. The film itself is cause for much laughter, something lacking only apparently in Sutherland's 24-centred professional life. The 42-year-old, who has been married twice, has been dating magazine exec Siobhan Bonnouvrier since last year and spends most of his time running a record label.

"I totally suck at music," he insists, while owning an impressive collection of vintage guitars. He pronounces his behind-the-scenes musical career "massively rewarding. Being able to take a guy who is living in a car and putting him in a position where he might be able to play music for the rest of his life is one of the most rewarding things I've had the pleasure of doing."

So too is Monsters vs Aliens. "I found it very touching in the way that Finding Nemo or The Incredibles are. It does this balancing act between the text, which is obviously designed for children, and a subtext, which I found funny as an adult and as a parent who has suffered through countless movies that were not designed for me at all but for my six-year-old or seven-year-old [Sutherland's daughter, Sarah, from his first marriage to Camelia Kath, is now 20]. I was really glad to be a part of something like that."

24 is what Sutherland repeatedly terms his "second chance" in what he terms "one of the most competitive businesses in the world". He should know. Sutherland is the London-born son of legendary Canadian actor Donald Sutherland and less famous but no less accomplished Canadian actress Shirley Douglas (he has a twin sister, Rachel). He quickly dispelled any notion of nepotism by earning a Canadian Genie nomination for Best Actor for his first film, Bay Boy. Steven Spielberg's Amazing Stories TV series followed and then Rob Reiner's classic coming-of-age film, Stand By Me. "There are times when I've had a lot of work and times I've had none," he says nonchalantly. "But I also think you earn your second chances."

This particular chance came via old friend, film director Stephen Hopkins, who was convinced Sutherland was right for the title character of his new TV pilot, 24. Jack Bauer worked for government undercover body CTU as an agent and always saved the day, often at a personal cost. Sutherland liked the project but was pragmatic about its chances. "At best I thought I could get a year or two of work."

Today, Sutherland is one of America's highest-paid and most popular dramatic TV actors. Men, women and fans of good, often prescient political drama have been sucked in by the putative small-screen superhero that is Jack Bauer. The very favourably-reviewed seventh series is currently airing and Sutherland already has every award imaginable under his belt for the role (Emmy, Golden Globe, SAG).

These days, he is sought out for films he might be able to do during his short 24 hiatus. There was The Sentinel, for which producer Michael Douglas, a hero of Sutherland's, hired him in 2005; last year's horror film Mirrors and Monsters vs Aliens.

There is a certain pervasive gratitude to Kiefer Sutherland today that was not a hallmark of his first brush with fame. He is older of course but mellowed by more, it seems, than the vagaries of his career. He served 48 days in jail for his second DUI in 2007 and last summer he travelled to South Africa to film 24: Redemption.

"I don't think a night has gone by where I haven't counted my blessings since I've got home. We spent most of our time working in the townships, and I watched these children have more fun with a rock and a stick then I've see any kid have with a Game Boy. We were in the middle of the most abject poverty I've ever been in – no toilets, no running water, the smell was unbelievable. But these kids were fighting to be happy, to find something to enjoy among themselves.

"It has to make you take a serious look at what you are complaining about. It certainly did for me. It was one of those great moments when you look at yourself in the mirror and you feel kind of silly about a lot of stuff because these kids have unbelievable hope in what I perceive to be the worst of circumstances I have ever seen."

He does still. Though Jack Bauer's derring-do is incredibly attractive to men and women alike, Sutherland jokes about the most ridiculous thing he's read: "Someone once wrote that I'm good-looking." He really doesn't think so? "Oh bless your heart, no." Only he seems to think this way: A recent E! Entertainment online post named him its "Hottest Vampire not in Twilight", ahead even of Brad Pitt in Interview with the Vampire.

This Sutherland seems different than the one I met as recently as 2006 to discuss The Sentinel. Then he seemed defensive, a little smart-alecky. Now he is chastened, humble and friendly, and takes no apparent pains to conceal his patent glee at life and work.

"I know now what a privilege it is to have the absolute highs of a career like mine, and I don't even mind the lows."

While Sutherland hopes 24 will be made into a feature film once the TV series has come to a natural conclusion, he is no hurry to abandon the job which has evidently been the making of him on so many levels. "Oh, you'll find I'm a pretty loyal son of a bitch," he smiles widely.

He is most proud, though, of a different achievement, the star he earned last year on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. "Two blocks down from my star, I slept in my car for three months. Every night I would look at the Hollywood sign and I had to convince myself I could make it. I was 17 and I'd look at the stars on the pavement and they were unattainable. I just wanted a job."

'Monsters vs Aliens' opens on April 6

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