Kiefer Sutherland shows his sensitive side

The star of 24 was planning a break from TV but a new supernatural family drama from the creator of Heroes lured him back, he tells Sarah Hughes

Think of Kiefer Sutherland and a host of images come to mind. You might think of taciturn trouble-magnet Jack Bauer saving the world, one unbelievably busy day at a time, on 24, or perhaps you're a child of the Eighties, in which case he is forever the messed-up medical student in Flatliners, the vicious lead vampire in Lost Boys or the snarling Ace in Stand By Me.

Away from the screen we have a clear picture of Sutherland, too. He's the charming hellraiser who memorably took out a Christmas tree in a London hotel in 2007, the belligerent bad boy who was snapped, dishevelled and shirtless, having left Stringfellows in 2010, the man who occasionally needs a little help from his friends when leaving a bar.

The Kiefer Sutherland I meet in New York's Crosby Street Hotel as he introduces the first screening of his new television drama, Touch, is none of the above, however. This Kiefer is smartly turned out in a grey tweed sports jacket and jeans. He is courteous, softly spoken and serious. He doesn't even take one of the many glasses of wine being passed round the room.

Instead, he talks earnestly about Touch, the new show from Heroes creator, Tim Kring, which starts on Sky1 next week, and why it tempted him back to television so much sooner then he had planned.

"I was doing That Championship Season and I got a call from an old friend," he says. "She said, 'I have a script for a television pilot that I think you should read.' And I said: 'I'm not ready to do that yet'... I really wanted to set some time apart from the amazing experience I had with 24 and try some different things. She said: 'Trust me, you have to read it.' I started reading and I went, 'I'm in real trouble here', because it was just so beautifully written and it presented itself as an opportunity."

Few people would have been surprised if the 45-year-old had chosen to turn his back on the small screen for a time. At 24's height, he was the highest paid actor on television, but the schedule, given he was in almost every scene, was brutal. When the show came to an end in 2010, Sutherland seemed eager to spread his wings, starring as a hit man alongside John Hurt in the online series The Confession, making his Broadway debut in the football drama That Championship Season and turning in a memorable performance in Lars von Trier's beautiful, disturbing Melancholia.

During this time he was still being sent television scripts – when you've been television's biggest star, those don't suddenly dry up – but what appealed about Touch was the complete change of pace.

"The character was so vastly different, and the tone of the piece so vastly different; that was part of its appeal," he says. "I had to reread it a second time... I just emotionally responded to

the piece in such a strong way that, by the end of it, I realised that if they would have me, this was something I wanted to do."

So what made Touch stand out from the crowd? The story of a single father (Sutherland) still grieving for his dead wife and his attempts to build a relationship with his closed-off, possibly autistic son, Jake (an astonishing David Mazouz), Touch is also a quest show: Jake is apparently able to foresee events and his father tries to help him by contacting those involved and forewarning them.

If that sounds a little like Touched By an Angel meets FlashForward, then viewers should be aware that, while grounded by Sutherland's strong performance as a relatable everyman, Touch is still very much a drama that wears its spiritual side on its sleeve. How you respond to that will depend on how comfortable you are with the idea of everything being connected and hints of wider universal forces at play.

 

For Sutherland, its resonance comes from the complex relationship between father and son. The actor's own parents divorced when he was three and he and his twin sister, Rachel, grew up with their mother in Canada. While he barely knew his famous father, Donald, as a boy – and has talked about how he first saw his films on video as an 18-year-old – the two men are now close. When Sutherland Jr was jailed following his second drink-driving conviction in December 2007, his father's response was to hail him as "the most honourable, responsible and decent man I know". "I feel that I've been really fortunate where my family is concerned," he says. "I grew up with my mother and I have a very, very close relationship with my father now."

It seems that something in the part spoke personally to him. Sutherland is the sort of grounded actor who makes for a credible everyman. As the show's creator, Kring, says: "I didn't write the part with Kiefer in mind, but once he said yes he brought an enormous amount of strength and dignity to the role. He's an enormously intelligent person and a thoughtful actor."

It's a combination of strength and subtlety that anchors Touch during its more high-flown moments and fuels its strongest strand: the touching, occasionally terrible relationship between father and son.

While Kring sees Touch as being both about "the sense that this world has become a complicated, scary place for a lot of people" and the idea that "our world has become smaller and smaller as social media expands", Sutherland views it more as the story of one man and his son: "My character's fight is really with child services, who are trying to take his son from him," he says. "He wants to have as normal a relationship as he possibly can with him, which I think every parent can relate to.

"My youngest daughter is 24. My oldest daughter is in her thirties, so they've come round the other side. I have two grandsons. I don't think anybody who has a child doesn't want the best they can possibly get for that child. The great pain and frustration of parenthood comes when we feel we aren't doing that."

Kring, meanwhile, is keen to avoid a similar disintegration to that of Heroes, which ultimately collapsed under the weight of its own mythology. "We do allude to the idea that there may be other people like Jake out there," he says. "But we aren't going to let the mythology drive the show; we're keeping the idea open as to whether there's something larger behind what's going on.

"Our main concern is to produce the kind of tonally varied stories with heart, humour and intrigue that people can find satisfying even if they're just dropping in that week. This show is about the idea that what we do in our lives, no matter how small and insignificant, can have real meaning and implications. I find that an uplifting, hopeful thing."

 

Touch begins on Sky1 on 20 March at 8pm

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