Kiefer Sutherland: The time of his life

The star of '24' feels he's spent most of his career 'coming back from somewhere'. Now he's finally arrived, hears Gill Pringle

Friday 01 September 2006 00:00

At the very peak of his profession, having picked up the best leading actor award at the weekend's Emmys, the star of 24, Kiefer Sutherland, confesses to a little career envy. He'd like to be Hugh Grant. Well, to have Grant's comedic timing, at least. "I love watching romantic comedies like Love, Actually. It's a real skill to be able to do that on camera with a script, and it's a skill I admire," says Sutherland. "That dance sequence that Hugh does? I'd rather stick a javelin in my eye than have to do that myself, but I loved watching it. There's a grace and an ease with Hugh Grant whereas with me I've never felt that comfortable doing what I'm doing - Four Weddings and a Funeral would be better for me."

But he's not complaining. "Don't get me wrong - the view from the top is amazing," confides Sutherland, 39, who is presently savouring his revived career. "I feel like I've spent most of my career coming back from somewhere! I mean, it's like third or fourth time round already," he says in that slow dry voice, reminiscent of his father, Donald, now 71.

When early career hits like Stand By Me, Young Guns, The Lost Boys and A Few Good Men dried up, replaced by flops like Break Up, The Cowboy Way and Woman Wanted, the actor took an extended break from acting, high-tailing it to 200 miles north of Los Angeles where he bought a 813-acre cattle ranch in the Santa Ynez. He sold the property for $3.6m in 2000 after being offered the lead in 24.

"In some respects, I've done all my growing up backwards. I dropped out of school at 15, so I missed out on graduation or going to college. I'd never had buddies and, in a way, I didn't even know how to deal with people my own age because, from the time I was 15, the youngest people I was around were 30. Then, when I was 19, I married a 33-year-old woman, and had a baby of my own by time I was 20," says Sutherland, who has a university-bound daughter Sarah Jude, 18, from his first marriage to the actress Camelia Kath, as well as having a close relationship with his stepsons Julian, 15, and Timothy, 12, from his second marriage to the Canadian former model Kelly Winn. And, famously, in between he was dumped at the altar by Julia Roberts, who fled for Europe in the arms of Sutherland's best pal, the actor Jason Patric.

Currently single because 24's 15-hour-a-day schedules, 10 months a year, leave little time for romance, it's no wonder that when Sutherland finds time to cut loose he does so in grand style - like in London last year when he drunkenly assaulted a Christmas tree at the Strand Palace Hotel. Rumoured to have a staggering 180 stitches in his head - a result of various pool-hall punch-ups - and numerous reckless driving charges on his record, the actor makes no apologies for bad behaviour.

"If you work as hard as I do, you should be allowed to reward yourself by going over the top from time to time," insists the actor, who has never ever attempted to quit smoking and is proud of his "living diary" of tattoos. "I've got eight of them now," he says, rolling up his left sleeve to reveal a large tattoo of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which he had done to commemorate the third season of 24. "My tattoos serve as a personal account of my life and when I die nobody will have to speak at my funeral because they need only look at my tattoos and know what happened," he says.

Of all the character types that he has portrayed, Sutherland has a particular aptitude for embodying evil - a pantheon of psychos that includes the malevolent vampire leader in The Lost Boys; a malevolent Ku Klux Klansman in A Time to Kill; a sociopath in his self-directed Truth or Consequences, NM; a rapist-murderer in Eye for an Eye; a serial killer in Freeway, and a brutal military hazer in A Few Good Men. That's part of the appeal of his counter-terrorism agent Jack Bauer - he's a good guy who somehow carries himself like a bad guy.

Having recently inked a $40m deal to stay with 24 for another three seasons, he says: "24 is one of the few opportunities I've ever had to do a role like this. I don't look like your stereotypical leading man and I've played more bad guys than good ones. It's not so much Jack's heroism, more his fallibility. He loves his work but it costs him his family. I fully understand the guilt over that - the self-loathing and the lengths you would go to try to fix it," he says softly.

"Eventually, the show will reach a point where we might be going through complete cast changes season to season. We've known from the very beginning that it can't run forever with the same characters - and I'm one of those characters.

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"After that we're talking about a film franchise for Jack Bauer," says Sutherland, who plays another CIA agent in the Washington thriller The Sentinel, co-starring with Michael Douglas. "I wasn't going to pass up the opportunity to work with Michael. That is a very intense cat and I got up every morning excited, and he certainly didn't let me down and I hope it was a two-way street. There's an intensity in him and I was nervous about what he was going to do and that felt good," says Sutherland, who has admired Douglas for more than 20 years.

At 5ft 10in, Kiefer Sutherland is short by the standards of his father's side of the family - his dad is 6ft 4in, while his three half-brothers are all well over six feet. Slim and rather slight, with short dark blond hair, Sutherland is dressed today in a slightly crumpled navy-and-brown striped shirt and worn jeans, frayed at the bottom - the real thing as opposed to designer distressed version, down to the splodges of green paint staining one leg.

His mother, Shirley Douglas, now 67, is a celebrated Canadian stage and screen actress. He says: "I never really asked for my parents' help. They were both very conscious of letting me go my way and to fall when I was going to fall. I left home at 15 and obviously I knew my father was really famous but I hadn't even seen M*A*S*H. All his films were released when I was too young to go and see them. So when I was about 18, a friend of mine lent me all my father's films - Don't Look Now, M*A*S*H, Kelly's Heroes, The Eagle Has Landed, Casanova and 1900 - and I watched them in, like, two days. And I remember feeling just like the worst son ever... I didn't know how good he was... Forget about famous. This is one of the most prolific actors in film. Period.

"If you take a look at my father in Start the Revolution Without Me, that's one of the funniest films you'll ever see. Kelly's Heroes? I know Clint Eastwood, for a long time in the movie was just going, 'What the hell is this Sutherland guy doing?' They wanted to make a real straight-ahead movie and my dad plays this unbelievably off-the-chart comedic performance in the middle of a thriller - and changed the whole structure and scope of the movie. And when they started putting it together, they were all questioning whether or not he'd even keep the job, but in the end there was no way they were going to lose him. That's kind of a courage that an actor doesn't have today - it's either: 'Trust me on this or fire me.' You don't see anybody doing that these days. I certainly don't do that. So, yeah. He shaped what I believe was good and bad about... what not to do and what to do.

"When I was younger, I refused to see any similarities between myself and my father, and it is only in the past 15 years that I've come to appreciate what a great actor he is. Now I see my father in me every day. I see his looks, and I see his acting style. I am my father's son," he admits.

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