When Kiefer Sutherland walks into the room, I’m sitting on one end of a long wooden table covered in papers and bottles. He sits down warily and I slap a tape recorder right in front of him. He throws up his hands in mock horror. ‘It’s a deposition!’ he exclaims. ‘I’d like to start by saying I didn’t do it …’
Even his publicist laughs. Looking back on his life, it’s hard to find something Sutherland hasn’t done. He’s partied so hard that last year he attacked a Christmas tree in London’s Strand Palace Hotel and made the front page of the tabloids. He’s had his heart broken when his best friend ran off with fiancée Julia Roberts. He has coped with his parents’ bitter divorce. He has lived in his car on the beach. He’s bought a 900-acre ranch in Montana. He’s had two families to support, as a father and a grandfather. He’s been a Brat Packer and a Rodeo champion. And he’s only just turned 40.
Right now, of course, he’s starring in 24, the counterterrorist drama shot over a single day in real time – although, famously, his character Jack Bauer never gets to eat or use the toilet. The show’s entering its sixth season, and while it sailed through the first five relatively serenely, there’s a sudden storm of controversy blowing up around it.
In February, US Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan met the show’s producers to request they tone down the torture content. He was concerned that 24 damages America’s image abroad with its depictions of human rights abuses. When I raise this with Sutherland, he almost chokes.
‘The US army are worried about the sequences in our show,’ he sighs. ‘They should be a lot more worried about their behaviour in Abu Ghraib than about our television show. What happened in Abu Ghraib was criminal. As a nation we’re trying to tell people that democracy and freedom is the way to go, and then we go and behave like that.
Inexcusable. But the army complaining? That’s ludicrous. The fact is, we are a television show and we use some of the torture sequences as a dramatic device to heighten tension. It is simply that. We are not saying this is the way the world should be. There are so many things that we do that require an absolute suspension of disbelief in this conceit of the 24-hour day – to say that I support everything Jack Bauer does would be to say that I support the suspension of Due Process, which is ridiculous.’
Sutherland isn’t afraid to take on a political row. In a recent television interview, he outraged the right-wing bloggers who hooted with glee every time Jack Bauer shot the kneecaps off an Islamic terror suspect, by laying out his personal views. ‘I believe inherently that we have a responsibility to take care of each other, so when you can talk about socialised healthcare, absolutely, that’s a no-brainer. Free universities, absolutely, that’s a no-brainer for me. And I do believe the wealthy have a responsibility to the less fortunate. Some people call that communism. I disagree. Again, it’s common sense. But I would have to say that my politics would be leaning towards the left.’
In this, he’s following in a long-held family tradition. The son of Donald Sutherland and Shirley Douglas, both successful Canadian actors, Kiefer was actually born in Paddington, London while his parents were working over here. They moved back to Los Angeles, but found they weren’t going to be one of those showbiz couples that made it through.
It was the 60s, the sharp gunpowder scent of revolution hung in the air. Shirley’s father Tommy had led Canada’s first socialist government and introduced free healthcare. Inspired by her father, Shirley began organising fundraisers for the armed black power movement the Black Panthers. One story has it that she was arrested carrying hand grenades for them. Donald’s conversion to the cause came later, during his affair with Jane Fonda, when he began making anti-war movies and protesting Vietnam.