Kiefer Sutherland - rebel with a cause

Gemma Calvert / 22 May 2019

Film star, rock’n’roller and rodeo champion Kiefer Sutherland dreams big: he’d like to help disadvantaged children, and get politicians back on track via his presidential role in Designated Survivor.



Kiefer Sutherland stands on the rooftop of a London studio, eyes shooting blue steel as he stares down the camera lens with consummate professionalism: a golden combination of Hollywood king-pin charisma meets ordinary-Joe eagerness to get the job done.

Kiefer is now 52, with more than 100 films to his name. He cut his teeth playing a bully in Stand By Me, became globally famous in the 1980s as teen vampire David in The Lost Boys and starred alongside Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men. Latterly, TV has become Kiefer’s primary residence. He enjoyed a decade-long stint as federal agent Jack Bauer in 24, a show he also executively produced, which earned him a Screen Actors’ Guild award, a Golden Globe and Emmy nominations for every season. Most recently, he reprised his role as a fictitious American president in political drama Designated Survivor for a third season.

But after 37 years in the business, it would be a mistake to assume that photoshoots are a breeze for Kiefer. ‘I’m uniquely uncomfortable having my picture taken, which is very odd given the profession I’ve gotten into,’ he admits when, later, we’re sitting five floors below in a glass-walled meeting room where the lacklustre surroundings highlight Kiefer’s sartorial stance. He’s wearing a green velvet jacket, skinny black jeans and well-worn cowboy boots. His brown hair displays no sign of grey and although he smells of tobacco after ‘a quick half’ post-shoot cigarette, his skin is in good nick. Not that Kiefer has probably noticed.

‘I’ve got maybe one or two mirrors in my house and they’re used on an absolutely necessary basis. People I have been with over the years were frustrated by that to say the least,’ he chuckles. Kiefer can’t stand seeing himself in films and TV shows either.

‘I’ve never watched an episode of 24 or Designated Survivor. I haven’t watched a film I’ve done since Flatliners and the only reason I watched that is because Julia Roberts and I were living together at the time,’ he says.

‘Most actors go to the premiere, watch the film and do some press after. I’d sit down, walk out the front exit, go to a bar and come back right as it was finishing,’ he says. Kiefer made the mistake of watching his first-ever Hollywood film Stand By Me in 1986.

‘I had very specific ideas of what I was doing with that character. When I saw the film, I thought I was in real trouble,’ he recalls. ‘I remember saying to my friend, “I need to get a job before this comes out”.

‘For whatever reason, I couldn’t get past seeing myself and I couldn’t really see the character so I made a decision that it was probably better that I do the work either from my heart or my head and let it be.’

Introspection is a relatively new thing for Kiefer, born out of a passion for song-writing, which began 20 years ago. We meet the day before the release of his second album Reckless & Me – a collection of deeply personal songs with a strong country-music flavour.

‘They’re about my life or a point of view from my life,’ says Kiefer. ‘I don’t keep a journal so any kind of self-examination, other than sitting with friends and having a discussion, has really come through thinking about certain things that make you want to write.’

Age has rewarded him with a capacity to understand himself more. Certainly, once notoriously guarded, Kiefer now seems relaxed and forthcoming. ‘At a certain point in my life, when I wasn’t chasing everything – whether that be a girl or a film or a career – when I just kind of felt a little more settled into my life and I wasn’t as panicked about raising my children and all those things, you start to see yourself for who you really are,’ he explains.

‘During your twenties, you’re searching for who you want to be and through my mid-forties to now, you look back on your life and make a decision about whether or not you like that, accept that or want to change something.’

‘During your twenties, you’re searching for who you want to be and through my mid-forties to now, you look back on your life and make a decision about whether or not you like that, accept that or want to change something.’

Is there anything he’d like to change?

‘Gosh, yeah,’ says Kiefer. ‘One is really wanting to be honest and that’s not always easy. There’s times where you might not want to be completely honest because of someone else’s feelings – in a relationship, whether that be a friendship or an intimate relationship or with your parents or kids. I have found that the more honest you can be, in the end, the better things are.’

Kiefer’s intimate relationships are well documented. He has dated some of the world’s most beautiful women, including supermodel Bo Derek and Julia Roberts, who in 1991 jilted him three days before their wedding. He has had two failed marriages – the last ended in 2004.

Five years ago, Kiefer began a relationship with actress Cindy Vela, 40. She has been pictured with Kiefer during his month-long promotional trip to Europe – particularly telling given his album’s track Open Road, a story about a relationship ending after spending too much time away from home. Kiefer’s clearly invested in this partnership, but is not planning to marry.

‘I’m not engaged,’ he says, firmly. ‘I have one philosophy, “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it”. The title of “husband and wife” has never been that important to me; the time spent and what you learn from the other person, that’s what matters. It’s my experience that people get engaged, then they get married and they have a tendency to quit each other. It’s almost like the contract’s been done “and now I can take you for granted”. I’ve seen that. It’s my own personal experience.’

It was also his father’s. After an affair with Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland divorced Kiefer’s mother, actress Shirley Douglas when Kiefer was four. Shirley moved Kiefer and his twin sister Rachel to her Canadian homeland. Kiefer repeatedly ran away from home and eventually dropped out of Toronto’s exclusive St Andrew’s College at 15 to pursue acting. His first film, The Bay Boy, saw him nominated for Canada’s equivalent of an Oscar. By 21, he had broken into Hollywood.

Kiefer has previously described the pain of growing up ‘missing’ his dad. In an interview last September, Donald explained he has been ‘heartbroken’ by his stop-start relationship with his eldest son. When I put Donald’s quote to Kiefer, he says, ‘We’re a much closer family than that comment makes it sound’ before citing work and family pressures for complicating logistics.

‘Space does what it does,’ he says. ‘You know, shooting something like 24, that’s 14 hours a day, five days a week for ten years. I’m in Los Angeles shooting that, he lives in Paris. What are you going to do? I’ve got kids, they’ve got Christmas. I’m there for Christmas for my kids. So it was never out of anything other than “These are the choices we made, these are now the responsibilities we have”. We’ve done everything we can to find the time to spend as much as we can together and those times are incredibly cherished by me.’

I ask Kiefer how he felt when, at 19, he discovered he was going to become a dad. His daughter Sarah is now 31 and best-known for playing Catherine Meyer in hit series Veep.

‘I remember during the entire pregnancy, thinking, “I’m going to be the greatest dad in the world!”’ Kiefer laughs. ‘I’ll never forget that moment when she’s born, I cut the cord and hand the baby to the nurse, the nurse swaddles her up, hands her back to me and I go, “Oh my God, what the f*** am I gonna do?” I had no clue.’

Kiefer and Sarah’s mum split up when Sarah was two. He describes a tender moment he shared with his daughter when she was 15, after dining at Hamburger Hamlet in LA, a restaurant they visited every Sunday.

‘I was so impressed with her. She spoke Latin, she spoke ancient Greek, she spoke Spanish, she spoke English, she was at the top of her class in every subject. Never a problem. I said, “I’m sorry that we had to raise each other” and she smiled and said, “I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way”,’ says Kiefer. ‘Every time I think of that, my lip will go.’

Gratitude comes naturally to Kiefer. He feels ‘the luckiest person’ to be writing music and touring. He gets a buzz from performing and proving wrong those who assume movie stars can’t transition into music and that his two-hour show will ‘be a car wreck’.

The difficulty, perhaps, is convincing people he’s not the human equivalent. The crises in Kiefer’s life are no secret, especially the boozing, which has led to bar brawls, arrests and a 48-day prison sentence in 2007 for driving under the influence. One year he drunkenly attacked a Christmas tree in the lobby of London’s Strand Palace Hotel.

‘I’ve certainly had moments where I’ve had to contain a reckless side of me,’

‘I’ve certainly had moments where I’ve had to contain a reckless side of me,’ Kiefer admits.

‘I’ve lived a life where some of the best times I’ve ever had were sitting around with friends having a drink; some of the worst decisions I’ve ever made were sitting around having a drink; so, I’ve tried to figure out the balance of that.’

In an industry where sobriety is increasingly commonplace, why hasn’t Kiefer tried it?

‘I’m not on fire 24/7,’ he insists. ‘I’ve made 216 hours of 24, 100 episodes of Designated Survivor. That’s a lot of work: you can’t be crazy all the time.’

Kiefer’s career wasn’t always this remarkable. In the early nineties, after a few flops, he traded Hollywood for a cattle ranch where he became a professional steer roper and rodeo champion. It was only when he was invited to star in a pilot for 24 in 2000 that his fortunes changed beyond recognition: by 2006 he was Hollywood’s highest-paid actor for a drama series.

Kiefer hasn’t worked out how to best use ‘idle time’. But he has plans. Growing up, he loved the great outdoors and wants to give less fortunate kids the chance to experience adventures.

‘There are a lot of children out there that need help,’ he says. ‘I’ve dreamed of doing a summer camp that would have everything from archery to water skiing to all of the things I got to do when I was a kid going to camp. You can create a camp for children who would not normally have the means to go and those would be your kids for the summer.’

For now, there’s still plenty to keep Kiefer busy. He’s back in the UK in August with his band to headline at Wickham Festival in Hampshire and returns to the small screen on Netflix in Designated Survivor. The series follows US politician Tom Kirkman, who becomes president when a terrorist attack leaves him the highest-ranking politician alive.

‘What’s interesting in season three is he’s made a choice to get re-elected. I think the second you want to become president, you’ve already got a problem. You might not be the right person for the job,’ says Kiefer, an obvious nod to Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign.

‘I wouldn’t step into Trump’s shoes,’ he says, adding that, in his role as Kirkman, he is encouraging a more responsible approach.

‘One of the nice things we get to do is take issues such as immigration, minimum wage, health care, racial inequality, racism, and approach those from a more compassionate position than I think divisive politics have allowed in the past 15 years.

‘Whether or not you’re a fan of Theresa May or Donald Trump, they’re by-products of something much larger, which is: how did we become this divided and inflexible? The only way you can rebuild that is to create a much stronger middle class and that’s where the social side of politics meets the economical side. There is a generation out there that is going to be required to do some very heavy lifting to repair a lot of damage.’

Movie star, musician and man of the people: Kiefer Sutherland is a multifaceted surprise.

Kiefer Sutherland’s album Reckless & Me is out now, download it at iTunes. For UK tour dates, visit kiefersutherland.net

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