I did not expect that a conversation with Kiefer Sutherland about his new Paramount+ action series Rabbit Hole would lead to Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, Richard Nixon and Walter Cronkite, but then again, very little about the British/Canadian actor, 56, is predictable.
We meet on a sunny Monday at a Toronto hotel. He’s just returned from a stroll around Yorkville, and has an English-gentleman vibe: scarf wrapped neatly around his neck, fine wool navy sweater and pants, short, styled hair and a pleasant, polite, slightly formal manner. He’s smaller than he looks on screen, trim and compact, and his voice is lighter and warmer. But then he pushes up his sleeves, revealing a riot of ink including a masted ship and the word Reckless on one arm, and three flying birds on the other (which represent his three jail stints for drunk driving). He’s struggled with anger management and alcohol addiction. He’s recorded three country-music albums. He’s been bad-mouthed by a few co-stars, and he was at one point the highest-paid actor in network dramatic television, earning US$40-million for three seasons of the series he’s best known for, 24.
Sutherland’s Rabbit Hole character, John Weir, is as layered as he is. A highly paid consultant who crafts elaborate acts of corporate espionage, Weir is intelligent, neurotic, confident, paranoid and, perhaps most unexpectedly, funny. “No one had been knocking down my door to do a comedy, so that was wonderful,” Sutherland says.
What to watch this weekend: Donald Glover takes on Beyoncé in Swarm, plus Ethan Eng takes over his high school in Therapy Dogs
Soon after we meet Weir, he is falsely accused of murder, the target of someone else’s scheme. The series, which was shot in Toronto and Hamilton, races him through every flashpoint of the 2020s to date: false flags, fake news, alternate facts, data mining, cryptocurrency, erectile-dysfunction drugs, shadowy international conspirators, corrupt politicians, evil billionaires, absent fathers, villainous Gen-Zers and social-media paranoia. (Also, beware food-delivery folks – they can stash almost anything in those bike boxes.)
“I love this genre,” Sutherland says. “It was not a mistake that I did 24 for nine years. I grew up watching All the President’s Men, Marathon Man, The Parallax View, pretty much everything Michael Caine and Gene Hackman were in. After 24, I consciously steered away from action – which maybe was a mistake. If you like something, do it, right?”
Each season of 24, created by Howard Gordon, had a sprawling schedule of 24 episodes, “like making 12 two-hour movies a year,” Sutherland says. “Every season, Howard would map it out for me: ‘Here’s the conflict we start with, here’s where we’ll be in hour 14, here’s how hour 24 will end,’ ” Sutherland says with a chuckle. “He never was accurate. What was meant to be hour 24 would happen around hour 14, and we’d be scrambling to figure it out. Which is an exhilarating way to work – for a younger person.” By contrast, all eight of Rabbit Hole’s hour-long scripts were buttoned up tight.
The legacy of 24 is complicated: It was the last network series to win a best drama Emmy, but “toward the end, the show got politicized by viewers and not by us,” Sutherland says. “It started getting co-opted by the political right in the U.S. Which I never understood – we had the first Black president, the first female president.” He doesn’t mention that they also featured strategic torture and were propelled by the myth of a loner hero with a gun (his character, Jack Bauer).
“It went from being Bill Clinton’s favourite TV show to John McCain’s,” Sutherland continues. “Poor Howard Gordon – he’s a left-democrat thinking guy, so proud to have met Barack Obama, and suddenly his biggest fans were the political right. There was a point toward the end where he and I tried to stay in our bubble of why we were making the show, and not pay attention to what some people were praising about it.”
Sutherland calls himself “very political – I have a strong sense of political ideology, the difference between right and wrong. Politics were discussed at our dinner table from the day I was born.” His grandfather, Tommy Douglas, kick-started socialized medicine as premier of Saskatchewan. His father, the actor Donald Sutherland, starred in a few political thrillers of his own, and his mother, Shirley Douglas, “was incredibly political,” Kiefer says. “Her involvement with the Black Panther Party led her to jail. She organized the first prisoner’s union in the U.S., which got us to Canada. The U.S. said, ‘We’ve had enough with you.’ ”
He remembers searching their Toronto home for Christmas presents with his twin sister, Rachel, and finding posters for performances supporting nuclear disarmament instead. “My sister started crying,” Sutherland recalls, grinning. “She said, ‘They’re going to kick us out of here, too.’ I had to reassure her that we were Canadian, so they couldn’t make us leave.
“But I’m not running for office, so I’m less vocal about my politics,” he continues. (This is where we go down a, well, rabbit hole about the honour, or lack thereof, of Churchill, FDR and Nixon.) “But doing this show certainly was interesting, because it really tackles the idea that the people who are most dangerous to us are the people in power. And money is power, so that’s in there, too.”
Though John Weir isn’t Jack Bauer, “There’s always something interesting about a character who’s facing insurmountable odds, yet they still fight,” Sutherland says. “I mean, why do we get up every day? We all know we’re going to die. That’s an existential, big idea, and I’ve always found it to be quite a mystery. But I enjoy stories where someone rises to the occasion. A normal person, who in specific circumstances becomes better than they are.”
Earlier in his career, “I could have thought a little more about which of those stories to tell,” he goes on, chuckling again. “I did Eye for an Eye” – a 1996 revenge thriller – “because I wanted to work with its director, John Schlesinger, who’s an extraordinary filmmaker. But I played the worst character possible. If you want a career, here’s a note: Don’t rape Sally Field’s daughter. But I hadn’t thought of all the ramifications of that until I was sitting in a Chuck E. Cheese with my daughter and no one else was there. They’d literally picked up their kids and taken off. I was like, ‘It was a character!’ ”
Sutherland keeps working, “because I get so much visceral joy from seeing a movie, a show or a play,” he says. “I’m going to do everything I can to deliver those same things to you, because I want you to have that same experience.”
Special to The Globe and Mail
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