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Kiefer Sutherland on how Designated Survivor mirrors political reality

Kiefer Sutherland plays Tom Kirkman in Designated Survivor.

A terrorist attack on the U.S. Capitol, an under-qualified U.S. president – and chaos. One might be forgiven for finding the premise of Designated Survivor, one of the most anticipated new shows of the television season, a little too close for comfort.

As Kiefer Sutherland, the Canadian actor who stars as that unlikely American president, points out, good TV often mirrors what's happening in the world and people's lives. So fictional television can be eerily reflective – maybe even predictive – of the content churning away in high gear on the all-news networks.

"We made 14 episodes of 24 before the terrible events of 9/11," Sutherland says during an interview this week. "Generally, if someone chooses to write about something, it's usually topical. And it's always a terrible tragedy when someone's fiction becomes a reality. But they wrote about it for a reason … I don't think anybody in the United States is shocked any more when there is a terrorist attack."

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Sutherland plays Tom Kirkman, secretary of housing and urban development – earnest, unelected and about to be fired from cabinet and demoted to a face-saving job in Montreal (ambassador to the International Civil Aviation Organization). For the State of the Union address, it is Kirkman who is chosen to be the "designated survivor" – the person in the presidential line of succession who is taken to a secure, off-site, undisclosed location in case of a catastrophic event.

He is in jeans and a grey hoodie. His wife is there, with a bowl of popcorn. He sips a beer, his sneakered feet on the table. Before the night is over, his demotion will be history.

"The Eagle is gone, Congress, the cabinet. None of them made it," he is informed during a harried drive to the White House, sirens blaring all around them. There has been a massive explosion at the Capitol Building.

"Sir, you are now the President of the United States."

Sutherland, 49, is best known for playing superhuman Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU) agent Jack Bauer on the clock-ticking, fingernail-biting-fest 24. When I ask if he was reluctant to take on another terrorism-related series, he points out that terrorism plays a very different role on Designated Survivor.

"A terrorist act is what allows our show to start, but it is not something that is going to be part of our show all the way through potentially five years. Whereas on 24 it was the engine and everything centred around that. So you will not find this president tackling bad guys and running down the street and armed; it's a very different show … It's much more about the state of the United States and the incredible political division – everything from immigration to race relations to economic issues down the line."

24 made some headlines of its own as some critics accused it of being pro-torture and anti-Muslim. Now Designated Survivor launches during the heated, one could say horrible, U.S. election campaign – a parallel that may be impossible to ignore as one watches the new show.

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"I don't think anyone would disagree that this has been the most bizarre electoral cycle in modern history," Sutherland says. "Certainly within the U.S., there is a division that is palpable. When I was growing up, the difference between the Democrats and the Republicans you could almost split with a piece of paper. And now the chasm is so wide it's like a 14-lane highway.

"So to be able to play the president (a) in the middle of a crisis and (b) who's really trying to bring a country together within the context of crisis almost mirrors the circumstances that we're dealing with now. And it allows us to have really balanced conversations about what we at least think is dividing the country and trying to figure out a way to bring them together. Again it's a television show, it's not real life. But the fact that we have a story that allows us to have some of these discussions I think is really exciting."

Sutherland, who is also an executive producer on the series, is a self-described proud Canadian who lives in the U.S. He is the grandson of Tommy Douglas – a CCF premier of Saskatchewan and first leader of the federal NDP, who is known as the father of Medicare. The actor notes that his nationality tends to get a certain reaction these days.

"I have a lot of friends joke about if a certain candidate wins, would you help me get to Canada – which always makes me smile," he says.

But even as he says he hopes for a return one day to "more moderate, civilized, smart discussion," Sutherland, with his Canadian, left-leaning political pedigree, declines to endorse a candidate for the U.S. presidency. "I can't vote here so it's something that I keep to myself, actually," he says. "I've seen a lot of things that have concerned me and been pretty shocked, but generally I keep those thoughts to myself."

We're talking on Monday and Sutherland is still in Los Angeles, where the previous night he presented the Emmy Award for best lead actress in a drama series to fellow Canadian Tatiana Maslany for Orphan Black. Sutherland, an Emmy-winner himself, says he was thrilled Maslany won, and also fleetingly thought it would be great to chat with her about Toronto – what area does she live in, that sort of thing. "But you know in that circumstance, it's not the time to do it." (Indeed.) He did make sure she kept the envelope. "You'll want that tomorrow," he told her.

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Sutherland grew up largely in Toronto and is spending a lot of time there these days; Designated Survivor is shot there – with its West Wing set and a crew Sutherland calls "extraordinary." His mother (actor Shirley Douglas) and sister still live in Toronto and the actor says he's enjoying spending time with them.

His daughter Sarah Sutherland, meanwhile, has found her own place on White House-related TV, playing Catherine Meyer, daughter of Selena Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) on Veep. I ask if he and his daughter, 28, compare notes at family gatherings.

"Not at all," says Sutherland, who also recently released his debut musical album, Down in a Hole. "It's funny; it's something that almost echoes my thing with my father [actor Donald Sutherland] as well. We so rarely talk about work, if at all, just because the time that we get to see each other – I'm working in Toronto, she was in Baltimore, now she's working in L.A. – the times we get to see each other are less frequent than we would like. So we end up talking about [things like] 'Do you have a boyfriend? What's going on in your life? What's happening?' Much more human stuff than work stuff."

Designated Survivor premieres Wednesday on CTV and ABC at 10 p.m./9 Central.

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About the Author
Western Arts Correspondent

Marsha Lederman is the Western Arts Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver. She covers the film and television industry, visual art, literature, music, theatre, dance, cultural policy, and other related areas. More


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