Kiefer Sutherland: ‘When the FBI comes running through your house with guns drawn, you’re gonna remember it’

·13 min read
Sutherland bounced around various schools in Canada before dropping out at 15 to take his chances in the family business (Nathan Clark)
Sutherland bounced around various schools in Canada before dropping out at 15 to take his chances in the family business (Nathan Clark)

When Kiefer Sutherland was two years old, long before anyone had even conceived of the counter-terrorist operative Jack Bauer he would one day play in 24, his family’s home in Beverly Hills was raided by armed government agents. Although he was just a toddler, Sutherland remembers the shock of the moment all too well. “It doesn’t matter what age you are,” he says with a dry laugh, “when the FBI comes running through your house with their guns drawn, you’re gonna remember it.”

Sutherland, now 55, is speaking on a video call from his home in Los Angeles. He’s wearing thick-rimmed glasses and a dark blue T-shirt that shows off his tattooed forearms, while a vase of long-stemmed red roses provides his only backdrop.

One of the most successful actors of the Eighties, with a string of hits that included Stand by Me, The Lost Boys and Young Guns, Sutherland has spent much of the past six years establishing himself as a real-life country singer. After playing hundreds of live shows around the globe he has just released his third album, Bloor Street, the follow up to 2019’s Reckless & Me which bucked the dismal trend for actors-turned-musicians by hitting the Top 10 in the UK charts, a feat the likes of Steven Seagal never quite managed to pull off.

Sutherland, who was born in London in 1966, seems to have been always destined for an eventful life. When the FBI stormed in that day in 1969, it wasn’t his celebrity father, Donald Sutherland, they were looking for but his mother, Shirley Douglas. The daughter of Tommy Douglas, a socialist politician who was the architect of Canada’s welfare state, Douglas was both an actor and a committed civil rights activist. After founding the fundraising group Friends of the Black Panthers, she helped to organise their free school breakfast programme across Los Angeles. During the raid on her home, she was arrested for allegedly trying to buy explosives for the Panthers, a charge she always maintained was a set-up.

“The FBI… how do I say this politely?” wonders Sutherland. “They made it as difficult for her to operate as possible, to the degree that they put her in prison. In prison she organised the first Prisoner’s Union, at which point they said: ‘You know what, how about we just deport you?’ She said: ‘Only if I can take my children’ and off we went to Canada!”

Sutherland believes his family were particularly targeted because of his father Donald’s fame and left-leaning political views. The elder Sutherland had become a Hollywood star with the release of The Dirty Dozen in 1967 and was a high-profile anti-Vietnam war activist. “Because of my father’s politics, they felt he was a Social Democrat, a socialist, who believed in nationalised health care and large government, and those were not necessarily ‘American values’,” says Sutherland.

Documents declassified in 2017 showed that at the CIA’s request, Donald Sutherland was placed on a NSA watch-list in the early Seventies. At the time of the FBI raid, he was in Yugoslavia playing a hippie tank commander in Kelly’s Heroes. Co-star Clint Eastwood broke the news to him that Douglas had been arrested for trying to buy explosives for the Black Panthers with a personal cheque. When Donald has told this story in the past, he’s included the fact that when Eastwood got to the part about the personal cheque he laughed so hard, Sutherland had to help him back to his feet.

By 1977, Douglas had divorced her husband (who had begun an affair with his Klute co-star Jane Fonda) and taken Kiefer and his twin sister Rachel to live in Toronto. Sutherland has fond memories of his tearaway teen years in the city, which were reawakened when he returned recently to shoot the political thriller series Designated Survivor. The title track of his new album was inspired by a literal stroll down memory lane. “I was walking down Bloor Street to the intersection with Yonge Street, which is really the centre of downtown,” he explains. “I just thought: ‘Wow, this is where all the firsts were.’ My first job was in a food court at Hudson’s Bay Centre, right on that corner. My first kiss with a girl was in front of the subway stop. First fight, first time I got beat up. I got really nostalgic, because there was a freedom Toronto gave me as a young person that I just don’t think other cities would have.”

Sutherland bounced around various schools in Canada before dropping out at 15 to take his chances in the family business. Technically, his first appearance on screen came with a brief cameo in his father’s 1983 film Max Dugan Returns, but he really made his mark with a leading role in the 1984 Canadian drama The Bay Boy.

Off the back of that success he moved to Los Angeles, living for the first few months in his ’67 Mustang before moving into a house-share with fellow aspiring actors Billy Zane, Sarah Jessica Parker and Robert Downey Jr. For Sutherland, success came fast. In 1986, he played the bully Ace in Stand by Me, and the following year he landed the iconic role of David, the bleach-blonde mulleted leader of the vampire gang in The Lost Boys.

Kiefer Sutherland in Joel Schumacher’s ‘The Lost Boys' (Alamy)
Kiefer Sutherland in Joel Schumacher’s ‘The Lost Boys' (Alamy)

The Lost Boys marked Sutherland’s first time working with director Joel Schumacher, who would become a key mentor in the young actor’s career. They made three more films together: 1990’s Flatliners, 1996’s A Time to Kill and 2002’s Phone Booth. Schumacher, who died from cancer in 2020, was famed for his vibrant, over-the-top style which Sutherland attributes to the addled state in which he consumed films as a young man.

“Joel, I think, had such a unique perspective on films because he was a curious drug addict in the late Sixties and early Seventies,” says Sutherland with a smile. “He couldn’t afford air conditioning in the summer, so he would take his drugs and then he’d go to the movies where they had air-con, and sit there all day high off his ass watching these great films that were coming out in America and from England and France. He’d be in this very altered state as he was taking those movies in, which I think made him a really interestingly stylised artist.”

Sometimes Schumacher’s singular vision threatened to overwhelm Sutherland. When he was cast in Flatliners, a surreal psychological horror about a group of young medical students who deliberately kill and then revive themselves in order to explore what happens after death, Sutherland expected the film to be shot in a straightforwardly realistic way and was unprepared for the scene that greeted him on set.

“I was running through the university, past a miniature version of the Statue of Liberty’s head, then past a big silver box with about 70 rubber gloves sticking out of it, and I just went, ‘What the f***.’ I round the corner to where we’re supposed to do the experiment and it looked like a Billy Idol video. I was like: ‘No, I can’t do this.’”

Sutherland remembers having a “mini nervous breakdown… maybe not that mini” on set, but Schumacher managed to talk his leading man down. “He put his hand on my shoulder and said: ‘If you don’t think that every morning I wake up, I know that your future is in my hands, and that I take that responsibility really seriously, you’re out of your mind,’” recalls Sutherland. “For him to take that much responsibility for the future of my life… Not a lot of people will do that.”

When the film was released, it was both critically acclaimed and a commercial hit. “All of the crazy production design stuff that he was doing really did create a different world that allowed you to suspend your disbelief,” says Sutherland, who called the director to thank him for convincing him to go through with the role. “The 24-year-old that thought he knew everything was taught a really great lesson, and Joel was someone who did that for me my whole life.”

Flatliners was Sutherland’s second box office hit of 1990, released just a week after Young Guns II, the sequel to the hit 1988 Western in which he starred as soulful gunslinger Doc Scurlock. Although it would be years before he started writing songs himself, Sutherland recalls being inspired by watching Jon Bon Jovi, who has a brief cameo in the sequel, write its theme tune over dinner one night.

“We were out having a bunch of drinks and something to eat with Emilio Estevez (who played Billy the Kid) and Jon said: ‘Here’s the first song. Here’s the single.’ He pushed across these napkins that he’d been writing on all through dinner, which was maybe 20 minutes, and he’d got the whole of ‘Blaze of Glory’ written down on three napkins. I’m looking at him going: ‘You really just wrote this now?’ Six months later, I was in Montana trying to find a TV for my house, and as I walk in to the store every TV in the place has Jon Bon Jovi singing “Blaze of Glory” on it. I was like: ‘You son of a b****, you really did it!’ He’s a badass songwriter, and that’s a clever song.”

To use 24, a television show, as a scapegoat for the behaviour of the United States military is just absolutely asinine

With a string of hit films under his belt, Sutherland was riding a wave that crested and broke during the Nineties. But as leading roles began to disappear, Sutherland took time away from Hollywood to pursue a new passion: rodeo. He had fallen in love with horse riding while filming Young Guns, and bought the horses he rode in the film to take to his ranch in Montana. To the surprise of many of those on the rodeo circuit, Sutherland was no Hollywood dilettante, and won a national team roping competition in 1998.

“I had a natural affinity for roping,” he says modestly, adding that it was while touring the rodeo circuit that his love for country music blossomed. “I would travel with a bunch of guys with all our horses in a trailer, and we’d be listening to Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson,” he recalls. “I fell in love with the first-person narrative. The things I love about storytelling, which made me want to do movies and theatre, also interested me musically as a songwriter.”

Acting wasn’t done with Sutherland yet. In 2001, he made his debut as Jack Bauer in 24, a role he would play for the next decade over the course of nine series and a special. The show was massively successful, winning 20 Emmys and drawing in a global audience of 100 million viewers, while Sutherland’s salary of $40m (£29m) for three seasons made him the highest-earning actor on television. However, the show was also criticised for promoting the idea that torture is an effective interrogation tactic. Bauer breaks suspects’ fingers as well as suffocating and electrocuting them, telling one: “You are going to tell me what I want to know – it’s just a matter of how much you want it to hurt.”

Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer in the long-running ‘24' (Alamy)
Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer in the long-running ‘24' (Alamy)

Remarkably, this criticism came not just from liberal commentators but from the American military themselves. In November 2006, US Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, the dean of the United States Military Academy at West Point, visited the set of 24 to complain that the idea that the rule of law could be sacrificed to the cause of national security was having a toxic effect on his new recruits. “I’d like them to stop,” Finnegan said at the time. “They should do a show where torture backfires.” Sutherland bristles at the mention of this. “If the United States military can be derailed by a television show, we’ve got a much bigger problem than 24,” he argues. “The second he made the comment public, as if somehow 24 was going to become your excuse for Abu Ghraib… you must be kidding me. That I won’t accept. To use 24, a television show, as a scapegoat for the behaviour of the United States military is just absolutely asinine.”

It was during his time on 24 that Sutherland began writing songs on the guitar that he kept in his trailer, but he was initially reluctant to play them to anyone, fearing being perceived as a Hollywood hobbyist. His love of music led him to found his own indie record label, Ironworks, with friend and fellow musician Jude Cole, and it was Cole who eventually persuaded him to put out his 2016 debut album Down in a Hole.

In the years since, he has developed as a songwriter by drawing on his own heavy-drinking, quick-tempered life experiences. One of the stand-out tracks on Bloor Street is the earwormy “County Jail Gate”, which was inspired by Sutherland’s three stints in prison, most recently in 2007 when he received a 48-day sentence for drink-driving. “Whether it’s getting in a fight or drinking and driving, I’ve made stupid, stupid mistakes,” says Sutherland. “That song was cathartic for me to write, because even now it makes me so cross to be as fortunate as I’ve been in my life and to then be so stupid as to put yourself in that kind of position. It’s beyond moronic and I think I’ll be cross with myself over that till the day I die.”

He could at least count on his mother, who went to prison for rather more noble reasons, for a few words of advice. “I remember my mom saying: ‘How long did they give you?’” he says with a wry grin. “I said: ‘Three months’ and she said: ‘Oh, you could do that standing on your head.’ I think most mothers would be like: ‘Oh, sweetheart, I’m so sorry’ but not mine! She meant it in the nicest way, and it did make me laugh – maybe the last time I laughed before I got out.”

Sutherland performing at New York’s Bowery Ballroom in 2017 (Mike Coppola/Getty Images)
Sutherland performing at New York’s Bowery Ballroom in 2017 (Mike Coppola/Getty Images)

A little older and a little wiser, these days Sutherland is able to enjoy his success on multiple fronts. This year he’ll appear as a US Special Forces veteran alongside Chris Pine in action film The Contractor, play president Franklin D Roosevelt in the television drama The First Lady, and in October he has plans to return to Europe to tour Bloor Street. His idea of heaven, however, remains pretty much as you’d expect from a longtime hell-raiser. Asked if starring in Flatliners made him contemplate what happens after we die, he takes a beat. “Well, in the context of that film, which I found reassuring, there’s at least enough time to pay for some sins,” he says thoughtfully, before his face brightens with a wicked grin. “I’m hoping after that, you get to go hang out with some friends in a bar, and listen to some music.”

‘Bloor Street’ is out now

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