Actor talks about his time as Jack Bauer
DAILY VARIETY: Tell me how you, the producers, the studio and the network came to this decision.
KIEFER SUTHERLAND: I’m going to use a terrible metaphor, but if our show is a building, then Howard Gordon and the writers are the foundation. From a creative point, I think Howard was feeling that as confident and as strong as he felt about season 8, he was feeling that it was going to be very hard to do (a season 9). He and I both felt that the opportunity of making a movie, and doing a two-hour representation of a 24-hour day — which would not be restricted by time — was something that was appealing to he and I both.
In addition for us, at least creatively, it seemed like the right time to do it. It’s very bittersweet. We had the most unbelievably loyal fan base that you don’t want to ever disappoint. And you certainly hope to make up for it with a really great film.
But it’s also, we have 90% of our original crew from day one. I think there have been 16 weddings, 30 some odd children born… it gets very sad. The idea that I’m not going to see these same people five days a week in three months, it’s hard. And the joke is I knew it would be.
We were in the middle of season six and I looked up at the stages where we hang all the lights and I realized, it dawned on me, that we were closer to the end than we were the beginning. I took a moment and said wow, I knew that day would come and that it would be a sad day.
I’m unbelievably proud of everybody I’ve worked with, and the accomplishment — to do 196 hours of real time television will be something hard to match.
DV: I remember back in 2001, it was such a unique idea. People wondered how you were going to keep this up.
SUTHERLAND: They wondered? Joel Surnow and Howard Gordon looked at me after we had done the first 13 episodes and “24” been picked up, and both of them said, “I don’t know how to finish it, do you?” And the other one said, “No, I didn’t think we’d get this far.”
I don’t think the reality of it set in until we got picked up, because they worked furiously on it for a while. And I’ve always said this, “24” has been the great learning experience of my career so far. And I think it was for them as well. And I don’t think until you try to write in real time can you really fathom the difficulty of it. Until you’re trying to actually do it, it’s mind boggling.
DV: What do you think the show’s legacy will be in both TV history and pop culture?
SUTHERLAND: I don’t think it’s really for me to say. It’s for other people to say. It’s a interesting question, but it’s up to an audience member who watched it. My concern as an actor and a producer was that the story was interesting, that the drama was going to put you on the edge of your seat, and that we would maintain the quality that we feel that we accomplished in season one.
I believe very strongly that we did.
DV: Did you feel the weight of the show when you read about politicians citing “24”? Did if feel like there were moments when “24” took on a life beyond being a TV show?
SUTHERLAND: I can’t help someone politicizing something. It was done by the right and the left. We had elected the first African American president on television. We brought down a right-wing president that was very naughty. It was politicized on both ends.
The only thing that I can really say about that is it’s a television show, and as much as it’s a complement that people blur the line between reality and non reality, “24” certainly did that. But I think we were generally used for someone else’s advantage for a given moment, and it was not something that we could afford to pay a great deal of attention to.
Except that I think Howard Gordon did a really brave and smart thing in season six, when we had been brought into the torture debate — which I don’t really think was a debate in this country, I think everyone acknowledges that this is not something you should do and that it’s not legally acceptable. At that point Howard based season 6 on that debate and put it front and center in the middle of the show.
But it’ a TV show. We used all those circumstances to create unbelievable drama and try to show you how heightened the situation was and how important this information was. And in all fairness, we had shot the first season like that, months and months before the terrible events of 9/11. This was really a product of drama.
DV: The timing of the show was uncanny, given the events of 9/11. Back immediately after those attacks, was there ever a thought in your mind that maybe this show wouldn’t get on the air?
SUTHERLAND: I felt for the first two weeks after 9/11 that I couldn’t believe I had wasted my life as an actor. Those were the moments when I think, rightfully so, we truly valued the police officers, the firemen, the doctors, the nurses, the people who can actually physically contribute at that exact moment.
I was walking down the street in a daze like that, and a guy was walking down the street and said to me, ‘Hey man, I can’t wait to see your show.” And I remember looking up and, I don’t think I said anything, but I remember thinking, “How can you say something like that at a time like this?” And then I walked a couple blocks more and then I thought, “Well, how can you not?”
That’s what we do, we create entertainment. Sometimes more thoughtful than not. But we provide an outlet for people to sometimes get away from something. In the case of Jack Bauer, that was a unique phenomenon at a time where I, myself, and a lot of other people felt so helpless about what was happening. Jack Bauer was this character that was doing something about that world. I certainly have heard from people that they felt a kind of gratification from that.
DV: What has this character and this series meant to you and your career?
SUTHERLAND: I wouldn’t be able to fully articulate that. It’s been the greatest learning experience I’ve ever had as an actor, and singularly the greatest opportunity I’ve every had. On a personal level I’ve been able to work with a cast and crew and writers and directors that will be friends of mine for the rest of my life. There’s a sense of family that I will lose when this is over. Because we won’t have the kind of proximately we’ve had over last nine years. That’s going to be immediately the most difficult thing.
I’ve been able to work five days a week for eight years. I can’t begin to describe what that does for your confidence and your ability to break down a script, break down a scene, find intention. That’s something I know I will take with me, and I’m very grateful for.
DV: What’s the status of the movie?
SUTHERLAND: Billy Ray is in the process of writing it right now. I’m very excited about the idea. He’s a fantastic writer. I know he’s been working with Howard recently. I’m very excited about the opportunity, and singularly because it’s a two-hour representation of a 24-hour day. So for the first time, it will be very feasible in this 24 hours to go from England to Russia, or from China to Japan, depending on where they choose to set it. Before on the TV show, the crisis had to come to us, because the best we could do was get across town. And the two times we ever put Jack Bauer in a plane, it just didn’t work. So it alleviates a huge hurdle that real time writing presented for us.
DV: Would you ever do TV again?
SUTHERLAND: Oh my gosh, yeah. Absolutely. My experience was phenomenal. It’s really the home of the drama. I grew up and the films I wanted to do as an actor were films like “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Urban Cowboy” and “Terms of Endearment” and “Ordinary People.” They don’t make those movies anymore.
Studios, when I started working, were making 50 movies a year, now they’re making 13. And the drama got picked up by television. And that’s why you’re seeing a huge influx of very successful actors looking at television for work. When you at everything from “ER” to “The West Wing” to “The Sopranos” to “The Wire” to “Californication,” there’s amazing television out there. The traditional format of television is obviously changing, as advertising is changing. But I still think it’s an unbelievably exciting place to be.
DV: What’s the mood on the set as realization sets in that this is coming to an end?
SUTHERLAND: It’s going to get sadder and sadder. But I think it’s going to be tempered by a sense of accomplishment. These people have worked unbelievably hard. I can’t say enough about our crew.
DV: Are you happy with how the show ends?
SUTHERLAND: I absolutely believe that creatively we finish in a really strong place, a much more definitive place. It’s going to be pretty clear what Jack Bauer’s plight is.