Kiefer Sutherland Interview
Credit: Chris Polk / Getty Images

Most movie stars who hit a rough patch in their careers enter rehab, call a plastic surgeon, or maybe do a stint on Broadway. Kiefer Sutherland ran off and joined the rodeo. So it was that in the spring of 1994 he found himself in the saddle, on a horse called Till, backing into the starting box at a San Antonio rodeo. It was his first big team-roping competition, and he could hear some rodeo regulars behind him chuckling, amused by the sight of this Hollywood actor who apparently thought starring in a couple of cowboy flicks made him the real deal.

Then the chute opened and a steer charged out. Sutherland followed, nervous but determined. Within seconds his rope landed exactly where it was supposed to, and he managed to catch his first steer by the horns. Even Sutherland was surprised. My God, he thought. It worked! It was a feeling he would never forget, the "perfect combination of exhilaration and relief."

In the following years, the chuckling would end. Sutherland and his team-roping partner, John English, a top pro he met on the set of 1994's 'The Cowboy Way,' would take first in a United States Team Roping Championships event in Phoenix and place near the top in Albuquerque. Some of the same cowboys laughing behind his back would later come up and ask him to partner up. The doubters turned around, Sutherland says, "as soon as they realized I wasn't doing it just so that Entertainment Tonight might come and film me."

Kiefer Sutherland is a man who takes considerable pleasure and a certain amount of pride in doing things the hard way. In a world of slick surfaces, he likes a little edge. Although he could clearly afford to reside in some lily-white Malibu lockdown, he chooses to live in a more diverse and funky stretch of the Hollywood Hills. He just might be the most famous guy in L.A. who rides the subways regularly.

It has always been thus. Before he landed the role of Jack Bauer, the hero of the much lauded Fox series '24,' his Hollywood career was a series of ups and downs. With that familiar face, deep voice, and famous last name, Sutherland became a bright new star in the eighties – an unusually powerful young actor with just enough gravitas to avoid the Brat Pack label – in such movies as 'Stand by Me,' 'The Lost Boys,' and 'Flatliners.' Director Joel Schumacher, who has worked with Sutherland on 'The Lost Boys,' 'Flatliners,' and 'Phone Booth,' calls him a "born character actor. He can become anyone he wants to. He can be good guy, bad guy, crazy guy. He'll always work."

Yet in the early nineties, good film roles dried up, and suddenly the promising Sutherland kid was somehow most famous as the poor bastard Julia Roberts had left at (or very near) the altar.

To hear him tell it now, over a few games of pool at Hollywood Billiards (now closed), a cavernous joint on the seedy side of town that he's talked the owner into opening for us three hours early, Sutherland's ensuing Hollywood exile and pro rodeo career was something he did when his movie career stopped exciting him.

Lou Diamond Phillips – who costarred with Sutherland in 'Young Guns,' when Sutherland first took a shine to horses, and worked with him on the first season of '24' – says that leaving Hollywood was not out of character. "Kiefer's always been serious about his acting. But if he's got an urge to do something, he's going to do it. Kiefer doesn't just stick his toe in. He goes all the way in. He became a real cowboy."

Sutherland had made lots of friends in Hollywood, but somehow his new rodeo companions were different – mainly because of the time they spent together. "We had to haul our horses, so we had to log a lot of miles – 100,000 miles a season, easy," Sutherland explains. "Generally, one guy would sleep and two would sit up and talk. And there's nothing like two o'clock in the morning on the highway."

The adventurous life was not a new thing for Sutherland. Before he joined the rodeo circuit, he had raised horses on his ranch in Montana, and later he ran a cattle ranch in central California. He's also an avid skier (though he admits, "My knees are getting a bit old for the bumps"), a "very, very average hockey player" who dearly loves the game and occasionally plays with producer Jerry Bruckheimer, a frustrated rocker (he owns more than 40 guitars, including a 1959 Les Paul and a Gretsch Tennessean), and, once upon a Scotch-soaked time, a pretty game bar fighter. "There was one fight, up in Montana, where I took a good licking," Sutherland recalls as he chalks up a pool cue. "I still have part of a beer bottle stuck in my elbow."

He was born Kiefer William Frederick Dempsey George Rufus Sutherland. Yes, his father is the distinguished actor Donald Sutherland. No, he wasn't a particularly fortunate son. "One of the biggest misconceptions about Kiefer is that he got anything easy in his life," says his old friend Jude Cole, a successful singer-songwriter and rock manager. "He's done it on his own, every step of the way."

Sutherland and his twin sister, Rachel, were born in swinging London in 1966 and spent their earliest years there and in Los Angeles. But by the time they were four, their father had split from their mother, Shirley Douglas – an actress and the daughter of Canada's first socialist leader, Tommy Douglas. Donald was soon otherwise engaged, making movies and starting another family.

Kiefer moved to Toronto with his mother and sister, and grew up surprisingly middle-class in the "first Canadian housing project," among his mother's flamboyant theater friends. By age 13, he was off to boarding school at nearby St. Andrew's College. He was, by his own admission, a bad student, unfocused, and eventually got tossed out of that school. At his next school, he went AWOL just before Christmas break and his 16th birthday. He called his parents to say he was dropping out. "They didn't have a whole lot of choice," he says. "I was going to do it one way or another."