Kiefer Sutherland on Making a Movie with (and for) His Dad

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Cyrill Matter / Zurich Film Festival

"Sound like Donald Sutherland don't I?" says the iconic actor's equally iconic son in gritty baritone. Giving a grin, Kiefer Sutherland follows with a story about once calling Volvo, which his father voiced the commercials for in the 1990s, and offering to do the gig for half the price. He didn't steal the job, but he speaks of following his father's footsteps with no hesitation, aware that the entertainment industry is one where having a famous last name may give you a foot in the door, but only talent will keep you in the room. You don't get to play Jack Bauer for eight seasons without Kiefer's skill.

The Sutherlands have been working for eight decades between them, yet their paths had never crossed on camera. This was a wrong that Kiefer sought to deliberately remedy, collaborating with screenwriter Brad Mirman and director Jon Cassar, who Kiefer worked with on 24, to produce a feature the father and son could star in together. The result was Forsaken, the story of a righteous gunslinger who returns home to reestablish a bond with the reverend father who rejected him for his violent ways, and finds out that his town isn't as peaceful as he remembers.

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Even after permanently hanging up his badge as special agent Jack Bauer, the 48-year-old actor talked about the reasons he's drawn to physical roles, his affinity for the American Western, and a possible return to television.

Young Guns came out 28 years ago. What made you want to return to Westerns?
For me, the Western genre is not only a staple of American cinema, but there is this wonderful feature about it in the context that the characters are very black and white, right or wrong. For the relationship that I wanted to develop between my father's character and mine, that was a perfect backdrop. If you're dealing with the kind of emotional conversations like our characters did, having the Western as a backdrop made it much easier to tell that kind of a story, rather than modern times where we like to perceive life to be a little more complicated. We all know that times back there were simpler.

Do you think that the Western will ever make a comeback?
I don't think so. Kids these days. I was lucky enough to make Young Guns, and since then I've had actors from Robert Downey Jr. to Kevin Bacon come up to me and say, "You were so lucky to make a Western." It's kind of gone past that era. I don't think they'll come back; it's not in the cards. I think New York and Los Angeles, where the ideas for films come from, have long left the middle of the country behind and I don't think they represent it very well. They're hard to get made. I was fortunate to make three, and I think there is a good chance that I'll be 80 years old, looking at Robert Downey Jr. and saying, "You still didn't get to make a Western, did you?"

What made this the right time to do a movie with your father?
I wanted to make a movie with my father for about 30 years. On Golden Pond was the film that I watched that I thought, "That is perfectly done." Jane Fonda and James Fonda are perfect playing father and a daughter. I felt I was getting a little glimpse into their real lives. That is the kind of thing I wanted to do. 30 years passed and I looked up at my father around Christmas and thought to myself, "Wow. There really isn't that much more time to do this." I'm getting older. My father is getting older.

Was there one thing that you learned from working with your father?
It's funny because I had expected when I went to make the movie, and remember I waited 30 years to make the movie, that it would be life changing. The fact is that I've been working as a professional actor for 30 years, he's been working as a professional actor for 50 years, and between action and cut, nothing was very different. It was normal. The great time that I had was outside of action and cut. It was the time that we discussed what we wanted to do with a scene. It wasn't until the last few days that I realized that, "Oh my gosh, this was the longest time I had gotten to spend with my father." I grew up with my mother. A lot of father's teach their sons to fish, or they work on a car together. This was a little late, but I got to make a movie with my dad. It's a thing that I love to do and it was the coolest thing ever.

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There is a lot of real moving emotional father-son moments in Forsaken. What was the difference you felt by having your true flesh and blood across the scene?
It was acting. But I felt like I cheated just a little. I knew what I wanted to do, but when I got to look at my real father's eyes, my heart broke a little faster.

Was he as excited as you were to do the film as you were?
I think he was as excited as I was. I know he was as nervous as I was. I don't think I've ever been more scared of shooting a film in my life. I desperately did not want to let my father down and I think he felt the same way. We joked about that the night before we started filming, so that made it easier. I know that he did extraordinary work. He's one of my favorite actors and I go to see him work.

Did he ever say anything like, "Good job with that one?"
[Laughs.] No. It's not his nature I don't think. There were a couple of moments that I stopped him and said, "That was beautiful." I was more grateful that he didn't say I was bad. I have so much respect and revere him as an actor. To have disappointed or concerned him about what we were doing would have freaked me out, and that didn't happen.

Did you realize he was a big movie star when you were young?
I wasn't that aware of it. Back in the 70s there was no VHS, there were three television channels and if you weren't 18 you couldn't go see his movies. I had a couple embarrassing moments with it, I didn't know who my dad played in MASH, but I knew MASH the TV show, and I remember getting it wrong to people. I said he played the wrong character. My younger brother knew dad was a movie star but didn't really know whom he played, so he told everyone dad was Christopher Reeves because he wanted his dad to be Superman. Dad was really crushed by that. It's very different for my daughter, who grew up with DVDs and VHS and was able to watch me with her friends whether she should have or not.

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Do you have a favorite movie of his now?
When you think about his era, there were so many great movies. Don't Look Now, it's one of my favorites. I had such a crush on Julie Christie, but I had to block my dad out with my hand when watching it.

What's next for you? 
My experience in television was extraordinary. I don't think there is a more exciting medium out there. So my focus now is to most likely do television again. I had an unbelievable experience so I'm going to probably try to do something like that again.

What kind of show would you like to do?
I can only say what kind of TV shows I like. I'm a fan of Ray Donovan. I like that character. I'm a fan of The Sopranos. I would love to do something like that. There was an interesting period with the Irish mafia in New York. Maybe something like that, with the style of French Connection and Serpico.

Would you ever come back to 24 again?
My job in that role is done. I had an incredible experience during that show playing that character, and I wouldn't change it for the world.

Kiefer Sutherland received the Golden Eye Award at the Zurich Film Festival.

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