“As a young man, there were times when I loved this city and times when I hated it”: A Q&A with hometown boy Kiefer Sutherland
With his new Toronto-shot series set to premiere, the veteran actor dishes on doing stunts at 56, his love affair with Bloor Street, taking on Doug Ford and what it means to be a nepo baby
Kiefer Sutherland’s latest show is Rabbit Hole, in which he plays a corporate spy on the run after he is framed (or is he?) for murder. The Paramount Plus series echoes classic thrillers like Marathon Man, only set against the backdrop of today’s mass spread of disinformation. It’s a fascinating role for a self-professed Luddite. “I’m the last guy you know who doesn’t own a computer,” Sutherland says. Here, he dishes on doing stunts at 56, his love affair with Bloor Street, taking on Doug Ford and his thoughts on being a nepo baby—a term he has managed to avoid until now.
It’s been a while since we saw you saving the world on TV. What was it about this project that drew you back?
I’m a big fan of the creators, John Requa and Glenn Ficarra. They wrote Bad Santa, which I think is one of the most ingenious scripts ever produced, and Crazy, Stupid, Love, which I’ll throw on when I’m having a bad day. They came to me with an idea for a thriller. They talked about how moved they were by films like Three Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men, and I felt the same way. I grew up on those movies, so we were speaking the same language. After that conversation, they wrote a screenplay in an incredibly short timeframe—six to eight weeks. It was exactly what they had said they were going to write, and their script was so nuanced.
For fans of 24, how is John Weir different from your previous alter ego, Jack Bauer?
John Weir is a very layered character. He’s incredibly smart, with a great sense of humour, but he’s also very neurotic. He has real issues with self-confidence. Jack Bauer was almost simplistic—a blunt object—whereas Weir is a surgical knife.
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How does doing stunts in your 50s compare to doing them in your 30s?
In your 50s, of course, you’re older and slower. Your bones creak a little more when you get up. But the biggest difference is that Jack Bauer was always the aggressor, the guy starting the fight, whereas John Weir is always taking the beating. The truth is that, if your character doesn’t see the first punch coming, you, the actor, have a much higher chance of getting hit.
Did that happen?
It did. It’s an adjustment. After taking a beating on this show, I realized that I had many apology phone calls to make to stunt performers I had worked with on 24.
24 was a 9/11-era series, whereas Rabbit Hole is about our current era of disinformation. Correct?
The story is about the technical revolution that we’re living through and some of the questions that have come from that: What does social media mean to us? What are “alternative facts”? How do you reason with someone who says that two plus two equals five? It’s interesting because, if you look back to the Industrial Revolution, people were riding horses and carts, and by 1960, they were landing on the moon. It took decades to adjust and adapt to that as a society.
And now we have five minutes.
Right. I thought it was very interesting to amplify that as the backdrop of our show—the pace of technological progress. It’s not something that’s having a profound effect on my life, but it’s having a profound effect on my daughter’s and my grandchildren’s lives. One of them was a teenager during the pandemic, and his smartphone was everything. Being accepted within the confines of social media is so important to young people. I’ve noticed that they often have difficulty just looking you in the eye and having a live conversation, because it’s a different way of communicating than they’re used to.
You’re a pretty young grandpa.
I started really young. It’s a lot of fun. You get to give them money and chocolate and hand them back to their parents.
Do you ever go down internet rabbit holes?
I do not. I’m the last person you’ll meet who doesn’t have a computer.
Wow. What kind of phone do you use?
I have a smartphone. But it’s only as smart as the person using it.
So what are you doing while most of us are scrolling away?
I read and watch television.
What are you watching?
I was just watching that HBO series, uh—I’m so bad with titles.
The Last of Us?
Yes! I enjoyed that. And I really like Succession. I watch a lot of documentaries and cooking shows, because I like cooking.
What’s your signature dish?
Irish beef stew.
Rabbit Hole was shot in Toronto. Did you pitch that?
Certainly, it was my suggestion. I shot Designated Survivor here for three years, and we had a really great crew. John and Glenn wanted to shoot Rabbit Hole in New York. I said, “Okay, but if New York doesn’t work out economically, I would be very happy to shoot in Toronto.” They did some scouting in New York and ran the numbers, and they came back and said, “We’re going to Toronto!”
Where did you live while you were shooting the show?
I rented a place on Crawford, by Queen.
Did you hang out in Bellwoods? Can you hang out in Bellwoods when you’re Kiefer Sutherland?
Yes, absolutely. I like the area a lot.
Did you wear a ball cap or something?
No. People just come and say hello. And, you know, I was there for so long that it was just like, Oh, there’s Kiefer again.
You released an album last year called Bloor Street. Did you want to pay tribute to your hometown?
It became a tribute. Before I recorded it, I was with a friend at Bloor and Yonge, pointing out all of these places that have meaning to me. There used to be a Harvey’s there, and the northeast corner is the first place I ever busked with a guitar. A melody came to mind, and the song started writing itself.
In one of your songs, you write that you’ve “gone round for round” with this city. What does that mean?
I think, like anybody going through their formative years, there were times when I loved the city and times when I hated it. I have memories of the first time I got beat up or my first job, in the Hudson’s Bay food court.
Your grandfather is the revered NDP founder Tommy Douglas, father of our health care system. Do you follow local politics?
When I was about 12, I canvassed for Bob Rae, who was the NDP candidate at the time. But, as an adult, I’m not here enough to follow it.
A few years ago, you made headlines by calling out Doug Ford for likening his fiscal policy to that of your grandfather.
I didn’t mean to make headlines. I just thought that he was unfairly characterizing his policy as similar to the policy of my grandfather, and I took exception.
Given that you don’t spend much time online, I wonder if you’re following the conversation about nepo babies?
No, what’s that?
It’s a term used to describe celebrities with famous parents, the suggestion being that they are the beneficiaries of nepotism. It’s well known that your father is Canadian acting legend Donald Sutherland.
I have been asked about this before, and it’s kind of impossible for me to answer, because I’ve never known any other existence. I certainly see where it’s been helpful, and I also see where it hasn’t. My first jobs in Canada weren’t given to me; I had to earn them. It’s interesting because people always think of my father, but my mother, Shirley Douglas, was an extraordinary actor. My sister and I would finish school and go straight to the theatre. We’d do our homework, my mom would do her performance and then we’d go home. I was so intrigued by that world and by all of these eccentric actors. That’s what made me want to do what I do.
Is there a theatre role that you’re dying to play?
I’ve had the good fortune of doing a lot of great theatre, including a production of The Glass Menagerie at the Royal Alexandra with my mother. I love my mom desperately, but there was a point when I was standing on stage doing the monologue and thinking, Oh god, a play examining the relationship between a mother and a son. Who thought this was a good idea?
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.