Kiefer Sutherland Explains How 'Designated Survivor' Is Taking on Trump

"We're in uncharted territory," the Emmy-winning actor and executive producer tells THR.
ABC/Ben Mark

[This story contains spoilers through the latest episode of ABC's Designated Survivor.]

The massive conspiracy at the heart of Designated Survivor took a sharp turn in the past two episodes of the ABC drama, which culminated with Peter MacLeish (Ashley Zukerman), a veritable Manchurian Candidate recently appointed to the role of vice president of the U.S., getting shot to death by his own equally traitorous wife — who proceeded to then turn the gun on herself.

It was a massive moment for the ABC political thriller, an escalation of the stakes when the stakes were already tremendously high. After all, the series rests on the premise of the U.S. government's destruction paving the way for the untested low-level secretary Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland) to become the president, despite his almost complete lack of political experience.

During a panel discussion with Sutherland and series creator David Guggenheim following a screening of the episode, ABC News' Elizabeth Vargas was quick to point out that it's not just the world of Designated Survivor that features a man without political experience as commander in chief — such is the case in the real world as well, with the election of Donald Trump. Given that parallel, and the resulting breaking news that's occurring on a near-daily basis, how is it possible for the modern political landscape to not impact the Designated Survivor writing process?

Sutherland pointed out that this isn't the first time he's experienced an eerie connection between his television series and events occurring in real times.

"I actually had a very similar experience with 24," he said. "We shot seven months of 24 before the terrible day of 9/11. The next year, we decided that we were going to explore domestic terrorism. Three episodes aired, and they caught the guy who was coming into the country through Vancouver with Sarin gas. It was eerie how we were just imagining the worst circumstance possible, create a season of 24 around it, and six months later, it was happening for real." 

"We wrote and shot a lot of this stuff before anything ever happened," he continued. "It's important to realize that you're a television show and you're living in a fantasy. It's a fantastical world you're creating. If on some level, the real world starts to encroach upon that? Then that's what it is. You do have to maintain that you're creating a world to have a discussion and tell a story. As much as I can't help but watch the news almost like it's a NASCAR race, waiting for a crash every day, it's not something I'm trying to apply to how we can make our show current."

With that said, even Sutherland can't help but notice the ways in which Designated Survivor reflects the heightened stakes at play in the United States at the highest level. 

"It's surprising, disappointing, all of those things, which is what makes it so important that the world we're creating supplements the discussion," he said. "If it collides with the real world on some level? So be it. But if you get into the habit of trying to chase what's happening, then you'll be late, because you won't be able to shoot it and air it fast enough to make it current — and I think those people are having enough trouble."

Indeed, Sutherland opened up even more on his thoughts about the Trump administration, and the drastic shift in American politics from long before he was an actor to the moment we're living in now.

"I remember when I was growing up, the difference between a Republican and a Democrat, the big complaint was that you could barely split them with a piece of paper, they were so similar," he said, when asked by The Hollywood Reporter to reflect on Designated Survivor's role on television in the midst of such a politically fraught time. "There was a great deal of a kind of apathy through the Jimmy Carter era. Gerald Ford, too. These were nice guys who weren't tackling anything like health care or anything that was going to redirect the country. How have we ended up now, 30 years later, in the most divisive political landscape and the most obstructionist political landscape that we've ever seen?"

Sutherland went on to say that his character is portrayed as an Independent rather than as a Democrat or a Republican, in order to make a larger point: "I believe there's a lack of common sense in governing now, that it is absolutely down ideological and political lines, when the obvious thing should be staring you right in the face. People on terrorist watch lists or no-fly lists, you're really going to make an argument to me that they should be allowed to buy a gun? That's just moronic, and we like to call it out [on our show] for being moronic."

Taking that specific example further, Sutherland talked about how Designated Survivor has portrayed President Kirkman as a supporter of Second Amendment rights, albeit with some caveats.

"He's going to make sure you're not a felon, that you're not on terrorist watch lists, and that you don't have a history of mental illness — and if it's going to take six weeks for you to get your gun, then that's what you're going to do," he said. "The reason why the NRA specifically, the biggest lobbyist group to prevent that — it's all about economics. It's not about civil rights or the right to own a gun, it's about selling guns and the impact that will have on that industry. OK, capitalism versus public safety — that's a great discussion to have. In [showing President Kirkman's] effort to rebuild the country after this devastating attack, we're trying to have discussions that aren't strictly down political and ideological lines, but what makes sense here? What does common sense tell you to do?"

If the show succeeds in any area, Sutherland said he hopes it's in "[breaking] up this steadfast ideology — left or right — and [getting] back to a place where he can actually talk to each other." 

"I read a story in The New York Times two weeks ago that a guy got arrested for biting another guy's ear off in a bar," he told THR. "He was a Trump supporter having a fight with a guy who was a Democrat. I mean, what the f—? First off, you bit his ear off? Second off, how did we get to a place where you and I can have a difference of political reasoning and have that [not] be a discussion? It's gotten to this place where the vitriol is so great, that in the context of our show, we're really trying to reduce that and still discuss the issues. If the show is successful and it starts to break that up a little bit, I would be incredibly proud of having been a part of it."

With that in mind, Sutherland and Guggenheim confirmed that the first season of Designated Survivor would resolve the conspiracy plot that launched the series, a notion that's perhaps suggested in MacLeish's midseason murder. What would a second season focus on? More of that "common sense" approach to governing that Sutherland is talking about — a means of holding the mirror up on the modern landscape. 

"We're in uncharted territory," Sutherland continued. "This show was written long before Trump announced his candidacy, let alone became president. Who would have thought that we would be doing a show that was not only a complete deconstruction of the government followed by the reconstruction of the government, then we would elect a guy who's main partner is known for saying 'I want to tear the government down.' We couldn't have predicted that in a million years. It is kind of odd. I think if we can actually take the ideology out of the discussion and actually have the discussion with common sense as what will win the day? That's a very interesting alternative point of view — and we will be using real facts."

Let us know your thoughts on this week's Designated Survivor twist and Sutherland's thoughts on the series' politics in the comments below.

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